The Tree of Life and the Forest of Friendship: Circle Dance to Restore our Hope by Laura Shannon

Tree and Goddess motifs on the ‘Wall of the Foremothers’ (Ahninnenwand), Bodensee, Germany, 4th Millenium BCE

Yes, times are tough. But a better understanding of our interconnectedness can help us move beyond the cynicism, frustration, and despair we may be feeling in the modern world. A closer look at trees, and at women’s traditional circle dances, can offer valuable lessons about friendship, community, and the interconnectedness of all life.

The sacred Tree is found in virtually all cultures, often identified with the life-giving figure of the Goddess. Both motifs appear abundantly in archaeological finds dating back to the early Neolithic era. Dance archaeologist Yosef Garfinkel affirms that humans have been dancing in circles since then and probably for far longer.

The Tree of Life is central to the women’s traditional circle dances of the Balkans and the Near East, which I have been researching for over thirty years.  The pattern of the Tree of Life is encoded in the steps of dances, many dance songs refer to women as sacred or magical trees, people often dance around or under sacred trees, and Tree and Goddess motifs are featured on the textiles worn while dancing.  Furthermore, each dancer resembles a tree, with her ‘trunk’ upright and centred, arms symmetrically extended like branches, and hands joined so that we support each other in the circle.   Continue reading “The Tree of Life and the Forest of Friendship: Circle Dance to Restore our Hope by Laura Shannon”

A Serpentine Path: The Dance Is About To Begin by Carol P. Christ

carol-p-christ-photo-michael-bakasEntering the archaeological site of Kato Zakros, which includes a Sacred Center and part of a town on a small hill above it, I felt too tired to continue with the others. As we passed a stone bench to the north and west of the open court, I lay down and closed my eyes. I don’t know if I actually slept, but when I opened my eyes, I was in a trance.

I could see the air vibrating, and as I looked up the hill, I could almost see women walking up and down the stepped paths. My eyes were fixed on the path where women I could not quite see with my eyes went about their daily tasks. After a while Cathleen joined me. “I don’t want to talk,” I said, “but if you sit quietly beside me, you will see women walking in the village. She sat down and said nothing, but smiled broadly and nodded when I asked her if she could see what I saw.

After a while, I moved and sat facing the Central Court. I could still see the vibrations of the air, and as I looked across the court, I felt a sense of anticipation. “The dance is about to begin,” I told Cathleen when she joined me a few minutes later. She nodded. It was an hour before sunset, and the ancient stones were bathed in the last light of day. Jana and Patricia were talking in the central shrine room, while the others leaned over the ancient cistern watching turtles and turtle babies dive into the water and emerge again. “The dance is about to begin,” I said again.


Cathleen exclaimed, “I see the path of the dance rising up in the court. It looks like the Processional Paths we saw at Knossos, Phaistos, and Malia. Do you see it?” Though I did not “see” it, I was moved to the court, where I could “feel” it. I raised my arms, bent at the elbows, and slowly wove my way back and forth across the court, following a snakelike path I could feel with my feet. As I neared the center of the court, I almost lost my footing. Turning to face Cathleen, I gazed at her solemnly, sending energy through my palms. Cathleen raised her arms in greeting. I turned again, continuing to trace the snakelike path, back and forth, across the court. When I reached the south end of the court, I turned again to greet Cathleen and Robin who was sitting next to her. “The path you followed was exactly the path I saw,” Cathleen cried out with astonishment. “You were meant to stop at the center.” “It was an ancient path,” I said solemnly. 

Jana and Patricia, who must have been watching, entered from the northwest entrance to the court. Jana was leading, arms upraised, tracing another path, walking with the same slow rhythm in which I had been led. I turned and slowly walked towards Jana until I could sense the energy flowing between our palms, then we softly touched our upraised hands. Carol, Patricia, Cathleen, and Robin formed a circle around us, and stood, arms upraised one in each of the four directions. Sensing that we were meant to share the blessing with the others, Jana and I turned, walking slowly towards the women standing in the north and south, feeling the energy, then touching their palms. Back to the center, we turned to the east and the west, completing the ceremony. As we turned to face each other again, I whispered to Jana, “We were called to this dance. It was an initiation.”

. . .

[A few days later] thinking of the snakelike path I had traced on the ancient stones, my eyes fixed on the gold snake bracelet on my right arm. I reviewed the many meanings the symbol of the snake held in ancient cultures. Goddess temples were used for storing grain, the harvest returned to She who presided over it. Snakes were guardians of the temples, eating the mice and rats that came to take the grain. The coiled snake and the snake biting its tail are symbols of wholeness. Snakes shedding their skins are images of rebirth and regeneration. Snakes hibernate under the earth and are reborn. But there was more: the rhythm of the snake in movement. I picked up a pen and wrote: “a serpentine path.”

These words described our initiation in the dance at Zakros: the serpentine path is the path of life, a snakelike, meandering path, winding in and out, up and down, with no beginning and no end, into the darkness, into the light. There is no goal, only the journey.

A cycle was coming to completion in my life. Through hard work and amazing grace, I found my way back to the Goddess, to myself. The mystery that was revealed to me as my mother died was unfolding in my life. Love had never abandoned me and never would. The Goddess would be with me at every turn in the path, and in that knowledge. I could give up control and open myself to life.


a-serpentine-path-amazon-coverThis is an excerpt from A Serpentine Path, Carol P. Christ’s newly released, moving memoir of transformation. Order it now in paperback or on Kindle. Carol’s other new book written with Judith Plaskow is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Carol also wrote the first Goddess feminist theology, Rebirth of the Goddess.

