Woman’s Sacred Hand – and Handkerchief by Laura Shannon

Berber Hamsa. Photo: public domain.

In my recent post ‘Forty Days After Childbirth, Mary Returns to the World,’ I wrote that ‘the woman’s power to bless and protect, as well as to create, is shown in the symbol of her hand.’ We see expressions of this power in the Orthodox Christian icon of the Three-Handed Madonna, whose third hand is over her womb, and the Hamsa, the hand-shaped talisman common to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Also known as the Hand of Fatima, Miriam, or Mary, the Hamsa often incorporates eye or vulva motifs, which also offer protection.

Hand, womb, and eye all signify female creative power, personified in the image of Goddess and revered in Neolithic Old Europe. This life-giving principle is expressed in many ways apart from childbearing: as Carol Christ affirms, early technologies of spinning, weaving, pottery, and agriculture, along with Neolithic religion, were most likely invented by women. 

In rural Southeastern Europe today these skills remain largely in women’s hands.* While Orthodox priests are male, lay religion falls predominantly in the female sphere, and a substantial part of that involves ritual dancing. Women’s ritual dances originate in ceremonial dance practices of Neolithic times, and still embody Old European values  of sustainability, community, peace, and reverence for the female power to give and sustain life.

Clay stamp in the shape of a hand,
Çatal Höyük ca. 7000 (?) BCE. 
From the 2017 Archive Report.

We know from archaeologist Marija Gimbutas that the majority of hands painted in Paleolithic caves are the hands of women, and that the hand was also a key motif in Neolithic art, symbolising the ‘energizing touch’ of the Goddess and ‘the process of becoming’ (Gimbutas 1991, The Language of the Goddess, 305-306). In southeastern Europe today, woman’s holy hand continues to be emphasised in dance movements, ritual textiles, and the humble handkerchief.

Why a handkerchief? Traditional dance in Greece and the Balkans usually takes place in an open circle, led by the dancer at the head of the line. As people take turns in this important position, the leader’s temporary authority is commonly designated by a handkerchief in her free hand.


A Greek woman from Roumlouki leads the dance with her mandíli. Photo: Topoikaitropoi.gr

The dance handkerchief (mandíli in Greek) thus plays a valuable role, and is an essential element of the elaborate costumes women make and wear for their ritual dancing. In Greece today, women make their mandília with prayerful intent, not unlike other sacred folk art traditions such as rushnykyUkrainian embroidered ritual cloths. Typically, the mandíli is white, edged with embroidery, lace, beads, or sequins to protect the holder from negative energies or the ‘evil eye’.  Sometimes the mandíli features concrete symbols, like this embroidered Goddess/flower figure with radiant sunbursts in place of head and hands. (You can read more about Chryssa’s costume below in my post Dancing Daughters of the Living Goddess.)

Woman’s mandíli from Doxapara, Greek Thrace. Photo © Laura Shannon. 

In the culture of women’s ritual dance, every woman must be able to lead the dance circle at the appropriate time. Among other things, a woman’s handkerchief signifies her willingness to take up the leadership role when it is required of her – in dance and in life – and shows that her community can count on her to step up when she is needed. In this way, the ever-present handkerchief in women’s folk dress communicates the Old European values of mutual support, collective responsibility, and shared leadership which are so central to traditional dance culture.

The philosophy of life embodied in the dance is very, very different from that taught by mainstream western society. The dominant culture of our time denies women meaningful positions of leadership; presents hierarchical leadership models based on ‘power-over’ as the only way; ingrains in women a deep distrust of their own (and other women’s) power to lead; and trains women to view one another as competitors instead of friends. The resulting destruction of age-old forms of women’s community, where each individual knows she can count on all the others for support and vice versa, is one of the most terrible legacies of patriarchy.

But there is hope. The old ways survive in women’s dance, in women’s arts, and in women’s handkerchiefs – visible manifestations of women’s power to bring forth and bless, protect and heal.

