The Historical Case for Heathen Dancing
Despite dance being so prevalent of a religious activity for paleo- and meso- pagans, as I discussed in my last post, modern reconstructionists seem to have ignored it.
While it’s true that if we’re trying to accurately reconstruct the religious practices of our ancestors, we are extremely unlikely to be able to dance like them. It might be possible to take modern folk dances, like Morris Dancing or Saami dances, and try to extrapolate backward to recreate sword dances written about by Tacitus. Dance does not survive well in archeology. Almost every kind of art leaves evidence behind—music can leave instruments, paintings and statues remain if they are lucky. But dance (and singing) do not survive because they do not have obvious tools. Dance is ephemeral by nature and never survives beyond a moment.
Despite all that, there is evidence to clearly show that our heathen ancestors are not an exception to the intimate pairing of dance and polytheism.
If we cannot accurately reconstruct the dances of our ancestors, why do we not create our own anew? Why are our religious rituals so solemn rather than ecstatic? We drink mead and cheer, make oaths, blot, give offerings, say prayers. Sometimes, but rarely, we sing. Why do we not dance? We praise the gods for giving us food, homes, sexual pleasure, lives. But we do not thank them for our bodies which are our lives. And what better way to do that than to dance? I can think of no activity more joyous, more able to build community, that brings us closer to our living, breathing nature. Many neo-pagan groups seem to have found the joy in dance, and, as far as I can tell, neopagan festivals seem to be filled with fires and drum circles and dancing. But heathen rituals are drinking and oathing.
If we are attempting to build a religion based on the past (which I am only half doing, admittedly. I believe the past is an important part of our faith, but that we should be looking to it for inspiration to create modern forms of worship rather than trying to recreate based on the scant evidence that survives for over a thousand years), then we can look to the evidence left for little hints that dance was important.
Tacitus provides us with one such example. Apparently, heathen men would “dance naked amidst drawn swords and presented spears. Practice…conferred skill at this exercise, and skill [gave] grace; but they [did] not exhibit for hire or gain: the only reward of his pastime, though a hazardous one, [was] the pleasure of the spectators” (Tacitus Germania, Oxford Translation). So heathen men, at least, danced. And it seems to me truly fitting that the heathens’ main dancing style of Tacitus’ period would be a highly dangerous one. The heathen men do like to do crazy things for honor. But this wasn’t only a crazy stunt of the kind modern teenage boys do. It took them practice, it made them graceful and agile. I would imagine that this dance would have been very helpful in battle to avoid being hit by the enemies’ swords and spears.
There is something here, also, of the presentational aspect of dance. I would love to say that I dance only for myself, that I do it because I love it and it makes me feel whole. But on the other hand, I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it largely because I enjoy having people watch me. I enjoy impressing my audience by doing things that they themselves are incapable of. It’s like a boast of the variety encouraged in sumble. It’s my way of saying, “Look how strong and persistent and graceful I am!” I don’t much like to say how strong and persistent and graceful I am because that seems like the wrong kind of boasting. It is better to boast of specific deeds. And to boast by dancing, to show how dedicated I truly am in an undeniable way seems to be the best to me. It’s the only way for my boast to be true. And this, I think, is the purpose of the sword dance. To boast by dancing, to prove through grace and agility one’s strength and power.
Tacitus isn’t the only evidence of dance, though. For the other main evidence from the time of the heathens, we must look back to the Bronze Age, to the Egtved Girl and the string skirted bronze statues.
The Egtved Girl is a mummy buried in a wooden coffin around 1400 B.C. She wore a string skirt and a belt with a large disc on it. The disc probably represented the sun. And many believe that she was a dancing priestess. We know this because there have also been discovered fairly contemporaneous small bronze statues of women wearing string skirts. One is doing extremely acrobatic movements that indicate a dance. Both are from Bronze Age Denmark.
I believe that the string skirt was the ritual wear of dancing priestesses of the time. I like that they’re sort of see-through. It’s sexy, which is a reminder of the embodied, physical, sexual nature of dance. And being a priestess. I would want to be a dancing priestess, and indeed, I think of myself as one in many ways. They worshipped the sun, wearing sun disks. I imagine them dancing on hilltops and basking in the warm, golden rays.
Here is a very good little video from the National Museum of Denmark discussing the Egtved girl, mentioning the acrobatic figurine, and discussing how she was a dancer.
I would like us to have more dancing priestesses. I should hope I am not the only one. To dance is to celebrate, and what is worshipping and honoring gods besides celebrating the their aweful power?
I think that children are born dancing, and we “grow up” beyond the joy that children have. Children dance spontaneously, when they are happy, when they are barefoot in the grass, when they are with their friends. Dancing is embodied joy, expressing the beauty of the world through our worldly selves. Let us look to the Egtved girl as our example. Let us love the Sun and the gifts of the gods—joy, friendship, sex, bodies, flowers, warm sunlight, green grass—and let us dance.
Dance is the art of the body, and nothing else. It is the activity in which we create from the only thing that can ever truly be our own. If we want to remember, to worship, to find the sacred in the worldly, why do we not dance until we are gasping for air, sweating, and celebrating Life?
Germania by Tacitus