Dances of the Great Mother (1999)

This collection of dances represents the latest version of the research I have been concerned with for the past several years, connecting the family of three-measure dances with the ancient symbol of the Tree of Life. The Tree itself is a representation of the Great Mother Goddess who was once openly venerated throughout the same geographical area - Central and Eastern Europe as far north as Russia and the Near East as far east as the Caucasus - in which three-measure dances are most commonly found. In this vast area, all the major symbols which can be discerned in folk dance patterns, such as the circle, triangle, cross, spiral, crescent, square, zigzag and tree of life, also appear abundantly in contemporary and antique textiles and ceramics from the same region. The virtually exact correspondence between dance symbols and art symbols suggests a meaningful connection between them. I believe this shows that all of the folk arts, including dance, are part of a common symbolic language which stretches back to prehistory. At the heart of this language, I feel, is the expression of reverence for life energy as embodied in nature, the body and the feminine.

In the earliest prehistoric cave art, images from nature are predominant. The plant or tree motif is often shown in association with unambiguous drawings of the vulva. This identification of vulvas with grain-bearing plants or fruit-bearing trees may be a key to the concept of the divine in the ancient world, where the physical and metaphysical source of life was considered to be literally manifest in the life-giving powers of the earth and the feminine body. This feminine concept of the divine was expressed through abundant images of the Mother Goddess, ubiquitous throughout the ancient world from Western Europe through to Eastern Asia, as well as in Africa and in the Americas.

The goddess images of the Neolithic and later periods give many examples of female figures decorated with plant or tree motifs, as well as of women in association with trees and animals. In our time, the woman/goddess is less openly depicted in folk arts such as pottery & textiles, but the tree and animal images associated with her continue to be the predominant symbolic motif in the folk art of the Near East and Eastern Europe, even in our time.

The most common representation of the Tree of Life shows a central trunk flanked by two symmetrical branches. Typical goddess-tree-animal iconography also shows a central figure, either goddess, animal or tree, flanked by two identical figures, either animals, goddesses or trees. This arrangement of images appears again and again in the folk art of this vast region. Although we cannot know exactly what this motif meant to those who perpetuated it so faithfully through the millennia, its very frequency indicates its great importance. One obvious interpretation is the connection with the Great Mother, which I am proposing. Another possibility might be that the Tree of Life transcends and resolves the age-old religious problem of duality. The symmetrical branches can be seen to represent two opposite and equal forces, while Life itself grows between them, in perfect balance, favouring neither one nor the other. In this vision of duality the opposing qualities are not identified with good and evil, just as the Great Mother accepts both light and dark, earth and sky, life and death in the unending cycles of nature.

The Tree of Life motif also has an obvious anatomical connection. ‘One big one in the middle and two little ones either side’ can serve as a crude description of both the male and female generative organs. Whether the women and men of prehistoric times fully understood the processes of conception and reproduction is a subject of ongoing debate among anthropologists, but in any case, some connection between the sexual organs and the creation of new life would have been abundantly clear, making these life-giving body parts in both men and women especially worthy of reverence.

The Tree of Life can be seen, then, as a symbol of both male and female sexual generative power. One might ask why, if the essential male role in conception was indeed understood, Neolithic cultures persisted in honouring mainly the female as the source of life. It seems obvious to me that the woman’s body, in actually creating new life inside itself and then risking death to bring that life into being, has the more magical and powerful role in the process of reproduction and was therefore honoured accordingly.

Another question I am often asked is whether people living in ancient times would have known what woman’s inner reproductive organs looked like. Again, it seems obvious that people butchering animals would have learned something about internal anatomy in general; even if most people never saw a uterus and ovaries themselves, there is reason to believe that the knowledge of this shape and form was passed down among women, in the ‘open secret’ form of embroidery and textiles. There are many versions of flowers or the Tree of Life which strongly resemble the configuration of the uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes. In my collection of antique textiles there are several examples of this motif being worn on the belly or lower back, directly over the area of these valuable organs. Woman’s internal organs also strongly resemble the head and horns of a bull, and the reverence of the bull’s head in Catal Huyuk and Minoan Crete may well have been a form of reverence for these life-giving parts of the female body.

Other common artistic motifs also acknowledge the feminine aspect of the source of life. The cross, itself a version of the tree of life, with branches, roots and trunk, is also a representation of the human body, once again making the link between goddess and tree. Diamond or lozenge shapes are said to represent the vulva or yoni of the Great Mother. The circle is a symbol for the sun as well as for the womb, the tomb, and unity in all things. Zigzag or eternal spiral designs show the unending cycle of life, and also indicate a balance between opposites - above and below - synthesised in a forward progression. Plant and flower motifs in general show life energy radiating out from a central source, affirming over and over again that life comes from the earth and the plants of the earth, from the female body and from the sun. This basic veneration of earth, sun, and woman’s body as the three-fold source of life is represented over and over, encoded in textiles, pottery and other folk arts dating back to prehistoric times and still very much alive today.

