THE DANCING GODDESSES by Elizabeth Wayland Barber


Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance
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An exhaustive study of how a series of remnants of early religion lie at the roots of European folk dance.

Barber (Archaeology and Linguistics Emerita/Occidental College; The Mummies of Urumchi, 1999, etc.) begins with a group of beliefs involving water spirits, which go by different names in different cultures but are generally represented as young women who appear in the forests around the time of spring planting. They appear in various guises from Greece to central Russia, but all are dangerous to men—especially those who come upon them when they are dancing in the woods. Barber collects a number of variations on this legend, noting that the days sacred to them vary with the onset of “Crazy week”—the time of their dominance—in the different regions they inhabit. The investigation then turns to the folk celebrations, many of which involve dances or dancelike rituals, proper to each season of the year; Barber traces correspondences between a pre-Christian nature-based calendar and the church season in different cultures. A second section analyzes a Russian folktale, “The Frog Princess,” as it shows the expectations of brides in agricultural societies. Barber goes on to trace remnants of pagan ritual in modern customs, moving back through time to uncover the earliest stages of European history. In the final section, she delves even deeper into prehistory, arguing that dance may actually predate language in human culture. The book is richly illustrated with artifacts from a wide range of eras and cultures. This dense, demanding book will undoubtedly be compared with that early modern classic of speculative anthropology, James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough.

Difficult but rewarding look at a side of history with which many readers will be unfamiliar.

Pub Date: Feb. 11th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-393-06536-7
Page count: 448pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2013


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