The sacred dance is to be found in every tradition, every religion and every culture since the remote antiquity up to our contemporary times. What has been its purpose, what its significance and its ritual? Why was it so important to the people keeping such a notable role in their mythology as well as in their history? Is there anything left from it in today’s practice? Adventuring through the ages, together we shall explore the mystery of the sacred dance and its wonders.
Our journey will start from mythological Greece and the birth of Zeus, the god of thunder, father of the gods and the humankind according to the ancient Greek mythology. His father Cronos, a name which means Time, used to devour all his newborns as time devours all its children. Zeus mother, goddess Rea, whose name means the flow of time, hid her newborn baby inside a deep cave located at the island of Crete. Outside this cave, the smaller deities or soldier/priests called Curetes or Korybants were performing a cyclic war dance called Pyrrhic, named according to some writers after Pyrrhus, the son of hero Achilles. They were making a lot of noise clashing their swords and spears on their shields to cover the baby’s crying so Cronos couldn’t hear it. They were dancing accompanied mainly by the sound of a flute (Plato, Critias, p. 54).
This same war-like dance was performed during the historical period of ancient Greece at the northern Greek island of Samothrace, at the Cabirian initiation mysteries and other rituals taking place on that island as well as at other locations of ancient Greece. It was the dance of the seven Cabiri deities, the representatives of the seven planets of our solar system as they were known in ancient times, which, along with their elder brother or Sun, form a powerful ogdoad. During these Samothrace mysteries the sacred dance was being performed by the priests and the initiates. This war dance has been preserved by the Greek people once living at Pontos – a place located at the northern part of Turkey by the Black Sea, who migrated from that land in the beginning of last century. They still dance it in our times in Greece as part of their tradition and in other parts of the world, also, where they have settled.
But the story of the ritualistic dance in ancient times doesn’t stop there.
The Greek hero Theseus, after killing the Minotaur in Crete, made a stop at the island of Delos, the birthplace of Apollo, god of light, music and healing, and his sister Artemis, goddess of nature and the moon, and danced around the altar of their temple mimicking the corridors and tunnels of the Labyrinth where Minotaur lived (Plutarch, Theseus 21). This dance was called “crane” by the priests and is still performed in several places in contemporary Greece. The labyrinth and the minotaur are also symbolizing the human lower mind that the hero must conquer killing his animal ego. Now, Plato, in his work: Phaedrus, (230d, 244e) says that all the Dionysian and Bacchic festivities or orgies included ritual dancing.
Other sacred dances in ancient Greece in which participated women, were performed on mountains at night with the use of torches. The most known of these are the dances of the maenads, also known as Bacchae, and were the women followers of god Dionysus falling in an ecstatic frenzy with their dancing. The cyclic dance was also part of the Pythagorean mysteries with women disciples and the leading dancer was Pythagoras’s wife, Theano. Again, there were the priestesses’ dancing during certain rituals of evoking one of the gods or the goddesses for protection or action. A ritual like those evoking the gods action, is the one at the Olympic Flame Touch in ancient Olympia, Greece, performed a few months before the event of the Olympic Games, which this year will take place in Japan.
Travelling northbound in the European continent, we see that there is ritual dancing in the Celtic and Druid traditions for the day of the Dead in November, the Spring Fertility Origins of May Day and others, most of which are still being performed in our times. There were labyrinthic engravings on the ground until the 16th century, which were used for cyclic dances during the Spring festivities while similar dances are shown on wall paintings inside churches of the same century in Scandinavia, titled “Dance of Virgins”. Also, we find information about the dance dedicated to the German spring goddess Ostara or Eostre, from whose name derives the English word “Easter” (W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Cuchama and Sacred Mountains, part III), while in Middle Ages Germany, the dancers of Saint John were performing the ecstatic dance like that of the Dionysiac and Bacchic mysteries.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Indians of North America had and still have many ritual dances – for example the rain dance usually performed by the shaman/doctor of the tribe who was also chanting and sometimes by others accompanying him, the snake dance and the Spirit dance which was done to evoke beings from the other world. All their dances are an integral part of their tradition, ritualistic and symbolic illustrations related with farming, rain and thanksgiving to the benevolent cosmic forces and especially Mother Earth, Father Sun and the Great Spirit. They also had the initiation dance of the tribe’s Shaman (W. Y. Evans-Wentz, Cuchama and Sacred Mountains, part III). Also, according to the same writer, in the area in the county of San Diego, California, there is a mountain called Kwut-ah Lu-e-a, meaning Dancing Song, on the summit of which they used to perform the sun-dance at dawn inside a circle drawn on the ground and keep dancing until the sun was risen with all its brightness in the sky.
