Tis Babos: The Dance of the One Who Gives Life by Laura Shannon


Laura Shannon

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.

The author washing the midwife's hands in Kitros.

The author washing the midwife’s hands in Kitros.

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.

Kyria Fotini with the ritual flag and Kyria Anastasia with her granddaughters Anastasia and Androniki (dressed as men) behind. Photos: Vasilis Gervasileiou and Efi Chadtzichidiroglou, used with permission.

Kyria Fotini with the ritual flag and Kyria Anastasia with her granddaughters Anastasia and Androniki (dressed as men) behind.

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.

Kyria Fotini holds the flag and leads the dance in Kitros.

Kyria Fotini holds the flag and leads the dance in Kitros.

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.

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. Laura’s essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’,  was published in Dancing on the Earth
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Categories: Art, Dance, Folklore, Foremothers, General, Goddess

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22 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing this tradition Laura ….. how beautiful to witness and be part of …. may the traditions of our ancestors and grand/mother earth, – revive and grow; and be shared like this to all women from around the world .. blessed be!

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  2. Loved your journey here, Laura, a delightful read. Bright and colorful, the women, the beat of the rhythms, the uninhibited dancing, the laughter, the necklaces of popcorn and chili peppers, and all the images you present, so warmly embracing!!

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  3. “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.”
    Thank you for this beautiful morning reading which I am allowing to sink into my soul. It became my meditation. What a beautiful ritual! How did Creator ever become just male? It has done such a disservice to all of humanity.

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  4. Fascinating! It’s good to learn about these ancient customs and what women have done through the ages.

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  5. Beautiful post! Thank you for sharing. I so appreciate this glimpse into an ancient women ritual. My heart leaps with joy. OPA!

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  6. Beautiful!

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  7. This is wonderful! Thanks for sharing. I wish we could start a similar tradition here in the States.

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  8. Really nice post.

    My only question is when did they start doing the popcorn and chili necklaces? Aren’t those New World plants? Did the ancient Greeks use different plants?

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    • Yes, of course those New World plants came later. Native Greek & Balkan plants & trees used since ancient times with various mystical and magical meanings include box, basil, marjoram, olive, laurel, cornus, cypress, pomegranate and many others. Fertility being understood as a life force which gives life to all beings, not only in terms of human procreation (see Carol P Christ’s writings about this), evergreen types of trees and shrubs often carried the meaning of fertility, as with the box plants still used today on the ritual flag and sometime tucked into the headdresses. Popcorn has been a favourite addition to fertility rituals for hundreds of years, not only for the Babo holiday but also for the ritual trees decorated for weddings in Thracian villages particularly.
      One of my older friends in a village in Greek Thrace, who lived through the hungry times of WWII and then the Greek Civil War, tells how for years they did not use popcorn on the wedding trees in the village, either because there wasn’t any corn or because, if they hung strings of popcorn on the tree, the famished children would run and eat it all up before the ritual could be completed. In those years, she tells me, they used little scraps of torn paper resembling popcorn instead.

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  9. Babos: brings to mind the Goddess Baubo!

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  10. I love this post, Laura. In a few weeks, I hope to get back to folk dancing after several years of hiatus. I’m an older woman now, and want to dance the slower, more ritualistic dances. And as a feminist I want to do dances with Goddess’ roots. Our group does many Balkan and Greek dances. Could you suggest some that have matriarchal roots?

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    • Thanks, Nancy, Your instinct is right on, as the slower, simpler dances tend to be the ones in the domain of the grandmothers, in the Balkan villages where dance is still a living tradition. My sense is that these simpler, slower dances tend to be the older ones and therefore are most likely to have a pre-patriarchal origin, particularly dances in the ‘three-measure’ dance family which I believe are connected to the ancient symbol of the Tree of Life. You can read more about that in my essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’ in the book Dancing on the Earth. Good luck finding your way!

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  11. Laura, this just makes my heart happy that you witness, participate and share these experiences with us. Keeping the Tree of Life flourishing and the Golden Thread of the Wisdom that connects us all ~we feel it in our very bones! thank you for your energy and effort to keep these traditions alive in our hearts and minds. We are reminded to keep our time, and the important work we do as women, as mothers, teachers, care-givers, leaders… sacred. Safe journey, blessed and joyful. I look forward to joining you sometime, drum and camera in hand and ready to dance!

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  12. The word midwife literally means “with woman”. Those of us who are midwives are the assistants of the “life giver”, the mother. She is the active participant. It is our role to assist her in her work. We can’t do it for her. What we do is clear the way. We stop others from bothering her during her labor. We watch to make sure things are moving ahead as they should. We offer suggestions to keep things on track, like “You should empty your bladder now”, or, “a change of position would help”. If things are not progressing, we make interventions. So, if the labouring woman is exhausted, we give her something so she can rest, or we put her in a tub of water, or in the shower. The important thing to remember about the midwife is that all we do is help. The mother is the prime mover, and she deserves the credit, not the midwife. The difference between obstetrics and midwifery is that the OBGYN sees himself as the prime mover. He is the magician who pulls the baby from the hat. The mother is the hat. Midwives see the mother as the magician, while we are her assistants.

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    • Dear Wendy, excellent points about the magic of both mother and midwife, and their different roles as you experience them. It is so interesting to me that ancient Greek and Balkan ritual traditions like the one I described in this article tend to conflate the power of both mother and midwife into one central ‘Goddess-derived’ figure who represents the cosmic force of fertility in all of its aspects. Mother, midwife and grandmother were seen as the three powerful female beings equally responsible for bringing new life into the world – in fact, in Thrace when a young child took her or his first steps, a ritual party was held in honour of the grandmother, not the mother!
      The midwife was a very important person in the village community, and she always had her kit with her because she could be called to a birth at any time. Women now in their 80s in Thracian villages, who had their own children with the help of the midwife in the 1950s and 1960s, tell me how a number of women would gather to be present at the birth, and they would all stay for couple of hours afterwards as well – enough time to make, and eat together, a special kind of savoury filo pastry with eggs and cheese (if they had them). They called this the ‘pita tis Panayias’, the pie of the Holy Mother, and it was unthinkable for any of the attending women to leave the home of the new mother until this ritual pie had been made, baked and eaten. I imagine this gave them enough time to make sure that all was well with mother and baby before leaving to return to their own homes. In this time the women present also each gave a special blessing to the newborn: a coin if they had one to spare, or a thread from their clothing if they didn’t.
      Now there are virtually no midwives left in these remote areas and women go to the hospitals to give birth. Memories of old traditions such as the ones these Thracian grandmothers have shared with me are vanishing rapidly. So it is all the more amazing to me that the women of Kitros place such a high value on keeping the ancient ritual alive – even though there is no midwife in their village anymore either.

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  13. What serendipity! Your post comes days before I lead some dancing in celebration of midwives! I will include some of what I have learned here.

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  14. Thank you for alerting me to this posting. It is comforting to read the history, and the particular story you tell here is touching. Thank you for the research that you do and the ways you share it. Summer blessings to you!

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  15. Dear Laura
    As ever I am in awe of your way with words and of your ability to bring the ancient rituals into our modern lives in a way that is accessible and inspiring. Thank you.
    PS I am STILL waiting for that book of yours to be published!

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  16. Just saw this today Laura as I was in Crete when it was published. I just love this one!

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