The Origin of the Maypole
India has several traditional Pole and ribbon dances. The Goff dance in Goa and the Pinnal Kolattam of Tamil Nadu have colored ribbons or ropes suspended from the top of a pole or central support which the dancers hold as they weave the ribbons into patterns, much as the traditional Maypole dances of Western Europe.
The May Pole is an old tradition among Western Europeans going back to pre-Christian times. In Sweden and Swedish speaking parts of Finland, the maypole is usually called a midsummer pole, midsommarstang, as it appears at the Midsummer celebrations, although the literal translation majstang also occurs, where the word maj refers to the old Swedish word maja, which means dress and not to the month of May. Wikipedia
Among several American Plains Indian Tribes, the Sun Dance was the most spectacular and important religious ceremony of the year during the 19th-century. It was ordinarily held by each tribe once a year usually at the time of the Summer Solstice. It was performed for renewal of the tribe, people and earth. Although practiced differently among various tribes, many of the ceremonies have features in common, including dancing, singing and drumming, the experience of visions, fasting, and, in some cases, skin-piercing. While much of the culture of the Native Americans in the East was lost or destroyed during earlier colonization, historical evidence shows that similar ceremonial dances were practiced among these, as shown in the painting by Richard West circa 1585)
The so-called Maypole dances and festivities were actually observed at the Summer Solstice (i.e., June Solstice) in ancient times and is still traditionally observed at this time by some peoples to this day. Faithists recognize this time as Old Year's Day and New Year's Day. More properly we may call the Maypole the Pole of Visvasrij. Visvasrij (19/1.4) means universal system and order, and the concept as well as the word (it's a Vede-1 word, i.e., from the original / first Vede language) that was given to man at the time of Osiris the first. "Visvasrij" as a concept held an important explanation regarding the languages of man, that is, it helped man clear up in his mind the confusion of languages, so that he could go forward in one unified language, as we shall presently see.
|| A Maypole is a tall wooden pole erected as a part of various European folk festivals, particularly on May Day, or Pentecost (Whitsun) although in some countries it is instead erected at Midsummer. In some cases the maypole is a permanent feature that is only utilised during the festival, although in other cases it is erected specifically for the purpose before being taken down again. Primarily found within the nations of Germanic Europe and the neighboring areas which they have influenced, its origins remain unknown, although it has been speculated that it originally had some importance in the Germanic paganism of Iron Age and early Medieval cultures, and that the tradition survived Christianization, albeit losing any original meaning that it had. It has been a recorded practice in many parts of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, although became less popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, the tradition is still observed in some parts of Europe and among European communities in North America. ||
We may note in that regard that the Alps region was the earthly area under the seat of Oitch, capital city of Uropa's heaven called Himmel, in the heavenly region of Zeigl.
Oahspe, Book of Fragapatti; 20/40.5.
In Zeigl, Uropa built her heavenly kingdom and founded the city of Oitch.
Oahspe, Book of Cpenta-Armij; 23/5.30.
To Uropa, because she was first founded by a woman, I establish a heavenly kingdom, and it shall be called Himmel.
To this day, many German-speaking people generally
call themselves Deutsch (pronounced like Oitch but with a D at the front) and
of course variations such as Dutch. In the German language of today, Deutsch
means "the people" or more specifically, the people of Germany, or
those who speak Deutsch. Himmel in the German tongue to this day means
"heaven". That, plus the ancient tradition of the Maypole, and we can
perceive that the German people had in their past had either a Faithist culture
or at least aspects of one. And that regardless of their Christian leaders, the
common people stuck with their pole observance, which was at the June Solstice.
