For thirty years I have been researching and teaching women’s traditional circle dances of the Balkans and Near East, which have been danced for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and are still danced today at weddings and village celebrations. The method I’ve developed is to compare common motifs in archaeological finds, embroidered textiles, dance patterns, and song words. I see these four forms of women’s artistic expression as modes of unwritten communication, transmitting ‘hidden information’ which, in the words of Marguerite Rigoglioso, 'may have been deposited for safekeeping in those great repositories of the forbidden – myth and folklore – where they have remained veiled in plain sight for two millennia.'1 In this article I would like to share some of what I have observed about women’s dance traditions in remote villages on the slopes of Mount Olympus in Greece, and the ancient wisdom encoded within them, which I believe has its roots in the Goddess culture of Neolithic times.
All over Greece, the Balkans, Russia and Ukraine, Central Asia, India, and in Scandinavian and Celtic lore, myths and legends tell of nymphs, nereids, naiads, and Muses. Also known as vily (whence comes the English term 'willies'), these priestess/Goddess figures are divine or semi-divine female beings associated with water, clouds and rain; birds, flight and journeys between worlds; trees, vegetation and healing herbs; prophecy and divination; fertility and blessing, and music and dance. In Greece they were worshipped as early as the 8th C BCE.
'Nymph' derives from nyfi (νύφη), bride, while 'Muse' most likely derives from the Indo-European root men-, which also gives us the words 'mind', 'memory', 'menses' and 'spiritual activity'. The Muses are thus the maiden Goddesses of memory, music and dance, protectors of spoken knowledge encoded in myth and sacred poetry. Usually three or nine in number, they sing and dance near waters and fertile greenery, or, hidden in cloud, draw near to human homes.
The Greek Muses were born by the Pierian spring, the fountain of knowledge and inspiration, on the slopes of Mount Olympus: 'In Pieria did Mnemosyne (Memory) ... bear nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. There are their bright dancing-places and beautiful homes...'2 The archetypal Muses feature in many Pierian songs and dances today – almost as if the mountain itself remembers.
Pieria today is a lush and fertile place, with heavily forested mountainsides sweeping from the triple peak of Olympus down to the sea. The villages of Ráhi and Miliás lie high on these slopes, at the end of little tracks with only wild mountain beyond, and thus they have remained relatively protected from modern influences. On all the occasions I have danced with elders in Pieria I have been touched by their connection with nature, strong social structure and community spirit, and pride in maintaining old customs – all of which are strengthened by music and dance.
Solon said that the Muses teach the right way to live, bringing 'prosperity and friendship,' and the elders of Ráhi village explain that 'dance was a way to bring people together and restore friendship after misunderstandings had occurred: joining hands, friction dissolves.'3 The core values of community, cooperation, connection, and inclusiveness, which Pierian dancing helps maintain, are central to the Old European Goddess cultures as articulated by Marija Gimbutas, Riane Eisler, Carol Christ and others. The village still lives by these values, for instance working cooperatively to market their fruit and freely donating labour for village improvements.
Marguerite Rigoglioso suggests that legends of Muses and Nymphs represented an actual lineage of trained priestesses who were able to channel divine energies on behalf of the community. Priestesses throughout the ancient world worshipped with song and choral dance4, and my research has discovered many Greek and Balkan dance songs which feature a maiden protagonist with key attributes of the Muses, Nymphs, and Goddess. I am convinced that such songs are survivals of an ancient worldview, clearly showing, as women’s embroideries do, that they have not forgotten their lineage of power, their tools to transform consciousness (such as song and dance), or their metaphorical ‘wings’ which enable them to travel to different worlds.
In the women's tsámikos song Poios eíde prásino dendrí (Who Saw the Green Tree?), the young woman is identified as a beautiful tree, adorned with golden jewellery and a scarf embroidered by 'three young brides, beautiful like the cherry trees of May'. This woman/tree shelters a cool spring in its roots, in the classic convergence of Muse, tree, water and women's fertile life-giving power.
Another favourite ritual dance song, Papadoula, depicts the young woman as a thundercloud, the powerful, flying bringer of fertile rain.5 This cloud woman 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. Perfectly embodying the Nymph / Muse archetype who brings abundance and fertility to the land, she 'comes from the vineyard, with apples in her apron; I ask her for two, she gives me five.' Here the number five may relate to the five-pointed star of Venus / Aphrodite, associated since Mesopotamian times with the divine feminine.
The Muse archetype is also visible in a rain-bringing ritual known as Pirpiroúna, where a young girl is dressed in an oversized bridal shift whose long sleeves dangle, winglike, past her hands. She holds two branches and is covered in fresh greenery so that she resembles a little tree. In an act of sympathetic magic, she sings and dances prayers for rain, flapping her arms like wings, while other girls sprinkle her with the life-giving water the ritual aims to invoke.
Variations of this ritual are found throughout Slavic areas of the Balkans, and the Pirpiroúna herself is a perfect miniature of the legendary Slavic vily or rusalky, divine maidens who sing and dance to bring rain, wearing long-sleeved shifts with their hair unbound.6 In Bulgaria and Thrace, where the Pierian tribes have their origin, it is known as Peperoúda, 'Butterfly'. Curiously, the central motif embroidered on women's chemises in the Evros region of Greek Thrace is a butterfly or winged female figure – yet another reminder of women's ritual power to 'fly' between the visible and invisible worlds, invoking blessings for the good of the community.