Join Carol on a Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete in 2017. Save $200.

Read two more the chapters in the book: Mysteries and Dionysian Rites.

Thanks to Judith Shaw for the cover art “Downward Serpent.”

If the paperback is unavailable on Amazon, you can order it from Barnes and Noble.


Shared Leadership: The Hidden Treasure of Women’s Ritual Dance by Laura Shannon

Greek women dancing, attributed to a vase in the Museo Borbonico, Naples.  From The dance: Historic Illustrations of Dancing from 3300 B.C. to 1911 A.D. London, 1911
Greek women dancing, attributed to a vase in the Museo Borbonico, Naples.
From The dance: Historic Illustrations of Dancing from 3300 B.C. to 1911 A.D. London, 1911

Traditional women’s dances of Greece, the Balkans and the Near East come from cultures which have survived countless periods of upheaval, and teach skills which can help us through difficult times. I see their gifts as a precious inheritance from the ancestors, passed down through many generations. One particularly valuable skill which the dances emphasizes is that of mutual support and shared leadership among women.

Leadership in traditional dance is not limited to a few who have garnered social rank and power. Dance leadership is shared according to the occasion, and everyone must be prepared to lead dances at important events in their lifetime.

On Greek islands such as Lesvos, a small parea or group of women will typically dance the Syrtós together in a short line or open circle. The first dancer may express herself through turns and graceful flourishes of her free hand, varying her handhold and body position to dynamically interact with the other dancers. The women continually change places in the circle, encouraging one another to take the first position so that everyone eventually has a chance to lead. Continue reading “Shared Leadership: The Hidden Treasure of Women’s Ritual Dance by Laura Shannon”

Women’s Ritual Dances: Secret Language of the Goddess by Laura Shannon

Laura Shannon square crop

My life’s work with traditional women’s circle dances of Eastern Europe and the Near East has been a natural interweaving of feminism, activism and Goddess spirituality. I would like to share how I came to discover these dances and their potential as tools for healing and transformation.

Circles of women dancing with joined hands appear in rock art, pottery shards, vases and frescoes going back thousands of years1, showing that ritual dance was a primary means of women’s worship. I believe that existing women’s circle dance traditions of the Balkans are direct descendants of these rituals. In their expression of values of partnership, sustainability, and peace, they are living links to the matrifocal Goddess culture of Old Europe as articulated by Marija Gimbutas.2

Tell Halaf, Iraq, ca, 5000-4000 BCE (Garfinkel)

Incorporating symbols of the Goddess in her many guises, these women’s ritual dances are deeply spiritual. They are feminist in the way they provide women with a place of power, not ‘power-over’ but ‘power-from-within.’3 They are an activist practice because the qualities they embody – connection, inclusiveness, balance, empathy, and mutuality – are the principles of a Partnership society, as proposed by Riane Eisler;4 or in Carol Lee Flinders’ term, a society of Belonging.5  Each dance circle is an opportunity to practice being in community in a respectful and cooperative way, which can offer a profound source of healing.6

How did I come to these women’s dances? As a child I was convinced of certain truths: that nature is holy, that God is also female, and that instead of hurting one another, people should celebrate together with music and dance. These longings led me to the rich folk dance traditions of the American melting pot, women’s Middle Eastern Dance circles, and the women’s spirituality network. Around the same time, in the early 1980s, I encountered the meditative communal dance practice known as Sacred Dance. Together with my university training in Intercultural Studies and Dance Movement Therapy, these different streams helped shape the path of my life. Continue reading “Women’s Ritual Dances: Secret Language of the Goddess by Laura Shannon”

Dance of Persephone: The Trata of Megara by Laura Shannon 

Laura Shannon square cropIn a previous post on FAR I explored Greek Easter customs which interweave Christian and pre-Christian beliefs.  Today I would like to take a closer look at one of these customs, the women’s ritual dance known as Tráta, ceremonially performed on ‘Bright Tuesday,’ the Tuesday after Easter. Versions of Tráta survive in the towns of Mégara and Elefsina just west of Athens, on the island of Salamína directly across from them, and in the surrounding area as far as Thebes.

Elefsina, of course, is Eleusis, where for over 2,000 years the Eleusinian Mysteries enacted the story of Demeter and her daughter Persephone’s descent to the Underworld. Choral dance was a central part of the ceremonies at Eleusis – as at other sacred sites including Delphi, Knossos, Athens, and Vravrona – and the ‘Well of the Beautiful Dances’ can still be seen at the archaeological site. It is a a visible reminder of the circle dancing which was a part of the initiatory experience, bringing cosmic order – symbolised by the circle – into the human world. This is still one of the functions of the Tráta as performed today.

Eleusis – ‘Well of the Beautiful Dances’
Eleusis – ‘Well of the Beautiful Dances’

Continue reading “Dance of Persephone: The Trata of Megara by Laura Shannon “

Caroline Schelling on Birth & Death by Stuart Dean

Caroline Schelling

Of the many letters Caroline wrote to her lifelong friend Luise, one of the most intense  (the 57th Letter) dates from seven years after the 4th Letter discussed in my last post.  By then both were married; only a few months earlier Caroline had given birth to her first child (Auguste); though Luise already had children, Caroline knew that one of them was terminally ill.  In the first paragraph Caroline describes how difficult Auguste’s birth was for her; in the second she consoles Luise over the impending death of her child.  She thus subtly parallels birth with death and hence the labor for one with mourning over the other.

