by Alissa Sorenson
Dance is a feature of every significant occasion and event
crucial to tribal existence as part of ritual. The first thing
to emphasize is that early dance exists as a ritual element.
It does not stand alone as a separate activity or profession.
- Joan Cass, Dancing Through History
The Origins of Dance
Dance is one of the earliest forms of language -- at times
a subconscious language -- an instrument of expressing what cannot
be expressed in any other way. Throughout history, in all early
cultures and societies, dance has been one of the foremost elements
of ritual. It was a means of perceiving the gods, of invoking
them, recounting their exploits, placating them, appealing to
them, or communicating with them. In "high" cultures,
such as ancient Egypt and Greece, dance was so important it became
a profession of priest or adept as a representative of the people.
Dancing is, specifically, "the ordering of movement,
gesture, rhythm... the means whereby feeling is exteriorized
(and) messages conveyed."(2) This includes
activities which we may not ordinarily associate with dance today,
such as the ritualized movements of the Anglo-Saxon field ceremony
And then turn to the east and bow humbly nine times, and say
then these words: Eastwards I stand, for favours I pray... Then
turn three times with the course of the sun, then stretch yourself
along the ground and say the litany there.(3)
Indeed, in its earliest form dance was probably the simplest
of movements, mimicking the desired outcome or repeating gestures
with intent. The work of Curt Sachs classifies tribal dances
as mimetic or imageless.(4) If the action
portrays an event, in order that nature or the gods may moved
to imitate the action, the dance is called mimetic, because the
movement portrays an image. Mimetic dance is a form of sympathetic
magic. However, mimetic dance is not the only expression of ritual
purpose. A dancer's movements can be rhythmic and generalized,
that is, imageless, with the power coming not from the gestures
themselves, but from their repetition in context with other ritual
The theory of mimetic dance and sympathetic magic is based
on the assumption that "things act on one another at a distance
because they are secretly linked together by an invisible bond."(6) Spence applies the first to ritual
dance, as homeopathic magic is based on similarity and strictly
mimetic in its conditions.(7) He further
identifies ritual dance as both mimetic and cooperative, meaning
that the action seeks the assistance of the gods, as well as
assisting the gods in their various duties.(8)*
Dance not only served to communicate, appeal, and assist the
gods, but also the ancestors. An Egyptian funerary dance is recorded
which, by mimetic action, gods and heroes were propitiated on
behalf of the departed(9) and Spence rightly
makes the association between "fairies" and the dead,
their governance of the agriculture, luck and prosperity of the
community, continuing to perform their round dance in "fairy
rings" for the purposes of agricultural magic.(10)
Tribalism and Dance
The all-encompassing nature of dance in tribal society cannot
be underestimated. There is not a clear separation in tribal
societies between religion, government, art, agriculture and
magic. All areas of culture cross over and touch one another.
In any survey of tribal customs, you will find traces of the
arts of dance rubbing shoulders with elements of worship, social
mores, laws, and medicine.(11)
Dance in tribal societies seeks to link or identify the dancer
with another entity, whether corporal or supernatural. Dance
stresses belonging, in communal movement with a group or with
one other person. The function of dance in primitive communities
was, and remains, all embracing. It is a strong, binding influence
in tribal life, a means of defining social identity of a group
through the acceptance of rituals which mark the progress of
the individual from cradle to grave. The spiritual as well as
the physical image of the group is no less well-marked by dance
appeals to gods, and propitiations of the spirits of the dead.
In health and sickness, joy and fear, the dance is central to
tribal life. Religious experience is strengthened by its function
as a communal dance experience. Dance rites celebrate the nature
of tribal divinity; they invoke the divine presence; they partake
of sympathetic magic in seeking protection for crops, requesting
sun or rain, and they define the area for belief.(12)
Here we have two very important points: dance strengthens
religious experience through community (and thereby community
through religious experience) and it defines the area for belief.
By participating in communal religious dance, we strengthen our
ties to our gods and each other through shared movement, we confirm
our beliefs by acting them out, and we reinforce our identity,
both collective and individual.
Evidence of Dance in the Northern Tradition
We know our ancient Heathen forebears danced ritually, for
archaeological finds show various dancing figures. Bronze Age
Scandinavian rock carvings feature dancing and leaping men, accompanied
by musical instruments.(13) The golden horns
of Gallehus depict figures engaged in dancing, ball-playing,
and acrobatics believed to be, by some scholars, representations
of the gods and seasonal ceremonies connected with their worship.(14) Further images show naked figures, or
clothed in loin cloths, who wear helmets with curved horns resembling
those of the bronze age. One holds a sickle and a rod, one a
short spear, a ring, and a rod, and "their legs are bent
as if leaping or dancing." Davidson mentions attempts made
at identifying these figures as the gods Tiwaz, Woden, Freyr,
Thor and Ull, but herself sees them as devotees or priests taking
part in seasonal rites, carrying these items in order to link
themselves with the deities of battle and fertility.(15)
Bronze age figures were found grouped around a larger female
figure believed to be a goddess of fertility, and of these only
one female figure remains -- wearing a short, corded skirt and
neckring, her figure bent back until her head touches the ground
in the posture of an acrobat or dancer.(16)
A later image on a golden collar ornament from Allebord depicts
another dancing figure, male, in an iron collar, the mark of
a slave.(17)If the neckring in the earlier
bronze figure also denotes slavery and not ornament, this could
be evidence of Vanic worship, representing a dance performed
by the slaves who bathed the goddess Nerthus and then met their
own demise, as recorded by Tacitus.(18)
Although Tacitus mentions no dance, he does recount days of "rejoicing
and merrymaking preceding the event."(19)
Gold amulets from the 5th-6th century have been found, showing
more images of dancing and leaping men, dancing youths, and dancers
in horned helmets. (20) These dancing youths,
often shown naked or wearing only a belt, are featured on many
helmet plates, including the Sutton Hoo helmet. Davidson attributes
these types of figures to be representations of the sword dancing
account given by Tacitus (21), (covered
under Sword Dance, below).
Guld Gubbers, more amulets from Denmark, exist with dancing
images. These are small rectangles of gold foil which date from
the Migration to Viking Age. The figures are usually of a man
and woman facing each other, sometimes embracing. Davidson describes,
"They wear elaborate clothes and their knees may be bent,
leading Holmquist to conclude they are taking part in a formal
dance. He has, moreover, found pendants showing pairs of women
dancing, and in one case two men, to strengthen his argument."(22) Since dance was (and continues to be)
an important part of wedding festivities, Davidson feels these
may be wedding amulets or love tokens.(23)
A literary description of a Viking wedding dance survives
in the medieval saga Bosi and Herraud, written around 1300 C.E.
The dance is mentioned because of its crucial timing in the story,
as well as the hero Bosi masquerading as "Sigurd" the
King Godmund sat on the high-seat. Beside him sat the bridegroom
with Hraerek in attendance on him. It isn't said how the other
noblemen were placed, but this much is known, that "Sigurd"
played the harp before the bride and her maidens. When the toasts
were being served, "Sigurd" played so well, everyone
remarked that he had no equal, but he said this was only the
beginning. The king told him not to spare his efforts. When the
memorial cup consecrated to Thor was carried into the hall, "Sigurd"
changed the tune. Then everything loose began to move -- knives,
plates and anything else which no one was holding on to -- and
lots of people jumped up from their seats and danced on the floor.
This went on for quite some time.
Next came the toast dedicated to all the gods. "Sigurd"
changed the tune again, and this time he played so loud, the
music rang through the entire palace. All the people inside jumped
to their feet, except the king and the bridal couple. All the
guests were shuffling about and so was everything else inside
the hall. This too went on for quite some time.
The king asked whether "Sigurd" knew any more tunes.
He answered that there were still a few less important ones and
advised everybody to take a rest for a while. The guests sat
down and carried on with their drinking. Then he played the tunes
of the "Ogress", the "Dreamer" and the "Warrior",
and after that it was time for Odin's toast to be drunk. Then
"Sigurd" opened the harp. It was heavily inlaid with
gold, and so big that a man could stand upright inside it. From
inside he took a pair of white gloves, gold-embroidered, and
played the "Coif-Thrower". Then all the coifs were
blown off the ladies' heads, and danced above the crossbeams
in the hall. All the men and women jumped to their feet, and
not a thing remained still in its place.
