(2013), In the Footsteps of the Muses: Dances of Pieria

Laura Shannon © 2013 (This article first appeared in Neue Kreise Ziehen, Heft 2/2013)

All over the Balkans, Russia and Ukraine, Central Asia, India, and in Scandinavian and Celtic lore, legends and myths tell of divine or semi-divine female beings with particular attributes. They are associated with music and dance; water, clouds and rain; birds, flight and journeys between worlds; vegetation and healing herbs; prophecy and divination; and above all fertility and blessing. In Greece, where their worship is documented at least as far back as the 8th C BCE, they are variously known as nymphs, naiads, and Muses.

The name Nymph derives from nyfi (νύφη), bride, while 'Muse' derives from the Indo-European root men-, meaning 'mind', 'memory' and 'spiritual activity'. The Muses are thus the maiden Goddesses of memory, music and dance, the protectors of spoken knowledge encoded in myth and sacred poetry. Usually three or nine in number, the Muses sing and dance by day near waters and fertile greenery, while at night, wrapped in thick cloud, they draw near to human homes.
[photo 1: Muse with a long-necked saz]

The Muses were born by the Pierian spring, the fountain of knowledge and inspiration, on the slopes of Mount Olympus: 'In Pieria did Mnemosyne (Memory)... bear nine daughters, all of one mind, whose hearts are set upon song and their spirit free from care, a little way from the topmost peak of snowy Olympus. There are their bright dancing-places and beautiful homes. And they went to Olympus, delighting in their sweet voice, with heavenly song, and the dark earth resounded about them as they chanted, and a lovely sound rose up beneath their feet...'

Pieria today is a lush and fertile place, with heavily forested mountainsides sweeping from the triple peak of Olympus down to the sea, a landscape steep with ridges and ravines. The villages of Rahi and Milias lie each at the end of their own little track, with only wild mountain beyond, and so have remained relatively protected from modern influences, compared to settlements on a main road through which travellers pass on their way elsewhere. Perhaps for this reason, their social structure is strong, old customs have been kept, and community is of paramount importance – all of which are strengthened by music and dance. Solon said that the Muses teach the right way to live, bringing 'prosperity and friendship,' and the elders of Ráhi village will still explain that 'dance was a way to bring people together and restore friendship after misunderstandings had occurred: joining hands, friction dissolves.'
[Photo 3: Women dancing in Miliás, Pieria]

Pierian songs and dances are full of references to the hidden memory of the Muses, as if the mountain itself remembers. In the women's tsámikos song Poios eíde prásino dendrí the young woman is a tree with a cold spring in its roots, trunk adorned with golden jewelry, and a scarf embroidered by 'three young brides, beautiful like the cherry trees of May'. In Papadoula, a favourite song for the ritual dance Sta Tria, the young woman appears as a thundercloud, the powerful, flying bringer of fertile rain.
This cloud woman turns out to be the 'daughter of the priest' – that is, an important figure of high birth in a lineage of servants of the divine. She comes from the vineyard, carrying apples in her apron. 'I ask her for two, she gives me five': a perfect illustration of the Nymph / Muse archetype who brings abundance and fertility to the land.

Two important archaic customs survive in Pieria: the Klídona and the Pirpiroúna, both of which were once widespread throughout the Balkans and Asia Minor as far as Armenia. The Klídona is a summer solstice divination ritual involving enchanted water, dance and song, and magical herbs. The song Máro mou st'aloni sou, one in a cycle of traditional Klídona songs, accompanies the dance Sta Tría, the three-measure pattern which I contend is a danced symbol of the Tree of Life and the hidden Goddess. The song speaks of sowing seeds of sacred basil and St Johns Wort, and was originally danced on the threshing place, naturally associated with fertility. Just as the Muses 'said that which is, what will be, and what has been', the key figure in the Klídona custom is a wise woman who speaks or sings prophecies which aim to ensure successful marriages for the young people of the village, and thus the future of the community overall.

The Pirpiroúna ritual invokes fertility in a different way, by bringing rain in times of drought. It involves a young girl dressed in a bridal shift whose long sleeve ends flap like wings. She is completely covered in fresh greenery so that she resembles a little tree, and is then sprinkled with water while prayers for rain are sung and danced. She is a perfect miniature of the rain-bringing vily or rusalky of Slavic lore, divine maidens who sing and dance wearing long-sleeved shifts with their hair unbound. Versions of the Pirpiroúna ritual are found throughout Slavic areas of the Balkans.

The Muses were fierce protectors of maidens' chastity and virgin sovereignty, and did not hesitate to punish trangressors. The tsámikos dance song Pollés nyxties perpátisa reflects this earlier worldview, when it was the community's collective responsibility to protect each woman's virginity and reputation. In the song, a young man is obliged to chastely share a bed and pillow with a young woman. Although they do not touch or even speak, he is tormented by fear that someone might find out and that he will end up compromising her reputation, which is his responsibility to protect. He is 'afraid of her mother, afraid of her sister' - revealing the awe for female figures of authority once common in the ancient world.