Fifteen years later, only a few months after the death of Auguste–the last of her four children to die–Caroline’s generally positive disposition evidenced in the 4th Letter and her experience in grappling with birth and death evidenced in the 57th Letter were being put to the test.  Though she was holding up well, Friedrich Schelling (Friedrich), the man who was to be her third husband, seems to have been suicidal from feeling guilty (rightly or wrongly) for having failed to do enough to cure whatever illness killed Auguste.  Caroline wrote frequently and urgently to him, offering advice and comfort.  In one of those letters (274d) she characterizes the challenge of overcoming grief as a formula to be solved: “(death/pain) x (love/bliss) = (life/peace).”  She terms this one of her ‘primal axioms’ (the “Ursatz”), although she seems playfully to concede to Friedrich that he or perhaps someone else shares responsibility for it. Continue reading “Caroline Schelling on Birth & Death by Stuart Dean”

How the Outdoors Got on Us by Barbara Ardinger

Barbara ArdingerI read some wonderful posts last spring and summer about the beauties of the outdoors. One that especially inspired me was by Molly MeadeIf you missed Molly’s description of how she goes out to the “priestess rocks,” read it now.

But as much as I admire people who like to spend time outdoors in gardens or the wilderness or national parks or anywhere else without kitchens and bathrooms…well, I just don’t like to get the outdoors on me. Most Pagans I know like to camp and hold grand outdoor rituals. Not me. I get lost. I trip over tree roots and get allergic in some large gardens. I don’t like to climb or hike and I stay away from the beach because it’s got all that icky, dirty sand all over it. Although I send money to the Wilderness Society and Friends of the Earth, the wilderness does not need my footprints in it.

So here’s another of my weird little stories. This one’s a fable I wrote several years ago for a friend who was holding regular ceremonies at Joshua Tree National Park in the SoCal desert. (I went to some of those ceremonies. My friends were very proud of me.)

Continue reading “How the Outdoors Got on Us by Barbara Ardinger”

When I Dance I Am I Greek by Carol P. Christ

Carol Molivos by Andrea Sarris 2When I first moved to Greece I spoke of being attracted to a culture in which people express their emotions easily and do not hold on to anger. In the part of American culture I know, the opposite is often the case: people do not express their emotions easily and hold onto their anger. When I joined a therapy group in Greece, my therapist said that I made the right decision to move to Greece. “You needed to learn to live from here,” she said touching her belly, “and this is where Greeks live.”

During the first years I lived in Greece, I often said that I wanted to become Greek. Like others had done before me, I romanticized Greece and the Greeks. Then one winter I learned that family violence is as prevalent in Greece as it is in every other country. The cultural ability to express emotion does not stop Greek men from beating their wives or Greek women from hitting children. Indeed the more expressive nature of the Greek culture may make it easier for Greeks to resort to physical violence. On the other hand, violence stemming from withheld feelings can be cruel and unpredictable. Continue reading “When I Dance I Am I Greek by Carol P. Christ”

Lighting Our Candles, We Dance into the Dark by Laura Shannon

Laura ShannonHere in the northern hemisphere, these weeks between Samhain and the winter solstice bring us into the darkest time of the year.  In my dance circles, this is my favourite time for candle dances, whose gentle light guides us when we cannot clearly see, while the support of the circle gives us courage to step into the unknown.

Dancing with candles is like travelling through time. For thousands of years, dancing in the dark – at night, or deep in caves – took place by the light of the moon or the flame. The beauty of candle dancing is that the darkness is still present; we do not need to disparage it, dispel it, flee it or fight it. This marriage of light and dark comes across in this lovely photo from a recent candle dance at Findhorn. Continue reading “Lighting Our Candles, We Dance into the Dark by Laura Shannon”

The Dance of Memory, Part 2: The Wishing Tree Laura Shannon

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Now is the time of Beltane, the great festival celebrating life and fertility.

Last week, on April 24th, in my post The Dance of Memory I wrote about the centennial of the Armenian Genocide, and invited everyone to join in this worldwide day of remembrance through prayer, meditation, music and dance. Subsequently I received testimony from students and colleagues all over the world about dance events they had organised in response to my call.

Dancing friends from Europe, North America, South America, and Australia told how moved they felt to be part of a larger whole, connected through the wordless beauty of music and dance, and by our compassion and caring for all those affected by genocide. Many, including my sister Leslie, thanked me for my ‘call to include Turkish and other dances in the Armenian commemoration activities’. She wrote from New Zealand, ‘The world needs more of this kind of inclusiveness!’

In Germany, Sybille Kolaric danced Armenian dances and a Turkish dance with her group, saying, “I really liked the idea to combine in the dance circle what is so separated in reality.”

A beautiful coming together of Turks and Armenians took place in Istanbul, where my dear friend and colleague Shakeh Major Tchilingirian went with her family, along with many Armenians from all over the world, for the April 24th commemorative ceremonies. A few days before, Shakeh had been leading Armenian dances with Turkish university students there as a ritual of reconciliation (you can see the film, Circle of Life, about a similar event she led in London). Shakeh wrote that they attended a very emotional service in the Armenian Church, and then went to Taksim Square to tie cloths to the Wishing Tree.