When Odin's toast had been drunk, there was only one more
left, the toast dedicated to Freyja. Then "Sigurd"
started plucking the one string that lies across the other strings,
and told the king to get ready for the tune called "Powerful".
The king was so startled at this tune that he jumped to his feet
and the bride and the bridegroom too, and nobody danced more
vigorously than they did. This went on for quite some time. Now
Smid took the bride by the hand, led her a lively dance, and
when he got the chance, picked up the table service and bundled
it into the bridal sheets.(24)
What we have here is a rather remarkable account not only
of a wedding dance, but dances and tunes in connection with toasts
to the gods, and even more than that, a supernatural dance where
the dancers are compelled to jump to their feet, knives and plates
move about by themselves, and coifs fly from the ladies' heads
and dance by themselves above the crossbeams, all seemingly normal
to the participants! Whether or not these phenomena can be explained
by the rhythm of the music, the vibration of stomping feet, or
a gust of wind is not offered by the story teller, but it is
clear that this dancing is done in a religious context and directly
associated with the toasts to the gods. Additionally, Bosi is
the trickster of the story, a wooer of women with his witty and
humorous sexual parallels, and once offered the art of magic
by his foster mother, which he refused on the basis that he "didn't
want it written in his saga that he'd carried anything through
by trickery instead of relying on his own manhood."(25)
His actions, however, show his success through trickery, magic
Historical references to dance include the account of Tacitus
of a sword dance, considered in the next section, and from Olaus
Magnus, a description of a battle custom performed by the Goths,
where plays in honor of the gods were enacted after a victory
"in which they presented womanish movements of the body,
the clatter of players on the stage, and the tinkling of little
bells or the clashing of bronze cymbals."(26)
Magnus even tells us there were divisions among priests, including
dancing priests. Although Magnus has much of his account from
Saxo Grammaticus' History of the Danes, only the reference to
womanish movements can be found there (see Morris Dance). Davidson
also mentions ritual dances performed by beserker warriors, wearing
animal skins and mimicking animal movements (see Mumming). This
is referred to as a "Gothic Dance" from the Book of
Ceremonies of the Emperor Constantine VII, performed by members
of the Varangian guard at Byzantium.(27)
As a final note on the dance of warriors, Davidson claims they
belong to Woden, "giving inspiration, intoxication, and
madness to his followers,"(28) an association
with which I cannot disagree. However, it is interesting to compare
the form in which the dancing warrior takes -- participants engaging
in a test of agility, a display of strength, or perhaps even
an exhibition of devotion to the gods of war -- to the performance
possibly performed by the worshippers of Nerthus, seen in the
grouping of bronze figures, a representation which would clearly
epitomize many of the round dances found in folk culture often
associated with agriculture and fertility.
Dance, as well as any tribal custom, may gradually become
so formalized that, although still practiced, its original meaning
becomes obscured even to the participants. In many cases customs
are altered to suit changing needs, elements of practice left
out, and we are left with a remnant of a once functional, religious
practice which is not only obscure, but at times absurd and completely
devoid of meaning and purpose, with the exception of vague references
to "bringing luck." Thus we enter the realm of folklore.
To further complicate the issue, folk traditions from many areas
of Europe reflect a mixed cultural heritage from centuries of
trade and migration. England, for example, represents both Celtic
and Germanic tradition, with some Roman thrown in for good measure.
Scandinavian customs often reflect Finno-Ugranian and Slavic
traditions, and Slavic countries include some Finno-Ugranian,
as well as Germanic, Celtic, and Greek. Although a few areas
remain pockets of relatively isolated cultural groups, even these
may be shown to not be "wholly" from any one particular
derivation. Highland Scotland, for example, is usually considered
Celtic, however a sizable Viking settlement existed there and
the area in question reflects this Scandinavian influence. With
all these hurdles, a respectable study may be undertaken of folk
dance in Northern Europe by comparing practices from different
areas, as well as referring to historical texts when possible.
Seasonal Rites Perhaps no time of year provides so many references
to folk dance as the May. The dates of practice range as early
as Easter in England, and as late as a few days after Midsummer
in Scandinavia. This is likely dependent on climate, and may
even vary year to year. The intent of the rites are, of course,
to welcome the Summer and its fruits and induce fertility.
The word "may" does not necessarily refer to the
month, but denotes the act of garlanding with greenery and flowers.
To share every account would fill a volume, but the activities
include: a procession into the nearby wood to gather greenery
and, sometimes, cut a tree (birch and oak are mentioned) for
the maypole, the procession returns to the village, the tree
may be taken around the village and gifts demanded, greenery
is placed in the windows of homes, the symbolic fight between
winter and summer takes place, the maypole is crowned with flowers
and erected in the village, a Jack-in-the-Green (usually a boy
decked in greenery, see Mumming) is led around, and in most cases
the activities are followed by a ring dance around the maypole.(29)
The maypole itself may represent the pillar of the World Tree
as well as having the phallic significance over the powers of
fertility. Grimm associates the rites of May with Frey (30),
and Spence attempts to attribute the may pole etymologically
with Ing from the children's game "Jingo-Ring," which
emulates betrothal and marriage beside a may pole.(31)
He believes "Jingo" to be "Ingwe, or Yngve, the
eponymous ancestor of all the English tribes." Spence follows
Rydberg's hypothesis that Ing is Heimdall, and not Frey, although,
he later says of the "Merry-ma-Tanza," a children's
game associated with the may pole, "This emblem appears
to have further associations to that exhibited in the cart of
the god Freyr, the fertilizer, which was borne around the fields
of ancient Germany to bless and fructify them, which was likened
to a ship with a mast."(32) The modern
Swedish maypole contains images of both horse and heart, and
due to this we might consider the maypole to represent both Frey
and Freya as the May King and Queen.
The may pole may also be the forerunner of the Yule tree,
a relatively late custom(33), as in Gelders
on May Day Eve, they used to set up trees decorated and hung
with tapers like a Yule tree, then came a song and ring-dance;(34) yet this may be inspired by the Yule tree
custom and not the other way around. Regardless, the similarities
are clear, for Spence tells us that "in Bohemia and elsewhere,
like the Yule Log or the "Clavie" the (may) pole was
burnt at the end of the year, or the ensuing May Day."(35)**
In England, the Furry Dance is a ritualized dance procession
into the wood and back to the village to "bring home the
summer and the May-O."(36) They continue
to dance through the streets and demand to be allowed through
the houses, in the front door and out the back, an addition said
to be Roman, according to Joan Lawson, although she gives no
source for this.(37) Grimm offers an account
which may point to a Germanic conception, "in Neubrunn,
the furious host (Wild Hunt) always passed through three houses,
each of which had three doors directly behind one another, street-door,
kitchen-door, and back-door; and so wherever it finds three doors
in a line, the furious host will pass through them."(38)
Also in England, the Milkmaid's dance was performed in early
May, and is described, "...all the pretty young country
girls that serve the town with milk dress themselves up very
neatly, and borrow abundance of silver plate, whereof they make
a pyramid, which they adorn with ribbons and flowers and carry
upon their heads instead of common milk pails. In this equipage,
accompanied by some of their fellow milk maids, and a bagpipe
or fiddle, they go from door to door, dancing before the houses
of their customers, in the midst of boys and girls that follow
them in troops, and everybody gives them something."(39) This custom is said to "dance away
sorrow" in the ballad "The Milk Maid's Life" from
1630, and is a peculiar but probably Germanic custom, as the
month of May in the Anglo-Saxon calendar is named "Thrimilce"
(Three-milkings) with the cows in milk and being milked three
times daily. (40) This dance may be to celebrate
the abundance, as well as the green grass that comes with spring
to make the milk.