But when celebrated in May, the festival was observed at the cross-corner, being halfway between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice for the northern hemisphere. Moved to that date to dissuade the German-speaking people from celebrating the Summer Solstice, which was the Faithist New Year in which the true cross was prominent (+). To counter the Faithist influence, the Christians (under Looeamong's inspiration) moved the time to "celebrate" the pole dance. The observance was changed to the corner-cross (x) when the earth is in full bloom of spring. And note the "earthly" reference and focus here (full bloom of spring) rather than to the spiritual reference which is what the pole was intended for at June Solstice. Instead of spiritual unity, which is what the pole was supposed to represent, it came to mean corporeal fecundity, including sometimes fertility in choosing spouses and for conceiving a child. Note however, the Swedish "Maypole" dances continue to be held on the Summer Solstice and also carries the circle of unity. Following the conversions to Christinaity, a variation appeared --- a crossbar was added and two circles hanging off the two ends, nevertheless the more ancient pole also remains.
Oahspe, The Lord's Fifth Book, 19/1.4.
Of Vind'yu Scripture:
Thus came Evil from Good; but so that Everlasting Wisdom would prevail with mortals and the spirits of heaven, All Light created Visvasrij (universal system and order) as a creator to abide forever. Before this time there were two things in the world: Voidness was one, and Vachis was the other. Vachis vach [that is, Speech spoke --Ed.], and the world was. So it came to pass that Voidness was divided into two parts, the seen and the unseen worlds.
So from Oahspe, we find that Visvasrij (universal system and order) is a Vede term from ancient India (Shem which became Vind'yu which became India). Many Faithists from Shem emigrated to Ham, Abram aka Abraham was one. Thus the concept was brought into pre-dynastic Egypt. Among ancient Egyptian symbols is Djet, the four tiered column and sometimes as a tree, it depicts stability and endurance, often shown as holding up the sky. During the hyartian (dark) period of the Spe-ta cycle, false gods appropriated much of the Faithist symbology which had came through the Faithists of Abraham and passed to the Me-de-ans who undertook the degrees of the original Anubi. As early as the Empagatu Tablet the Four tiered column tree was depicted with the tiers representing the sacred directions. And so the ancient symbology of djet can still be read although stained by the personalities of those such as Osiris, the false:
reconstruction of the body of Osiris occurred at a place called Djedu,in
the Delta region of Lower Egypt and it was here that the yearly ceremony of
'Raising the Djed Pillar' took place on the last day of the month of Khoiak,
the eve of the agricultural New Year. The next day marked the beginning of
the four month long season of Pert, or 'Going Forth' during which
the lands rose out of the flood waters allowing the fields to be sown. Djedu was
also referred to as Per-Asar-Neb-Djedu, meaning"The
House of Osiris - the Lord of Djedu". The Greeks called it Busiris,
after the shortened title Per-Asar - "The House of
As is shown above the Djed column with its four tiers represented a tree with four cardinal points. Although the false Osiris pasted himself into the middle of this sacred symbol, once the Osiris cult became extinct among mortals, the tree with its sacred symbols remained and was carried Westward by the Hamites. The confirmation of the origins of the Egyptian style of this symbol is found in the Tablet of Empagatu which was given to the Faithists around the first dan (200 years) following the beginning of the Spe-ta cycle.
Tablet of Emp'agatu. (Fonece-Hizi Tribe) Read from left to right. Refer to tablet Se'moin, for explanation in numbers and meaning.
(35/H.5.3) F'se or T'se 62, [63,] 64, 65, 66.
The symbol of the Tree and the sacred directions (four cardinal points) is found in the third row down under column 12. Note that the se'moin symbols for these numbers are Gee, [West], East, South, North.
On the Tree we see three tiers and a crescent, which supplants the second tier which would have been West. As shown in the text, the crescent stands for Gee, the ear. From the position of the tree symbol environed on either side by darkness as indicated by the symbols, so the ear is used to perceive the light in the darkness.
We may consider this as a symbol tailored for the Hamites, (its name, T'se, means West) who were yet to venture forth westward (as was their destiny from the time of Aph) among the barbarians to raise them up.
From Egypt, emigrants moved to Uropa (Europe) marrying there with the native peoples and in some places becoming the ancestors of the German people. Now, the ancient Egyptian name for Visvasrij was Maat. For which reason, the pole might also have been called the Pole of Maat.