Shakeh wrote from Istanbul, “Last night I read some of the messages on The Wishing Tree, messages remembering ALL victims of atrocities and genocide as well as the displaced. There were thousands, possibly tens of thousands, of people sitting silently in Taksim Square, many Turks and Kurds amongst us. There is a lesson to be learned here: we are all victims of the situation we find ourselves in and the longer these wounds bleed the more difficult it becomes to heal.”

The Wishing Tree in Taksim Square was created by Turkish artist Hale Tenger, specifically to mark the centennial of the Genocide. She invited participants to tie pieces of cloth to its branches in homage to the victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide. Armenian-American Nancy Kricorian brought with her from New York a strip of fabric from one of her grandmother’s aprons, saying, “My grandmother Mariam Kodjababian Kricorian was a survivor of the 1915 Genocide, and tying this cloth to the Wishing Tree in Istanbul will be a tribute to her life.”



Clouties_near_madron_wellArmenian wishing tree cropCoincidentally, my April 24 post on FAR included a photo of an Armenian grandmother tying an offering of cloth to just such a tree. The ancient folk custom of the wishing tree, where people (usually women) tie cloths with a special prayer for a loved one, can be found today in Armenia, Turkey, and Greece, in Asia and throughout Europe as far as the British Isles and in Asia as well. This ‘clootie tree’ by the ‘clootie well’ (cloth = clootie) in Madron, Cornwall, is almost identical to the Armenian one shown in my previous post.

Carol P. Christ’s comment on my last post described a similar tree on her Greek island of Lesvos which she tells me is near hot baths once sacred in antiquity. She also stated that brides in ancient Greece would leave articles of their unmarried clothing on a tree dedicated to the virgin Goddess Artemis, one of many tree-worshipping rituals which were well-known and widespread in the ancient world.

Women on Carol Christ’s Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete have all participated in such a practice, tying coloured ribbons onto the venerable myrtle tree already covered with ribbons and votive offerings called tamas, at the sacred monastery of Palianí. When I went there with Carol in 2012, my encounter with the tree led to a profound and lasting experience of healing, which Carol remembered in Giving Back to the Mother.

Paliani myrtle DSCN9080Paliani tamas DSCN9079

Tree emb Paliani DSCN9092Sisters on Carol’s pilgrimage also get to encircle the 2,000-year-old plane tree at Krasi. Even today village festivals are held under the canopy created by the ancient tree.  We know that tree worship on Crete has roots in Minoan times, as depicted in gold seal rings and other examples of Minoan art, and we know that tree worship is both ancient and widespread.  My life’s work researching the Goddess in traditional Balkan dance has shown that the Tree is often associated with the Goddess, for instance in many Balkan embroideries  This abstract but recognisable version comes from the curtains of the reception room in the Palianí monastery.

Maibaum_Ostfriesland967The sacred tree remains a living tradition in central, western and northern Europe in the form of the Maypole. I write this from Austria, where virtually every town and village honours May 1st (the ancient celebration of Beltane) with a May Tree, or Maibaum, a tall decorated pole with a wreath at the top. I love how this one from Germany resembles the Goddess.  Can you see her too?

Once-universal practices revering trees, nature, and the Goddess may have changed, but the act of praying for others’ well-being remains common to us all. The longing to keep our loved ones safe transcends all religious, political and ethnic boundaries. Love for others is one of the strongest bridges to common ground, and here is where we find our meeting place once again.

As I read through the messages sent in response to my invitation to dance on April 24th, I feel that each dancing circle is like a votive offering hung on a sacred tree. Each one is a gift of love for humanity, unique, yet part of a shared desire to end suffering, to bring healing, and to ensure the safety and survival of every single being in creation.

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.

The Dance of Memory: Commemorating the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide

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Friday, April 24, 2015 marks one hundred years since the start of the Armenian Genocide of 1915.

In my dance workshop last Sunday in Somerset, England, we lit candles to the exquisite voice of the great Armenian soprano Lusine Zakarian, and danced beautiful Armenian dances in a ritual of solidarity with this occasion.

I have been encouraging all my students to dance Armenian dances with their groups this week, most especially on Friday, to align with the commemorations happening around the world. Even if you do not dance, you could simply light a candle and listen to some Armenian music (see my list of recommendations at the end of this post). I feel that every act of compassionate witnessing, however small, helps heal the wounds of history.

Continue reading “The Dance of Memory: Commemorating the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide”

Twelfth Night: Men’s Dance Rituals in Northern Greece by Laura Shannon

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The twelve days between Christmas and the New Year are still held to be holy days in Greece, a mystical and dangerous time when mischievous spirits emerge from the underworld, seeking to wreak havoc in the human realm. On the 6th of January, Theophania or Twelfth Night, masked men in goatskins and sheepbells dance through the streets to dispel these spirits, awaken the fertility of the earth, and ensure a good year. The name Theophania, literally ‘the appearance of god’, here refers to the return of the sun after the winter solstice, and fire and light are very important to this holiday.

The rituals I describe here come from six tiny villages in the region of Drama, just south of the Rhodope Mountains, close to the border between northern Greece and Bulgaria. Similar rituals featuring masked, bell-wearing men appear all through the Balkans and Central Europe as far as the Swiss Alps. They will dance through the village streets, in the cemetery, and in front of every house, in a ritual of blessing and catharsis which has roots in age-old worship of Dionysus, god of fertility and wine.