Dances are featured in other seasonal rites as well. A Yorkshire
Easter custom was observed where the men stole the women's shoes,
and vice-versa, followed with a dance and the winning of a Tansy
Cake(41). At Hocktide in England, the Dutch
Heughtyde, the people went about in a processional beating brass
instruments and singing old rhymes in praise of their ancestors
(see Scandinvian Chain Dances, below). This procession is said
to be in celebration of the English massacre of the Danes in
1002 C.E. and is also known as "Hokie Day." An interesting
aside, the "Hokie Pokie" has been danced for at least
two centuries under the children's game known as the "Lubin,"(42) however I cannot find that this dance
was performed at Hocktide. On St. Mark's Day, April 25th, a custom
of well leaping is recorded. The men go out to the "Freeman's
Well" (said to be a fairly nasty pool), leap and run through
the pool, change into nice clothes, and return to the village
where they are greeted by the females "dressed in ribbons,
bells, and garlands of gum flowers, who welcome them with dancing
and singing."(43) The Morris dancers
usually made their appearance at Whitsuntide in England (see
Morris dance, below), and well dressing was sometimes accompanied
by dance.(44) Harvest offered opportunities
for dance, as well, as we see in an account from Auxerre, France
of the dance of the fastest reaper and prettiest girl dancing
around the last sheaf.(45)As most Germanic
countries had similar customs revolving around the last sheaf,
we may well assume that dance was sometimes included, besides
France having its own influx of Germanic culture from the Franks
and other Germanic tribes. Another harvest custom was the "broomstick
dance," performed by the giver of the feast and seen as
a Harvest Home rite in England.(46)
The dancing around and leaping through bonfires was certainly
practiced.(47) This took place not only
at Midsummer, but also at Hallows, the Twelfth Night fires, and
occasional at Easter. As we see elsewhere, this custom involves
not only celebration of the turning of the year and passage of
the sun, but also a time of purification, protection, gaining
luck and fertility. Lawson gives an excellent description of
a Teutonic bonfire dance, "This is a closed circle in which
each alternate man thrusts his heels forward into the center,
bracing them against those of another, whilst the entire group
revolves rapidly (around the fire) like a mill-wheel."(48)
Rites of passage
As we have already seen, dance at weddings was, and continues
to be, an important activity. A particular dance enacted at weddings
in Northern England called the "Cushion Dance" encourages
the participants to follow the example of bride and groom.(49) The dance appears to be a courtship ritual,
with details too lengthy to include here.(50)
It is interesting to note a drinking horn is included in the
dance, and another custom from Northumberland explains a dressing
out of stools with a cushion of flowers at Midsummer, which is
taken around the village for the collection of money.(51)
At Polworth, Berwickshire, newlyweds were once obligated to dance
with their friends around two ancient thorn trees which, according
to Spence, may represent the dwelling places of ancestral spirits.(52) Children's games such as "Here We
Go Round the Mulberry Bush" and its derivations may be descended
from this custom, and are surely related to marriage ceremonies
(see Work Dance, below). Whether or not Spence is correct in
his ascertation of the thorn trees, a marriage dance around a
fertility emblem such as the may pole makes perfect sense. A
wedding dance still observed in Sweden is the "Daldans,"
which contains a peculiar act in which the women kneel as the
men swing their legs over their heads. Lawson claims this to
be a symbol of a fertility rite, where the woman signifies her
subjugation to the man.(53) This does not
seem in keeping with the Germanic view of women's status, however
Sweden is now a conservatively Protestant country, and this may
have influenced certain practices.
It is sometimes a custom to dance at funeral wakes, and funereal
dancing in graveyards during the Christian era, eventually outlawed,
is said to be a survival of pagan practice.(54)
Davidson mentions flat howes, or mounds, called "Dansehoje"
(Dance Howes) in Jutland, where dancing ceremonies may have been
performed on top of the graves of ancestors.(55)
As a parallel, the Egyptian funeral dance mentioned above is
intended to speed the dead on their way, and propitiate the gods
in their favor.(56) In discussing sports
at funerary ceremonies, Spence presents another hypothesis explaining
why dancing and games may be included at funerals, and how they
are directly related to the fertility of land and tribe:
But why are the dead and the powers of growth really one and
the same -- specially placated by games? Possibly because the
vigour expended in these exercises was believed to strengthen
them for their tasks of growth in a spiritual manner.(57)
These ancestors were thought of as returning to the tribe
in the bodies of their descendants. If the tribe did not duly
increase, it became manifest... that the ancestral spirits would
later be unable to resume existence within it, as no bodies would
be forthcoming to be ensouled by them.(58)
Attempts have been made to attribute the Morris Dance to everything
from a Moorish military dance to Neolithic fertility rites. This
dance, performed primarily but not exclusively by men(59),
is common all over Europe, including England, Yugoslavia, and
Spain, and medieval accounts exist from France, the Netherlands,
Germany, Austria and Italy. The dance includes stamping, leaping
and hopping, rapping of swords or planting rods against the ground
(these denoting a connection to fertility of the land), and the
wearing of bells, plus a plethora of regional variations. The
dance may at one time have been seasonal, beginning with the
court Morris at Yuletide(60) but began to
appear at many festivals throughout the year. The occasional
blackening of the face has led to the misunderstanding that the
dance originated from the Moors. However, blackening the face
is a common disguising method in Northern European customs, and
is merely a continuation of a much earlier tradition (see Mumming).(61)
Lawson claims Morris is a Celtic tradition, and cites the
"early documentation" of the dance. However, the first
documentation of the Morris is from 1458 in England, not necessarily
an indication of Celtic heritage. In fact, the Morris has so
much in common with three other customs generally thought to
be Germanic, the Sword Dance, Horn Dance and Hobby Horse, they
are often all considered together. The Morris was known in Germany,
where it was said to have been imported from Sweden.(61)
I cannot help but compare the Morris traditions to the account
by Saxo of the priests of Frey at Uppsala, with their "womanish
body movements, the clattering of actors on the stage, and the
soft tinkling of bells."(62) Most observers
nowadays would not consider the Morris movements "womanish,"
but if the assumption that Saxo was prejudiced against the Swedes
is correct, this might explain the account. Additionally, the
Morris, as well as the sword dance, is often accompanied or performed
by a mumming group, which typically includes cross-dressing,
and would make relevant the mention of actors in Saxo's version.
If the connection between the Morris and rites of Frey could
be verified, which it cannot be in the context of current information,
it would follow right along that the Morris is a fertility dance,
performed in honor of and perhaps representing the god Frey.
The Romanian Calusari, a Morris-type group, when visiting Europe
in 1935 danced on the train all the way across Europe because,
"If we don't dance our crops will not grow."(63)
Regardless of the particular origin of the Morris, there
is enough evidence which allows us to apply it to Germanic belief,
and no reason we should not do so if desired.
The earliest account of sword dancing, and indeed the earliest
account of any Germanic dance, is from Tacitus:
Naked youths, trained to the sport, dance about among swords
and spears leveled at them. Practice begets skill, and skill
grace; but they are not professionals and do not receive payment.
Their most daring flings have their only reward in the pleasure
they give the spectators.(64)
There is no evidence of ritual here, and by this stage in
the culture the dance may have become formalized and lost its
original intent. Another possibility is that what Tacitus saw
and recorded was a practice for a battle ritual, intended to
aid the warriors in victory, not actually seen by the historian.
The prospect also exists of the dance being a rite of passage,
practiced by the youths of the community.