The Klídona is another archaic summer ritual whose essential characteristics – water, magical plants, dance, song, fertility and divination – are associated with the Muses. Like the Pirpiroúna, this custom was once known throughout the Balkans and Asia Minor, with many names and many forms. In Miliás village, I have heard grandmothers recall how unmarried young people used to gather on St John's Eve, near the summer solstice, to craft cross-shaped bunches of herbs tied to a personal token such as a ring. The herbal bundles, called klídona, always included St John's Wort (Hypericum perforatum): with its radiant yellow blossoms appearing at the height of summer, this powerful healing plant is identified with the sun, the solstice, and the sun-headed Goddess motif so often found in Balkan ritual embroideries (and whom unmarried maidens are ritually dressed to resemble).
Women in each neighbourhood gathered these klídona in large vessels which had been filled with water in absolute silence, then brought them to the alóni, a round flat threshing place, where they sang and danced until twilight. On St John’s Day at dawn (June 24th), the women returned to the spring, refilled the vessels with ‘silent water’ and carried them again to the alóni. The name ‘Klidonas’ comes from the ancient Greek ‘klidon’, meaning ‘predictive sound’ – referring to the spontaneous, often cryptic words spoken by the priestess during the divinatory ceremony. Indeed, the key figure in the Klídona custom is an older woman whose wisdom was acknowledged in the community and who knew all the local families very well. In the divination ritual, she would now dip her hand into the container filled with water and one by one draw out the klídona, recognising to whom each belonged by the personal token tied to it. Just as the Muses ‘said that which is, what will be, and what has been’, this wise woman would speak or sing predictions for each boy or girl regarding their future spouses. This took place amid much light-hearted laughter, but the wise woman’s prophecies had the serious aim of helping ensure successful marriages in the village, and in Miliás they still tell how young people often really did get engaged as predicted by the Klídona ‘oracle’.
The main Klídona ritual dance-song, Máro mou, the first song sung at the threshing place, says: 'Maria, on your threshing-place and in your garden, I sowed seeds of basil and St John's Wort ...' The herb basil, like St John's Wort, has been associated with the Goddess since pre-Christian times as far back as ancient Mesopotamia, and is still used in sacred ceremony in Greece. Maria or Mary is of course the current, Christian name for the Great Mother or the divine feminine.
The songs Máro mou and Papadoúla both accompany a simple dance called Sta Tría, a three-measure pattern which I believe to be a danced symbol of the Tree of Life, itself a sign of the hidden Goddess. It is the most common, widespread and ancient ritual dance step in the same huge sweep of Eastern Europe and Asia Minor where legends of the Nymphs and Muses, customs such as Klídona and Pirpirouna, and ancient Goddess worship all formerly flourished. The Sta Tría is essentially a walking step, which I find particularly fascinating because, while we have known for decades that regular participation in music and dance greatly enhances health and well-being, new brain research shows that memory in particular is significantly improved by walking-type exercise.
In this way, I believe the memory of the Muses is transmitted via these rituals of long-remembered dance and song: in traditional women's dances, we are literally walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. It is not beyond credibility to talk of a priestess lineage from whom the dances have descended, nor is it unthinkable that we, too, might discover ourselves as daughters of this line.
My lifetime of immersion in the world of women's dances has shown me how powerfully these dances can serve women today as tools of healing, insight and transformation. As the current economic and social crisis in Greece rapidly undermines the few surviving dance traditions, it may be up to us now to do the work of the ancient Muses, keeping alive the songs, dances, legends and the wisdom they contain, with the task of preserving these treasures for future generations.
I will be teaching the dances mentioned here, which I learned from grandmothers in villages on Mt Olympus, at my upcoming workshops in the UK: Rixton, Cheshire (28 & 29 June); Findhorn, Scotland (2-4 July and 12-19 July); Fakenham, Norfolk (2 & 3 August), and in Mani, Greece (25-31 August). For details of these and other dance events in 2014-15, please visit www.laurashannon.net.
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1 Rigoglioso, Marguerite, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
2 Hesiod, Theogony (ll. 1-25, 53-74)
3 Dimotika tou Olympou, Politistikos Syllogos 'Ta Patria', Rahi, Pieria, 1998
5 The dance song Tráta tis Griás ('Old Woman's Trata') from the Greek island of Salamina also features a mysteriously powerful young woman, identified with gardens and water, whose footstep is mistaken for thunder. Salamina lies in the Saronic Gulf, just south of Boeotia where in ancient times the cult of the Muses was very strong, and directly across from Eleusis. I believe that other key aspects of the women's dance Trata also reflect remnants of the Eleusinian Mysteries (see my 2011 article, ‘Ritual Dances in Greece, Then and Now’).
6 Elizabeth Wayland Barber has documented the ultra-long sleeve in women's ritual costume as far back as the first millennium BCE in Asia Minor and Central Asia, where legends of flying female Nymphs abound, and in Crete up to a thousand years earlier. Extra-long sleeves still feature in women's festive dress in various parts of the Balkans, the Near East and Kurdistan. In movement and dance, the sleeves wave like wings.