(2012), Tis Babos: The Dance of the One Who Gives Life

Laura Shannon © 2012 (This article first appeared in Neue Kreise Ziehen Heft 1/2012)

The one who gives life, the one who gives birth: this was the original image of the Creator. Not God but the Goddess, both mother and midwife to the world. Throughout Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, North Africa and beyond, Goddess worship laid the foundation for European culture. Thousands of years later, a deep reverence for the woman who gives life - the midwife - survives in Greek and Balkan dance rituals which still survive from the distant past.

The mamí (from mámmo, grandmother) or bábo (old woman) was usually a respected older woman, with the wisdom and experience of age. In the remote Thracian village of Pentalofos, northern Greece, the grandmothers remember how the midwife brought their babies into the world. In a private gathering for a small group of women I brought to their village, they reenacted the birth customs involving thread and cloth, fire and water, sacred herbs and ceremonial foods, including the 'bread for the Virgin Mary' which is baked immediately after the birth.
The midwife stands at a small table and with a knife draws a cross to consecrate it, then raises the round loaf high to heaven, praying aloud like a priest at the altar. Her head is draped with a red wedding veil; with authority and strength she breaks the bread over her own head, in a mirror image of the baby's head crowning through the substance of the mother. Crumbs shower down from this source of sustenance and abundance as she tears off pieces for the women present, including the Virgin Mary.
Three times the women lift the mamí's skirts up from behind with the joyful, life-affirming eee-hooo! shout of Thracian dance.

The midwife is publicly honoured on Midwives' Day, January 8th. Known as Babinden in Bulgaria, Tis Babos in Greece, this women-only celebration is an important holiday in Bulgaria and in numerous villages of displaced Thracians now relocated in Greek Macedonia. One such village is Kitros, whose inhabitants originally came from Bana, on the Black Sea coast of northern Thrace (today Bulgaria). A hundred years have passed since they left, but the women's festive costumes still indicate their old neighbourhoods; the food, songs, dance, and other customs are kept alive despite decades of brutal loss and change. They survive, in fact, from a much older time. The archaic elements which characterise the Tis Babos celebration – cross-dressing, ritual theatre and dance, bawdy humour, ceremonial offerings – have roots in the ancient Greek women's festivals of Thesmophoria and Aloa, celebrated at the same time of year. Searching even farther back in time, we learn that 'The Babinden customs contain echoes of the forgotten cult of the Great Goddess, whose stylized image survives in Bulgarian folk embroidery.'

Resplendent in traditional costume and looking like one of those stylised images herself, the Babo again stands at a table to receive the mothers whose children she brought into the world. Also dressed in their best, they kiss her hand and give her gifts of soap and towels. They wash her hands – the cleanliness is both practical and ritual – and exchange formulaic blessings: 'May the babies slip out as easily as this soap glides through my hands!' 'May your milk flow as easily as this water splashes!' The person of the midwife is solemnly honoured, and through her the transpersonal 'mystery of life, the eternal cycle of fertility, and the power of the female element' is invoked and affirmed for the benefit of all.

Today in Kitros, men lingering on the fringes of the proceedings are not chased away, but traditionally the celebration was strictly limited to married women and widows. The men of the village would take on the women's work for the day to free them for this all-important ritual, and the only men present are the musicians. Gajdas and daoulia fill the air with indescribable exhilaration. The women, overjoyed, take to the streets with glee. The Babo and the oldest grandmothers take turns to lead the dance and carry the ritual flag: like the wedding flag, it unites the upright protective branch with yielding, enfolding, embroidered cloth. Decorated with sprigs of green box and basil, a lemon 'for cleanliness', and strings of popcorn and dried chili peppers denoting female and male aspects of fertility, it is held aloft all day and into the night, a silent proclamation surviving from ancient times.

The dance steps embody nonverbal meaning in the same way. All afternoon the women dance the trambanistós horós, a four-measure variation of the sta tria step which I believe encodes the symbol of the Tree of Life and the Goddess
. Its zigzag pattern illustrates the cycle of life, death and renewal over which both midwife and Goddess preside. Simple, repetitive ritual dances like this one enable the participants to perform more complex work on another level. On this occasion, the women are consciously using the dance as a vessel to gather and dispense the joyful energy of the day to bless the streets, shops, homes and people.

Dancing, singing, laughing, the grandmothers and the gajdas lead us through the village. Proprietors of shops and women of households emerge to greet us, carrying trays of homemade fruit liqueur to treat the musicians and honoured guests in a timeless offering of ritual hospitality. In another kafeneion, however, the lively stream of gajdas, daoulia and festively costumed women filling the room and encircling the tables barely draws a glance from the old men staring at the huge TV.

Entirely undaunted, the women continue. I believe I feel the earth, the stones, the walls and houses listen and respond, brighten and quicken and wake up all around. The rhythms of the gajda and daouli beat through the town like a pulse. Circulating through the landscape, the procession enlivens the streets, crossroads and establishments – the muscles, joints and organs – of the 'body' of the village. The dance itself is the bringer of life and the promise of life, renewed every year in the darkest days.

Later the women fill a taverna to boldly drink, dance, laugh and make merry. They dance in an uninhibited manner closer to the ecstasy of ancient maenads than the restrained and modest demeanour expected of women – and especially widows – on all the other days of the year. Arakana and I, the only foreigners present, are lavished with traditional Greek hospitality, encouraged to dance and not allowed to pay for our meal. Before the evening is out, the women have garlanded us with necklaces of popcorn and chili peppers, whose apparent lightness and fragility belie surprising strength, endurance, and fire – just like the Babo and those who remember her after all this time.
Laura Shannon © 2012

1 Shannon, Laura, 'Women's Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Time' in Dancing on the Earth (eds. J. Leseho & S. McMaster), Findhorn Press, 2011.
2 Η πίτα της Παναγιάς. The Greek name for the Virgin Mary is Panayía, literally 'All-Holy'; rather than the idea of her virginity, it is Her all-pervading, all-embracing cosmic power that is emphasised.
3 The Virgin Mary is believed to be present at every birth – although sometimes she comes late, being busy elsewhere – and to depart only after she has eaten of this bread.
4 When the grandmothers of Pentalofos were preparing to show us these customs, they joked that the mamí should 'wear pretty underwear' for this part of the ritual. 'In the old days we didn't have underwear,' she retorted. 'How traditional do you want this to be?'
5 MacDermott, Mercia, Bulgarian Folk Customs, Jessica Kingsley publishers 1988, p. 179.
6 Diafonidou, Eleni, 'Η γιορτή της Μπάμπως στα Μάγγανα και την Νέα Κεσσάνη Ξάνθης', Embros 13.01.2012
7 Shannon, Laura, op. cit.

Photos: Vasilis Gervasileiou and Efi Chadtzichidiroglou, used with permission.
1. Kyria Fotini holds the flag and leads the dance in Kitros.
2.Kyria Fotini with the ritual flag (R) and Kyria Anastasia with her granddaughters (dressed as men).
3. Washing the midwife's hands in Kitros.
4. Gajda and daouli accompany the Babo procession in the streets of Kitros.