The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance [NOOK Book]


A fascinating exploration of an ancient system of beliefs and its links to the evolution of dance.

From southern Greece to northern Russia, people have long believed in female spirits, bringers of fertility, who spend their nights and days dancing in the fields and forests. So appealing were these spirit-maidens that they also took up residence in nineteenth-century Romantic literature.

Archaeologist and linguist by profession, folk dancer ...
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The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance

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A fascinating exploration of an ancient system of beliefs and its links to the evolution of dance.

From southern Greece to northern Russia, people have long believed in female spirits, bringers of fertility, who spend their nights and days dancing in the fields and forests. So appealing were these spirit-maidens that they also took up residence in nineteenth-century Romantic literature.

Archaeologist and linguist by profession, folk dancer by avocation, Elizabeth Wayland Barber has sleuthed through ethnographic lore and archaeological reports of east and southeast Europe, translating enchanting folktales about these “dancing goddesses” as well as eyewitness accounts of traditional rituals—texts that offer new perspectives on dance in agrarian society. She then traces these goddesses and their dances back through the Romans and Greeks to the first farmers of Europe. Along the way, she locates the origins of many customs, including coloring Easter eggs and throwing rice at the bride. The result is a detective story like no other and a joyful reminder of the human need to dance.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The dancing goddesses of the title are the swan maidens, mermaids, and tree-spirits that would eventually morph into the "wilis" of the ballet Giselle, the Rusalka of Dvorák's eponymous Czech opera, and the black and white swans of the ballet Swan Lake. Barber (archaeology & linguistics, emerita, Occidental Coll.; The Mummies of Ürümchi), a lifelong folk dancer, explores the origins of dance in this analysis of the folk customs and cultures of Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, and more. She also investigates the sources of a number of folk customs, such as rituals connected with celebrations of the solstice, weddings, childbirth, and initiations to adulthood. Her research material includes an array of books and articles in various Slavic languages, and her website ( provides full translations of many of these texts that could only be quoted or summarized in the book. VERDICT Dance historians and students of folklore and archaeology will find much to consider in this scholarly work. An impressive study that weaves together dance, folklore, culture, and mythology.—Carolyn M. Mulac, Chicago P.L.
Publishers Weekly
Traditions of dance and folklore have long been tied to changing seasons and agricultural cycles, and so too have women been linked throughout history to the fertility of the natural world. Basing her investigation on linguistics, archeological evidence, and folklore itself, Barber (Women's Work) explores how the relationship between dance and women has developed over the ages in Europe. She explains that the advent of calendars and holidays were initially intended to aid in agrarian planning; then she focuses on the women who were celebrated and revered during these holidays. They took the form of fairies, mermaids, nymphs, and more, and in their ritual incarnation—whether in art or performance—they were ornamented in silks, skirts, beads, and flora, and could curse or bless the upcoming agricultural season. Rich with anecdotes and compelling explanations of the origin of many modern customs (such as throwing rice at a bride), Barber's is an informative and amusing read, often bringing together many diverse sources—traditional stories, illustrations of artifacts, and aspects of popular culture—into an illuminating whole that will serve as a nice introduction for those unfamiliar with the topic, and a valuable reference for scholars of European dance and folklore. 150 illus. and photos, 9 maps. (Feb.)
“Starred review. [A] joyfully comprehensive work. . . . Barber’s sprightly study of European dance will be the go-to resource for years to come.”
Kirkus Reviews
An exhaustive study of how a series of remnants of early religion lie at the roots of European folk dance. Barber (Archaeology and Linguistics Emerita/Occidental College; The Mummies of Urumchi, 1999, etc.) begins with a group of beliefs involving water spirits, which go by different names in different cultures but are generally represented as young women who appear in the forests around the time of spring planting. They appear in various guises from Greece to central Russia, but all are dangerous to men--especially those who come upon them when they are dancing in the woods. Barber collects a number of variations on this legend, noting that the days sacred to them vary with the onset of "Crazy week"--the time of their dominance--in the different regions they inhabit. The investigation then turns to the folk celebrations, many of which involve dances or dancelike rituals, proper to each season of the year; Barber traces correspondences between a pre-Christian nature-based calendar and the church season in different cultures. A second section analyzes a Russian folktale, "The Frog Princess," as it shows the expectations of brides in agricultural societies. Barber goes on to trace remnants of pagan ritual in modern customs, moving back through time to uncover the earliest stages of European history. In the final section, she delves even deeper into prehistory, arguing that dance may actually predate language in human culture. The book is richly illustrated with artifacts from a wide range of eras and cultures. This dense, demanding book will undoubtedly be compared with that early modern classic of speculative anthropology, James George Frazer's The Golden Bough. Difficult but rewarding look at a side of history with which many readers will be unfamiliar.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393089219
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/4/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 448
  • Sales rank: 881,750
  • File size: 47 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Wayland Barber is the author of Women’s Work and The Mummies of Ürümchi. Professor emerita of archaeology and linguistics at Occidental College, she lives in California.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments xii

