dance · folklore · ritual

Dance in Ritual

The Germanic ring-dance (or chain dance) was common over northern and western Europe for many centuries, and is still practiced in some places such as the Faeroe Islands. The usefulness of such a thing to me in ritual is obvious, and digging around a little we see that the practice has its origins in the pre-Christian Germanic peoples.

Bertha Phillpotts, in her invaluable The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama (pp. 186-187), provides this gloss of a Latin account from the Byzantine court written down by Constantine Porphyrogenitus circa the early 10th century, but possibly being as old as the 6th century.

…it is impossible to decide at present whether the Christmas custom described… is performed by Goths … or by Varangians — Scandinavians. … it is played on the ninth day of Yule. There appear to be two parties, the Blue and the Green, each side with a leader, and each side has two or more “Goths” wearing masks of various animals, and clad in reindeer-skins or fur pelises in such a way that the hairy or shaggy side is turned outwards. In his left hand each carries a shield, and a staff in the right hand. The two groups stand facing each other, and at the word of command run up near the Emperor’s table beating their shields with their staves, and crying “Tul! Tul!” They then form two circles, one within the other, and in this formation seem to dance thrice round the table of the Emperor: they then retire, while “those who out of the two groups represent the Goths recite the so-called Gothic chant, the instrument players’ giving the time.”

While the mentions of animal guising around the New Year are interesting, what is relevant to the present article is the mention of the ring dance; “they form two circles, one within the other, and in this formation seem to dance thrice round the table”.

We are told of a similar ring-dance that was conducted by the Lombards (a Germanic tribe who eventually settled in northern Italy) by Pope Gregory I (540-604 CE), in the third book of his Dialogues (ch 28):

At the same time, the Lombards, having almost four hundred prisoners in their hands, did, after their manner, sacrifice a goat’s head to the devil: running round about with it in a circle, and by singing a most blasphemous song did dedicate it to his service.

As we saw in our examination of Midsummer, Atto of Vercelli (885-961 CE) also specifically mentions ring dancing in association with St. John’s Day (Midsummer):

Certain little trollops abandon the churches and the divine offices; they pas the whole night any which where, in the streets and crossroad, by springs and in the countryside; they form round dances, compose songs, draw lots and pretend that people’s prospects are to be predicted from things of this sort.

The number of penetentials, sermons, and the like condemning dancing in general is too great to even list, but the specific mention of ring-dancing in Atto’s account is of interest.

N.E. Hammerstedt, writing in the Norwegian journal of linguistics Maal og Minne in 1911, argued that the Lapps acquired the custom of dancing in a ring around fallen trees and tree stumps at some point prior to the 11th century, which would place the practice during the Viking era:

Högst märk- ligt är, att det antydes, att lapparna också utfört något slags dans kring det blodbestrukna trådet, ty detta avses otvivelaktigt av SQLANDER, då han säger, att de »siungande kringlupit» detta med rötterna uppgrävda tråd!

Most striking is that it hints, that the Lapps also performed some kind of dance around the blood-covered tree, for this is what is undoubtedly meant by SQLANDER, when he mentions the “singing circle” about the uprooted tree roots!

Next, the custom breaks into the post-Conversion era (and thence to the modern age) in this 13th century account, almost certainly based on a traditional folktale, from Denmark (recounted in Bertha Phillpotts, The Elder Edda and Ancient Scandinavian Drama, p. 123):

In his country, Brother Peder said, the lying-in of a woman is enlivened by her neighbors, who come in and divert themselves with songs and improper dances. On one such occasion when a number of women were gathered together they collected a bundle of straw and gave itt ht elikenes of a man with arms of straw, put a hood and belt on it and called it Bovi. Thereupon they began their ring-dance, two women leapt and sang with him between them, and in between the verses they turned round to him, as was the custom, with forward guestures and said to him: “Sing with us, Bovi, sing too, why art though silent? But at that moment the devil answered: “Yea, I will sing” –and uttered a yell which lilled some of them with fright.

It’s very interesting that E.K. Chambers, in his The Medieval Stage (p. 166) mentions a very similar practice in England:

Just as the ‘country’ dance is derived from the processional dance, so the other type of folk-dance, the ronde or ’round’, is derived from the comparatively stationary dance of the group of worshipers around the more especially sacred objects of the festival, such as the tree or the fire. The custom of dancing round the May-pole has been more or less preserved wherever the May-pole is known. But ‘Thread the Needle’ itself often winds up with a circular dance or ronde, either around one of the players, or, on festival occasions, around the representative of the earlier home of the fertilization divinity, the parish church. This custom is popularly known as ‘clipping the church’.

And in a footnote to the above-referenced paragraph, Chambers gives us the following details which are even more evocative:

The church at Painswick, Gloucester, is danced round on wake-day. There is a group of games, in which the players wind and unwind in spirals round a centre. Such are Eller Tree, Wind up the Bush Faggot, and Bulliheise. These Mrs. Gomme regards as survivals of the ritual dance round a sacred tree. Some obscure references in the rhymes used to ‘dumplings’ and ‘a bundle of rags’ perhaps connect themselves to the cereal cake and the rags hung on the tree for luck.

Personally, I see a connection between the English ‘bundle of rags’ and Brother Peder’s image of straw from Denmark. Both are constructs that are the center of the circular dance, and both evoke images of a humanoid form. I would posit (and this is, of course, pure speculation) that they represent a god-form that was originally at the center of the dance. Indeed, given the well-known use of god-poles by the Heathens, could it also be related to Sǫlander’s uprooted trees, which were covered with blood and also the center of a round dance?

Finally, it should be noted that there’s a variation of the ring-dance, known as the chain-dance, which is still practiced to this day in the Faeroe Islands. The dance itself is simplicity itself; people hold hands, take two steps to the left, one step to the right, and repeat. The dance is done to any number of chanted songs, sung by the dancers, on subjects ranging from historical drama to tales of elves and witches. They can be done either in Faerose or Danish, depending on their origin (and subject matter tends to vary by language and origin).

All in all, I think there’s a very strong case to be made for the existence of dance during pre-Christian Germanic ritual. There is certainly something to be said for participants in ritual to have a part in that ritual, and some sort of kinetic motion, combined with a holiday-appropriate song, seems like it would be a perfect fit.

It’s also a good example of the principle that the Eddas and Icelandic Sagas should not be regarded as the be-all and end-all of source material for Heathenry. Not only are they (mostly) post-Conversion works, there is a wealth of other sources that are actually describing Heathen practices happening at the time. As I’ve said before, if the Christians want to ban it, chances are it’s something we might want to adopt.

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