" Ma'at was more of a concept than an actual goddess. Her name, literally, meant 'truth' in Egyptian. She was truth, order, balance and justice personified. She was harmony, she was what was right, she was what things should be. It was thought that if Ma'at didn't exist, the universe would become chaos, once again!"
"This cosmicity of creation is represented by Maat, the 'daughter of Re', a deity simultaneous with the universe, and a personification of the law of dynamic equilibrium between all units of creation." Ma'at is winged and in her hand is the ankh, a variation of the caduceus."
MEANING OF THE
DANCE AROUND THE VISVASRIJ POLE
While it might be tempting to call it the Year Pole, it is more meaningfully called the Pole of Visvasrij. In the time of Osiris the first and true, the Yi-ha language was making it difficult for the Shemites to communicate. To help man, the kingdom of Jehovih then gave man what was to be his final fully heaven-made language, the Vede language (We shall it Vede-1 language or first Vede language).
Man could now communicate easily once again. And man was given a rite and ceremony including the powerful symbol of the Visvasrij pole to be observed at the June Solstice (i.e., Summer Solstice of the northern hemisphere), that is, the year's ending and beginning, to help man make sense of the world, and in particular, the importance and power of the Vede language, which initially was sacred to him.
Thus, at first, in ancient times Faithists would observe the rite and ceremony using the Visvasrij pole to symbolize untangling languages and becoming unified in one language, the Vede. In that regard, consider the following scenario:
The pole was mounted on the top with a ball, that globe signifying the cosmos. From the ball dangled down various ribbons. These represented the many languages of man and initially the Yi-ha language with its babble of countless variations. On Old Year's Day, the ribbons initially all came together only in the globe at the top, and that globe was called Pan, representing the Panic language and man being united as one people as part of the system and order of the cosmos. Each participant would hold the end of one ribbon. The many ribbons represented the Yi-ha language with its many variations. Then at a given signal during the ceremony they would simultaneously rotate clockwise around the pole thus wrapping the ribbons around the pole, till they could wrap no more. Now man was stuck with his hand on the pole but could not move, though his hand touched his neighbors' hands (i.e., each hand on the pole touched his adjacent neighbors, one to each side). This symbolized tribes living next to each other; but not speaking the same language, they could not communicate and thus lost some of their freedom, as represented by the participants ending up bound close to the pole.
The hands touching also symbolized their
resort to sign language, since they could no longer understand each others'
spoken expressions. As well it demonstrated the humanity they had in common.
And so they, in unison but with each using different words, prayed to Jehovih for
deliverance from their dilemma because they could no longer go forward in the
light (clockwise rotation) and yet could not go backward (counterclockwise) to
the Panic language because they could not get past their neighbor, whose ribbon
was binding upon each of the others, which symbolized that even if their
neighbor began to speak Panic, that they would still be in the same dilemma as
before because they still could not understand them. But with the prayer to
Jehovih, the angels of Jehovih descended, bringing to man the Vede language.
And with the new language, the participants would repeat the given Vede words
in unison and march counterclockwise, reciting the sequence of Vede words, thus
untangling themselves. When the list of recited words was finished, they would
be unwound and once again freely connected to each other at the top through the
globe of Visvasrij; and when they were thus free, this globe was then called
Vede meaning Perfection, and thanks and praise given to the Almighty Eolin, the
All Light and Master of Vach (speech, expression).
In time, this rite and ceremony received deeper, more comprehensive concepts, which did not negate the earlier teaching, but broadened and heightened the context of the Pole of Visvasrij.
Accordingly, since the Pole of Visvasrij was symbolic of the Reality of Visvasrij, so it became understood by mortals that Jehovih's universal system and order refreshed itself (essentially began anew) each year at the June Solstice. The ribbons represented various things at various times in history, but in general, they represented the different types of man, or rather, the individual (whether one person or one group) in his connection with the collective person, i.e., Jehovih. Thus, over the course of the year man would go forth and thus create his own system and order around the central shaft (pole) of Jehovih's system and order (Visvasrij). That is, man would create his own system and order patterned after the system and order of the Cosmos of which Jehovih was Creator and Sustainer through His heaven.