Moving to the Near East, now, we read in the Bible (in Samuel 2;14) about the cyclic dance of King David before the Lord: “And David danced before the Lord with all his might”. Also, in Judges 21:21 we read about the daughters of Siloh performing their dance, and again in the book of Kings we read about the dancing of the Prophets of the Phoenician god Baal. We should also mention here the swirling Dervish dance, by which the dancers fall into an ecstatic situation and believe they are illuminated by the Holy Spirit. Another important finding is in the Gnostic work known as The Acts of John, classified as The New Testament Apocrypha and written by Leucius Charinus, a disciple of John. In its text Jesus is said to perform a dancing ritual with the Apostles. It is mentioned as the “Hymn of Jesus”, which Gerald R. S. Mead translated in English with comments in his book: The Hymn of Jesus, Echoes from the Gnosis (1907, pp.21-30, TPH London and Benares). I’ll quote a small part for you, as the hymn is very long.
“Glory to Thee, Father!
(And we, going around in a ring, answered to Him:) Amen!
Glory to Thee, Logos! Amen!
Glory to Thee, Grace! Amen!
Glory to Thee, Spirit! Glory to Thee, Holy One! Amen!
Glory to Thy Glory! Amen!
Further down, the Hymn shows dancing and music playing:
(Here we have the Ogdoad again, as in the Samothrace mystery dance)
The Twelfth number above leadeth the dance. Amen!
See thyself in Me who speak;
And seeing what I do,
Keep silence on My Mysteries. Understand by dancing, what I do;
For thine is the Passion of Man That I am to suffer.”
And elsewhere in the text:
“In a word I am the Word who did play [or dance] all things and was not shamed at all. ‘Twas I who leaped [and danced].
(And having danced these things with us, Beloved, the Lord went forth.
(And we, as though beside ourselves, or wakened out of [deep sleep, fled each our several ways.)
In the dancing of Jesus and his 12 Apostles around him, we also have the notion of the Divine Presence that encircles the Central Spiritual Sun of the Secret Doctrine, (vol. I, pp 289-90), where HPB states: “They dance following the cosmic movements while the Presence is the Invisible Deity, the Absolute One”. Dancing and playing a pipe or a flute were also what Shri Krishna did with his disciples in the Hindu tradition. According to the myth, Shri Krishna was a shepherd and he is illustrated as dancing in a cyclic movement playing his flute. This dancing is the one that the Gopi desert shepherds of Krishna performed in old times, but it is still performed in the Indian area of Rajputana under the name of Raja Mandala. There is also the dance performed by the Hindu nuns in honor of Krishna the Avatar of Vishnu, who is sometimes illustrated as Narayan, the god who moves the cosmic waters in a cyclic way.
Going north to the Siberia, we find the tribe of the Ostyaks who have a labyrinthic dance called “crane” as was called the dance of hero Theseus in the island of Delos, and they perform it all dressed up with feathers from the bird crane (Panagiotis Marinis, The Antediluvian Civilization, Athens, Greece). We should not forget to mention the Aboriginals of Australia, the so-called bushmen, in the life of whom the sacred dance still has an important role, even though it isn’t such a strong tradition today as it used to be in older times. All sacred dances in every place and time, were accompanied by various instruments – drums, flutes, pipes, cymbals and others.
The question that arises in one’s mind is how, when and why this dance is considered as sacred.
In one of his works, the Assyrian writer Lucian of Samosata says that dance appeared in the beginning of time along with god Eros the first, who, according to the ancient Greek mystic and initiate Orpheus, gave rhythm to the great dance of creation (Panos L. Fragelis, Orpheus, the Great Mystic and Musician, p. 147, Athens, Greece, 1997). This Eros was not the playful child of goddess Aphrodite but the third factor of the ancient Greek cosmogony, with the other two being Chaos and Gaia and is considered as the equivalent of Fohat of the Secret Doctrine. The rhythm given by god Eros is the one we observe in the harmonious movement and interchange of the constellations, the planets and the stars.
In the same way, Fohat, one of the most important factors in Vedantic cosmogony, identified sometimes with the Creative Logos or god Vishnu of the Hindus, acts in a cyclic way on all cosmic levels moving swiftly through the seven regions of the universe and making the worlds to appear. Numbers 3, 5 and 7 mentioned in Stanza 5 (S.D. vol. I, p. 112-13) are like steps in a cyclic dance. Raising his voice, Eros-Fohat calls all in the universe to join in a sacred dance thus carving the celestial orbits of the constellations, the galaxies and the stars. And this cyclic dance moves from the center to the circumference and back to the center like a vortex. A similar cyclic dance is taking place during the wedding ceremony of the Greek Orthodox Church, in which the newly married couple, the best man, the maid of honor and the ministering priest walk around the altar located in front of the Secret Temple.
