(2012), Hands of Fire: Dancing the knas

Laura Shannon © 2012 (This article first appeared in Neue Kreise Ziehen Heft 2/2012)

In a previous issue of Neue Kreise Ziehen, I wrote about the midwives' rituals of Greece and Bulgaria in which water is the active element of blessing and purification. If we imagine a girl brought into the world by the midwife's hands according to the old ways, and travel forward along her lifeline to a moment just before her marriage, we can see her in a danced rite of passage -the knas - where the key element is fire.

It is Saturday evening, the night before the wedding. We could be in almost any village in Greece.
Ritual preparations have been underway for several days, and now the women have gathered for the bride's final night at her mother's home. In a small bowl they mix a paste of knas, powdered henna,
into which they set three lighted candles. With the simple three-measure steps which I believe are connected with the Goddess and Tree of Life, the women dance the bride around the room. Each woman takes a turn to lead the line, perhaps dropping a coin into the bowl as it passes to her hand, and in this way the bride is 'danced' next to each woman present. Instead of the usual embroidered handkerchief, the first dancer holds aloft the fire-filled bowl, whose triple flame casts the only light as they circle through the shadows, singing age-old ritual songs such as this one from Oinoï:

Night of knas, it's midnight / You don't have coins, you don't have crowns?
Night of knas, it's midnight / You have coins, you have crowns
Night of knas, it's midnight / And our bellies are full
Night of knas, it's midnight / We don't want crowns, we don't want food
Night of knas, it's midnight / This girl here, she's what we want

With the henna paste, the women paint a cross on the bride's hands, on the backs and on the palms. Then they place two tufts of spun cotton wool on the backs of her hands and set them on fire. They burn swiftly, but the bride must wait until ritual words are spoken, and in some cases more money given, before she can quickly clap the backs of her hands together to extinguish the fire. This is repeated on her palms as well, three times in all.

This unforgettable image of the bride, outstretched hands radiant with fire, creates a living embodiment of the Goddess. She is typically embroidered on women's folk dress, especially bridal costumes, with outstretched hands emanating 'life signs' of sprouts and shoots, sun, stars, flowers and fire: all coded images for the sacred energy of fertility and benevolent power which the Goddess was believed to bestow. Goddess embroideries are found throughout the same areas of Old Europe, Russia, Mesopotamia and North Africa where both three-measure dances and henna rituals can still be found, and where Goddess worship was once widespread. As Josef Garfinkel has shown, Neolithic cultures in these regions as far back as 7000 BCE depicted female figures, sometimes dancing, with strongly emphasised hands carrying or growing into signs of life, fire, grain, branches, trees or wings.

The cross painted on the bride's hands in Pentalofos is not the Christian form of the crucifix (†), but has four axes of equal length (+), a Neolithic sign for fertility and fire. It is associated with summer, when most weddings still take place, and in Russian embroidery the motif is even named Ivan Kupala, after St John, whose feast day is celebrated with bonfires on Midsummer Eve. The Ivan Kupala pattern can be embellished in many ways and according to Mary Kelly variously signifies an altar or hearth, the fire of purification, the quarters of the year, and the solar motif associated with the Goddess, bringer of life. Sheila Paine tell us that the hand itself is a protective sign believed to ward off the evil eye, and in form also resembles the vulva, the gate through which all beings are born.
In Balkan cultures, a woman's hands were holy because women did almost all the work of household, farm and garden, as well as the all-important ritual work necessary to bring appropriate blessings to the family and keep adverse forces at bay. Her hand also had the power to curse. In the knas ritual, where the solar cross and the holy fire are placed on both the palms and the backs of the hands, both the giving and the receiving powers of the hands are acknowledged and sanctified.

Elisabeth Wayland Barber, Mary Kelly, Linda Welters, Sheila Paine are among the textile experts who argue convincingly for an unbroken continuity of motif and meaning from prehistoric times to the present day, both before and beyond written language. I believe that the knas ritual of dance and fire is a living relic of pre-Christian times, a way to honour and activate the sacred creative feminine energy in the hands of the bride as she enters her new role as a married woman, and literally claims the power to bring forth life. The link to lifeblood in this initiation is mirrored in the brown-red colour of the henna and the deep, rich reds of the majority of Balkan bridal costumes. Women's work was the true wealth of the family and the community, related to the life-giving substances of fire, food and money, as the song shows, but with an inherent value which transcends them as well.

The bride, through the mediation of dance rituals such as the knas, leaves her old identity behind and crosses into the liminal state where costume and custom will transform her into a representative of the divine feminine. Seen with the eyes of ancient times, she subsumes her own personal characteristics - literally hidden behind the veil - and takes on the transpersonal role of priestess of the Goddess, a channel for the sacred power which brings new life and ensures the future for family and community.

Selected references:
Elisabeth Wayland Barber, Women's Work, The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth and Society in Early Times. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1994.
Josef Garfinkel, Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
Mary B. Kelly, Goddess Embroideries of Eastern Europe. Winona, MN, USA: StudioBooks, 1989.
Mercia MacDermott, Bulgarian Folk Customs. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers,1988.
Sheila Paine, Embroidered Textiles. London: Rizzoli International Publications, 1990.
Laura Shannon, 'Dances of the Great Mother: Three-Measure Dances and the Tree of Life', A Great Circle Internet Journal of Sacred/ Circle Dance, 1999.
Laura Shannon, '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: Findhorn Press, 2011.
Linda Welters, Folk Dress in Europe and Anatolia: Beliefs About Protection and Fertility. Oxford, UK; New York: Berg, 1999

1 In Greece, knas is known from the Peloponnese to Attica and Evia, throughout the mainland and the North. I have witnessed it in the Evros region of Greek Thrace, in the villages of Pentalofos, whose inhabitants consider themselves to be original Thracians, and in Oinoï, a village settled by the Gagaouz, Turkish-speaking Christians who came as refugees from what is now Western Turkey and Eastern Bulgaria. The henna custom is also familiar in Bulgarian Thrace, where other sacred rituals involving fire (such as the Anastenaria) have their origin. Brides' hands are decorated with henna throughout large areas of the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa.
2 henna = χενα = χνα = κνα = κνας

3 The knas dance-song cited here can be heard on the recent double CD Evros, with Methorios ensemble and village grandmothers, available from the Balkan Centre for Dance and Music or through my website.
4 Josef Garfinkel
5 Sheila Paine p 143