When man in his clockwise movement (creative endeavors) could go around no further because the ribbons were all wrapped around the pole with no length of ribbon remaining except the end of the ribbon in his hand on the pole touching other similarly ribbon-holding hands, this symbolized the depth or pit of the North station, as well as the unity of the Elohim station. There, in the midst of the beast (see, e.g., image 24, Ar'bag'ebul of Divan Seal, i040) he would look up to high heaven and pray to Eolin to deliver him from his predicament. Then would come the Descent of the Light at the Winter Solstice, which would then allow the participants to harmoniously move in flow with the Creator and thus flow counterclockwise and eventuate at the Summer Solstice Old Year's Day when the unwinding would be complete. And with the sunset of that day would come upon the ball a healing balm; and a sense of great peace and freedom would trail down the ribbons to the souls of the participants (symbolic of the many tribes or nations on earth). Then with the turn of the Solstice point, the Globe would receive inspiration anew from the Almighty, which would then shimmer down the ribbons to the various tribes (or nations) on earth, who, thus reinvigorated, would be free once again to have long leash to accomplish their labor for Jehovih.
On Old Year's Day, the ceremony / dance represented a summary of the whole year. The participants would start with the ribbons all free of each other and only attached at the pole top. This would symbolize the start of the past year. They would then wrap clockwise around the pole to the extreme, symbolizing December Solstice (Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere), where, after the symbolic descent of the light (in which part the angels of Jehovih might participate by providing an Es light), then the various ribbons were simultaneously unwound from the pole. And thus Visvasrij was readied for the new year.
The familiar red and white barbershop pole is derived from the Visvasrij pole. Red is the color of South or top and represents man's freedom to express (wrap the ribbon around the pole), while white is the color of the healing / uplifting light (hence the connection with barbers because of the healing; barbers in the early days were healers).
Another symbol that can be recognized as coming from the Pole of Visvasrij is the Caduceus or Cadeusus. The coiling snakes represent man moving toward a binding or an unbinding (and thus healing, whence its connection with the physicians). The shaft and globe represent the shaft of Visvasrij or system and order of the universe (globe, cosmos). The wings represent the intervention of a higher power, that is, Jehovih, and the ability to uplift man, being able to free him from corporea (the beast, i.e., serpent), at least till man winds himself up again (binds himself again to the beast).
He who holds the Caduceus, in essence holds the power to heal or lays claim to that power. But, we may note that while the Caduceus has taken on a corporeal meaning, yet the initial meaning referred to a spiritual healing that when properly understood and administered would also heal physical infirmities. Which is to say, the physical is the last thing to get healed. First the subtler levels are healed, and these allow for the coarser levels to reorient themselves to the new healthier es pattern. Thus, true spiritual healing is a process of working from the inner (which is also higher) and helping the new imprint to cascade downward and outward to the physical. To those who would practice it, be advised that the new imprints often begin as fragile, delicate lights in the ethe, and easily disrupted, destroyed or overwhelmed. This is one reason why it is so difficult for people to change their habits. But as can be inferred, the cleaner and purer a person is, the easier it is to attain to holding the new light-form both in place and in strength.
Thus, even as the untangling of ribbons (think of ethe threads) allows for the new year to start afresh, untangled and ordered, so, will come true revelations that will untangle the ribbons and reveal the unifying summit.
Accordingly, in the outer realm upon earth the Father's kingdom can neither manifest in much fullness, nor come on earth as in heaven, till certain requirements (thresholds) are attained. These thresholds are not obstacles per se but rather like veils that must be attained to and sufficiently mastered. The untangling of the Pole of Visvasrij is one of those requirements. And that accomplishment can come about only through knowledge of its existence, as in the knowledge of Jehovih's system and order, and that knowledge begins with the organic first resurrection. Said another way, the Pole of Visvasrij must be untangled sufficiently for the Tree of Kosmon to flourish, or analogy-wise, for the sap to be able to freely flow between roots and crown.