Other historical accounts include that of Olaus Magnus of
the sword dance of Goths and Swedes in 1555, the Nuremberg tradition
is said to go back to the year 1350 or 1351, and a record of
the Ditmarschen sword-dance circa 1600:
Viethen says that the dancers wore white shirts decked all
over with gay ribbons, and one bell on each leg... They dance
in a ring; then hey; they jump over the swords; they lay them
down in a figure "not unlike a rose"; round this they
dance in a ring and jump over it; a square rose is formed on
each dancer's head; finally they lock their swords, upon which
the "king" steps and is hoisted and held while he says
a few words of thanks to the onlookers.(65)
If we look at variations of the modern sword dance, they are
practiced, like the Morris, all over Europe. Said to originally
have been performed during the Yuletide, customs now range from
Shrovetide to Whitsuntide in England. They include a procession
with an impaled cake decorated with flowers and ribbons, the
point and hilt formation, circling, jumping over and clashing
of swords, the formation of a star and hexagonal pattern called
the "rose, nut or knut(knot)" which is either raised
in the air for display or placed on the ground and danced over;
a dancer is raised on the swords or swords are placed about one
dancers' head (usually a fool or king), ending with a mock sacrifice
and occasionally a miraculous healing by a "doctor"
in accordance with the mummer's play. The traditional music is
performed on pipe and tabor, as the Morris. The long sword was
the original prop, replaced in the north of England with the
short sword, or "rapper," in the sixteenth century,
and has since served to revise the dances there in such a way
as it cannot be performed with any other sword.(66)
This is an excellent example of how folk customs are continually
Much has been made of the mock sacrifice, which seems to be
implied in most versions of the dance, if not blatantly acted
out. An observance of the German berlingen Sword Dance shows
the point and hilt formation, followed by the passing of each
dancer under an archway of swords (see Thread the Needle, below)
until only one is left, who is met in the middle by the black-faced
mummer. This portion of the dance ends, and is followed by a
country dance including females.(67) In
Sharp's relation of the Grenoside dance, he states the clash
of disentangling the knot from around the Captain's head was
so realistic, he would not have been surprised if the Captain's
head had toppled from his shoulders and rolled to the floor.(68)
The presence of the mock sacrifice may point to different
ideas: a human sacrifice in which victory over a battle is sought
or celebrated; a human sacrifice associated with the fertility
of the land such as those determined by lot and sometimes the
victim a king(69); or an initiatory rite
where the "victim" is ritually killed and reborn. The
inclusion of the Thread the Needle formation may imply a trial
by ordeal or a passage into death and rebirth, somewhat like
the labyrinth. Although Wodan is usually associated with human
sacrifice, Frey too has his reputation for the immolation of
human victims(70), but may be connected
to the sword dance through his status as God of the Mound.
The sword dance has also been linked to the "Whit Hunt"
in England, in which an animal (lamb, hare or stag) was killed
for the purpose of a feast at "Whitsuntide and other Morris
Festivals," the animal was decked with ribbons, displayed
and carried before the Morris dancers with its legs bound together.
The meat was made into pies, one of which -- "the head pie"
-- contained the animal's head intact. The head pie contained
special value, and had to be obtained in some appointed way.
Occasionally the head was displayed much like the Boar's Head
custom at Yule.(71) This may also include
hunting rites within the realm of sword and morris dancing customs.
The Abbot's Bromley Horn Dance
This is an English custom that even the most rigid of historians
consider particularly Germanic and ancient in origin. A type
of hobby-horse dance used to raise funds for the Abbey,
it takes place in the nearby Forest of Needwood, and was described
by Robert Plot in 1686:
(It was called) the Hobby-horse dance, for a person that carried
the image of a horse between his legs, made of thin boards, and
in his hand a bow and arrow, which passing through a hole in
the bow, and stopping upon a shoulder it had in it, made a snapping
noise as he drew it to and fro, keeping time with the music;
with this man danced six others, carrying on their shoulders
as many reindeer's heads, three of them painted white and three
red, with the arms of the chief families to whom the revenues
of the town chiefly belonged, depicted on the palms of them,
with which they danced the hays, and other country dances. To
this Hobby-horse dance there also belonged a pot, which was kept
by turns, by four or five of the chief of the town, whom they
called reeves, who provided cakes and ale to put in this pot;
all people who had any kindness for the good intent of the institution
of the sport; giving a pence for themselves and their families;
and so foreigners too, that came to see it; with which money
(the charge of the cakes and ale being defrayed) they not only
repaired their church but kept their poor too.(72)
The earliest account has been pushed back to 1532, when it
was already a well-established tradition. This dance was originally
performed during the Yuletide, but was moved up to September
in the eighteenth century.(73) The antlers,
genuine and fitted into carved wooden heads held on short staves,
are now painted white and brown, instead of red, and have been
dated to reindeer which were castrated, or domesticated, and
lived during the eleventh century. Hutton notes reindeer were
extinct in England, Wales and Scotland by that period, with no
traces of domesticated herds, so he concludes the antlers must
have been imported from Scandinavia.(74)
Hutton also feels this dance to be an anomaly, based on an
earlier Hobby-horse dance, with the antlers added as an "exotic
extra."(75) Although the reindeer dance
is certainly rare, we do have two corollaries, the Russian "Yakut"
and certain dances of Finno-Ugranian tribes.(76)
It is probably not an anomaly but, like the horns, an import
from Scandinavia, where the customs of Slavic and Finn-Lapp cultures
have been integrated.
Like the Hobby Horse, discussed below, it is difficult to
pinpoint an exact source for this dance as ritual. It may have
reflected a hunting custom. It may be a relic of animal totemism.
As we have seen of other dance customs from England, it may be
associated with Frey, illustrating his antler weapon at Ragnarok.
If Ing Frea is the founding god of the Ingvaeonic tribes, it
is no wonder he would be represented so prominently, and perhaps
he is simply the god of dance. Grimm supports the idea of Frey
as a "supreme god."(77)
The Hobby Horse is a feature at nearly every English festival
throughout the year, and is also found in those countries with
the Morris and Sword dances, in which it often plays a role.
Plot's account above of the Horn Dance gives a good summary of
its description, noting the snapping of the jaws. The creature
itself engages in clowning and sexual prankery, which has led
folklorists to associate it with fertility rites. This may be
correct, as the Hobby Horse is prominent in May rites, and a
horse's member figures in certain Germanic fertility customs.(78) Again, we have association with Frey through
Freyfaxi and, according to Grimm, "horses were consecrated
to Freyr, and maintained in the hallowed precincts of his temples."(79)
Grimm also notes that the horse was the favorite animal for
sacrifice in the earliest time, and the beheading of horses was
common, when they were saved and fastened to the stems of trees.
This is similar to the fixing of a horse's head upon a "stake
of envy," or Nithing Pole, which gave the power to bewitch
and enemy.(80) Olaus Magnus reports of the
Goths, "...as they were about to march into battle, used
to sacrifice horses at their altars. They cut off their heads
and set them up on poles, made them gape by inserting blocks
between their jaws, and carried them before their line of battle."(81) This practice is also mentioned by Saxo(82), and included in Egil's Saga.(83)
It seems the tradition of the Hobby Horse has degraded to
such a state that it represents little of its original meaning,
and may be a fusion of different traditions. Both the Celts and
Romans have had their own equine ritual traditions. Add to this
the costume of the tournament horses from the middle ages, and
we have more confusion. Even so, the Hobby Horse retains some
of its menacing Germanic properties. In 1830, the Minehead, West
Somerset Hobby Horse, whose traditional role was to raise money
from the spectators, would punish anybody who refused donations
with a ceremonial beating.(84)
Let's consider the reflection of a one-time participant, Hutton
again, comparing the Hobby Horse with other mock beasts,
...the nature of the entertainment seems also to have remained
consistent between the hobby-horse and the later animal disguises.
All depended for effect upon the same mixture of clowning and
dexterity; all likewise provided opportunities for rather risqu
and exciting licensed misconduct, as the model beast kicked,
gambolled, and pretended to attack. E. C. Cawte shrewdly commented
that the experience of being inside a hooden horse has an odd
character of its own, involving a sense of slackening personal
responsibility for what occurs as the role of playing the creature
takes over. The present author, who has had that experience,
must agree, and testify to the nervousness in the laughter of
most spectators at the approach of something that is, and yet
is not, a human being. As was said earlier of the celebrations
at Padstow, these customs do have a way of communicating something
genuinely archaic, whatever their actual age.(85)
Mumming, also know as guising, is the disguising of the participants
of the dance or drama in various ways, including: blackening
of the face; animal heads, skins, or costumes; cross-dressing;
and Jack-in-the-Green, Green Man, or Wild Man costuming with
straw or garlands. This practice more often takes part in the
ritual drama of the death of the hero-victim/mock sacrifice than
actual dance. However, here is a brief description of relevant
examples. Blackening the face has been mentioned under Morris
dance, and may result from the custom of blackening for luck
with the ashes from the needfire.(86) It
is possible that the black face may represent death, the dead,
or the ancestor. The Jutes and Anglo-Saxons spread charcoal in
their funerary rites.(87) A children's custom
from Scotland is recorded in which boys kindle a May fire, knead
and then toast an oatmeal cake at a stone in the embers, blacken
a portion and then divide the cake among the participants. The
boy who receives the blackened portion must leap three times
through the fire, which has led antiquarians to believe this
represents a mock sacrifice.(88) It has
been shown above in the account of the berlingen Sword Dance
the black-faced mummer "accepts the sacrifice."
