In the first part of this article, I looked at how Carol P Christ’s Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality are related to traditional women’s ritual dances of the Balkans. After more than thirty years of researching and teaching these dances and the way that they pass on information in encoded symbolic ways, I have come to see them as an educational system, a women’s mystery school. The main message which the dances convey is an ethic of community, partnership, mutual support, and other life-enhancing values aligned with the Nine Touchstones, which can be directly experienced in the dance.
We know from the research of Marija Gimbutas that these values were central to the Old European civilizations which honoured the Goddess, while Yosef Garfinkel and Elizabeth Wayland Barber show that circle dances have their roots in these same early Neolithic cultures of Eastern Europe and the Near East. This leads me to suggest that Balkan women’s circle dances surviving today may have their origin in early egalitarian matriarchal cultures of Neolithic Europe. The Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality provide an perfect template through which to explore the ethics of women’s ritual dances.
The first touchstone: Nurture life
As Carol Christ says, this is ‘the foundation of all the other touchstones’. In a recent blog, she explains that
‘nurturing life is practiced by mothers, sisters, fathers, brothers, aunts, uncles, and others the world around. It is not only a human value: nurturing of life is deeply rooted in the life experience of mothers and sometimes fathers in the animal world. Because mothering is rooted in our animal past, many consider nurturing life to be trivial or at best the physical foundation of so-called “higher” values. But I assert that to nurture life is the “highest value” and that all other values should be judged by whether or not they promote life, not only for ourselves and for those closest to us, but for all human beings and for the web of life as a whole.’
For the grandmothers in the Balkans, Near East and North Africa from whom I have learned women’s ritual dances, nurturing life is indeed the highest imperative, and this task is often, but not exclusively, in women’s hands. Women sow, tend, and reap the crops on which people lives depend, singing as they work and as they walk to and from their fields. Women sing and dance in connection with preparing and serving food, raising their families, and keeping the house, farm, garden and animals. Ritual song and dance accompany milestones of life including birth, menarche, and marriage as well as the turning of the seasons and the cycles of the earth. And girls and women typically danced to bless the earth and bring rain, in rituals such as the peperouda or pirpirouna of Bulgaria and Northern Greece.
Women embroider their festive dance costumes with images of seeds, sprouts, leaves, fruits, trees, birds, animals, Goddess figures, and ‘signs of life’. They also portray the zigzags, triangles, spirals, swirls, lozenges and stars which are so abundant in the archaeological record of Neolithic cultures. As Gimbutas explains,
Celebration of life is the leading motif in Old European ideology and art. There is no stagnation; life energy is constantly moving as a serpent, spiral, or whirl. Recall the richly painted vases of the Cucuteni, Dimini, Butmir, and Minoan cultures, and sense the moving, turning, rising, splitting, and growing energy they portray.
Women’s dance songs, too, are full of images of burgeoning, blossoming, abundant life which needs to be nurtured and revered. Mythopoetic images and metaphors very often depict the giver of life as a mysterious female figure with attributes of various pre-Christian Goddesses such as Aphrodite/Inanna, Persephone or Demeter. The dance song ‘Papadoula’, for instance, from the Greek village of Ráhi on the slopes of Mount Olympus, tells of a Muse-like young woman who first appears as a thundercloud, the powerful, flying bringer of fertile rain, but turns out to be the ‘daughter of the priest’ – that is, an important figure of high birth in a lineage of servants of the divine. She comes from the vineyard, with apples in her apron. ‘I ask for two, she gives me five’: a perfect illustration of the blessing of abundance.
Five is the number associated with Venus/Aphrodite/Inanna, the great cosmic Goddess of heaven and earth and of life, death, and rebirth. The apple, too, is associated with this Goddess (and planet) because of the five-pointed star seen when the apple is cut crossways. The young woman in the song is a figure of fertility like the nymphs, muses, and winged women of old. Here she is not given a specific name other than the epithet ‘daughter of the priest’ – but she is named as the daughter of the priest Dimo (Papadimou i kori), Dimo being a shortened form of the name Dimitris, which is the masculine version of the name Dimitra, otherwise known as Demeter. And who is Demeter’s daughter? None other than Persephone, whose annual return from the underworld caused her mother to rejoice with fertile rains, bringing new life to the gardens, fields and orchards of the world.
Women in Eastern Europe nurtured life in their dancing, in their clothing, in their songs and rituals, in their daily work sustaining their families and communities, and in their ancient memories of a nurturing female Goddess figure who lives on, ever-present, in their embroideries and dance songs. I will look at the rest of Carol’s Nine Touchstones in the continuation of this article.
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.
 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.
 Kelly MB (1989) Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe. Winona, MN: Northland Press, 10, 63-68; Paine S (1990) Embroidered Textiles. London: Thames and Hudson, 1990, 65-67.
 Gimbutas M (1989) The Language Of The Goddess. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 321.
 Shannon, L. ‘Muses, Magic, Memory: Summer Dance Rituals of Pieria’ in The Grapevine: UK Journal of Sacred/Circle Dance, 2013.