For me, who came to Greece to study women’s traditional songs, dances and costumes, it makes a refreshing change to observe ritual customs almost exclusively performed by men. These activities take place in winter, either at Theophania or during Carnival, in contrast to spring and summer rituals which are chiefly in the hands of the women.  However, as we shall see, in order for men to assume ritual abilities and responsibilities normally ascribed to women, some of the men must dress in women’s clothes.

Here I would like to mention Carol Christ’s recent analysis of essentialism in feminist theory in her excellent post of September 15. In Carol’s words, the essentialist view holds that the “‘essential qualities’ of a thing (a table, a horse, a woman, or a man) precede the ‘existence’ of any individual in the group to which it belongs; these qualities are universally—always and everywhere—expressed by members of the group.”

Carol and I both live in Greece, where, as in many other parts of the world, tradition assigns quite different tasks and attributes to men and to women. Without reawakening the essentialist discussion here, I would just like to say that modern-day feminists do not have to agree on whether women and men are essentially or inevitably different; however, in order to understand Balkan culture, we do need to realise that people here believe in these differences and have done since ancient times.

Angelos Keras, the Archigos (leader) of the Arapides in Monastiraki (photo: Spyros Taramigos)
Angelos Keras, the Archigos of the Arapides in Monastiraki

Back in Drama, in the village of Monastiraki, preparations have been underway for days. The night before the big event, a designated house – half-ruined, but still with a roof intact – slowly fills with the joy of friends and acquaintances greeting one another. Red wine flows, and traditional goat soup is served free to all. A fire has been kept burning here continuously throughout the twelve nights of Christmas, producing sacred ash with healing and protective powers. Musicians play through the night, producing archaic sounds on the Macedonian bowed lyra or kemene, accompanied by large goatskin tambourines called daheres. These are the only instruments. The overall effect is all the more hypnotic as the musicians play in absolute unison; even the singing is monophonic, in a musical structure intended to emphasise old values of community and coherence.

Meanwhile, people dance the same few dances over and over. As on all ritual occasions, the repetition of familiar simple step patterns frees the dancers to focus on the inner work of igniting their own good mood and raising good energy (kefi) to bless the community.

After dancing and drinking all night, the male celebrants help each other dress in the early hours of dawn. They are truly fearsome in shaggy dark skins, tall conical masks, and wide leather belts from which swing three pairs of heavy double bells. One of their names, koudonofori, means bell wearers; they are also called Arapides, the Black Ones or Moors.

Looking behind the apparent racism of the terminology, these ritual dancers blacken their skin with burnt cork both to invoke the power and protection of the sacred fire, and also in order to enter the realm of darkness. Here, the dark is seen as the repository of the earth’s fertile powers, which their bells and dances aim to awaken, as well as the realm of things ‘not seen’ , such as the spirits known as kallikantzari, which pose a threat to the new light and the new year. They themselves must go unseen, in masks and disguises, to enter this realm.

'Arapides', masked ritual dancers at Theophania (January 6) in Monastiraki (photo: Lenka Harmon)
‘Arapides’, masked ritual dancers at Theophania in Monastiraki

Brandishing long wooden swords, this group – known as a tseta – appears fully capable of driving out any number of kallikantzari. The phallic swords and headdresses leave one in no doubt that the Theophania rituals are men’s rituals, yet the ability to give new life, to enter the realms of the dead, and to bestow the blessing of fertility are essentially women’s powers. To claim these powers, some of the men must dress as women, as Dionysian revellers have done since ancient times. These are theGilinges, or Brides. 

Pappoudes ('Grandfathers') with lozenge-shaped beaded amulets, and Gilinges ('Brides') in Ksiropotamos (photo: Lenka Harmon)
Pappoudes (‘Grandfathers’) with lozenge-shaped beaded amulets, and Gilinges (‘Brides’) in Ksiropotamos

Wearing women’s clothing may be a means for men to temporarily gain access to the realms of life and death, where normally only women may go, or to symbolically give birth to the life-affirming fertility and joy which bring renewal at this dark and hungry time of the year. (Men wearing women’s clothing for ritual purposes are depicted in archaeological finds dating back to the 5th C. BCE; I think we see it today in the ecclesiastical robes worn by Christian priests.) In an additional affirmation of what is seen as women’s power, the Brides’ costume is rich in goddess embroideries, while all the members of the party wear beaded amulets in the lozenge-shaped symbol of female fertility going back to Neolithic times. Goddess symbols are also stamped on many of the bells.

As well as the Arapides and the Brides, the tseta includes Pappoudes or Grandfathers in Thracian men’s traditional dress, and Evzones or Tsoliades wearing short white pleated foustanella kilts and thetsevres, a special garment made of twelve large white kerchiefs sewn into a triangle densely fringed with beads, sequins and coloured threads, which takes four months to prepare.

Musicians and 'Tsoliades' ritual dancers in Monastiraki (photo: Lenka Harmon)
Musicians and ‘Tsoliades’ ritual dancers in Monastiraki

There is also an occasionally appearing Bear, who some say represents ancient worship of the Goddess Artemis.

