Since ancient times people have danced for rain, the life-giving gift from heaven to earth. Rain rituals were seen as important work and were usually performed by women, traditional bringers of life and fertility. Both bearing and raising children, and cultivating the land to nourish the community, are activities dependent on, and psychically equated to, rainfall. Women’s ability to bring rain when necessary was a key belief of indigenous European culture and is found in many places today. Many women’s dances, songs and rituals in Eastern Europe and the Near East express this connection, and women’s folk costumes often feature long fringes representing water.
According to Elizabeth Wayland Barber (1994; 2013), the long fringes were equated with women’s long, flowing hair, both resembling long flowing streams and therefore the source of women’s fertile power. Dancing with unbound hair was seen as one way to free this power and bring rain upon the land. In previous articles, I have written about the Peperouda rain rituals in Bulgaria and Greece, where a young girl with unbound hair wearing fresh greenery dances for rain; and dance songs such as Papadoula, from Mount Olympus, which centre on a flying, cloudlike female figure who bestows abundance and fertility upon the land. This rain-bringing archetype is widespread both in ancient art and in folk tales of nereids, nymphs, muses, rusalky, vily or ‘willies’.
T’ai Chi master Al Huang says that there are certain movements which can influence the weather. Indian yogis say the same. Weather-working was one of the main skills of European wise women accused of witchcraft. I have witnessed effective rain dances with the Native Americans of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico; among aboriginal women in Australia and nomadic Berbers of Tunisia and Morocco; and in India, Bulgaria, Greece and Armenia. When my friend Shakeh Major Tchilingirian and I were researching women’s dances in Yerevan, we learned a number of dances invoking rain, including the women’s Tamzara, Maymuki, and Yerek Votk (all on our CD Gorani). We also learned the slow serpent-step women used to perform barefoot in remote riverbeds to bring back the flow of water in times of severe drought; tellingly, our informant did not want us to practice this step for too long, because ‘at that time rain was not needed’.
Women’s rain rituals are regularly reenacted at the Koprivshtitsa Folklore Festival in Bulgaria, and some see them as the cause of the torrential downpours which seem to occur during every festival. According to Anna Shtarbanova, festival judges regularly debate whether these rituals (whose efficacy no one questions) should still be allowed, since they invariably cause such havoc in the town. And a few years ago in Morocco, where I was leading a women’s dance and cultural tour, the King decreed a nationwide day of prayers for rain, after almost a year of unbroken drought. In solidarity, my group danced rain dances I had learned in Greece and Armenia, with unbound hair, in an almost-dry riverbed in the foothills of the High Atlas mountains. To everyone’s delight it poured with rain that same afternoon.
In response to western skepticism that human activity can really have any influence on the weather, more than one Eastern European or North African acquaintance has scoffed: ‘Of course the rain rituals work. Why else would people bother to do them?’
Japanese researcher Dr Masaru Emoto has shown how water transmits awareness, absorbing thought and emotion, as well as pollution. The indigenous Kogi Indians of Colombia also emphasise that natural water systems are living beings, and urge us to understand that the earth’s water experiences and understands what we do to it. This concept can help us change the way we treat both earth and water – which we must do quickly, to preserve the precious resources on which our life depends.
My research in Greece as well as other parts of the Balkans and the Near East shows that dances and their related customs, like the earth’s clean water reserves or endangered species of plants or animals, are rapidly disappearing everywhere. I have written before of my sense that traditional dances are living beings, with their own consciousness, like water; and as with water, I believe the dances respond to the consciousness we bring in our approach to them.
Life-giving rain, bridging heaven and earth, is a metaphor for prana, chi, the vital force which flows in us if we open ourselves to the energy of the dance. This vibrational ‘water of life’ has the power to heal and to make whole. The more we use the dances and the power within them to help restore balance on the earth and in our lives, the more reason the dances themselves will have to stay alive, make themselves known, and find their way into our circles for us to use as tools for personal and planetary transformation.
This article was published in German as ‘Um Regen tanzen: Lebensspendendes Geschenk des Himmels an die Erde’, in Neue Kreise Ziehen Fachzeitschrift für meditativen & sakralen Tanz, Heft 1-2014.
Laura will present on ‘She Who Brings Rain: Women’s rain dance rituals in the Balkans and beyond’ at ‘The Waters of Life: Exploring Water Mythos, Divinity, Beings, & Ecology’ Conference of the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology, May 5-6, 2023.
Barber, Elisabeth Wayland, Women’s Work, The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times. W. W. Norton & Co, 1994.
Barber, Elisabeth Wayland, ‘The Curious Tale of the Ultra-Long Sleeve’ in Linda Welters, Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia: Beliefs About Protection and Fertility. Berg, 1999.
Dimotika tou Olympou, Politistikos Syllogos ‘Ta Patria’, Rahi, Pieria, 1998.
MacDermott, Mercia, Bulgarian Folk Customs. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1988.
Shannon, Laura ‘Dancing in the Footsteps of the Muses: Traditional Ritual Dances of Mount Olympus’, Goddess Pages, issue 25, Summer 2014.
Shannon, Laura, ‘Women’s Ritual Dances, an Ancient Source of Healing in Our Time’ in Dancing on the Earth: Women’s Stories of Healing Through Dance, ed. Johanna Leseho and Sandra McMaster. Findhorn Press, 2011.
Tsimitri, Maria, ‘Traditional dances and songs of Káto Milia’, in Proceedings of the First Olympus Greek Dance and Culture Seminar. Propantos, 2011.
4 thoughts on “Dancing for Rain: Life-Giving Gift from Heaven to Earth by Laura Shannon ”
I thoroughly enjoyed this article and learned new specifics about rain dancing. I too have witnessed the Pueblo rain dances that DO bring rain. I love the statement to the effect that of course they work; otherwise people wouldn’t do them! Women and rain belong together – what I note is that people who have an intimate relationship with any aspect of nature can expect that this relationship does carry a resonance across time and often results in the effect desired…In this culture it is hard to stay attached to these sorts of truths – ridicule and dismissal the threats – the problem today is that the middle way has been destroyed – we have just come out of 5 days of the most severe flooding that I can remember….. next a probable summer drought…. during these floods we lost so much rich soil…rape -logging has exacerbated what climate change is doing… my cellar is still flooded – not a good thing – but this is how it is now – it may be that the positive relationship between people and rain is lessening – it sure feels that way – the drought Pueblo people routinely have to deal with is enough – but climate change? Just don’t know. I do know that it’s worth asking for rain or its cessation as the case may be.
“Weather-working was one of the main skills of European wise women accused of witchcraft,” reminds me of the obvious “reversals” patriarchal ideology depends on to maintain misogyny as its central tenet! I do believe that Wise-Women nourishing the community and the Earth can work with the elements to heal and help.
I found the photos and the affirmations described in Laura’s article illuminating. I feel the connections she made have expanded my own understandings of possibilities. At times, I feel bereft of a connection to a dance/movement practice sacred to my female ancestors. I’m drawn to the understanding “that traditional dances are living beings, with their own consciousness, like water; and as with water, I believe the dances respond to the consciousness we bring in our approach to them.”
I use a lot of symbolism in my Diva paintings and many include flowing hair and water, but did not know about the fringe representing water. We are in the last of the dry windy HOT days of “summer” in Costa Rica and I would love to know a rain dance and song.