The dressing up of a man or boy in greenery is common in Germany(89) and England(90),
and this character takes part in some of the sword and morris
dancing customs. He is known as Jack-in-the-Green," or "Robin
Goodfellow," etc. and sometimes is represented by an animal,
such as the straw bear from the carnival of Wilflingin led by
a team of Morris.(91) Morris, sword dance
and mumming "hero" dramas in England contain various
characters such as Robin Hood, Maid Marian, Friar Tuck, Beelzebub,
Dairy Doubt, etc. Different areas reflect different customs and
different characters, but the essential plot line of the drama
remains the same -- two men fight, the "hero" is killed,
then a comic doctor enters and restores him to life, sometimes
the hero, or the fool, runs off with the "maiden" who,
more often than not, is a burley man dressed as a woman(92).
This may be a decayed remnant of Summer battling Winter customs
common in Germany and Scandinavia (dressing in ivy representing
summer and straw representing winter(93))
or, as some folklorists feel, it may represent the death and
rebirth of a god of vegetation, possibly Freyr.(94)
Mumming more typically involved cross-dressing, which took
place at various seasons and in conjunction with other customs.
Cross-dressing in Germany was common during the Yuletide, which
involved feasting and receiving gifts.(95)
The purpose of cross-dressing is unclear, but it may serve to
promote a "suspension of normal," for the event, as
well as disguise and perhaps a blurring of sexual boundaries.
Sometimes it was merely done for a laugh, as in the example from
the folk drama above and, of course, is represented in our mythology
by the myth of Thor and Thrym, where Thor dresses as Freya and
plays the bride of the giant Thrym in order to retrieve his hammer.
It would be tempting to compare the fool and the "maid"
from the folk drama with Loki and Thor, were it not for the fact
that the fool is never dressed as a woman (as Loki is) and also
that this folk drama, although containing archaic concepts, is
recorded no earlier than the eighteenth century.(96)
Evidence from Children's Games
Some children's rhyming and dancing games can be said to hold
evidence of ancient customs and practices. The game "Oats
and Beans and Barley," for example, shows some actions similar
to the Aecer-Bot ritual:
Oats and beans and barley grow!
Oats and beans and barley grow!
Do you or I or any one know
How oats and beans and barley grow?
First the farmer sows his seed,
Then he stands and takes his ease,
Stamps his foot, and claps his hands,
Then turns round to view the land.
Waiting for a partner, waiting for a partner!
Open the ring and take one in!(97)
Each child acts out the words in italics at the appropriate
time. The following stanzas have to do with the acquisition of
a spouse with some words of advisement on how a married person
behaves. This has led Gomme to believe, "It points to the
custom of courtship and marriage being the outcome of village
festivals and dances held after spring sowing and harvest gatherings."(98)
"Green Grass," another children's dance-game,
begins with the stanza,
A dis, a dis, a green grass,
A dis, a dis, a dis;
Come all you pretty fair maids
And dance along with us.
The word "dis" is considered the original, as it
is consistent in ten out of fourteen variants recorded of the
game.(99) Gomme herself is not able to identify
it, but it is certainly clear to us. "Dis" could be
either from the Scandinavian "Dis," or the Anglo-Saxon
"Idis," as the game is common throughout England and
Scotland. The game has been further associated to a corpse blessing
and funereal rite, which strengthens the argument of its connection
to the female ancestors.(100)
"London Bridge" is common enough that I need not
give the verses here. Gomme makes a connection of this game to
the Battle (and breaking) of London Bridge, when Ethelred, after
the death of Sweyn, was assisted by Olaf of Norway in retaking
and entering London. (101) She reinforces
her argument by giving an example of the first line of the game-rhyme
London Bridge is broken down,
Gold is won and bright renown;
Hild is shouting in the din;
Odin makes our Olaf win.
The game also includes the taking of prisoners, another suggestion
of warfare. "London Bridge" contains an important element
in symbolic movement called "Thread the Needle," an
arch step which is fully covered below.
Although the realm of children's game and rhyme contains many
examples of possible Heathen derivation, including "Ring
Around the Rosie" and "Mulberry Bush," it is impossible
to cover all the examples here. I hope these instances are enough
to illustrate the point.
Reclaiming and Reforming Our Traditions
We have ample evidence of the existence of dance in the Northern
Tradition. Unfortunately, historical sources lack detail, and
folk sources are muddy -- centuries of custom, superstition,
alterations and interpretations being thrown together willy-nilly,
with no clear source of origin or intent. Even if we could adequately
reconstruct the precise dance customs of our Heathen forebears,
would we feel comfortable practicing them? The Hobby Horse, while
making a fanciful children's toy, is too arcane to offer much
meaning for us. And blackening our faces would certainly create
an interesting situation considering our current dilemma revolving
around the issue of "racism." How do we take Northern
tradition and apply it to our modern Heathen lives? This question
is relevant not only to dance, but other practices.
Some Dance Forms and their Meanings
A good option is to take the elements of folk dance that offer
meaning -- that can be made relevant to modern Heathen belief
-- and utilize these in recreating dances. Historical accounts
and folklore give us an adequate view of when and where dance
customs may have taken place but, unfortunately, most scholars
never felt the dances themselves important enough to record in
any detail. For this we must look to the relatively modern compilations
and reconstruction of folk dances.
Ring, Circle or Round
The ring dance is considered the original religious dance,
"the invocatory round."(102)
It is pervasive through all cultures, and signifies communal
creed. Whether the object in the center is a tree, bonfire, priest/priestess,
or harrow, it is an object of focus and symbolic worship. The
ring dance is known as the "carol," known by repeated
circling, a term derived from the Greek choros. When we Heathen
gather to blot, it is often around a harrow and takes circle
formation. We are only one step away from dancing. Ring dancing
also has taken place in the hall "around the coalfire,"
or hearth. With the emergence of chimneys in the early middle
ages, fireplaces were moved to the side of the hall, and the
wood floors were opened up -- making new possibilities for indoor
Chains, Processions, Serpentine and Spiral
These forms are the offspring of the ring dance, and began
at a point of breaking the circle of linked participants which
opened into a processional line. The dancers moved directionally,
such as the Furry Dance described above, in which the participants
dance to the wood and return again "bringing home the May-O."
The processional march or promenade opens many Scandinavian and
Teutonic dances and, according to Lawson, "was once a dance
in its own right, and had its origin in two important tribal
customs: the need of cleansing the community after the rigours
of winter and the need of ensuring its continued fertility."(104) This is evident in the sweeper dances
of Yorkshire and Lancashire, especially common at Yule, in which
the participants cross-dress and blacken their faces, enter a
home, sweep around the room and its hearth area, speaking not
a word the entire time.(105) The procession
is also evident in the Saxon perambulation "Beating of the
Bounds" at Eastertide and in modern folk dance by the English
Longways Sets and their continental versions.(106)
The Scandinavian chain dances may represent the oldest surviving
examples of "Viking Dance," in which the participants
sing the words of stories of heroes, giants, knights and ladies
and other legends. Examples are taken from the interior of Norway,
where they escaped the suppression of protestant zealots. (107) It is also danced in the Far"e
Islands, and is made up of a simple step-close, plus variations.
(The) basic step is simple. Left foot is moved forwards twice,
but right foot is then drawn up before being placed either to
the side or backwards. But this simple basis often becomes a
complex enchainement by the addition of hops, slight stumbles
which occasionally denote that the character described in the
song is an incomplete person, one who has not reached maturity,
is wounded or sick; or quick runs, jumps, or leaps which are
also dictated by significant passages in the words. This is evident
in Norwegian folk tunes and their tendency to continually fall
away from the leading note. It is possibly what causes the dancer-singers
in the oldest rituals to begin each phrase on the last beat of
a bar and to accentuate it with a stamp or clap.(108)
Lawson describes the Far"e Island chain dance as stepping
forward on the left foot and closing the right to it twice, then
stepping forward on the right foot and closing the left to it
once. The arms rock backwards and forwards with increasing excitement
"until the whole room rocks with movement."(109)
In both instances the chain of dancers twists and turns in a
serpentine motion as it moves about the room. These dances may
be descended from or influenced by a similar Finnish-Lappish
custom, described as "Dances of Sighing or Mourning"
by Olaus Magnus.(110)
The spiral is usually danced about an object, pole or person,
which is gradually encircled by the chain of dancers. Once reaching
the center with no further to go, the dancers turn and face the
opposite direction and gradually return to circle formation.
