The best books for learning about the roots of European dance in ancient concerns for female fertility and health

Elizabeth Wayland Barber Author Of The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance
By Elizabeth Wayland Barber

Who am I?

I’m an information junkie who loves to dance. I fell in love with folk dancing at age 6, European archaeology at 11, linguistics and cognition at 21—and could never drop any of them. My scientist-father always said, “Follow the problem, not the discipline,” and I began to see how these fields could help answer each other’s questions. Words can survive for millennia—with information about what archaeologists don’t find, like oh-so-perishable cloth. Determining how to reconstruct prehistoric textiles (Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years) then led me to trace the origins of various European folk costumes, and finally even to reconstruct something about the origins of the dances themselves.

I wrote...

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

By Elizabeth Wayland Barber,

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

What is my book about?

European communal dance developed around farming beliefs about fertility and health, when farming spread to Europe 8,000 years ago. Food crops depended on soil and rain: the ancestors, buried below, could push up the sprouts, but who managed rain? Perhaps the spirits of girls who died before bearing children (many by drowning) and hadn’t used their natural allotment of fertility. Dance rituals appeased spirit-maidens when angry, and told them when it was time to leave their watery homes and shed fertility by dancing across the fields. My book traces traditional seasonal rituals, folklore of the dancing spirit-maidens, wedding customs around those most potent maidens, Brides, plus the matching archaeological evidence, concluding with insights from cognitive science on “Why do we humans just love to dance?”

The books I picked & why

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Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath

By Carlo Ginzburg, Raymond Rosenthal (translator),

Book cover of Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath

Why this book?

I first picked up this book hoping to find whether Western Europe ever had agrarian fertility rituals/beliefs equivalent to those I was studying in Eastern Europe. But then I simply couldn’t stop reading, because it was so compellingly written as well as chock full of fascinating information relating to my interests. Ginzburg presents both the historical records and his deeply perceptive insights into the processes by which age-old farmers’ customs (including dancing), aimed simply at having enough food for the year, were reinterpreted as evil witchery and Satanism by Roman Catholic officials attempting to eradicate everything outside the Christian church as they knew it. (Eastern Orthodox officials, with far more territory to convert, confined themselves largely to condemning murder, adultery, and incest, and reallocating people’s entrenched customs to Christian saints.)

The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia

By W.F. Ryan,

Book cover of The Bathhouse at Midnight: An Historical Survey of Magic and Divination in Russia

Why this book?

I chose this book because it is such a wide-ranging compendium of Russian folk beliefs in general (in English!) as well as of Russian customs involved in trying to ensure the fertility and health of crops, farm animals, and women, all desperately needed for the survival of the community. It is these fascinating and picturesque customs that so often get incorporated into dances. Furthermore, the Dancing Goddesses were often pressed into service for divination of the future, especially by young girls worrying about whom they would marry and how many children they would have, or if they would die first. (I accidentally witnessed one of these ceremonies in Danzig in 1993—they have not died!)

Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia: Beliefs about Protection and Fertility

By Linda M. Welters (editor),

Book cover of Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia: Beliefs about Protection and Fertility

Why this book?

This book is a rich source of information about how certain attire, especially the “string skirt” and its variants, has traditionally been drafted in Europe to promote women’s health and fertility, a tradition that we can trace back, through evidence, for some 20,000 years. Wonderfully illustrated, the data here range from Greece and Turkey in the south, through Central Europe to Latvia and Norway in the far north, as well as occasionally deep into Eurasia. And of course, such apparel was particularly donned for dancing on occasions where the wearer would be seen by all. (Being a show-off runs deep in humanity!)

Calus: Symbolic Transformation in Romanian Ritual

By Gail Kligman,

Book cover of Calus: Symbolic Transformation in Romanian Ritual

Why this book?

Humans also draft dance to help heal body and mind. I loved Kligman’s personal ventures deep into the complex concerns about life and death, fertility and health, found in related pre-Christian rituals in three areas of the Balkans: the Căluşari in SW Romania, the Rusaltsi in NW Bulgaria, and the Kraljevi—often with other names—just west in former Yugoslavia. (The word Rusaltsi comes from Rusalka, a Slavic name for the “dancing goddess”, as does Rusalii, the thrice-yearly festival in their honor.)  Her intriguing study comes from direct observation of the healing rituals, and on personal discussions with the dancers—including one who was particularly vulnerable to trance!  This is also true of L. Danforth’s remarkable account of the firewalkers of SE Bulgaria and northern Greece (Firewalking and Religious Healing). 

Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History

By William H. McNeill,

Book cover of Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History

Why this book?

I selected this book because it finally offered me some answers to questions I’d asked myself all my life: Why am I so driven to dance? Why does dancing make me feel so euphoric? McNeill found himself asking this last question when forced to go through endless military close-order drill (a sort of dance!) as a young draftee. Whence these surprisingly positive effects of “keeping together in time”? Over the course of his later life as a historian, he tracked down a fascinating array of anecdotal and cognitive answers.  The relation of this phenomenon to unique details of how the human brain is put together was then further addressed by Oliver Sacks toward the end of his book Musicophilia, where I first learned of McNeill.

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