Ritual Dance in Greece, Then & Now (2011)


This article appeared in German in Neue Kreise Ziehen Heft 1/11

‘The blessed ones wend their way with song and dance through the holy circle of the goddess...’ – Aristophanes, 4th C BCE


From the very beginnings of Neolithic culture in what is now Greece, the Earth Mother was worshipped with ritual dance. Archaeology provides abundant depictions of dancers, most often women, either alone or with hands joined in a line or circle, as far back as 5000 BCE. Choral dance was a central part of rites at Delphi, Knossos, Athens, Vravrona, Eleusis and other sites, bringing cosmic order – symbolised by the circle – into the human world. Plato affirmed that choral dance was an essential part of education.  As well as dance and song, worship included offerings and sacrifices, ritual processions, and dramatic enactments, all of which are still central to many of the ritual traditions which survive in Greece today, directly descended from ancient forms of danced worship. 


Women at the Wedding

Just as priestesses and priests in the ancient world served at separate shrines, ritual activities in Greece today are largely divided along lines of gender. At the bride’s home before the ceremony, for example, women dress the bride, prepare the space and use special cloths and trays to offer food and drink to the guests and musicians. The bride’s female relatives are required to take a turn leading the syrtos, and in a very ancient custom, the bride’s shoes, veil and jewelry might be ‘danced’ for protection and purification before she may put them on.  These customs are the responsibility of the women and are undertaken with great care. 

Traditional bridal costume symbolically transformed the identity of the bride as she crossed the threshhold of initiation to emerge as a new self.  Wearing a costume emroidered with patterns identical to those found on ancient goddess figures and vases, and with her own face veiled, the bride herself was made to resemble one of those goddesses of old. Even in modern dress, the bride takes on a priestess-like role to embody divine energy and bring it into the community. At a Sarakatsani wedding I attended recently, guests offered money to dance briefly next to the bride, in a custom once common throughout the Balkans, as if both offering to, and receiving from, the life-giving goddess of fertility which the bride on her wedding day represents. 


Carnival and Komodia

Bawdy humour, unrestrained drinking, otherworldly masks and disguises, and wild dancing characterise Carnival festivities over New Year and at the beginning of Lent. These winter revelries provide an experience of catharsis for the entire community. The ritual dramas which take place all over northern Greece (and elsewhere in the Balkans) – the Kaloyeros of Ayia Eleni, the Karnivalia of Sohos, the Baboyeroi of Flambouro, and the Yenitsaria of Naoussa, to name just a few – have their roots in the ancient worship of Dionysus, god of fertility and wine. Now as then, they incorporate three main themes: death and resurrection, the sacred wedding, and blessing and ploughing the fields. 

These dramatic enactments are carried out by groups of male revellers, descendants of those known in ancient times as the komos (which gave the name komodia to Greek comic theatre in the 6th C BCE). The men of the komos dressed as women to perform their sacred duties, and indeed, ritual cross-dressing remains a central feature of carnival tradition today.  In addition to its undeniably therapeutic comic value, wearing women’s clothing may be a means for men to temporarily adopt the life-giving aspect of female power and symbolically give birth to music, dance and kefi – joy –  which affirm life and bring renewal at a dark and hungry time of the year.

In early January, the Thracian traditions of Gynokratia (Women’s Rule) and Tis Babos (Midwives’ Day), take over in rowdy women-only celebrations of life and fertility similar to the Thesmophoria, Eleusinian and Dionysian festivities of old. Very often, the simplest dances serve in these rituals. In the Tis Babos celebration, one simple dance is danced all afternoon.  As with meditation or mantra, the repetition of familiar patterns  connects us to our inner experience and to the larger lineage of the ancestors of the dance. This offering too goes both ways. The dance gives us life, and we, through keeping the customs with awareness and respect, give renewed life to the dances and the ancient wisdom they contain.


