The one who gives life, the one who gives birth: this was the original image of the Creator. Not God but the Goddess, both mother and midwife to the world. Throughout Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa and beyond, Goddess worship laid the foundation for European culture. Thousands of years later, a deep reverence for the woman who gives life – the midwife – survives in Greek and Balkan dance rituals which still echo from the distant past.1
The mamí (from mámmo, grandmother) or bábo (old woman) was a respected woman, usually older, with the wisdom and experience of age. The midwife is publicly honoured on Midwivesʼ Day, January 8th. Known as Babinden in Bulgaria, Tis Babos in Greece, this women-only celebration is an important holiday in Bulgaria and in numerous villages of displaced Thracians now relocated in Greek Macedonia. One such village is Kitros, whose inhabitants originally came from Bana, on the Black Sea coast of northern Thrace (today Bulgaria). A hundred years have passed since they left, but the womenʼs festive costumes still indicate their old Bana neighbourhoods; traditional foods, songs, dance, and other customs are kept alive despite decades of brutal loss and change.
They survive, in fact, from a much older time. The archaic elements which characterise the Tis Babos celebration – cross-dressing, ritual theatre and dance, bawdy humour, ceremonial offerings – have roots in the ancient Greek womenʼs festivals of Thesmophoria and Aloa, celebrated at the same time of year. Euripides (ca 420) BCE) describes how women had responsibility for these important rites which men were not allowed to participate in or even witness. Searching even farther back in time, we learn that ʻThe Babinden customs contain echoes of the forgotten cult of the Great Goddess, whose stylized image survives in Bulgarian folk embroidery.ʼ 2
Resplendent in traditional costume and looking like one of those stylised images herself, the Babo again stands at a table to receive the mothers whose children she brought into the world. Also dressed in their best, they kiss her hand and give her gifts of soap and towels. They wash her hands – the cleanliness is both practical and ritual – and exchange formulaic blessings: ʻMay the babies slip out as easily as this soap glides through my hands!ʼ ʻMay your milk flow as easily as this water splashes!ʼ The person of the midwife is solemnly honoured, and through her the transpersonal ʻmystery of life, the eternal cycle of fertility, and the power of the female elementʼ3 is invoked and affirmed for the benefit of all.
Today in Kitros, men lingering on the fringes of the proceedings are not chased away, but traditionally the celebration was strictly limited to married women and widows. The men of the village would take on the womenʼs work for the day to free them for this all-important ritual, and the only men present are the musicians. Gajdas and daoulia fill the air with indescribable exhilaration and the women take to the streets with glee. The Babo and the oldest grandmothers take turns to lead the dance and carry the ritual flag: like the wedding flag, it unites the upright protective branch with yielding, enfolding, embroidered cloth. Decorated with sprigs of green box and basil, a lemon ʻfor cleanlinessʼ, and strings of popcorn and dried chili peppers denoting female and male aspects of fertility, it is held aloft all day and into the night, a silent proclamation surviving from ancient times.
The dance steps embody nonverbal meaning in the same way. All afternoon the women dance the trambanistós horós, a four-measure variation of the sta tria step which I believe encodes the symbol of the Tree of Life and the Goddess4. Its zigzag pattern illustrates the cycle of life, death and renewal over which both midwife and Goddess preside. Simple, repetitive ritual dances like this one enable the participants to perform more complex work on another level; on this occasion, the women are consciously using the dance as a vessel to gather and dispense joyful energy to bless the streets, shops, homes and people.
Dancing, singing, laughing, the grandmothers and the musicians lead us through the village. Proprietors of shops and women of households emerge to greet the lively stream of gajdas, daoulia and festively costumed women, carrying trays of homemade fruit liqueur to treat the honoured guests in a timeless offering of ritual hospitality.
I believe I feel the earth, the stones, the walls and houses listen and respond, brighten and quicken and wake up all around. The rhythms of the gajda and daouli beat through the town like a pulse. Circulating through the landscape, the procession enlivens the streets, crossroads and establishments – the muscles, joints and organs – of the ʻbodyʼ of the village. The dance itself is the bringer of life and the promise of life, renewed every year in the darkest days.
Later the women fill a taverna to boldly drink, dance, and make merry. They dance in an uninhibited manner closer to the ecstasy of ancient maenads than the restrained and modest demeanour expected of women – and especially widows – on all the other days of the year. My friend Arakana and I, the only foreigners present, are lavished with traditional Greek hospitality, encouraged to dance and not allowed to pay for our meal. Before the evening is out, the women have garlanded us with necklaces of popcorn and chili peppers, whose apparent lightness and fragility belie surprising strength, endurance, and fire – just like the Babo and those who remember her after all this time.
1 Shannon, Laura, ʻWomenʼs Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Timeʼ in Dancing on the Earth (eds. J. Leseho & S. McMaster), Findhorn Press, 2011.
2 MacDermott, Mercia, Bulgarian Folk Customs, Jessica Kingsley publishers 1988
3 Diafonidou, Eleni, ʻΗ γιορτή της Μπάμπως στα Μάγγανα και την Νέα Κεσσάνη Ξάνθηςʼ, Embros 2012
4 Shannon, Laura, op. cit.
All photos: Vasilis Gervasileiou and Efi Chadtzichidiroglou, used with permission.