When danced about a tree or pole, this formation gives a powerful
symbol of the World Tree and the Well.
Thread the Needle
As seen in "London Bridge", above, this formation
is common from children's games to recreational dances. The dancers
form two lines, facing each other, and connect their hands, interlacing
their fingers, creating an archway for the subsequent dancers
to progress under and continue the line. This practice was common
in dances at Easter, which led Spence to believe it had some
connection to the Beating of the Bounds, since "needle"
was a word referring to a pass or alley.(111)
Gomme, however, makes another interesting association. She
points to the possibility of its connection to a trial by ordeal,
set out in Laxdaela Saga ch. 18 and Vatnsdaela Saga, ch. 33,
"The ordeal practiced at that time was submission under
turf; a strip of turf was cut loose from the soil, with both
ends left anchored to the ground, and the man who was to be subjected
to the ordeal had to pass under the turf." This was part
of the rites of swearing blood brotherhood. (112)
Whether the formation is descended from this particular rite
or, more likely, just influenced by the same beliefs, it is clear
the arch is significant as a symbol of the gateway through which
the initiated enter their new life.(113)
This association can be made from the inference to the mound,
and rebirth through blood brotherhood. Even its connection to
the Beating of the Bounds can be maintained if we view this custom
as a cleansing and "rebirth" of the community at the
end of winter.
Hopping, Stomping and Leaping
These three, related activities are invariable associated
with the fertility of the land. Hopping and leaping are categorized
together, and it is said that "as high as the dancer can
jump, so high will the corn grow."(114)
This is also said about the flying of a woman's skirt as her
partner swings her in a leap, common in several medieval as well
as rural dances.
Stomping or stamping is common in Morris, as well as many
Scandinavian dances, and is supposed to represent the "awakening
of the earth spirits." I prefer to think of it as derived
from a more practical act, that of stamping the earth in covering
the seed after planting, as seen in "Oats and Beans and
Barley," above. This act is also represented by the rapping
of rods or swords against the ground, the rod denoting the planting
stick, and the sword perhaps derived from the idea that sacrifice
benefits the fruits of agriculture.
Circling is practiced in the ring dance, as well as by individual
participants singly or with partners. Since circling and turning
are associated with bonfire as well as pole dances, the turning
of the dancers, like a wheel, probably is meant to represent
the turning of the sun, even building maegen in the process of
turning. Celtic round dances turn clockwise (to the left) but
Scandinavian round dances, influence by Slavic, turn counter-clockwise
(to the right) with variations depending on the purpose of the
dance. Deciding which way is clockwise or not depends if you
consider the perspective to be up or down -- meaning if you look
up to the sun and wish to follow its path clockwise, you will
begin to the right, but if you consider the sun to be looking
down on the earth, you will begin to the left. It is all a matter
Marking of Patterns
Creating patterns, either by marking them on the floor or
with the bodies of the dancers themselves, is common. The "star,"
a formation from English country and square dance, is usually
performed by four dancers -- the quadrille -- and creates a sunwheel
or swastika design. This is further accentuated by the turning
of the formation. Whether or not this is the original intent
of the step is irrelevant. It can be adopted and used by Heathen
English folk dance is ripe with the marking of patterns on
the floor. The English "hey" is a weaving step in which
the dancers interlace a figure eight type "knotwork"
pattern on the floor, and this formation is common in sword and
morris dance, including the Horn Dance of Abbot's Bromley. The
reel can be said to represent something of this as well. Lawson
claims this intricacy of pattern is Celtic, as these knotwork
patterns are represented in Celtic design.(115)
In fact, "Celtic" spiral and knotwork patterns were
a result of the fusion of Anglo and Irish traditions, and also
became incorporated into the repertoire of Germanic artists.(116) I am not trying to put forth the argument
that these dances are therefore purely Germanic. I wish only
to show, in all likelihood, the dances and the knotwork itself
is the result of a mixture of cultures. The Celts certainly went
on to make knotwork something Celtic in its own right, but the
design cannot be said to be inherently such.
I wish to address the issue of couple dance because I believe
we moderns take the idea of a man and woman dancing together
for granted. Couple dances began as a result of seasonal fertility
rites, and it can certainly be seen how fertility is represented
in the dancing of male and female. According to the work of Curt
Sachs, rituals that feature couples dancing in direct contact
are very rare in tribes, and show up at later levels of civilization.(117) However, we have examples of migration
age bracteates on which appear dancing couples, which may feature
a wedding dance.(118) This may point to
a stage in the development of the Germanic peoples when they
were beginning to leave tribalism behind and push into the next
stage of civilization.
Couple dance also served a more practical purpose. It was
an opportunity for courtship, and generally took place at planting
or harvest festivals. "At the May," says Grimm, "brides
were chosen and proclaimed..."(119)
Gomme also mentions "courtship and marriage being the outcome
of village festival and dances held after spring sowing and harvest
not ritualistic, the seasonal context certainly makes couple
dance originally religious. Although we now think no more of
the significance of couple dance, unless we are pursuing a particular
mate, we must reflect that not so long ago, it was considered
improper to dance with a close relation, as we see from Jane
Austin's Emma, "...you know we are not really so much brother
and sister as to make it at all improper."(121)
As an example of mimetic dance removed from the rituals of
religion, the European work dances illustrate the structure and
function of mimetic dance. The Cobbler's Hornpipe, for example,
imitates the Cobbler's sewing while creating the noise of hammering
on a lapstone.(122) I have witnessed a
Scandinavian Weaver's Dance in which couples in a longways set
imitate the actions of the loom. Work dances are performed at
weddings in Slav and Finno-Ugranian countries, where a bride
is shown what her future work will be -- rocking the cradle,
baking the bread, weaving the linen, etc.(123)
This is also evident in the children's game "Here We Go
Round the Mulberry Bush" which continues on verse by verse,
"This is the way we wash the clothes," etc. Lawson
speaks of work dance as "the practice of the varied movements
in dance form not only stimulates man's interest, but actually
helps him to perfect his work."(124)
This can easily be applied to a ritual context.
Social Dance and its Evolution
Social dance is a direct descendant of early celebratory dances
and a development from forms such as the ring or round dance.(125) Folk dance forms can be seen to contain
some or all of the elements mentioned above, as well as those
added for purely recreational or rhythmic purposes. Social dance
cannot be completely separated from early religious dance, as
it is the offspring of such, although no longer performed in
ritual context. During the development of these dance styles,
court and folk dance continually shifted and borrowed from one
another, adapting the dance styles to suit particular occasions.
England is the only nation in which the early country dance was
preserved, thanks to the efforts of Playford's Dancing Master
published 1650 and of the French court of the 18th century, which
probably saved the practice from extinction. Later dance forms,
such as the polka and waltz, nearly overran all of the country
dances of Germany and Scandinavia, which later adopted many of
the English Country Dances.
Lawson in "European Folk Dance" presents good descriptions
of regional folk dances, and arguments for their particular styles
suited to the climate and terrain of respective areas.
Again, we have seen that dance was performed in religious
context in the Northern Tradition, and we have some directions
to how we might recreate dance, but why should we?
Dance as Subconscious Language
Dance is a subconscious language which speaks directly to
our souls, and has the ability to communicate on many different
levels at the same time. By acting out certain symbolic movements,
we define our area of belief, we reinforce those beliefs through
action, and we communicate to one another as well as our holy
ones that we accept these beliefs as defining our identity.
Dance for Community
It has been shown that dancing strengthens the religious community,
and in tribal societies was an integral part of this system of
reinforcing tribal belief and identity. Additionally, dancing
was said to bear on the luck and fertility of the community.
Communal identity may be reinforced by the wearing of traditional
clothing or regalia, with the participants dressed similarly
and in movement together.
Dance as an Exchange of Main
Spence puts forward and interesting hypothesis that dance,
as well as games, expended energy on behalf of the gods or ancestors.
