Women’s Ritual Dances: The Dancing Priestess of the Living Goddess by Laura Shannon


Laura ShannonKyria Loulouda calls to her sister to help her wind the yards of woven girdle around and around my waist. Kyria Stella’s aged fingers, still strong, tuck the sash ends in tightly, smoothing down the fabric she and Loulouda wove themselves. The snug embrace of the sash supports my back and encourages me to stand proudly upright.  As they help me with the intricate tucks and pleats of the festival dress, and the careful tying of the flowered headscarf, I see their tired, careworn faces come alight with joy and expectation. When they are satisfied, they turn me towards the mirror, smiling.

We gaze at ourselves, a row of three women, dressed alike. Like the butterflies embroidered in bright silks on the dark cloth of the bodice, we too are transformed. The food is prepared, the housework is done, the animals taken care of for the night; the other women await us in the square where, by tradition, they will open the dance with their own singing as they have done countless times throughout their lives. We are in the village of Pentalofos in Greek Thrace in the early twenty-first century, living a timeless scene which has been repeated through the generations for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.

Dancing grandmothers in traditional costume celebrate a wedding with an 'apple tree' ritual in Pentalofos, Thrace, Greece. Laura, Kyria Loulouda and Kyria Stella are on the far left. Photo: Yves Moreau

Dancing grandmothers in traditional costume celebrate a wedding with an ‘apple tree’ ritual in Pentalofos, Thrace, Greece. Laura, Kyria Loulouda and Kyria Stella are on the far left. Photo: Yves Moreau

As I experienced for myself when Kyria Loulouda and Kyria Stella dressed me in the costume of their village, the securely wrapped layers of traditional folk dress strongly shape the posture and movements of the women wearing them. Variations in costume from village to village naturally correspond to variations in dance style, determined, for example, by skirts being longer or shorter, narrow or full. The dance and the costume worn while dancing are thus inseparable.  The same symbols and patterns may be expressed in both forms, so that the one helps us better understand the other. Just as the style of the dance depends on the costume, the costume reciprocally depends on the dance, as details such as fringes, sash ends, jewelry and headdresses are shown to their best effect only in movement.

The relation between costume and dance is emphasized in the common embroidered motif known in Bulgaria as ‘horo’, ‘dance’ which you can see in my previous blog post. The pattern, showing a row of identical female figures holding hands, neatly mirrors the row of identically-dressed women in the dance line. Goddess figures in both embroidery and archaeology tend to lack distinguishing facial features, indicating that they were not intended as portraits of individual women. In similar fashion, the ritual dance circle where all women are dressed alike also subsumes individual characteristics. I suggest this is intended to help women overcome the limitations of personality in order to serve on ritual occasions as transpersonal or archetypal representatives of the feminine. In my view, ritual dances can facilitate an experience of both transcendence and immanence: the dancers become aware of the divine feminine embodied within them, a force vastly larger than themselves but of which they are inextricably a part.

Detail of women’s costume from Pentalofos, Thrace featuring butterfly / Goddess figures or ‘women with wings’. Photo: Laura Shannon

Detail of women’s costume from Pentalofos, Thrace featuring butterfly / Goddess figures or ‘women with wings’. Photo: Laura Shannon

Textile researcher Sheila Paine identifies as ‘goddess-derived’ embroidered female figures which appear in repeated symmetrical patterns such as the horo motif described above, or which themselves display a symmetrical, centrally focused ‘ritual stance’.

 Repeated symmetrical patterns, rhythmic gestures and ritual stance are basic characteristics of traditional circle dances. Through taking on these attributes, I believe the dancers are enabled to transcend their individuality and themselves enter a state which is ‘goddess-derived’. As Iris Stewart points out, since ancient times this has been the role of the priestess, who consciously employed ritual dress, jewelry and headgear – just as Balkan women did and still do – in order to move beyond personal identity and embody a larger power. This ability to move between the worlds is represented by the image of a woman with wings.

Surviving texts and archaeological evidence show that ritual dance was a primary means of women’s worship in ancient Europe. Images of women dancing with joined hands have been depicted in rock art, pottery shards, vases and frescoes, as much as ten thousand years before the present. Flutes made of animal bones, 35,000 to 40,000 years old, have been discovered; musicians are often shown accompanying the dance.  The many portrayals of women dancing and drumming indicate that these activities were considered important in the earliest civilizations. Furthermore, images of women’s ritual dance in antiquity are often directly reflected in customs which can still be witnessed in Eastern Europe today.