The Greek word for dance is “horos”. In the ancient Greek tragedies, drama or satire, the “horos” consisted of persons performing a cyclic dance following the pattern of a vortex or a labyrinth. In the satiric plays these are usually 50 men wearing masks who also speak or sing, being the consciousness of the actors or the messengers of the gods. Today, women are also included in these dances. Now, from the word “horos” we get the word “horodia” or chorus, and the word “orchestra” which is the name of that part of the ancient theatre where the ritual dancing takes place. As the ancient Greek dramas derive from the Mysteries and especially from dancing around the altar of Dionysus, god of wine, enjoyment and divine frenzy, the amphitheatric structure of the ancient theatre followed the form of the cyclic area where the “horos” or “orchestra” was located.
As part of every ritual, the sacred dance represents the universal mystery of movement as well as the mystery of human nature, of joy, of sorrow, of exultation and desperation. It represents the human need for a harmonious tuning with the universal law that underlies all. It is a symbolism of the cyclic movement of the planets around the sun, the movement of the swirling particles consisting the physical atom and of the cyclic movement of the 12 signs of the Zodiac.
In the Hymn of Jesus, He is said to sing that Grace leads the dance. According to the Coptic Gnostic work Pistis-Sofia or The Askew Codex (Kessinger Publishing Company, USA., introduction by G .R. S. Mead, 1921), the two Greek words meaning Faith-Wisdom, Sofia or Wisdom is the wife of Jesus and she leads the dancing, while those who are participating in it follow the cosmic movements and are mysteriously connected with Sofia, or Spirit or Holy Breath or Harmony. Harmony is the hidden name of the seven Inner Spheres surrounded by the Eighth – the Ogdoad, and this way the dancers are following the Music of the Spheres – in other words, they are repeating on Earth the cosmic rhythm that was taught by the ancient Greek philosopher and mystic Pythagoras. Participating in this sacred dance, the human soul starts to vibrate along with the octave or ogdoad of the Spheres, which is Spirit in harmony, and then comes that stage of the ritual where an inner sense and presence of true Brotherhood prevails. And this is the stage during which the dancer falls into spiritual ecstasy or divine frenzy.
This spiritual ecstasy has also therapeutic effect, because when IT stops, calmness and quietness fill the human soul and body. Therefore, it was used as a healing “remedy” in ancient times in healing centers and temples around the globe. Hebrew philosopher and Platonist Philo of Alexandria, Egypt, 1st century A. C., in his work: De vita contemplativa or On The Contemplative Life and also in Ascetics III, often talks about and describes the ritualistic dances performed by the Therapeutae or Physicians of Souls or Healers, as accompanied by hymns and incantations during feasts until dawn. Even in our time, in northern Greece, in May, there is the event of those who walk barefoot on burning coal without getting burned. The participants of this ritual are called “Anastenarians”, a term derived for the Greek word for “sighing” as they sigh while in ecstasy. They dance around the pit with the burning coal for hours, holding an icon or painting of a Saint or of Virgin Mary and fall in an ecstatic state. Then, they move into the pit dancing cyclically while crossing it and still holding the holy icon. With their dancing inspire all those who are watching the event, sometimes claiming they have been healed from physical or psychological problems.
Apart of all the above, the sacred dance is a symbolism of the spiral process in the spiritual evolution towards the Divine. It resembles the inner path of discipleship, it guides the pupil to the light of Truth and is based on the axiom of Hermes Trismegistus – “As above, so below”.
W.Y. Evans-Wentz, Cuchama and Sacred Mountains – Greek edition, 1994, Editions ΙΑΜVLICHUS.
Nikos V. Litsas, The Sacred Geography of Greece, Athens, Greece 2000, Editions ESΟPΤRΟΝ
- S. Mead, Hymn of Jesus, Echoes from the Gnosis, 1907, TPH London and Benares
Panos L. Fragelis, Orpheus, the Great Mystic and Musician, p. 147, Athens, Greece, 1997, Editions ELEFTHERI SKEPSI.
Panos Marinis, The Antediluvian Civilization, Athens, Greece, Editions ΝΕΑ THESIS
Plato, Phaedrus, Critias, 1992 Athens, Greece, Editions ΚAKTUS
Plutarch, Theseus, Athens, Greece, 1990, Editions ΚAKTUS
HPB, The Secret Doctrine, vol I, Athens, Greece, 1993, Editions PΝΕΥΜΑΤΙΚΟS HELIOS
The Askew Code or Pistis-Sofia, Kessinger Publishing Company, USA
Philo of Alexandria, On the Contemplative Life, and Ascetics III, New World Encyclopedia