As they journey together through the village, the bell-wearers leap and stamp, swinging their bells back and forth in an apotropaic din – this will indeed awaken the earth! – almost drowning out the eerie sound of the lyras and daïres. The Evzones dance with athletic half-turns which send their short kilts sailing up to their waist, emphasising (so I am assured) the fertile power of the male generative organs, without revealing the organs themselves.  At every house the entire tseta is rewarded with abundant food and drink, in the living tradition of sacred hospitality which is the most powerful blessing of all.

Hospitality to strangers in Ksiropotamos (photo: Lenka Harmon)
Hospitality to strangers in Ksiropotamos

By three o’clock, the whole village gathers at the plateia to dance. Hundreds of people spiral into a single circle with one leader, keeping the large centre open as a sacred space for the tseta to enact ancient rituals of death and resurrection, plowing and planting, and the hieros gamos or sacred wedding. The dancing goes on until dusk and then continues at a taverna through a second consecutive night.

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Everyone joins in the great circle dance in the plateia of Monastiraki

Each village has its own variation of the Theophania rituals. In some places, children and women also participate: in Ksiropotamos young girls dance in traditional costume, while in Petrousa, all the dahereplayers are teenage girls. Some traditionalists view this change with unease, but I must confess my pleasure at seeing thirteen young women lined up like priestesses of Cybele from the time when the drummers were women. Here too, people dance at crossroads, springs, sacred trees and finally around an enormous bonfire.

Cauldrons at the crossroads in Ksiropotamos (photo: Laura Shannon)
Cauldrons at the crossroads in Ksiropotamos

Fire is important in all the Theophania rituals, and cauldrons on open fires are a key part of the festivities. This is another symbol of women’s power adopted on this occasion by men – traditionally, women cooked in pots; men roasted meat over an open fire. In Petrousa, the Dance of the Cooks can still be seen. Although it is no longer danced around the cauldrons themselves, the symmetrical step pattern still focuses the energy or ‘fire’ of the dancers in a particular way.

It seems to me that these fire-focused rituals hint at the unnamed presence of the Goddess Hestia, whose domain is centred on the hearth, source of light, warmth, food and all that is beneficial to the home. The nikokira, the lady of the house, was seen since ancient times as Hestia’s priestess. Her role is to tend the sacred fire through practical and ritual work and to literally focus its brilliance (estiazo, fromHestia, means ‘to focus’) so that it may bless the household and all its inhabitants. In ritual activities such as the Theophania, through the mediation of men dressed as women, this focused fire can be brought once a year from the private space of the home – the realm of the women – into the public space of the village, the realm of the men.  This union of men’s and women’s fertile powers is the hieros gamos, the holy spark of blessing which ensures health, wealth, happiness and abundance for all in the coming year.

Nikos Papadimitriou, an Arapis in Ksiropotamos (photo: Lenka Harmon)
Nikos Papadimitriou, an Arapis in Ksiropotamos

Continue reading “Twelfth Night: Men’s Dance Rituals in Northern Greece by Laura Shannon”

Dancing Daughters of the Living Goddess by Laura Shannon

Laura Shannon

A lifetime of research has convinced me that the women’s ritual dances and costumes of Greece are living remnants of ancient Old European Goddess traditions.  In previous posts on FAR I have written about these dances and embroideries, as well as the Midwives’ day rituals which honour the wise women, and the healing effects the women’s circle dances can have. All of these threads came together again in my most recent trip to Thrace.

Today trisected into Greek, Bulgarian and Turkish parts, Thrace is a wild landscape of mountains, forests, rivers and fertile fields. Less than one hundred years ago Greeks, Slavs, Turks, Pomaks, Gagaouzides and other ethnic groups lived and mingled freely throughout the whole area, and although the traumatic wars of the 20th century precipitated a huge upheaval of refugee movement and new settlement, Thrace is still home to a great variety of different peoples here who have kept their customs alive.

In Greece, Thrace is the most northeasterly region, and Evros is the very topmost bit of it, rising up like a thumb between Turkey and Bulgaria. I started visiting the villages of Evros some years ago and have  been back many times. When friends invited me to celebrate my birthday there recently I jumped at the chance. All the villages we went to are Greek Orthodox, with visible elements in costume and culture – such as the Goddess embroideries – which survive from pre-Christian times.

We started off in Pentalofos, my favourite village, with music, dance, song, feasting, and wonderful grandmothers in splendid traditional costumes. In this village they still spin, weave, sew and embroider their festive dress by hand. I have my own costume from Pentalofos like the one Kyria Koula is wearing (on the left), made for me by her, Kyria Loulouda and other women of the village.

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The bodice features a triple butterfly design, connected to the ancient labyris / double axe. It is also a symbol of transformation, not least the transformation of individual women – through dance, song and ritual dress – into manifestations of radiant feminine strength and beauty, moving beyond their personal identity and concerns in order to embody a larger power. This phenomenon is represented by the image of a woman with wings, easily discerned in the butterfly design here and in other villages.

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Other villages have their own version of the Thracian women’s costume, as in Doxapara where we went next:


Chryssa, on the left, wears the costume made by her mother, on the right.


Chryssa’s handkerchief is embroidered with a flamboyant sun-headed Goddess/flower motif.  An ancient V-shaped motif of spiral horns, or perhaps a pair of wings, appears on her sleeve in red. This motif is more discreet, but its central location affirms its importance. Women’s hands – which created all this and much more – were considered holy and worthy of protection. As on the handkerchief, Goddess figures are often depicted with radiant, extra-large or winglike hands.

