The Case for a Dancing Heathenry, Part 1

I, and many other modern Heathens share a dream of returning the sacred to the worldly, of creating a religion of the earth—a religion of imminent gods and land spirits and ghosts rather than the religion of a single transcendent God. And so I, in my quest to find my religion in the world,  have outdoor ritual, meditation and grounding, an acceptance of sexual activity as a sacred rather than shameful act, a ritual cycle tied to the seasons. I worship Freyja and thank her for the joy to be found in embodiedness.

It’s true that I look to land spirits for guidance, and trust my own thoughts and experiences more than the average monotheist or scientific rationalist. But there is one extremely important and historical method of grounding ourselves in the body and the Earth that is often ignored by modern heathens. Nearly all paleo- and meso- pagan groups have dance as a major ritual form. And yet, heathens do not.

Most websites and books introducing new heathens and interested parties to our religion focus on historical data. This is important as our religion is primarily reconstructed. These texts almost invariably describe the ritual forms of Heathenry as the Blot, the Sumble, and perhaps the Faining if they are being accurate about the necessity for blood in a Blot, or seidh, if the author is mystically inclined. These rituals are all quite serious and solemn. But I aim to have a religion that accurately describes the world around me as I see it. I see the gods in our world. And that world is not only solemn, and neither should our rituals be. Our world has joy and silliness and fear and hope and love and hate and apathy. And so should our rituals.

I propose that all of our secular acts and art forms should have sacred corollaries, and nowhere do I see this as more notably absent in Heathenry than with dance. We eat, and we have sacred feasts. We speak, and we have sacred words in the form of prayer (assuming you are a heathen who doesn’t dismiss prayer, of which I am one). We sing, and we have sacred songs. We promise, and we have sacred oaths. Our modern world has secular dancing—mostly done in nightclubs and bars. But where, these days, is the sacred dance? Some Christian sects have liturgical dancing, but most groups reject dance as too worldly. The Sufis have their dance. Some New Age and Neopagan groups dance. Why not us? Why do we not have an important sacred representation of our embodiedness, a reflection in ourselves of the dancing of the universe, of the dance of the seasons, of the land spirits, of the cycles of life and death, of the butterflies and the wind through the grass and the weaving patterns of Wyrd?

This post will be the first in a series that will state my case for an infusion of dance into Heathenry. This first one will be evidence for dance by looking at other polytheistic traditions. Other topics will include how the West lost sacred dance, the historical case for heathen dancing, and the need for dance as an expression of our embodied, earthly selves. I may add more if I am so inspired.

African Diasporic Religions, such as Santeria and Voudou have regular dancing rituals that lead to both spiritual possession and political action. Elizabeth McAlister discusses a particular Voudou festival, Rara, in her book Rara! Vodou, Power and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora. She says that “it is possible to conceive of a distinct continuum in Haitian dance ranging from purely social, secular dance, whose purpose is to amuse, all the way to specific, sacred dances that are considered an integral and serious part of the work of serving the spirits” (McAllister 48, emphasis mine). You cannot worship the lwa without the dance. And yet we heathens, who worship and serve our own spirits, seem to have no place for dance in our worship, our festivals, our holidays. Why do we expect our gods to dismiss the dance as we do?

a documentary that further explores dance as a sacred act in Vodou. The first half is more relevant than the second, but the second is equally interesting.

In Hinduism, even the world is created and destroyed by the dancing god Shiva. Like dances in Vodou and “many other indigenous dances, the traditional Hindu dance Bharata Natayam is an expression of spirituality united with a deep commitment and respect for the environment…The dance is an offering of oneself to the divine” (Stichbury). And can there be any sacrifice more deeply felt, more selflessly given, more honest than a gift of the self? Shouldn’t all practitioners of Earth-based religions dance to feel that deep commitment? Shouldn’t all devotees turn themselves over completely to the gods they so love, to the ecstasy of dance, the breath that enters and exits the lungs, the mouth, the belly at an ever-increasing speed?

Evans-Pritchard makes extraordinary insights into dance and religion in his book Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande. He talks about the village shaman answering oracular questions by dancing. He does not suggest that after the question is asked, the shaman dances around while he thinks of an answer, but rather that the shaman “dances the question,” as if the act of dancing is the act of pondering and finding an answer. He is here suggesting that to dance is to think, that thought does not exist solely in the mind but also in the body. He is suggesting that to meso-pagans, there is no Cartesian body/mind disconnect, but rather that there is an intimate understanding that the body is the mind.

Think of yourself. Your mind is doing the thinking, and your conception of yourself includes a self-image. When you think of yourself, can you help imagining a body also? We, as modern people who have grown in a society that believes completely in the body/mind disconnect, forget that above all else, the mind is a function of the body. We think that our minds are separate from our bodies. But the brain, the theoretical house of the mind, is a bodily organ. And our minds are so strongly influenced by our bodies. As an example, extreme pain tends to remove in us the ability to philosophize. We are reminded through the pain that we are a body, and we experience our lives from that place.

Just as with pain, when you truly dance, you cannot think in the way you do in your daily life. You can only think through your body. DeCartes said, “I think, therefore, I am.” But if we break down his body/mind dualism, we find that to be embodied is to be, and there is no way to more fully express embodiedness than to dance. To think is to be just as to dance is to be. But these aren’t even separate. The body thinks and dances, the mind thinks and dreams and dances. We can dream through our bodies, we can experience our gods through our bodies. We can find, just like these polytheists in a living tradition did, that to dance is to think.

It is clear that dance is important in so many religious traditions, and it’s time that we heathens break out of the Eddas and Sagas and begin to construct a living tradition—one that lives and breathes in a way writing and toasting and researching and pouring mead into the ground never can. Dance is the art that is our bodies and, through them, our lives.

Works Cited and Further Reading:

Hindu Dance Celebrates the Earth and Spirit

Rara! Vodou, Power, and Performance in Haiti and Its Diaspora by Elizabeth McAlister

Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic Among the Azande by E.E. Evans Pritchard

Discourse on Method by Rene Descartes (yes, I have read this and I am not just quoting it because it’s a famous quote. And I believe that this work has been extremely detrimental because it reduces our bodies to carriers for our minds, which has led to the Enlightenment and the belief that reason is the most important faculty of Man, which has led to the destruction of our planet. And yes, I did just make that argument fully aware of the fact that many people will most rabidly disagree with me. Oh well, it is what it is.)

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