Dancing Goddesses

Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

One of my all-time favorite books is Women's Work: the First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, a historian who specializes in archaeology, linguistics, and textiles.  It's all about the development of fabric--spinning, weaving, wool and flax, stripes and tweeds, and so on.  When I found out that she has a new book out about European folk magic, dancing, and story, I couldn't wait to read it.  I had a very happy week reading it, I can tell you!

It's a huge book that covers a wide swath of Eastern Europe and Russia, so it's hard to summarize, but I will try to sum up: over these areas, historians find many commonalities in folk dancing and belief.  We find a widespread belief in female spirits that have something to do with fertility, with water, and with dance; they are both dangerous and beneficent.  In Russian, they are rusalki; in Greek, nymphos; Barber chooses an outdated term, willies, to name them by because it is not particularly national. 

These are the spirits of girls who died before they became mothers.  Like their live counterparts, they like to play with each other in the woods and streams, and they love to dance.  They also have a store of unused fertility, so the idea is to persuade them to shed that fertility where it will help the living--in the fields.  We find, therefore, innumerable ways to keep them happy and doing good work, rather than making them angry.  Barber piles on the evidence and searches far back in time to find the early roots of these folk beliefs.  She also closely analyzes a Russian folk tale, the Frog Princess.  I really enjoyed these chapters, where she searches for the roots of stories. 

The Frog Princess dances and performs magic
 All of this really brought home to me the old preoccupation with fertility.  For Neolithic people trying to scratch out a living from the earth, fertility was the overriding concern.  Rain falling in the right way, crops growing, babies being born---all were of absolute, life-or-death importance, and so there were innumerable little folk-magic ways to encourage these things.  Embroidering the right motifs at the collar and sleeves, wearing the right clothes, doing the correct dances, all did their bit and reminded the spirits of what needed to be done.  In case of disaster--say, a drought--there were ceremonies to really make it obvious to the spirits what they should do.  It's all completely fascinating.

 Wonderful book.  I just love Barber's research and writing.  I hope you enjoy it too.


  1. That's a nice illustration for the Frog Princess---I've never seen it before. Barber's explanation for the popularity of ultra-long sleeves was just one of the many fascinating tidbits in that book.

  2. Oh now I want to read Barber right away! Have you read Laurel Thatcher Ulrich or Susan Strasser? Both write about neat domestic stuff.

  3. I love LTU, but I'm not sure about Strasser--will have to look her up. :-)


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