Knitted socks in Doxapara depict winged Goddess figures in red, black and white.

We celebrated my birthday eve in a little taverna in Oinoi, a village of Gagaouzides, Turkish-speaking Greek Christians from Bulgaria. Friends (and friends of friends) needed no persuading to dance up a storm.


Music was provided by gaidas (bagpipes), laoutos (lutes), clarinets, violin and doumberleki, not to mention everyone singing along. The ‘Happy Birthday’ songs, both English and Greek versions, sounded fantastic with this orchestra.

Hospitality is a sacred obligation in Greece, as in many parts of the Balkans, and dancing must be accompanied by feasting. My birthday cake weighed 3 kilos and fed 75 people. ‘Many years, Laura’!

On the morning of my birthday, while everyone else was still asleep, I went to a favourite church in Kleissos, which has a little side chapel filled with 144 icons of the Virgin Mary, whom Greeks call the All-Holy One, the Panayia. As you see, people pray to her very fervently here. The images are copies of famous miraculous icons from other places like Tinos and Kythira. The Panayia of Kleissos is also believed to be a miracle-working icon; I can attest to its power from past experience.


Later we proceeded to Ambelakia, a village I had not visited before.

These women are Marides, an ancient Thracian tribe. Their costumes feature many Goddess embroideries and, on their socks, the recurring motif of the wild bee. Priestesses in Thrace and other areas were once known as bees (mélisses).

The women here told me about the ancient festival they keep, called ‘Gynaikokrateía’, Gynocracy or Women’s Rule. It is related to Thracian Midwives’ Day celebrations (described in a previous post) and falls on the same day, January 8th.  On this day, they told me, gender and power roles are reversed and women take over the town hall, village square, cafes and other male-dominated public spaces. They exact toll payments from passing vehicles, which they use to buy wine. The women’s unrestrained merriment and public drunkenness, unthinkable on the other days of the year, is combined with ribald and satirical skits lambasting men’s misbehaviour. This sharp commentary is remembered, laughed over and talked about for months afterwards, thus providing an apparently innocent, yet effective, social deterrent to abuses of power.

Marides women’s costumes can be ‘read’ as a treasury of ancient women’s wisdom hidden in plain view, an open secret for those with eyes to see. Yellow headscarves with long fringes resemble both sun and rain, life-giving elements of agriculture both originally identified with the Goddess. Woven aprons illustrate flowing life force, womb energy and women’s awesome creative power, with Goddess/Tree of Life figures inside the central rhombs.

Spiral horns reappear on the hem of the underdress. Sacred symbols on this spot simultaneously pronounce and protect the power of what lies directly above. ‘Doves’ encircle the hem of the black overdress; ‘bees’ adorn the socks.

In the central place on the heart of the bodice: the winged Goddess motif, a sign of the dancing priestess and a key Thracian symbol for thousands of years. This powerful image is usually invisible, hidden under scarf fringes, beaded necklaces and garlands of gold coins, but the women revealed it to me because I knew it was there and asked to see it.


As much as I loved meeting them, they loved meeting me – as they would love to meet any woman who can recognise them for what they are and what they wear.

And of course there was another feast.

It was a fabulous birthday. I even danced, managing to overcome lingering injuries from a bicycle accident I had had some months before. Giving myself to the healing energy of women sharing steps together, I felt radiantly joyful and truly alive, as if at a momentary crossroads of space and time, simultaneously fleeting and eternal.

In Thrace, I feel extremely privileged to witness the survival of motifs and ritual customs with roots in Neolithic Old Europe, as well as key values from the Old European worldview articulated by Gimbutas, Carol P Christ, and others: respect for nature, a sense of interdependence, the need for social justice and the importance of community celebration.

We are blessed to live in an age where these and other ancient treasures of women’s wisdom, are now returning, visibly and consciously, to our own culture. Patriarchal domination has not and will not manage to destroy these riches from the past. At this time of the winter Solstice, I wish us all the healing joy, connectedness, and love in abundance which these dances embody, to warm us and guide us all into the rebirth of the year.

Love & blessings,

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

Dance of the Bees: Reading the Language of the Goddess by Carol P. Christ

bee women dancing croppedThe image from an ancient Cretan bowl (c.1700 BCE) from the Sacred Center of Phaistos pictured here has often been interpreted as an early depiction of Persephone’s descent or rising. But are clues from later Greek mythology pointing in the right direction in this case?

Recently, my colleague Mika Scott posted the Phaistos bowl image on our Goddess Pilgrimage Facebook site in conjunction with the bee pendant from Mallia. This juxtaposition led me to think again about the importance of bees and pollination in agricultural societies and to offer an alternative reading of the symbolism on the bowl. Continue reading “Dance of the Bees: Reading the Language of the Goddess by Carol P. Christ”

Kali Ma (Part 3 of 3) by Nancy Vedder-Shults

nancymug_3In contrast to the linearity of our time concept in the West, Indians view life as infinite and cyclical.  Although Hindus, like ancient Greeks, believe in four ages of humanity (the so-called yugas), these occur not just once, but repeat cyclically every several million years.  Similarly, the creator god Brahma is said to have a daily cycle which has recurring effects on the existence of the world.  When Brahma awakes the world is created anew, and when he falls asleep it dissolves once again into the primal waters of eternity.  Fortunately for us, Brahma’s day lasts 4,320,000,000 human years.

