(Essay 2) The Midsummer Dancers by Max Dashú

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]

Mugwort, Artemisia Vulgaris Herbs in the Artemisia family are regarded as sacred in North America (desert sage, among others, has purifying powers), China (where it is used in moxibustion smudging by acupuncturists) and Europe, where it also was used as a smudge to remove negative influences and was said to protect those who wore it.
Mugwort, Artemisia Vulgaris
Herbs in the Artemisia family are regarded as sacred in North America (desert sage, among others, has purifying powers), China (where it is used in moxibustion smudging by acupuncturists) and Europe, where it also was used as a smudge to remove negative influences and was said to protect those who wore it.

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.

Votive frog from the grotto of  Hohlenstein
Votive frog
from the grotto of
Hohlenstein

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 thetarantella, 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.

Read part 1.

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

2 thoughts on “(Essay 2) The Midsummer Dancers by Max Dashú”

  1. thank you so much Max for these essays. dance, joy of life, appreciation of all life, the body, the feminine principle and the feminine Divine are inseparable, they are one, in my experience of shamanic/ ritual/ devotional/ dances. these dances do have strong healing power, healing into wholeness and oneness. in the dance itself the past moments of dancing around the fire, under the moon, in the water or forest, in power places of the nature, with wreaths on the heads, etc. surface into consciousness and memory very clearly. the body remembers.

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