Dancing in the Footsteps of the Muses: Traditional Ritual Dances of Mount Olympus

by Laura Shannon

Muse with a long-necked instrument
Muse with a long-necked instrument (tríchordon), from a marble altar consecrated to Leto, Artemis and Apollo. Kato Mantíneia, Arkadia, 330-320 BCE. National Archeological Museum, Athens. Photo: Laura Shannon

For thirty years I have been researching and teaching women’s traditional circle dances of the Balkans and Near East, which have been danced for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, and are still danced today at weddings and village celebrations. The method I’ve developed is to compare common motifs in archaeological finds, embroidered textiles, dance patterns, and song words. I see these four forms of women’s artistic expression as modes of unwritten communication, transmitting ‘hidden information’ which, 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 millennia.'1 In this article I would like to share some of what I have observed about women’s dance traditions in remote villages on the slopes of Mount Olympus in Greece, and the ancient wisdom encoded within them, which I believe has its roots in the Goddess culture of Neolithic times.

All over Greece, the Balkans, Russia and Ukraine, Central Asia, India, and in Scandinavian and Celtic lore, myths and legends tell of nymphs, nereids, naiads, and Muses. Also known as vily (whence comes the English term 'willies'), these priestess/Goddess figures are divine or semi-divine female beings associated with water, clouds and rain; birds, flight and journeys between worlds; trees, vegetation and healing herbs; prophecy and divination; fertility and blessing, and music and dance. In Greece they were worshipped as early as the 8th C BCE.

'Nymph' derives from nyfi (νύφη), bride, while 'Muse' most likely derives from the Indo-European root men-, which also gives us the words 'mind', 'memory', 'menses' and 'spiritual activity'. The Muses are thus the maiden Goddesses of memory, music and dance, protectors of spoken knowledge encoded in myth and sacred poetry. Usually three or nine in number, they sing and dance near waters and fertile greenery, or, hidden in cloud, draw near to human homes. Continue reading "Dancing in the Footsteps of the Muses: Traditional Ritual Dances of Mount Olympus"