In Rebirth of the Goddess, Carol P Christ offered Nine Touchstones of Goddess Spirituality as an alternative to the Ten Commandments. The Nine Touchstones are intended to inform all our relationships, whether personal, communal, social, or political. In this four-part blog (here are parts 1-3 Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) I am exploring ways in which these Nine Touchstones are inherently embodied in traditional women’s ritual dances of the Balkans, which has been my spiritual practice for over thirty years.
Carol’s Fourth Touchstone is: ‘Speak the truth about conflict, pain, and suffering.’ Many women’s dance songs which allow the women to speak and sing their grief and pain. When we bring that pain into the healing container of the circle, sharing simple steps, Dancers in the circle simultaneously give and receive support for their own and others’ sorrow. Ultimately, the sense of community and solidarity in the circle transforms our grief so that the burden becomes manageable. Many historical songs, too, tell stories of women being abducted or abused, and how they fought back or got away – or not – so that they are remembered and honoured by future generations.
And in northern Greece and southern Bulgaria, on the annual festival of ‘Gynaikokrateía’, Gynocracy or Women’s Rule, gender and power roles are reversed in the village. The women dress as men and take over the town hall, village square, cafes and other male-dominated public spaces. They drink, dance, sing, and perform ribald and satirical skits lambasting men’s misbehaviour. As people come from far and wide to witness these events, it is women’s way of highlighting and spreading news of wrongdoing. Men in the village have a very real fear of becoming a target of this sharp commentary, which is remembered, laughed over and talked about for months afterwards. In this way, the women tell me, the women’s rituals provide an effective social deterrent to any abuses of male power.
The Fifth Touchstone is: ‘Take only what you need.’ The women of the Balkans and Greece who have been my teachers remember their grandparents living a truly sustainable lifestyle, able to grow, gather, make and recycle most of what they need. They have inherited many of these skills and routinely practice a brilliantly innovative frugality and thrift: When nothing goes to waste, there is abundance for all. It is also noteworthy that they share what they have, even in times of hardship, ensuring the health of the community and affirming their common bonds.
The Sixth Touchstone is: ‘Think about the consequences of your actions for seven generations.’ The dancing women I know are always aware of their children and grandchildren and the legacy they will leave them, including the health and sustainability of their land and environment. They also remember their ancestors, going back seven generations and more, by remembering the history of every family in the area, every marriage, and every kinship tie. (The dances, songs, and rituals they practice have roots going back even farther than that, to early Neolithic times, as I described in Part One of this article.)
The Seventh Touchstone is: ‘Approach the taking of life with great restraint.’ Elders on the Greek island of Lesvos have told me how rare and special it was in their childhood to kill and eat an animal. In those days, poorer families might eat meat just once a year. On feast days an ox, sheep or goat would be donated by a wealthier villager for a ‘kurban’, a sacrifice, to feed the entire community. These offerings still take place today, perpetuating ancient customs honouring the animal who gives its life to feed the people. On Lesvos, the ox is ornamented with ribbons and garlands, celebrated with music and dance, and slaughtered in a prayerful way. The meat is then boiled overnight in huge cauldrons with wheat or barley and served to hundreds of pilgrims.
The Eighth Touchstone is: ‘Practice great generosity.’ For Greek and Balkan women who live by the old ways, hospitality is a sacred virtue, just as in antiquity. The guest is given the best of everything. When women come together to dance they bring special food to a communal table, even in times of economic hardship when the cupboard might be bare at home. The dance itself is a great gift of joy and beauty which lifts the spirits of everyone present. The good feelings of the dance are freely available to all, rich and poor alike.
The Ninth Touchstone is: ‘Repair the web.’ All of the practices connected with women’s ritual dances of the Balkans are based on an ethic of community, connection, and sustainability. The dances have their roots in the Neolithic worldview which sees humanity as one integral thread in the fabric of the cosmos. The women who dance are also women who weave – and spin and knit and embroider and sew – so they understand, both literally and metaphorically, the importance of strong threads that connect.
As Carol says, ‘To repair the web is to always act to create a better life for ourselves, for the next generations, and for the species with which we share life on this earth.‘ For over thirty years, my students and I have continually rediscovered how women’s ritual dances connect to ourselves, each other, and the natural world. They give us confidence and power; help us develop skills of shared leadership, and encourage us to speak up for truth and justice in our daily lives as well. The dances make the world beautiful and the women happy. They help us find joy and move on from trauma. In all of these ways they ‘repair the web’.
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.