The healing and regenerative aspects of the ceremony of the Pole of Visvasrij is still a part of the Maypole tradition of this day, as shown in the article The Midsummer Dancers researched and written by Max Dashu:
How people dealt with distress in a time of extremity by reviving the old pagan dances.
Midsummers Day was holy all over Europe. Irish and Scots, Swiss and French, Germans, Lithuanians, Italians, Russians, and Swedes celebrated the climax of the light with celebratory rituals. At midnight on the holyday's eve, said Spanish tradition, the waters are blessed with special power. Maidens rushed to be the first to reach the springs. The first to drink the water received its "flower," and left a green sprig to show others that it had been collected. People brought this water home as medicine. They took off clothing and shoes to bathe in the Midsummer's eve dew, which had blessing and curative powers.
Everything was possible on this night of mysterious power. The dark sky was alight with bonfires, and people dancing around them, singing "Long live the dance and those who are in it /Señor San Juan! / Even the stars will join in / Viva la danza y los que en ella están!" Long live the dance and those who are in it!" The Church had succeeded in renaming Midsummer's Day after one of its saints, but not in eliminating the ancient customs.
At sunrise the sun dances with joy, and the entire world is washed clean, full of grace. The xanas emerge from their wells and caves, combing their long hair, and people sought gifts of abundance from them. (Xanas are faeries whose name is derived from the Roman dianae, or dianas.) At Salas tradition prescribed going to the xana's fountain on St John's morn to say, "Xana, take my poverty / Give me your wealth." [Canellada, 249, 262]
In the Harz mountains Germans kept up a custom of dancing around a tree of life on the summer solstice. They cut a tall fir, shaved off the lower bark leaving its top green, decked it with flowers and other things. They put this sanctified tree in the center of their midsummer ritual, and came dressed in their festival best to play music, sing, and dance rounds.
In Sweden, dancers coursed around a tall, straight pine that they had ritually set up and decorated. [Frazer, 141] Midsummer poles were raised in many parts of Ireland, dressed with flowers and ribbons and cloths, and crowned with ginger-cakes. Musicians played beneath the pole as dancers competed in hopes of winning the cakes. [Wood-Martin, 264] All over Europe, people danced with wreaths on their heads, hopping and leaping to the music of bagpipes and handclapping. [Backman, 270-76]
Midsummers became the focus for a revival of pagan culture in the mid-to-late 1300s. Trance dancing spread through southern Italy and the Rhineland. Large groups of people danced the round with deep emotion, for days at a time. These gatherings were large enough to attract the notice of chroniclers. The dancers appear in Erfurt, Germany, in annals of the year 1237, and again in 1278 in Utrecht, Holland. The earliest records of ecstatic dancers call them St. John's Dance, after the saint assigned to Midsummer Day. (The later name of St Vitus' Dance points to the same time frame; that saints' festival fell on June 15th.) The dances took place on and around the summer solstice. [Backman; McCollogh]
In 1373 and 1374 a mass celebration of dancers spread over Flanders and western Germany. At Aachen people danced through the streets in circles, leaping and singing with religious intensity. The dancers entered trances, sinking to the ground unconscious, and later sat up and recounted their visions. Some prostrated themselves before images of the Virgin in churches. Most of the dancers were poor folk, with a large proportion of women. [Lea, Inq, 393-4; McColloch, 246-7]
This popular upwelling alarmed officials of church and state, who saw it as uncontrollable, with people traveling from place to place, and probably demonic. In the 1380s the monk Petrus de Herenthal quoted a chronicler who wrote:
A certain new sect arose at this time. With manners and looks ne'er seen before. The people danced and leaped violently. One lightly touched another's hand, then shrieked. "Frisch, Friskes," women and men cried it with joy. Each one had a towel tied on, and a stave. A wreath was set on every head. [Backman]
Petrus de Herenthal wrote that the dancing had started with people coming from different parts of Germany, some of whom made it as far as France. Like other priestly interpreters of the phenomenon, he described the entranced dancers as tormented by the devil.
