Dance in the Northern Tradition


 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. (1)

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 Aecer-Bot:

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 aspects.

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

Historical Evidence

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 master musician:

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 and bravery.

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.

Folk Customs

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)

Morris Dance

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.

Sword Dance

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 altered.

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)

Hobby Horse

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, " 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 as:

London Bridge is broken down,
Gold is won and bright renown;
Shields resounding,
War-horns sounding,
Hild is shouting in the din;
Arrows singing,
Mail-coats ringing,
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 social dance.(103)

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.

Turning, Circling

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 of interpretation.

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 dancers.

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.

Couple Dance

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 gatherings."(120)Although perhaps 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, " know we are not really so much brother and sister as to make it at all improper."(121)

Work Dance

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.

Why Dance?

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.

Some Examples

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."

Hammer Dance
Thor's Harvest Dance


Danced to Dribbles of Brandy/Spirit of the Dance
Significance: Spring fertility or harvest celebratory dance
Steps: Lift (significance: planting of seed)
Hammer Stomp (significance: rain and lightening quickening the earth)
Turning Hop (significance: hopping as high as the grain grows)
Schottische (step hop) (significance: combination of the two above)
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 in spring)
Beginning position:
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)
Music change
Women, completing hop turn, take partner's left hand with your right hand
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
Music change
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)

Gathering Peascods

(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)
Props: none
Beginning position:
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
Music change
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 of 8
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.
19. Ibid.
20. Davidson, 94-95.
21. Ibid, pp. 98-99.
22. Ibid, pp. 94-95.
23. Ibid.
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.
32. Ibid.
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, 213.
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 to England.
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, p. 56.
45. Baker, Margaret. Folklore and Customs and Rural England. Rowman and Littlefield, Totowa, NJ, 1974, p. 32.
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. 87-94.
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.
73. Ibid.
74. Ibid, p. 90-91.
75. Ibid.
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. 784-785.
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



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