Neolithic Thracian rock carving depicting winged woman / Goddess figure. Photo: Rizes Ellinon.

Neolithic Thracian rock carving depicting winged woman / Goddess figure. Photo: Rizes Ellinon.

The archaeological record confirms the significance of the dance in a wide area of Eastern Europe and the Near East. At the heart of this region is the area known as Old Europe, birthplace of agriculture, whose indigenous inhabitants lived in peaceful agrarian settlements for thousands of years.  Excavations here have yielded countless goddess figures in bone, wood, stone, and pottery, dating back to the origins of agriculture some 8000 years ago and even back to the Paleolithic period, over 25,000 years ago.  Because the area where the goddess figures are most widespread corresponds to the area where circle dance traditions are still most concentrated and most intact, I suggest that women’s dances surviving today can be seen as living remnants of the Old European Goddess culture, which may have persisted for over twenty thousand years.

According to archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, the Goddess of the earliest Old European civilizations was a deity of birth, death and regeneration. Feminist theologian Carol P. Christ identifies an essential function of the Goddess symbol for women as the affirmation of the female body and the life cycle embodied within it.   This connection to the cycle of life is also a key aspect of women’s ritual dances.

~~~~~~~~

References:

  • Paine, Sheila. Embroidered Textiles. London: Rizzoli International Publications, 1990
  • Stewart, Iris J. Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance: Awakening Spirituality Through Movement and Ritual. Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2000
The above text is excerpted from ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’, by Laura Shannon, in Dancing on the Earth: Women’s Stories of Healing Through Dance (eds. Johanna Leseho and Sandra McMaster, © 2011 Findhorn Press).  The book can be ordered from www.laurashannon.net.

Laura Shannon
 has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987. She is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement and gives workshops regularly in over twenty countries worldwide. Laura holds an honours degree in Intercultural Studies (1986) and a diploma in Dance Movement Therapy (1990).  She has also dedicated much time to primary research in Balkan and Greek villages, learning songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which have been passed down for many generations, and which embody an age-old worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. 
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Categories: Archaeology, Art, Dance, Folklore, Foremothers, General, Goddess

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18 replies

  1. This is beautiful Laura. I too have experienced the power of connection to all life and the Source of life in circle dances.

    While dances no doubt go back into the Paleolithic era, my guess is that the circle dances as we know them go back to the beginnings of agriculture as a women’s mystery, in other words “only” 10,000 years. But who knows?

    10 days ago I visited the Neolithic exhibit at the Thessaloniki Greece archaeological museum. I was the only visitor in the darkened exhibit space along with 3 women guards. On leaving I turned back and said to them in Greek, “women’s history has been hidden here.” There was no mention of the theories that women were the likely inventors of agriculture, pottery, and weaving in the Neolithic, though these activities were discussed. And when it came to the female “figurines,” the exhibit stated that their meaning was unknown.

    Now at least 3 more women know their history and understand that the figurines celebrated the wisdom passed down by inventive intelligent women through the generations.

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    • Hi Carol,

      I was very moved by that exhibit too (and equally exasperated by the missing information). It’s not only that women were the likely inventors of agriculture, pottery, and weaving, but how very important those activities were to the development of Mediterranean civilisation that gets overlooked. How lucky that you were there and could speak the truth to the others present. I sometimes think that the need in present-day archaeology to tone down the importance these ancient symbols and figures so obviously had is simply a confirmation of their continuing power…

      I agree with you that ‘at least’ 10,000 years old seems a likely age for the circle dances. It would be wonderful to find a way to know for sure, but it’s not so easy to carbon-date dance steps.

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  2. I love this, Laura – thank you! There are many resonances, for me, with the way traditional stories work. The tale, like the dance, is embellished, shaped and decorated by the form that embodies it. The women we meet in these stories are like the women we become in the dance – both universal and particular, all women and this woman. When I tell stories, I have that same sense of being part of something intensely personal and yet all-embracing that I felt when I danced with you. It’s my story while I tell it, my dance while I dance it, and yet both have come alive for countless generations of women before me!

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    • This is beautifully expressed, Caroline: ‘ It’s my story while I tell it, my dance while I dance it, and yet both have come alive for countless generations of women before me!’ May I quote you? I’ve been thinking a lot about the circle dance event as a kind of story in which we can trust in a happy beginning, middle and end – even if the dance song itself is a sad one, as they sometimes are, to hold and witness the sorrow and grief which especially need to be held and brought into the healing container of the dance circle. As we dance through successfully to the ending together and watch other women dancing with us,I feel we can reweave the frayed threads of our own stories and remedy them as stories of wholeness – just as women have indeed done for many generations before us.