Introduction: Dancing as Life 1

How dance was thought to bring life

Geographical Maps 5

Part 1 Dancing the Year: The Ritual Cycle of Fertility 11

1 Swan Maidens, Mermaids, and Tree Spirits 13

Introduction, through folktales, to some Dancing Goddesses (vily, rusalki, willies, etc.) of eastern European folklore

2 Marking Time 28

How nonliterate farmers devised and kept their agricultural (seasonal) calendar

3 To Bring the Spring 37

Fertility rituals of early spring

4 Dancing Up a Storm 61

Dance ritual of leaf-clad orphans to end drought; problems of rain and hail

5 Crazy Week-Rusalia Week 69

Fertility rituals of Semik, Trinity, and Rusalia Week; dance brotherhoods of Rusalia; perils of Mad Wednesday

6 Flowers with Powers 91

Plants the willies love and hate; plants to heal, protect, and bewitch

7 Midsummer Rusalii 99

Fertility rituals of St. John's Night: herbs, water, fire; child's sleeve dance

8 Friday, St. Friday 110

Curious history of the weekday sacred to female deities

9 The Twelve Days of Christmas 125

Midwinter Rusalii, during intercalary Twelve Days: propitiating good and bad spirits for the New Year (and whence came our Yuletide customs)

Part 2 Bride-Dancing for Fertility: The Frog Princess 149

10 The Cosmic Arrow 151

Finding a bride

11 Bride Testing 161

Rituals testing a girl for marriage. Can she make the food and clothing?

12 Trial by Dance 174

Is she strong enough to do all the farm work, too?

13 The Magic Sleeve Dance 183

More relics of dancing Swan Maidens

14 Second Skins 201

Shape-changing spirits

15 The Hut on Chicken Legs 210

Old witches keeping ritual knowledge, training young women

16 Koshchey the Deathless 225

Shamans and wizards, battling for communal good

Part 3 Dancing Back through Time 233

17 Medieval Traces 235

Medieval evidence for rituals and beliefs

18 Roman Showbiz 252

Roman evidence for the rituals

19 Dancing with the Greeks 267

Classical and Archaic Greek evidence; Dionysos and Thrace

20 Back to the Bronze Age 291

Minoan and Mycenaean evidence; from Indo-European horse rituals to a child's hobbyhorse

21 Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture 313

Evidence that this whole belief system began with the first farmers of Europe, 6000-3000 BC

Part 4 Gotta Dance! 335

22 Keeping Together in Time 337

What cognitive science has learned about human dance; trance-dancing and firewalking

23 Dancing the Time Warp 352

Possibilities of reconstructing the dances

Epilogue: Dancing Divinity 363

Parallel stories from Greece and Japan of angry fertility goddesses made to laugh by obscene dance: dance restores life

Appendix: Bracelets from Kiev with Ritual Motifs 369

Notes 371

Bibliography 381

Illustration and Credit List 395

Index 401

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