Greek, Bulgarian, and Roma handkerchiefs. Photo © Laura Shannon.

When we dance the ancient dances, decode the sacred symbols, and take our turn in the leader’s role, we affirm our own innate power to bring a new model of leadership into a world which urgently needs us to step up now. When I lead the dance with a mandíli in my hand, I feel I am flying a forgotten flag from a long-lost nation of women – women who once knew how to weave, work, and worship together, with confidence and joy. And the mandíli affirms that we remember.

* While nowadays it is common for men to make ceramic pots, the moving film ‘Women Potters of Cyprus‘ by Dr. Gloria London shows women potters still using ancient techniques today.


Barber, Elizabeth Wayland (2013). The Dancing Goddesses, New York: Norton.

Yosef Garfinkel (2003). Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Marija Gimbutas (1991). The Language of the Goddess (paperback edition). San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Laura Shannon (2020). ‘Symbols of the Goddess in Balkan Women’s Dance’, in Williamson, A. and Sellers-Young, B. (eds.) Spiritual Herstories: Call of the Soul in Dance Research. Chicago: Intellect, 104-131

Laura Shannon (2011). ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in our Time’, in Dancing on the Earth: Women’s Stories of Healing Through Dance, edited by Johanna Leseho and Sandra McMaster. Findhorn Press, 138–157.—

BIO Laura Shannon is one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement. She trained in Intercultural Studies (1986) and Dance Movement Therapy (1990), holds an M.A. in Myth, Cosmology, and the Sacred from Canterbury Christ Church University (2020), and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Gloucester (U.K.). Her research in Balkan dance highlights out songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which descend from the Goddess cultures of Neolithic Old Europe, and which embody an ancient worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura is a longtime faculty member of the Sacred Dance department of the Findhorn eco-spiritual community in Scotland, an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Sacred Dance Guild, Founding Director of the non-profit Athena Institute for Women’s Dance and Culture, and Carol P. Christ’s choice to succeed her as Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual. Her articles and essays on women’s ritual dances have appeared in numerous publications. Laura lives in Greece and the UK.

Author: Laura Shannon

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 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. Also a musician, Laura performs throughout Europe and in the USA with her partner Kostantis Kourmadias.

3 thoughts on “Woman’s Sacred Hand – and Handkerchief by Laura Shannon”

  1. The ancient interwoven symbols of hand, womb, and eye combined to signifying female creative power remind us of who we are! Thank you for those wonder-filled images. Learning of how and why the handkerchief, in women’s ritual dance, plays a valuable role in maintaining a cohesive, egalitarian women’s community expanded my consciousness!

    Your descriptions and explanations of a world of ritual dance lost to me was more than enlightening—it makes me long for the experience you’ve described. I value all your efforts to help women reclaim our heritage.

    As a textile-enthusiast, I’ve long-carried a handkerchief with me when leaving the house. I carefully tuck it into the pocket of my trousers. I have tended to view my handkerchief as a useful object, Yet, I carefully chose which handkerchief I carry. I always iron it smooth. In hindsight, I can now see carrying my handkerchief as a ritual act.

    The usefulness of a soft clean handkerchief should not be underestimated! While on the 2023 Goddess Pilgrimage I broke my shoulder. For the entire two week trip I wore a sling to stabilize my arm. The nylon strap that went around my neck was quite irritating to my skin. I immediately tucked my cotton handkerchief around the strap to protect and to sooth my skin. Those handkerchiefs I had packed did become sacred and protective objects.

    Marija Gimbutas insisted that, “The Old Anatolian, Old European sacred images and symbols were never totally uprooted; these most persistent features in human history were too deeply rooted in the human psyche.” (from The Language of the Goddess p. 318) Now I will add the handkerchief as another object from my daily life which links me to my ancestors.


  2. I once asked a group of students to list 25 uses for a handkerchief as a creativity exercise. My list has expanded thanks to your very informative article Laura.


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