... in markets and churches, as well as in their own homes, they danced, held each others' hands and leaped high into the air. While they danced their minds were no longer clear, and they paid no heed to modesty though bystanders looked on. While they danced they called out names of demons, such as Friskes and others... [Backmann, p 191]
But Frisch or Friskes was not the name of any devil. The medieval German word frisch or vrische, and related terms in Flemish, Dutch and French, had to do with healing and lifeforce. As E. L. Bachman pointed out, "Vrische is also a verb with the meaning, 'make whole'... East Frisian has frisk, which means 'healthy, young, unspoiled, lively' and frisken, meaning 'to make healthy..." Its English relative is frisky, "lively, frolicking", and the Scandanavian versions mean "fresh." [Backmann, 226-7] The dancers were singing the praises of wholeness, vitality, and health, not "devils never before heard of," as the historian Radulphus de Rivo wrote. In Holland the dancers themselves were called Friskers. [Schaff, c 502]
Priestly accounts accuse the entranced dancers of being possessed and questioned whether they were christians. An old Belgian chronicle described them with the verse Gens impacata cadit / Dudum cruciata salvat: "people restively fall, doubting the cross saves." [Bachmann, 201] "A contemporary poem speaks of their being opposed to the faith, haters of the clergy, and indifferent to [its] sacraments." [McColloch, 256-7]
The Liege Chronicle of 1402, also written by a monk, says that the dancers first came to Liege for the consecration of the Mary Church, where they leaped and danced before the altar: "On their heads they bore a sort of wreath, and as they leaped they cried 'Frilis'."[Bachman, 199] The wreaths, leaping dances and gathering at Marian shrines turn up in other descriptions of the wandering dancers. Johan of Leyden wrote that they wore wreaths on their heads and kept crying out, "Frijsch, Frijsch" as they danced. [Bachmann, 200]
A much later version in Koelhoff's Chronicle of 1499 has the dancers shouting as they leap, "Oh Lord St John / so, so / Whole and happy, Lord St John!" [Bachmann, 203] The word Frisch is no longer being used, but its meaning is retained (and confirmed). Fragments of the old call survived in the Fulda region's midsummer bonfire cry: Haberje, haberju! fri fre frid! [Grimm, 618]
Across Europe it was customary to dance around Midsummer bonfires. The Swedes used nine kinds of wood in their blaze, and wove nine kinds of flowers into the dancers' garlands. In many places people gathered nine special herbs, usually including hypericum and mugwort. The Spanish gathered verbena at dawn and leaped over the fires (as the Catalans still do). The Letts sang and gathered hypericum and a plant called raggana kauli, "witch's bones." People observing these old pagan customs were called "John's folk," after the saint whose day fell on the old pagan festival. [all Grimm, 1467]
One of the most common herbs gathered and worn at Midsummers was hypericum, whose popular name "St John's wort" comes directly from its connection with the folk festival. In France the "herbs of St Jean" included yarrow, vervain, armoise, glaieul, joubarbe, lierre terrestre, millepertuis, sureau, sauge and serpolet. [Benoit, 81] Some sources tell us the wreaths were made out of wormwood and hypericum, Both of these blessing herbs traditionally gathered at Midsummers and made into garlands to hang up in homes and barns, as protective talismans, and sometimes used to smudge in ceremonial blessings and healing rites. Last years' garlands were thrown into the bonfire.
When Petrarch visited Cologne on Midsummer Eve in the year 1330, he found the banks of the Rhine crowded with women adorned with chains of aromatic herbs. Just at sunset they dipped their arms and hands in the water and washed them to the accompaniment of certain words in order to wash away all manner of evil for a year to come. Frequently they also hung such wreaths and garlands of greenery and flowers over the streets of the towns in the Rhine province and in Flanders in order that the children might dance under them... [Backman, 274]
Several contemporary sources say that bands of celebrants came from upper Germany or Bohemia, leaving their homes and kin to travel about. De Rivo's chronicle says that "there came a curious sect of people from the upper regions of Germany..." while Johannes de Beka wrote that the movement had its "in the kingdom of Bohemia." [in Backman, 194; 198]
Backman turned up an interesting precedent for the Dancers movement that took place on the borders of Bohemia in 1349, at the height of the plague. In Lusitze some women and girls began to "act crazily," dancing and shouting in front of an image of Mary. They said that she spoke to them, and took to the roads, travelling from Torgowe to Interbok, gathering a crowd of people as they went, until the duke of Saxony refused to allow them in his domains. [Bachman, 190, from the Magdeburg Schoppenchronik of 1360. Lea, II, 343, calls this "an outbreak of women from Hungary, which was summarily suppressed in Saxony."]
