(Essay 1) The Midsummer Dancers by Max Dashú

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.

Basque woman musician
Basque woman musician

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 eggs. 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]

Peasants dancing with festival wreaths
Peasants dancing with festival wreaths

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]

Read part 2.

Republished by permission from http://www.suppressedhistories.net/secrethistory/dancers.html

Bibliographic Notes

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

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