The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance

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 living in agrarian communities have long believed in “dancing goddesses,” mystical female spirits who spend their nights and days dancing in the fields and forests. In The Dancing Goddesses, archaeologist, linguist, and lifelong folkdancer Elizabeth Wayland Barber follows the trail of these spirit maidens—long associated with fertility, marriage customs, and domestic pursuits—from their early appearance in traditional folktales and harvest rituals to their more recent incarnations in fairytales and present-day dance. Illustrated with photographs, maps, and line drawings, the result is a brilliantly original work that stands at the intersection of archaeology and folk traditions—at once a rich portrait of our rich agrarian ancestry and an enchanting reminder of the human need to dance.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393348507
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 03/17/2014
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 839,881
Product dimensions: 6.60(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

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

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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