European Pagan Memory Day

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Dance and music have always had a fundamental role in worship in Ancient Greece since Cretan times and we don't need to get back to Ancient Egypt, where dancing was equally important, to explain why moving in time was so much important. Rhythm and the movement related to it are a human feature since the most ancient era and in every culture the music and the dancing are connected to worship, often to represent the life. This is true also in the severe Ancient Rome, where the very ancient priestly orders of the Salii and of the Arval brethren used to dance their rites, even though the dancing shows and theatre plays were considered with a bit of mistrust.

When we think about dance in Greece, we immediately think to Dionysus and the theatre with its chorus, that were real choirs moving according to music and choreographies. Dionysus was usually celebrated by the dithyramb, a wild dance with a sole dancer, probably representing the god, and a chorus of dancers; from the dithyramb the theatre was born. Satyrs and Maenads, inside Dionysus' retinue, were the "first dancers" in Greek mythology, not the most ancient, but certainly the most famous. The word Maenads comes from the Greek verb that means "to rave", going mad. This madness, called furor by the Romans, was strictly connected to the presence of a deity: was furor the ecstatic frenzy of Bacchae, but also the inspiration of the poet and the rage of the warrior during the battle. Music and dance are involved in all three of these cases. In ecstatic rites, the dance is used to express the deity and his/her presence. The god or goddess are already here and people get in touch with him/her by imitation: if Dionysus is the flux of life, the streaming life, a fluid movement of the body beating time puts men in touch and relation with this stream.

A different kind of furor is the inspiration of the poet, but it's nevertheless related to music and dance. Both Greek and Latin meters are in facts based on the toning of syllables and on the length of their pronunciation. The word "music" remembers us the Muses: among them, Terpsichore is the Muse of the dance, and they are often represented while dancing, like in Hesiod's Theogony. Most of "group" deities, that is deities often called in groups under plural names and only rarely one by one, are usually represented while dancing: Maenads, Muses, Nymphs of the woods, Nymphs followers of Artemis and the three Charites or Graces, whose dance represents the art of giving and receiving. In Greek poetry, the choral lyric was the genre destined to public dances and these poems were often dedicated to a god or goddess.

One of the most famous composers in this genre was certainly Pindar; Pindar was the author not only of poems of celebration for many Panhellenic games' winners, but also of religious poems, of which only a few fragments remain. Among these religious poems there were a hymn to Pan and several paeans. The paean was a triumph song dedicated mostly to Apollo, like the dithyramb was dedicated to Dionysus. Only later the word paean became a synonym of hymn and paean to other deities, especially to Artemis, were composed. Apollo and Artemis shared also in their worship a particular kind of dance, a group dance performed in human chains.

This kind of dance and the fact that the paeans were sung before a battle, bring us to that third meaning of the word furor we mentioned just before: the furor, i.e. the rage, of the warrior during the battle. The Greek and the Roman actually preferred to discipline the warrior's rage instead of unleashing it and this was because their armies preferred to fight in disciplined ranks. Lucian of Samosata tells us that Spartans used to play music and dance to discipline their fighting spirit and used to march toward the battle accompanied by flutes, and not by drums that excited the warrior's rage too much. The rank of troops and the line of dancers in group dancing both need to move together. The work by Lucian, entitled On Dance, is the most important work about the dance in Ancient world. In Ancient Greece, the dance was considered a very important part of the education of both boys and girls.

Military dances were performed during religious rites: not only Callimachus tells us about a dance performed by armed Amazons to honor Artemis (Hymn to Artemis, 240), but also a particular kind of dance, the Pyrric dance, was performed by armed soldiers during several religious celebrations. In Greek mythology we find the Kouretes, who protected Zeus performing a noisy war dance that prevented Kronos from hearing the cry of the newborn god. The mythic Kouretes were later confused with the Korybantes, armed priests of Cybele who used to perform an ecstatic dance keeping time to a drum.

The dances of Mystery cults, ecstatic and wild, came to Rome, too, but there they were often suspiciously considered. But the dance as part of a religious rite already existed in Rome: the Salii and the Arval Brethren, the most ancient priest orders in Rome, used to performed dancing processions and the name itself of the Salii could come from the latin word for "to dance". What the Salii used to perform was actually a war dance: they were priests of Mars, even though in their carmina (songs) they invoked various deities, and in their dance they went around hitting twelve shields. The ceremonies performed by the Salii used to open and close the season of war: every city in Latium, not only Rome, had its own group of Salii, so we can consider the Salii to be a Latin institution.

For what we said, we could think that religious dance in Rome was "men's business". But almost all books and dictionaries about ancient religion forget to tell us about the Saliae virgines, the Salians virgins, who were the feminine part of the priest order: these priestesses, Festus tells us, used to dress like their male counterparts and to sacrifice to Mars inside the Regia.

Reference works

Manuela Simeoni


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