Holland Cotter, in reflecting on Eastern art, once brought these temporal differences into sharp focus when he contrasted two of the major icons of East and West  — Christ on the cross and the dancing Shiva.  He said, “The Christ figure embodies the Judeo-Christian concept of divine history as a straight, purposeful line from the Fall of Man (sic.) to redemption, but with a tragic human story of self-sacrifice, loss and atonement at its heart.  The dancing Shiva is, by contrast, a dynamic, joyous cyclical image: a poised, uplifted foot and hands form a circle echoing the nimbus of flames surrounding the figure.  The image represents a culture which…views both humans and gods as participants in a cosmic game that periodically grinds to a catastrophic halt only to begin again.”[i]

Like Shiva, Kali has been depicted surrounded by a halo of flames.  But unlike Shiva, her portrait is far from a joyous image.  In one example, a 17th or 18th century North Indian sculpture, Kali is personified as a voracious, old hag squatting on a victim whose entrails she eats.  Slicing open the belly of the anonymous corpse, Kali scoops out its intestines with her bony fingers and gobbles them with her protruding teeth.  The anonymity of the victim brings home to the viewer the fact that ultimately we are all Kali’s prey.  And the flames burning around her head reemphasize this point, for as the aureole of the Dancing Shiva, they are the fires of the final conflagration at the end of each world period.  But in this image we realize that such flames flicker constantly, since time erodes all that has ever existed and Kali swallows all she has ever birthed.[ii] Continue reading “Kali Ma (Part 3 of 3) by Nancy Vedder-Shults”

Painting Martha Graham by Angela Yarber


Joining Virginia Woolf , the Shulamite, Mary Daly, Baby Suggs, Pachamama and Gaia, Frida Kahlo, Salome, Guadalupe and Mary, Fatima, Sojourner Truth, Saraswati, Jarena Lee, Isadora Duncan, Miriam, Lilith, Georgia O’Keeffe, Guanyin, Dorothy Day, Sappho, Jephthah’s daughter, Anna Julia Cooper, the Holy Woman Icon archetype, Maya Angelou, and all my other Holy Women Icons with a folk feminist twist  is the dancing revolutionary Martha Graham. So, as the contemporary and modern dancers on So You Think You Can Dance continue to amaze us this summer, let us remember from whence they came.

Martha Graham’s contribution to the world of dance cannot be overestimated. She is regaled as the Picasso of the dance world, revolutionizing it by introducing an entirely new quality of movement known as modern dance. Not only did Graham revolutionize the dance world, like Isadora Duncan before her, she also made great contributions to feminist spirituality. One of her most famous statements may well have been “wherever a dancer stands is holy ground.” Like most dancers who are so in tune with their bodies, Graham new the holiness therein, the ways in which the body can express the ineffable when words alone simply cannot. “The body never lies,” she famously reminds us.

Martha Graham Continue reading “Painting Martha Graham by Angela Yarber”

Tis Babos: The Dance of the One Who Gives Life by Laura Shannon

Laura Shannon

The one who gives life, the one who gives birth: this was the original image of the Creator. Not God but the Goddess, both mother and midwife to the world. Throughout Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa and beyond, Goddess worship laid the foundation for European culture. Thousands of years later, a deep reverence for the woman who gives life – the midwife – survives in Greek and Balkan dance rituals which still echo from the distant past.1

The mamí (from mámmo, grandmother) or bábo (old woman) was a respected woman, usually older, with the wisdom and experience of age. The midwife is publicly honoured on Midwivesʼ Day, January 8th. Known as Babinden in Bulgaria, Tis Babos in Greece, this women-only celebration is an important holiday in Bulgaria and in numerous villages of displaced Thracians now relocated in Greek Macedonia. One such village is Kitros, whose inhabitants originally came from Bana, on the Black Sea coast of northern Thrace (today Bulgaria). A hundred years have passed since they left, but the womenʼs festive costumes still indicate their old Bana neighbourhoods; traditional foods, songs, dance, and other customs are kept alive despite decades of brutal loss and change. Continue reading “Tis Babos: The Dance of the One Who Gives Life by Laura Shannon”

Women’s Ritual Dances: The Dancing Priestess of the Living Goddess by Laura Shannon

Laura ShannonKyria Loulouda calls to her sister to help her wind the yards of woven girdle around and around my waist. Kyria Stella’s aged fingers, still strong, tuck the sash ends in tightly, smoothing down the fabric she and Loulouda wove themselves. The snug embrace of the sash supports my back and encourages me to stand proudly upright.  As they help me with the intricate tucks and pleats of the festival dress, and the careful tying of the flowered headscarf, I see their tired, careworn faces come alight with joy and expectation. When they are satisfied, they turn me towards the mirror, smiling.

We gaze at ourselves, a row of three women, dressed alike. Like the butterflies embroidered in bright silks on the dark cloth of the bodice, we too are transformed. The food is prepared, the housework is done, the animals taken care of for the night; the other women await us in the square where, by tradition, they will open the dance with their own singing as they have done countless times throughout their lives. We are in the village of Pentalofos in Greek Thrace in the early twenty-first century, living a timeless scene which has been repeated through the generations for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Continue reading “Women’s Ritual Dances: The Dancing Priestess of the Living Goddess by Laura Shannon”

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