So what does all this have to do with dancing? My current research affirms that the three-measure dance pattern, the most common dance type found today in the folk dance of Europe and the Near East, is an encoded representation of the Tree of Life. In its usual aspect, the Tree of Life is represented by a central trunk with two symmetrical branches on either side. Our three-measure dance pattern progresses in one direction in the first measure (like the trunk which grows), and then repeats something on either side in measures 2 & 3 (like the symmetrical branches). If we see the Tree of Life itself as an encoded symbol for the Great Goddess, then the presence and popularity of these dances hints that her veneration is now more covert but is still very much alive. Furthermore, although in general we cannot know the age of the folk dances we find alive today, antique artifacts can be dated. Establishing a connection between the Tree of Life and other symbols in both dance and visual arts might therefore indicate that the three-measure dance pattern also goes back thousands of years.

Dance anthropologists believe it to be the oldest dance pattern because it is the most widespread. Found throughout Eastern Europe and Western Asia from India to the Faroe Isles, and even in the Americas, the three-measure dance is probably most common in the Balkans, where it is labelled the ‘national dance’ of Bulgaria, Albania and Macedonia. Frequently, the name just means ‘dance’, and it forms the basic step of many of our most well-known simple dances: Pravo Oro in Macedonia, Pravo Horo in Bulgaria, Sta Tria and Zonaradhikos in Greece, Siganos in Crete, Dropullit and Valle in Albania, the Hora in Israel, and Halay in Turkey, Armenia and Kurdistan. All of the versions listed above travel to the right (anti-clockwise), but occasionally it moves to the left (clockwise), for example Hanter Dro in Brittany, Vrlicko Kolo in Croatia and Zervos in Greece.

This basic three-measure pattern provides an ancient and archetypal template for many other dances. There are so many different variations on this theme that it is easy to overlook their interrelation and treat them as separate dances, and it can be surprising to find out how many dances derive from the same root pattern. In this collection of dances, Siganos, Vrlichko Kolo, and the first part of Valle Nuseve represent the simplest three-measure step. The variation in Valle Nuseve transforms the Pravo step into the simple form of the Gypsy chochek, while Lesnoto simply adds a lift to change the rhythm from 2/4 to 7/8. Pembe and Tri Po Tri / Raikos are krsteno (crossing-step) variations on the theme, and Jeni Jol and Yeeftos Yeni Yol simply embellish it with touches. Turska Zenska Igra adds lifts and directional changes to the chochek, now in a 9/8 rhythm. Dada Sali is a modern, urban chochek, much faster than the old style, still in 2/4 but syncopated in typical Macedonian Rom (Gypsy) ways. Indijski Chochek is another good example of the three-measure dance as a living tradition, as it synthesises elements of both the Jeni Jol and the krsteno variations in a new way. Valle Korchare offers another interpretation of the Tree of Life motif, alternating steps in front with steps behind, like the zigzag designs which show the unending cycle of life, indicating a balance between opposites - in front and behind, open and closed - synthesised in a forward progression. Neda Voda Nalivala traces out the three directions of the Tree on the ground, and its identity as a ‘balcony dance’ as well as its ritual connection with the source of water offers a good metaphor for the survival of these ancient sources of worship and inspiration, hidden in the secret places of Balkan women’s culture.

The other dances in this collection are not in the three-measure family, but express a connection with the image of the Great Mother in other ways. Tulum Havasi brings ancient gestures of sowing and gathering from the Anatolian plain, cradle of Western civilisation. The Armenian bird dances, Grounkner and Garabneri Bar, have roots in the Central Asian shamanistic tradition of invoking the powers of birds and animals by imitating their movements, in order to bring their qualities into the human realm. The four women’s tsámika offer different ways of experiencing energy in the body and in the rhythms of daily life, an important teaching for women which is still extant today. And the Mandiliá from the ancient Greek communities of Asia Minor, acts out the parting and reunion of Demeter and Persephone, consciously invoking the presence of the Great Mother and her daughter as well as the cycles of life energy which their yearly journeys represent.

In my article about Mandiliá, The Dance of Life – It’s in the Blood, I wrote:

The long, tragic era in which [women’s] 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 millennia 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.

I take heart from the ample evidence that the major symbols in three-measure dances and corresponding folk art still flourish in our time, demonstrating the survival of a symbolic language which may be thousands of years old, and which continues to quietly affirm an archaic paradigm in which the life force is deserving of attention and care.

On the one hand, I hope to approach this research with an academic attention which can bring to light facts which help us understand where traditional dances come from and what they might mean. On the other hand, I feel personally that this cycle of dances can help open the inner and outer doorways to the energy of the divine feminine which the Great Mother personifies. I would like to encourage all dancers to find their own meanings in all that she has to offer: an open mind and a meditative awareness are all it takes to enter her realm. Safe journey, and happy dancing!


I particularly thank Mary Kelly for her pioneering work identifying goddess images in the embroideries from the places where the three-measure dances come from. As this article forms part of a larger work which is currently in progress, I welcome your comments and ideas, but I ask you not to photocopy or quote any part of this article without permission. Thank you.

Further reading:
Mary Kelly, Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe; Goddess Embroideries of the Balkan Lands and the Greek Islands
Sheila Paine, The Golden Horde, The Afghan Amulet
Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade
Gabriele Wosien, Tanz-Symbole in Bewegung
Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman
Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess; The Civilisation of the Goddess
Elizabeth Wayland Barber, Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years

NB: This article was written as the preface to a collection of dances, the music and dance notes to which are available from me in my workshops only.