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  3. Beautiful. I had no idea of the symbolism in the embroidery! As an avid sewist and embroiderer I am delighted. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

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  4. Excellent! Thanks for writing this blog.

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  5. It’s so healthy not just to dance the body, but also to think/read/write about circle dancing!! It opens the mind to the most positive and refreshing images. Thank you so much, Laura, for your inspiring post here today at FAR.

    There’s an environmental ethos called “tread lightly” which means in all we do, we should consider what sort of footprint we leave on the environment. Very recently, I was studying a translation of a Sappho lyric, where she speaks of women’s circle dancing, and in which she also uses that same idea, that is, to “tread softly” — Sappho says:

    “The women of Crete
    once danced thus in measure
    round the fair altar,
    treading softly on the delicate
    bloom of the grass.”

    In fact our relationship with the environment is a concern built into most of Sappho’s poetry. It’s also interesting that even Sappho (born in the 7th c. BCE) is herself nostalgic for the ancient women’s dance traditions in what to her was an even more ancient Crete.

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    • Thank you, Sarah. Both Carol and I find Sappho’s presence deeply inspiring on the island of Lesvos, where she lives and where I have been coming every summer for the past 15 years. My women’s dance groups go to a place which was one of the main early Christian and pre-Christian festival sites, a small sacred valley with several springs and a horned mountain overlooking it, and dance literally in Sappho’s footsteps, reading her poetry and dancing the most ancient dances which date back to her time. And yes, the dances all tread very, very gently on the earth! We read the lines you mention, full of her own nostalgia for the past which was distant to her, and we also speak her lines:

      You may forget but
      Let me tell you
      this: someone in
      some future time
      will think of us

      Sappho helps us to see ourselves as the dancing ancestors of tomorrow, also with a precious gift to give to future generations: a legacy of tenderness towards the earth, ourselves and each other.

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  6. Laura, I am so grateful for how you have taught me to read dance costumes. I get to wear all sorts of wonderful costumes as part of Ethnic Dance Theatre and the experience is so much more richer for me as I’m conscious of the symbols within our costumes and as I consciously invoke the transcendent in my dance.

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    • Thanks for your appreciation and acknowledgement, Emily. Pattern and symbol in dress and dance truly form a secret language of women, which has enabled them to keep their living wisdom alive from pre-patriarchal times through to the present day.

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  7. I loved how you wrote about the effect of the costume itself on the dance movements as well as the embroidery symbolism.
    Are the movements of the dance also indicative of the kinds of daily tasks a woman would be involved in e.g. spinning, weaving, food preparation, etc? I know this is the case for some South Asian folk dances, was wondering if you find this in European tradition.

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    • Yes, this is the case in some dances, for instance Albanian and greek Arvanitika women’s dances which mimic movements of daily life. Most of the time, however, in the dances I research, the women’s focus is emphatically on the ritual work in the invisible worlds rather than the visible work in the human realm. For this reason, women’s festive costumes in the Balkans and Near East often feature long sleeves or long fringes which specifically prevent household tasks such as cooking, cleaning and washing up, and enable them to focus 100% on their dance and ritual activity. Elizabeth Wayland Barber has written some very interesting essays on the phenomenon of the long sleeve in women’s ritual costume. It is worth noting that it also gives the woman the appearance of wings… which, again, are shown to their best effect in actual movement.

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  8. Laura, Your eloquent writing brings back our dancing on Crete during the Goddess Pilgrimage with Carol Christ. Like the costumes themselves, your detailing of archaeology and its preservation of ancient culture, grounded in women’s nature- connected spirituality, gracefully dances me into this morning.

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    • Yes, that was such a magical journey! We were truly blessed with our amazing group of women and the many opportunities to richly weave together the strands you mention, plus our stories, the sacred sites and so much more. I would love to do Carol’s Goddess Pilgrimage again sometime….

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  9. Thank you Laura for sharing more of this Goddess work! Dance holds a special place in my heart and your writing makes me yearn for more of it in my life. You weave a beautiful tale! Blessings! <3

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  10. Thank you, Laura, for this wonderful evocation of the profundity of women’s ritual dance and the costumes that clothe it. Just this week I decided to return to the international folk dance group here in Madison, and your essay strengthens my resolve to do that and reminds me WHY I always feel ecstatic after just a few minutes dancing.

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