It is quite possible that Europeans revived trance dancing as a way of confronting the plague. We have already seen how the dancers invoked healing power with their cries of "Friskes!" We know that in 1349 the people of Wertheim tried to ward off the plague by performing ringdances around a pine tree. [Backman, c 5] The church had always recognized and condemned the animist and pagan roots of these ecstatic ceremonies.
Now, at the end of the middle ages, churchly prohibitions against dancing reach their highest pitch. They single out for condemnation "the participation of women and... crude magical churchyard dances." [Backman, 331] Chroniclers made no secret of their contempt for the celebrants, especially "the women and young girls who shamelessly wandered about in remote places under the cover of night." [Chronicler cited in Bachmann, 207] Well into early modern times, the writer Schlager was still commenting that "loose" common women danced at the Midsummer fire. [Grimm, 1467?]
A new wave of dancing started in 1381 near a chapel of St John by the river Gelbim. The ecstatic dance took place in a forest secluded from the view of would-be exorcists, who had begun to claim that the dancers were possessed by devils.
... in one lonely spot in the diocese of Trier, far from the abodes of men, near the ruins of a deserted old chapel, there gathered several thousand members of this company [societas] as if to fulfil a sacred vow. They and others who followed to see the show amounted to some five thousand persons. There they stayed, preparing for themselves a kind of encampment: they built huts with leaves and branches from the nearby forest, and food was brought from towns and villages as to a market. [Bachmann, 207; my italics]
The music and songs of these dancers are lost to us, but the deliberate and ceremonial nature of the dance-gathering is clear. Near the turn of the century Johannes de Beka wrote about another outbreak of entranced dancing in 1385:
In the same year there spread along the Rhine, beginning in the kingdom of Bohemia, a strange plague which reached as far as the district of Maastricht, whereby persons of both sexes, in great crowds, marched here and there bound around with cloths and towels and with wreaths on their heads. They danced and sang, both inside and outside the churches, till they were so weary that they fell to the ground. At last it was determined that they were possessed. The evil spirits were driven out.... [Backman, 198]
The lauding of successful priestly exorcisms does not mesh with the chronicles' assertion that the "choreomaniacs" kept on going from city to city. Rather than disappearing under dramatically successful ministrations, as the clergy claimed, the dancers passed through Flanders and Holland and then headed towards southern Germany.
In 1418 a crowd assembled to watch women dancing in the Water Church of Zurich. This chapel had been built over a spring reknowned as a source of healing and strength-giving waters for centuries. [Bachmann, 232] Other gathering points were places associated with rites of the summer solstice. At St John's Mount near Dudelingen, Midsummer was celebrated with dancing that culminated with people falling to the ground unconscious. This site continued to be a place of pilgrimage for centuries; in 1638 Bertelius wrote that "even today" large crowds came there in procession.
Trance dance remained common practice through the 1400s. The priesthood disparaged it but peasant festival celebrants kept it alive. Only in 1518 did it come to be known as St Vitus' Dance, after the patron saint of seizures, spasms and rabies, when priests performed exorcisms on dancers at the chapel of St Vitus in Strasbourg. Perhaps they had decided that the pagan associations of "St John's" festival had become problematic.
Contemporary chronicles tell us that this rather desperate outbreak of dancing took place in a year preceded by several years of ruined harvests and famine. Several chroniclers agree that a woman began dancing for days at a stretch, that 34 others soon were dancing, and within a month more than 400 had taken to dancing and hopping "in the public market, in alleys and streets, day and night..." [Chron. MS Argent, in Backman, 237] People fasted and danced continually "until they fell down unconscious." [Strasbourg chronicle, in Backman, 238]
The authorities were at a loss about how to suppress this popular movement. They tried to keep the dancers indoors and to make the guilds responsible for taking their dancers to the shrine of some saint. None of this worked, so finally they outlawed the playing of music.