"...the ancestral ichor' which would emanate strength and
at the same time receive new vigour from that expended by the
dancers in their leapings."(126) Dance,
as an action, is an expenditure of maegen on behalf of the gods
and ancestors, which is returned again. Dance is therefore the
same as the blot, a gift for a gain. If the idea of the "transfer
of energy" does not seem "authentically Heathen,"
consider that the blot offerings of choice bear high levels of
energy -- the sugar from honey in mead, the flesh of an animal,
etc. I am not suggesting that dance replace the blot, by any
means. I am merely making the argument that the activity is similar
in function. Dance perfectly complements the blot, and works
well within, or after as a celebratory measure. Dance might also
be performed during symbel.
Dance is already being integrated into Heathen rites and gatherings.
Ecstatic, or trance, dance has been performed before a spaeworking
to ready the participants. I have attended a Freyr's blot where
"Thread the Needle" was used to symbolize a rebirth
of the participants from the mound. These are excellent examples,
but there are so many more options. Using some of the examples
of formations given, plus adding new elements, some possibilities
include rewriting a Scandinavian chain dance to recite exploits
of our gods, or a group of Odinists might perform a dance where
the valknut is marked out on the floor.
Following are two dances, one a simplified version of a traditional
English May dance, "Gathering Peascods," and the other
a recreated spring or harvest round dance entitled, appropriately
for Heathens, "Hammer Dance."
Thor's Harvest Dance
Danced to Dribbles of Brandy/Spirit of the Dance
Significance: Spring fertility or harvest celebratory
Steps: Lift (significance: planting of seed)
Hammer Stomp (significance: rain and lightening quickening the
Turning Hop (significance: hopping as high as the grain grows)
Schottische (step hop) (significance: combination of the two
Barrel (significance: turning together clockwise and moving clockwise
around the circle to increase main in the endeavor, moving sunwise)
Props: Men hold wooden hammer
Men wear blue arm ribbons symbolizing rain/Thor
Women wear gold arm ribbons symbolizing grain/Sif (or green ribbons
Couples form double ring, men inside, around harvest pole Men
hold hammer in right, couples take outside hands (men's left,
ladies' right) with free hands on waist
Wait first 2 counts of 8 (16 counts)
Moving clockwise (men's right, ladies' left), turn forward lift
on toes and place heel down
Repeat step towards your partner
Repeat 3 times with music
Men circle hammer above ladies' head clockwise, stomping with
music (leaping if desirable), (2 counts of 8)
Women follow hopping and turning clockwise, clapping with music
(2 counts of 8)
Repeat entire dance, but dancing first 2 counts of 8 (no waiting,
a total of 4 lifting sets)
Women, completing hop turn, take partner's left hand with your
Men and women face forward, begin schottisce for 4 counts of
8 (step out, hop, step in facing partner, hop, moving clockwise
around the circle)
Form barrel and turn clockwise with partner, schottische step,
4 counts of 8
Return to beginning position, repeat first dance passage, except
men will circle hammers and stomp while women hop turn and clap,
4 counts of 8
Repeat lift 2 counts of 8
Repeat hammer/hop 2 counts of 8
End facing partner in beginning position (music ends abruptly)
(simplified for non-dancers)
May Couple Dance
Danced to Lord Nelson's Hornpipe/The Tars of the Victory
Significance: Spring fertility dance, clapping represents
touching or hailing the god of the may tree, exchanging main (127)
Steps:Walk (walking step may be replaced with sashay for
more vigor) Sashay
Side (lock eyes with partner and move as if connected)
Couples form single ring around may pole, men on left, ladies
on right, all holding hands
Walk right, 2 counts of 8
Walk step left, 2 counts of 8
Men walk into center 3 steps, clap (count of 4)
Women walk into center 3 steps, clap (count of 4) -- as women
move in, men move back to their places
Women take hands, sashay left count of 4, move back into ring
count of 4 (total 8 count
Women walk into center 3 steps, clap (count of 4)
Men walk into center 3 steps, clap (count of 4) -- as men move
in, women move back to their places
Men take hands, sashay left count of 4, move back into ring meeting
your partner count of 4 (total 8 count
Repeat entire passage above
Face partner and side moving clockwise (to right), complete circle
to place 8 count, then return to place counterclockwise (to left),
8 count, repeat
Beginning with right hands, and reel around the circle (take
partner's right hand, take next person's left hand), 4 counts
Meet new partner, link right arms and swing clockwise, 8 count,
change to left arms, swing counterclockwise, 8 count, repeat
Take new partner's right hand, reel around the circle, 4 counts
of 8 repeat last set again with next partner
1. Clarke, Mary and Crisp, Clement. The
History of Dance. Crown Publishers, Inc. NewYork, 1981, p. 8.
2. Ibid, p. 7.
3. Storms, Dr. G. Anglo-Saxon Magic. The Hague,
Martinus Nijhoff, 1948, p.175.
4. Cass, Joan. Dancing Through History. Prentice
Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1993, p. 11.
5. Spence, Lewis. Myth and Ritual in Dance,
Game, and Rhyme. Grand River Books, Detroit, 1971, p. 190.
6. Frazer, Sir James George. The Golden Bough.
Touchstone, New York, 1996, pp. 42-43.
7. Spence, p. 190.
8. Ibid, p. 2.
*It should be noted that the theory of sympathetic magic and
the work of Sir James Frazer have come into question by contemporary
folklorists and is, at best, a theory and, at worst, an attempt
to explain the purpose and meaning behind tribal and folk practices
based on the supposition that everything is done for a reason.
Contemporary scholars have found fault with much of the research
and many of the assumptions of early folklorists, preferring
to depend on historical accounts and strict research method.
Much of this is valid, of course, but sterile, as there is only
so much evidence of early folk practices, and records may still
be biased, such as church documentation. Also, I find some of
the reasoning faulty, as the first indication of a practice may
be a particular date, but that does not mean the practice was
not occurring much earlier, or based on an earlier custom.
9. Clark and Crisp, p. 25.
10. Spence, p. 115.
11. Cass, p. 2.
12. Clark and Crisp, pp. 7-8.
13. Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Pagan Scandinavia.
Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, New York, 1967, p. 59.
14. Ibid, pp. 86-87.
15. Ibid, pp. 87-88.
16. Ibid, p. 60.
17. Ibid, p. 82.
18. Tacitus. The Agricola and the Germania.
Translated by H. Mattingly, translation revised by S. A. Handford.
Penguin Books, London, 1970, p. 135.
20. Davidson, 94-95.
21. Ibid, pp. 98-99.
22. Ibid, pp. 94-95.
24. Palsson, Hermann and Edwards, Paul, Translators.
Seven Viking Romances; Bosi and Herraud (from Bosa saga og Herrauds).
Penguin Books, London, 1995, pp. 220-221.
25. Ibid, p. 200.
26. Magnus, Olaus. Description of the Northern
Peoples, Rome, 1555, V. I, Second Series No. 182. Translated
by Peter Fisher and Humphrey Higgens, Edited by Peter Foote.
Hakluyt Society, London, 1996, p. 160.
27. Davidson, p. 100.
28. Ibid, p. 109.
29. Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, v.2.
Dover, New York, 1966, pp. 760-788.
30. Ibid, p. 760.
31. Spence, pp. 79-80.
33. The first record of the European Yule
Tree custom comes from the Rhineland, 1520s. See Hutton, Ronald.
The Stations of the Sun, a History of the Ritual Year in Britain.
Oxford University Press, New York, 1996, p. 114.
34. Grimm, v.2, p. 777.
35. Spence, p. 146.
**In order to address those who maintain that May festivities
in the British Isles are remnants of the Celtic Beltane festival,
there is no evidence of a Celtic may pole. Instead, Beltane rites
in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland center around bonfires, more
in common with the Germanic Midsummer rites. There is one account
of an Irish ring dance around a live tree, versus the Germanic
custom of cutting the tree and bringing it from the wood. See
Hutton, pp. 224-227. Furthermore, in England the custom of wassailing
the may pole was known, and may was a time when the custom of
blowing and drinking out of horns was common. See Brand, p. 239,
36. Brand, John. Observations on Popular
Antiquities, v. 1. Ellis, Henry Sir, ed. H.G. Bohn, London, 1853-1855.
37. Lawson, Joan. European Folk Dance. Sir
Isaac Pitman & Sons, Ltd, London, 1962, p. 161.
38. Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, v.
3. George Bell and Sons, London, 1882, pp. 934.
39. Brand, p. 217, from Misson's Travels
40. Linsell, Tony. Anglo-Saxon Mythology,
Migration and Magic. Anglo-Saxon Books, Pinner, Middlesex, England,
1994, p. 149.
40. Brand, pp. 166-167.
41. Gomme, Alice Bertha. The Traditional
Games of England, Scotland and Ireland, v. 1. David Nutt, London,
1894, pp. 352-361.
42. Brand, pp. 194-195.
43. Ibid, pp. 200-202.
44. Pegg, Bob. Rites and Riots, Folk Customs
of Britain and Europe. Blandford Press, Poole, Dorset, UK, 1981,
45. Baker, Margaret. Folklore and Customs
and Rural England. Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, NJ, 1974,
46. Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, v.
2. George Bell and Sons, London, 1882, pp. 618, 622.
47. Lawson, p. 10.
48. Spence, pp. 159-160.
49. For a full description see Gomme, pp.
50. Brand, pp. 319-320.
51. Spence, p. 83.
52. Lawson, p. 128.
53. Clarke && Crisp, p. 43.
54. Davidson, p. 43.
55. Clarke && Crisp, p. 25.
56. Spence, p. 21.
57. Ibid, p. 133.
58. Hutton, p. 264.
59. Ibid, p. 264.
60. Clarke and Crisp, p. 46.
61. Lawson, p. 135.
62. Saxo Grammaticus. The History of the
Danes, v. 1. Trans. by Peter Fisher. Ed. by Hilda Ellis Davidson.
D.S. Brewer; Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, NJ, 1979, p. 172.
63. Pegg, p. 101. It is important to mention
at this late date (1935) folklorists and antiquarians had been
recording customs for at least a century, and we must ask the
question, how much influence did they have over the practitioners?
There was a folk revival in the mid-nineteenth century, some
based on the work of folklorists. If the common theory was that
the Morris was a fertility dance, might this not influence the
thoughts and intent of the dancers themselves? It was also common
for the "country people" to tell the antiquarian what
they wanted to hear, in order to gain recognition for their community.
As an example to where this can lead, Cecil Sharp, the noted
English Folk Dance preservationist, published two Morris dances
from England as "traditional," when in fact they were
newly written by a local who was able to pass them off as authentic.
See Hutton, pp. 298, 301.
64. Tacitus, p. 121.
65. Sharp, Cecil. The Sword Dances of Northern
England, Together with the Horn Dance of Abbots Bromley. Novello
and Company, Ltd, London, no date provided, pp. 18-19.
66. Ibid., p. 70.
67. JVC Video Anthology of World Music and
Dance, v. 20, Europe I.
68. Sharp, p. 28.
69. Magnus, p. 158.
70. Ibid, p. 153. It is possible this account
is Christianized to defame the god.
71. Sharp, pp. 12-16.
+Both Hutton and Pegg put forward the conclusion
that these customs, among others, which are undertaken door to
door or on display in order to raise funds, either for the poor
or a local charity, must therefore be originally designed for
that purpose, as well as community bonding. I find this reasoning
to be circular -- if people would pay to see a custom enacted
and bond together because of it, there must be some original
meaning to it, if now forgotten. These rites simply make an excellent
opportunity for fundraising, as they represent the Germanic ideal
of hospitality evident in the wassailing custom, and among others
later known in England as "souling," "catterning,"
and "clementing," the last two in reference to the
Saints_ days when they were practiced.
72. Hutton, p. 90.
74. Ibid, p. 90-91.
76. Lawson, pp. 21-22, pp. 161-162.
77. Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, v.
1. George Bell and Sons, London, 1882, p. 209.
78. Gundarsson, Kveldulfr, ed. Our Troth.
Ring of Troth, Seattle, 1993, p. 182. Primary source is given
as Volsa Thattr of St. Olafr's saga, Flateyjarbok.
79. Grimm, v. 2, p. 657.
80. Grimm, v.1, p. 47.
81. Magnus, p. 160.
82. Saxo Grammaticus, p. 128.
83. Palsson, Hermann and Edward, Paul, Trans.
Egil_s Saga. Penguin Books, London, 1976, p. 148.
84. Hutton, p. 82.
85. Ibid, p. 94.
86. Frazer, p. 713.
87. Davidson, p. 43. Linsell, p. 29.
88. Brand, p. 225. Grimm, v. 2, p. 613.
89. Ibid., pp. 784-785.
90. The work of Roy Judge presents the theory
that Jack-in-the-Green, far from representing a pagan fertility
god or being depicted in the "green man" faces in churches
as put forth by Frazer and Margaret Murray in God of the Witches,
was rather descended from the Milkmaid's Dance in England. See
Hutton, pp. 241-243. This does not explain the customs in Germany,
unless they were transported from England.
91. JVC Video Anthology of World Music and
Dance, Europe I, Volume 20. This may be associated with Halberstadt's
Vildifer, a hero disguised in a bear skin, led about and dances
to a harp. A boy dressed in greenery is led the same way and
made to dance as a bear in Willingshausen. See Grimm, v. 2, pp.
92. Until the early 1500's, this part was
played by a real woman. Hutton, p. 264.
93. Grimm, v. 2, p. 766. The winter figure
which was ceremonially burnt or drowned was also made of straw,
see Grimm, v. 2, pp. 770-772.
94. Gundarsson associates Freyr with the
mummer's play, Our Troth, pp. 190-194.
95. Brand, pp. 462-463.
96. Hutton, p. 75.
97. Gomme, v. 2, p2.
98. Spence, p. 86.
99. Gomme, v. 1, p. 163.
100. Ibid., p. 168.
101. Gomme, v.2, pp. 349-350. See also Sturluson,
Snorri. Heimskringla, History of the Kings of Norway. Hollander,
Lee, Trans. University of Texas Press, Austin, 1991, pp. 252-255.
102. Clarke & Crisp, p. 7.
103. Ibid, p. 93.
104. Lawson, pp. 21-22.
105. Pegg, pp. 73-74. This may also reflect
the custom in Germany of never leaving your doors open during
the twelve nights, or Frau Gauden may send in a dog whose whining
plagues the dwelling and its inhabitants with disease and death
throughout the year. See Grimm, v. 3, pp. 925-927.
106. Lawson, p. 22.
107.Ibid, pp. 140-141.
108. Ibid. See also Hallakarva, Gunnora. Viking
Music and Dance, Part 1. Marklander, #28, Summer Finding, 1998.
Lavrans Reimer-Moeller, ed. Ms. Hallakarva gives an excellent
description of the dance as performed in the Faroe Islands including
the words about Sigurd and the Dragon Favnir. She describes a
"kick" in this version, which an email conversation
with Faroe Island artist and cultural historian K ri Sverrisson
does not include, also verified by Lawson, but the kick may simply
represent an added variation. She also calls the dance "The
Tangle." My source has never heard it described as such.
The tune for this dance, "Ormurin langi" is on a new
CD entitled "Faeroyskur dansur," published by Hansemann
Torgar_ and performed by the dance association of Torshavn.
109. Lawson, p. 129.
110. Magnus, p. 206.
111. Spence, p. 87.
112. Magnusson, Magnus and Palsson, Hermann.
Laxdaela Saga. Penguin Books, London, 1969, pp. 80-81.
113. Lawson, p. 21.
114. Clarke & Crisp, p. 46.
115. Lawson, p. 143.
116. Whittock, Martyn. The Origins of England
410-600. Croom Helm, London, 1986, pp. 95-98.
117. Cass, p. 13.
118. Davidson, pp. 94-95.
119. Grimm, v.2, p. 788.
120. Spence, p. 86.
121. Austin, Jane. Emma. Barnes & Noble,
New York, 1996, p. 305.
122. Gomme, v.1, p. 71.
123. Lawson, p. 11.
124. Ibid, p. 12.
125. Clarke & Crisp, p. 46.
126. Spence, p. 83.
127. Duggan, Anne Schley, Schlottmann, Jeanette,
and Rutledge, Abbie. Folk Dances of the British Isles. A.S. Barnes
and Co., NY, 1948, p. 55.
Copyright 1998 by Alissa Sorenson