The Dance of Life - It's in the Blood (1996)

In Switzerland this summer I took part in a week-long workshop organised by Gabriele Wosien, dancing the Greek dances of Asia Minor. Our teacher was Fouly Karagavriilidou, a woman from Thessaloniki whose own parents had had to flee from Asia Minor, where Greek communities had lived for over three thousand years until the enforced population exchange with Turkey in 1923. The dance culture there has remained very close to ancient themes, honouring women, the earth and life's journey; we learned two beautiful dances ('Mandilia' and 'Ionatista Mandilia') which enact the parting, grieving, meeting and rejoicing of Demeter and Persephone.

In marvellous synchronicity, Marianne Inselmini (also attending the workshop) received a letter while she was there containing a photograph of a relief from the circular Athena Pronaia altar at the oracle of Delphi. We noticed that the woman on the right is slightly taller, full-faced and thicker-bodied, while the woman on the left appears slimmer, with a face that is young and unlined but also unsmiling: mother and daughter, Demeter and Persephone. What really thrilled us was their dance-like gestures with the cloths in their hands, because the two Demeter and Persephone dances we learned are also danced with scarves or cloths of just that size and shape.

The following week, I was sitting at my computer writing about the workshop when an issue of Goddessing Network News arrived in the post. The magazine included an article on the very same round altar from Delphi, by Ann-Rosemary Conway, whose drawing of the altar shows detail that we could not discern from the photograph. The cloths are not only in the hands of the dancing women; there are other cloths wound around garlands draped above the scene, looking just like they are hanging out to dry. The caption reads: 'Originally, the altar cloths were mentrual cloths.' They are obviously important, or they would not be carved on the altar of one of the most important sacred sites of the ancient world. And is it purely coincidence that the prophetic sibyls who made Delphi famous were known originally as 'belly talkers'?

Until reading Ann-Rosemary Conway's description of the altar, it hadn't occurred to me that the Greek scarf dances of today might be an encoded ritual honouring of menstrual cloths - a means, whether conscious or unconscious, of publicly keeping sacred the women's power which has been devalued for so long. In my experience, traditional folk arts - dance, song, pottery, textiles - often serve this purpose. The scarf dances are still danced today in Greece and Turkey, part of a vast area of Europe and Asia in which an earlier worship of natural cycles has been overlaid by the major religions, each in their own way denying the inherent sanctity of nature. Yet the themes and forms of these early beliefs have never actually been stifled. They have merely been disguised, and continue to surface abundantly in the folk art and folk dance of this same vast area.

From prehistory right up until the present day, people have continued to believe in the sanctity of nature and her life-giving cycles, and to express their appreciation of the miracle of life through a continuity of folk art motifs. As religious and political fashions have made it less acceptable to express these beliefs overtly - in particular, the worship of the sacred feminine as the source of life - the same basic message has taken on hidden forms, encoded in symbols expressed over and over in embroidery, pottery, and dance. This nonverbal language is an open secret, to be decoded by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

The long, tragic era in which such wisdom has needed to be encrypted in symbol, for its own safety and for the safety of those who believe, may simply be another way in which we are experiencing the descent and disappearance of Persephone. Seen from this perspective, our recent millenia of collectively devaluing the earth, the feminine and the body, may be part of a natural cycle of visibility and invisibility, hiddenness and revelation, darkness and light.

So, inevitably, this dark time too must come to an end. Everywhere, we see a resurfacing of respect for the divine feminine as people honour once again not only the symbols, but the reality of that which gives and sustains life: the earth, the oceans and all beings who inhabit them. Collective responsibility for the care and protection of our shared world is appearing everywhere like the first green shoots and leaves of spring. Our awakening is Persephone's awakening: a time of rebirth and renewal, a second coming silently prophesied by generations of scarf dancers.

Fouly's scarves, by the way, which she only uses for dancing, are RED.

[A version of this article appeared originally in Goddessing Network News, Issue 7, Fall 1997]