E. L. Backman thinks that the dancers chose the mountain chapel of St Vitus because of its Hohlenstein grotto. The saint was associated with cures through blessed water at this pre-christian shrine. Women had a custom of offering iron toads at this grotto, which they continued to do into modern times. An 18th century cardinal felt called upon to forbid the placing of these and "other superstitious images," including human forms. [Backman, 238-43]
This pagan rite of the frog or toad evoked very old associations with witchcraft and prophecy. Germans called the toad hexe, Italians fata, Poles czarownica, Ukrainians bosorka, Serbs and Croats gatalinka, the Greeks mantis: all names meaning "witch" or "prophetess." [Gimbutas, Language of the Goddess, 256] But "toad" also had also become a pejorative name for women, as in the Bavarian epithet heppin, even though toads were also called muml, "auntie." [Grimm, 1492] Basque folklore pictured witches as tending flocks of toads, and in witch trials women were accused of turning into toads, while other accusers claimed that toads feet were visible in the pupils of witches' eyes.
Women offered toads fashioned in wax, wood, iron or silver to Mary at churches in Bavaria, Austria, Hungary, Moravia and the Balkans, as Marija Gimbutas described. "Some of these ex-votos have human heads, others bear the sign of a vulva on the underside, while many have a cross on the back." She noted that these frog offerings go back a very long time in the eastern Alps, dating to 1000 BCE at Maissau, lower Austria, while others are known from Greece (6th century BCE) and Etruria. Women used them to conceive children and to ensure safe births. [Marija Gimbutas, Goddesses and Gods of Old Europe, 177-8]
In Peter Breugel's "St Vitus" drawings, women are the central figures, flanked by pairs of men. His notes say the dancers had to pass over running water on a bridge, recalling animist belief in the curative powers of running waters as well as early medieval legends of pagan dancers on the bridge who were forced to keep dancing when cursed by a priest. Seventeenth century sources also name women as those seized with the dance-mania. They still flocked to curative chapels. If they danced and became entranced before St Vitus' day (June 15), it would "cure" them for the year. [Backman, 252-3] These developments are reminiscent of the tarantella, also a primarily female trance dance ("possession cult" in scholarly parlance).
The strategy of branding the dancers as out-of-control maniacs ultimately succeeded. Trance dancing came to be viewed with contempt in Western Civilization. The dancers are described, with the same contempt later directed at the vodunsis and santeros of Afro-Caribbean sacramental dance, as mad people held captives by superstition and delusion. Diabolism was projected on these groups, and many others, by a hostile priesthood who became the primary (and sometimes the only surviving) historical sources.
The medieval movement of ecstatic dancers arose at a harrowing time in European history. Mystic ecstasy was a medicine for desperation, a last public outpouring of shamanic culture in the midst of political upheaval and economic distress.
I rely heavily here on a little-known, important and erudite book by E. Louis Backman, Religious Dances in the Christian Church and in Popular Medicine, George Allen and Unwin Ltd, London, 1952
Schaff, David S. and Philip, History of the Christian Church, Scribner's Sons, NY 1910
Lea, Henry Charles, A History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, Harper and Bros, NY 1901
Canellada, Maria Josefa, Folklore de Asturias: Leyendas, cuentos y tradiciones, Ayalga Ediciones, Spain, 1983
Wood-Martin, W.G., Traces of the Elder Faiths of Ireland: A Handbook of Irish Pre-Christian Traditions, Vol II, London 1902
Grimm, Jacob, Teutonic Mythology, translated from 4th edition by James S. Stallybrass, George Bell & Sons, London, 1883
McCulloch, Canon, Medieval Faith and Fable, George Harrap & Co, London, 1932
All Oahspe references are from the Oahspe Standard Edition 2007