Women’s Ritual Dances and the Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality-Part One by by Laura Shannon


In Rebirth of the Goddess, feminist theologian Carol P Christ offered a list of ‘Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality’.[1] She revisited the Nine Touchstones in an interview with Karen Tate on Voices of the Sacred Feminine titled ‘Gratitude and Sharing: Principles of Goddess Spirituality‘, and in an inspiring series of blogs on this site recently exploring each touchstone in depth.

In her incisive analysis of the ethics of Goddess religion, Christ argues that Goddess spirituality can offer the ‘ethical guidance that we need to combat the forces of evil in our world’, and that this ethic is not imposed from a set of rational principles nor from a transcendent God known through the prophetic traditions of the Bible, as suggested by Rosemary Radford Ruether.[2] Rather, the ethics of Goddess spirituality are discerned through intuition and reflection on the world of which human beings are a part.[3]

Carol Christ’s Nine Touchstones of Goddess spirituality, which originally came to her as an alternative to the Ten Commandments, offer guidelines to live by for our collective and planetary well-being. The touchstones are:

Nurture life.

Walk in love and beauty.

Trust the knowledge that comes through the body.

Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering.

Take only what you need.

Think about the consequences of your actions for seven generations.

Approach the taking of life with great restraint.

Practice great generosity.

Repair the web.

These touchstones of Goddess spirituality have the power to transform individual lives and collective consciousness. What most struck me, as I revisited the touchstones through Carol’s blogs over the summer of 2018, is that each of them can be directly experienced in the traditional women’s ritual dances of the Balkans which I have spent over thirty years researching and teaching.

For thousands of years, the patterns and movements of traditional ritual dances have encoded information in non-verbal, symbolic ways, passing on wisdom through the joyful experience of collective movement.  For this reason, I see these dances as a kind of women’s mystery school.[4]

The dances offer us an embodied experience of community, equality, mutual support, shared leadership, respect for the mother and the female principle, reverence for nature and the cycles of life, and a sense of responsibility to nurture life and assure a sustainable future. As archaeologist Marija Gimbutas has shown, all of these qualities are associated with the original Old European civilizations which honoured the Goddess (7000-4000 BCE). This makes sense, since we know from the research of Yosef Garfinkel and Elizabeth Wayland Barber that the dances have their roots in the early spread of agriculture in Neolithic Eastern Europe and the Near East.[5]

The key qualities of the dance are also the key qualities of egalitarian matriarchal cultures, as defined by Heide Göttner-Abendroth and others.[6] I suggest this shows that Balkan women’s circle dances of today may originate in the early egalitarian matriarchal cultures of Neolithic Europe. Because until very recently Balkan dances could only be taught and transmitted through the physical experience of being present in a dance circle, the dances represent a living inheritance of indigenous European wisdom with direct and active roots in these early European Goddess cultures.

Women’s ritual dances consist of repeated patterns of simple steps, in a circle where everyone joins hands and dances together in synchrony, making the same movements at the same time. The circle can be either open or closed. In a closed circle, there is no leader; in an open circle, leadership is shared and constantly changing, giving every woman the opportunity and responsibility to develop her own leadership skills in the community. The dance thus creates a horizontal, circular, community structure in which leadership models are shared and non-hierarchical.

Traditional circle dances help us connect with ourselves, with our bodies, with each other, and with nature. Their cyclical, circular movements reflect the rhythms of the cosmos of which we are part. People of all ages dance, throughout their entire lives. Men also dance, but women’s dances traditionally differ from men’s in significant ways, with simpler and gentler steps, and a greater emphasis on cooperation, community, accessibility and inclusivity. Even gentle dancing generates a tangible, perceptible warmth, the benevolent radiant energy known as ‘väki’ or ‘chi’ which is seen as the source of life and the source of healing.[7]

Photo: Detail of 19th C embroidered apron from Razgrad, Bulgaria, showing Goddess figures with joined hands as if dancing, emanating radiant ‘signs of life’, possibly holding sprouts or sprigs in their hands. Photo: Laura Shannon.

Dancing these women’s dances offers an embodied experience of a life-affirming and positive community ethic which Riane Eisler names as a society of partnership rather than domination. In the same vein, Carol Lee Flinders speaks of belonging rather than competing, and Starhawk calls it power-with (or power-from-within) instead of power-over.[8] This essential ethic of partnership, belonging and mutual empowerment for the good of the whole, is repeated over and over in our embodied experience of traditional circle dance.

In the continuation of this blog, I will explore more specific aspects of this ethic through Christ’s Nine Touchstones, each of which can be readily observed in the practice of women’s ritual dances, both in their original context and in contemporary circles outside the Balkans.  Part Two of this article will look at some of the ways that the Touchstones manifest in traditional women’s ritual dances.

To be continued.

 

 

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. Laura lives partly in Greece and partly in the Findhorn ecological community in Scotland.

 

[1] Christ, C.P., (1997) Rebirth of the Goddess. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 167.

[2] Ruether, R.R. (1994) Gaia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing, Harper-Collins.

[3] Christ, CP, ‘Ethics of Goddess Religion: Healing the World’ at https://feminismandreligion.com/2018/06/25/ethics-of-goddess-religion-by-carol-p-christ/

[4] Shannon, L. (2014) ‘Sacred Dance and Traditional Women’s Dances: the Women’s Mystery School’, in The Grapevine: UK Journal of Sacred/Circle Dance, Winter 2014.

[5] Garfinkel, Y. (2003) Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture. University of Texas Press; Barber, E. (2013) The Dancing Goddesses. New York: Norton.

[6] Göttner-Abendroth, H. (2009) Societies of Peace. Toronto: Inanna Publications;  Sanday, P.R. (2004) Women at the Center. Ithaka, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

[7] Shannon, L. (2017) ‘Symbols of the Goddess in Balkan Women’s Dance’ in Dance, Movement & Spiritualities, 4:1, 57-78, doi: 10.1386/dmas.4.1.57_1.

[8] Eisler R (1987) The Chalice and the Blade. Cambridge, Mass.: Harper & Row; Flinders C (2003) Rebalancing the World. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco; Starhawk (1987) Truth or Dare. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

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Categories: Dance, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess, Goddess feminism, Goddess Spirituality

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7 replies

  1. Thanks. I am forwarding this to several Sacred Circle Dancers.

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    • Thanks, Judith. My experience is that we are already practicing this ethic in the ways that we dance, following an ancient template often without knowing it.

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  2. A fascinating post, thanks Laura. On your comment, and regards the image, where you mention “signs of life, possibly holding sprouts or sprigs in their hands.” Yes, and it also looks like the hands of the two women are actually holding onto a circle attached at the bottom of the tree or plant image. And that circle then could be an emblem of their own circle dancing.

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  3. Dear Laura!
    Thank you for this article. I did not knew about the Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality before but I totally agree from my personal experience that the traditional women’s ritual dances are connected with them for if someone would ask me what I have learned through the dances for my every day life my answer would be the same as the Nine Touchstones.

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  4. I often land here at Feminism and Religion, for no reason exactly, except it never lets me down, either in its many different forms of support for the way of women, but also in the depth of all the writers, editors, artists, who put this site together. She’s not young that lady all dressed up in leaves, even if full of youthful vigor, and it’s not only the headdress, but also she encompasses a modern bonding of women’s love for each other, and all of nature.

    Like

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