The Muses and Nymphs were indeed formidable figures of authority, and according to Marguerite Rigoglioso, were not mere legend but represented an actual lineage of trained priestesses who were able to channel divine energies on behalf of the community.
We know that priestesses in temples throughout the ancient world worshipped with song and choral dance
, and many Greek and Balkan dance songs feature a maiden protagonist linked with key attributes of the Muses, Nymphs, and Goddess. I am convinced that songs of this kind are relics of an ancient worldview, clearly showing, as women's embroideries do, that they have not forgotten their lineage of power or their metaphorical 'wings' which enable them to travel to different worlds. [Photo 4: winged embroidered goddess]

The four-phase method of my research explores the continuity of motifs in archaeological finds, in embroidered and woven textiles, in dance patterns, and in song words. I believe these correspondances indicate the great age of the dances in question, and also show how women's dances and embroideries have always served as forms of unwritten communication, transmitting the sacred 'memory' to which the Muses were also dedicated. Such 'hidden information', in the words of Marguerite Rigoglioso, 'may have been deposited for safekeeping in those great repositories of the forbidden–myth and folklore–where they have remained veiled in plain sight for two millenia.'
[photos 5 & 6: abstract Goddess motif on amphora & Sarakatsan sleeve end]

While we have known for decades that regular participation in music and dance greatly enhances overall health and well-being, new brain research shows that memory is significantly improved by walking-type exercise. In this way, the memory of the Muses is transmitted via long-remembered dance and song: in traditional women's dances, we are literally walking in the footsteps of our ancestors. It is not so far-fetched to talk of a priestess lineage from whom the dances have descended, nor is it unthinkable that we, too, might discover ourselves as daughters of this line. Nearly 30 years of experience with women's dances have shown me that women today can learn to use the dances for healing, insight and transformation. As current circumstances in Greece rapidly destroy many of the remaining dance traditions, it may be up to us now to do the work of the ancient Muses, keeping alive the songs, dances, legends and the wisdom they contain, with the task of preserving these treasures for future generations.

1 Hesiod, Theogony (ll. 1-25)
2 Hesiod, Theogony (ll. 53-74)
3 See the CD and book Dimotika tou Olympou, Politistikos Syllogos 'Ta Patria', Rahi, Pieria, 1998.
4 In the Trata tis Grias ('Old Woman's Trata') from the island of Salamina, the girl's footstep is also mistaken for thunder. Salamina is of course directly across from Eleusis, and just south of Boeotia where the cult of the Muses was also very strong. I have written previously about aspects of the women's dance Trata which I believe reflect remnants of the Eleusinian Mysteries; see my 2011 article 'Ritualtanz in Griechenland, Damals und Heute'.
5 The dances I mention in this article here are presented in my 2013 programme, along with others I have researched myself in villages all over Greece and the Balkans. All are very old traditional dances, and each of them in some way offers a living link to the lineage of women's wisdom which the Muses embody.
6 I have written more about the Klídona ritual in my booklet 'Frauentänze 2013'.
7 EJW Barber has documented the ultra-long sleeve in women's ritual costume as far back as the first millenium BCE in Asia Minor and Central Asia, where legends of flying female Nymphs abound, and in Crete up to a thousand years earlier. It is still a feature of women's festive dress in various parts of the Balkans, the Near East and Kurdistan, where the sleeves wave like wings in wedding dances such as Kaval Govend.
8 In Marguerite Rigoglioso, Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.
9 See my 2011 article, Did They Dance At Delphi?
10 Rigoglioso, Marguerite, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009 (50).

Selected Bibliography/ Ausgewählte Referenzen:
Barber, Elisabeth Wayland, Women's Work, The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times. W. W. Norton & Co, 1994.
Barber, Elisabeth Wayland, 'The Curious Tale of the Ultra-Long Sleeve' in Linda Welters, Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia: Beliefs About Protection and Fertility. Berg, 1999.
Dimotika tou Olympou, Politistikos Syllogos 'Ta Patria', Rahi, Pieria, 1998.
Kelly, Mary B., Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe. StudioBooks, 1989.
MacDermott, Mercia, Bulgarian Folk Customs. Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 1988.
Rigoglioso, Marguerite, The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.
Shannon, Laura, 'Did They Dance At Delphi?', Grapevine Journal of Sacred/ Circle Dance, 2009.
Shannon, Laura, 'Ritualtanz in Griechenland, Damals und Heute', Neue Kreise Ziehen, Heft 1/ 2011.
Shannon, Laura, 'Women's Ritual Dances, an Ancient Source of Healing in Our Time' in Dancing on the Earth: Women's Stories of Healing Through Dance, ed. Johanna Leseho and Sandra McMaster. Findhorn Press, 2011.
Shapiro, H. A. Worshipping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens
Tsimitri, Maria, 'Traditional dances and songs of Káto Milia', in Proceedings of the First Olympus Greek Dance and Culture Seminar. Propantos, 2011.