The Trata of Megara

For over 2,000 years, the Mysteries of Demeter and Persephone took place at the sacred site of Eleusis, where the Well of the Beautiful Dances can still be seen. Initiates took part in dancing as part of their experience and I believe something of this still survives in the women’s dance Trata, still danced in and around Eleusis today. In Megara, the next village along, women dance it publicly on the Tuesday after Easter, a time of resurrection and renewal.  Every detail hints at the story of Persephone’s disappearance and joyful return: The starkly pronounced zigzag pattern of the syrtos step dramatically emphasises the kinetic motif of ascent and descent, which is visually mirrored in the basketweave handhold and in the movement of the dance line as it spirals completely in and out again back into a circle (one of the few traditional dances which do so). In a reversal of normal procedure, the younger women lead the older in the line, placing the daughter archetype at the forefront of this danced journey. The women wear long silk veils, symbols of initiation and the passage between worlds. In the past, they ornamented their a capella songs with strange twittering sounds like swallows, the symbol of Persephone. Even today, with speeches from mayors, hawkers of peanuts and all the other distractions one might expect in modern Greece, a powerful sense of rightness and peace comes over the crowd as the ancient dance unfolds before them.


The Ritual Meal of the Anastenaria

For me, the most compelling and mysterious of the living traditions are the Anastenaria, Thracian rites which have survived since pre-Christian times. The Anastenarides are men and women, not connected to the Church, who dance barefoot through burning coals under the miraculous protection of Saint Constantine. The ecstatic dancing at the heart of the ritual is supported by ceremonial tasks, carried out with rigorous attention to detail, just as at ancient temples. Among other ritual obligations, people tend the images of the deities (in this case, holy icons), revere sacred cloths, offer animals for sacrifice, carry candles and incense in ritual processions, tend holy fire and water and provide a ritual meal after the ceremony.  

 Ritual offerings of food and drink were an essential part of sacred worship in the ancient world as well, and remain essential to the Anastenaria ceremony today. When the rites are complete, the visitors leave, and those who danced on the fire gather in the konaki. Cloths are laid on the floor and the Archanastenaris blesses a ritual meal of bread and cheese, chickpeas and raisins, water and wine, in a scene which has been repeated for thousands of years. The first time I attended, in the village of Ayia Eleni, the Anastenaris who had invited us to eat with them gestured around at the simple meal and the people gently talking and joking. He said to us with great emphasis, ‘This is why we do it, all of it. People who think it’s just about dancing through fire are making a mistake. This feast, which brings all people together in peace and agapi, is the true miracle.’

Even after experiencing it many times, in all the different villages of the Anastenaria, I always find the ritual meal a transcendent and timeless moment, a rebirth into ordinary life after the Anastenarides’ extraordinary encounter with the coals. It is a kind of sacred marriage of the mundane and the divine, in which the Archanastenaris’ prayers for peace and love have already come true in people’s faces, joyous, relaxed and calm, alight with the triumph of their healing encounter with fire. Maria-Gabriele Wosien says it perfectly: ‘We most resemble the gods when we are happy, and we are most happy when we are celebrating at festivals.’ 


Welcome to the Table

Along with ritual offerings of food and drink, hospitality to the stranger remains a sacred obligation, just as in the ancient world. These dances welcome us wholeheartedly to their table, whether we encounter them in Greece or in the many lands to which they have now emigrated.  Everyone is invited to the feast.  The survival of ritual practices from the distant past is deeply fascinating, and yet, more important for me is the meaning that the dances still have for us personally.  The good feeling of celebration and joyful connection – kefi – which we reap from dance and music is freely available to all. 

Luckily for the Greeks, this is as true today as it was in ancient times; kefi is easily accessible to the poor as to the rich. Even if you’re poor you can have your fill, and if you don’t have it, you can’t buy it.


Laura Shannon © 2011


Selected Bibliography


Connelly, Joan Breton. Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (2009)

Danforth, Loring. Firewalking and Religious Healing (1989) 

Dempsey, Isabel. Breath of Madness (2010)

Gimbutas, Marija, ed. Joan Marler. The Civilization of the Goddess (1991)

Hunt, Yvonne. Traditional Dance in Greek Culture (1996)

Kaltsas, Nikolaos and Shapiro, Alan, eds. Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens (2008)

Kerenyi, Carl. Eleusis: Archetypal Image of Mother and Daughter (1967)

Lawler, Lillian B. The Dance in Ancient Greece (1964)

Lawson, John C. Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion (1964)

MacDermott, Mercia. Bulgarian Folk Customs (1988)

Parca, Marianne and Tzanetou, Angeliki, eds. Finding Persephone: Women’s Rituals in the Ancient Mediterranean (2007)

Tomkinson, John. Festive Greece: A Calendar of Tradition (2003)

Wosien, Maria-Gabriele. Griechenland Tanz und Mythos (2004)


Yvonne Hunt offers an annual trip and seminar to witness carnival traditions in northern Greece: March 5-8, 2011 based in Serres. Contact Yvonne: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.