Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Dance in Ancient Greece

Book Review: The Dance in Ancient Greece – by Lillian B. Lawler (Washington Paperback 1964, 1967)

This is an academic quality yet non-technical introduction and overview of Ancient Greek dance. Dance and rhythmic movement was very important to the ancient Greeks. Processions, games, and performances involving dance were popular and of course it was associated with music and verse. The muses were said to dance and to use gesture: 

“the Muse Erato, says an ancient poet, ‘dances with the foot, with song, and with the countenance, and the Muse Polyhymnia ‘expresses all things with her hand, and speaks with a gesture.’”

Apparently they had a system of mudras, gestures and symbolic movements called cheironomia. Thus, music, poetry, and dance made up the art of the muses. Lucian traced the beginning of dance to the creation of the universe and the appearance of Eros, the god of love. The rhythmic movements of the planets in the sky were associated with dance and the patroness of the stars, Urania, was also a muse. Muses Polyhymnia and Terpsichore, whose name means ‘joy in the dance,’ were venerated as developers of dance. In mythology it was the titan goddess Rhea, wife of Cronos, who taught the dance to the Curetes in Crete and to the Corybantes in Phrygia (Asia Minor). The noise of the Curetes would hide the cries of the baby Zeus from Cronos who was known for devouring his children. The Curetes practiced armed military-style dance and later became priests of Zeus. Plato noted that dance derived from a desire to move in order to express joy. He also noted that dance was associated with the gods, particularly Dionysos and Apollo, as well as the Muses.

Lawler lists seven types of sources for her work: literary, metrical, musical, archaeological, epigraphical, linguistic, and anthropological. Literary sources are numerous and rich and she suggests reading them will give more insights into ancient Greek dance. Metrical sources include actual treatises on metrics as well as actual lines of verse used for dance. Much of the metrical material is fragmentary, unfortunately. Musical sources include discussions of music by writers as well as mostly fragmentary musical remains. (One excellent modern source is by the duo Ensemble de Organigraphia from their CD– Music of the Ancient Greeks. They even build replicas of ancient instruments to use, mainly lyres, flutes, and drums).

Musical sources include On Music, by Aristeides Quintilianus which dealt with musical structure, social aspects, and the math and science of music. Ancient Greek systems of musical notation are extant and scales/modes are known. Art objects depicting scenes such as carvings, jewelry, figurines, paintings on walls and pottery make up most of the archaeological sources. I am not sure how the info for instrument replicas mentioned above was sourced – real remains or depictions. She cautions that Greek art may not be realistic in its depictions, since stylized depictions were developed rather than realistic ones. The particular depictions with side profiles and frontal body might make it hard to determine if dancing is actually being depicted in some scenes. Sometimes limbs are depicted in impossible shapes. Other aspects of ancient Greek art as it relates to dance include depictions of women with arms flailing and heads thrown back dancing in a circle. This piece shown in the book really evokes motion. That style is easily recognized as dance. She notes that they did not make much use of perspective in the visual arts. Epigraphical sources are a branch archaeological sources but are numerous and widespread. One example she gives is an inscription on a wine pitcher that says the best dancer will get it as an award so there is evidence of dance contests. Linguistic sources include technical words and expressions related to dance. Examples are curious names of dances that give clues: “the itch,” “knocking at the door,” “the beggar,” “scattering the barley,” “stealing the meat,” and “the messenger.” Anthropological sources include comparative dances of people near in time and folk dances in similar areas in modern times. However, she notes that is not easy to determine as there are Turkish and Albanian influences in modern Greek folk dances. The ancient Greeks said that the Dionysian rites arrived from Thrace as did their dances. Modern Bulgarian dances thus may have some elements of Dionysian dances. The tarantella, a distinctive dance of the Greco-Italian city of Taranto, ancient Tarentum, may well be of Greek origin. The Greco-Iberian dancing girls of Cadiz (in southern Spain) were famous in classical times and elements of such dance may well be retained in Spanish, Mexican, and Latin American dance styles. Comparisons to the folk dances of other peoples, ancient and modern, may also shed light about ancient Greek dance.

From the 16th century onward there has been interest in Greek dances by scholars and ethnographers. In more modern times there were dance movements where ancient Greek styles and clothing were employed and dances reconstructed from depictions. The art of Isadora Duncan and the dance of Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn were such. 

Late ancient Greek writers subdivided dance into three elements: phora, schema, and deixis. Plutarch uses these terms but even by his time the terms may have become obscured. He thinks phora referes to dance movements, schema to poses without movement, and deixis to pointing at something. From other evidence schema seems to refer to specific gestures, perhaps even brief movements so that schemas may grade into phora. Phora is movement or movement through dance steps. Deixis may also mean ‘to portray’ as in portraying a mythological figure. As noted previously, the system of dance gestures was called cheironomia.

Prehistoric Crete and its Minoan civilization from 3000 BCE to 1400 BCE is explored. Excavation of the Minoan palace at Knossos revealed an ancient artistic people likely of non-Greek (from Asia Minor or possibly even Phoenician) origin who enjoyed dance, music, and acrobatics as well as jewelry, elegant dress, and cosmetics. They venerated a great Mother goddess of fertility, possibly equivalent to the titan Rhea. Other Greek deities associated with Crete include Ariadne, the Minotaur (a monster), Zeus, and Dionysus. The Cretans were credited by the Greeks as the originators of dance. The military dances of the Curetes were credited as the oldest dances. A variant of the dance of the Curetes was the dance of the Dactyli of Phrygia (in Asia Minor), also protecting the young Zeus, clashing shield against shield.

She mentions noisy leaping dances and assigns them two purposes: fertility, with the leaps indicating the growing tall of plants, and the noise serving to frighten evil spirits. She thinks the original wild fertility dances later evolved into the armed military dances of the Curetes. Athenaeus mentions three other armed dances of the Cretan but it is not known if they were Greek or Minoan. There was also mention of a Cretan funeral dance called the pyrlis performed by armed men. The Homeric Greeks also had such dances. Circle dances were also known in Crete – Sappho mentions barefoot Cretan women holding hands and circle dancing performed around a pillar, altar, or tree. There is one depiction of women dancing about a lyre-playing male, the oldest known. However, it is not known if it is Minoan or Mycenaeans who had later come to rule the island. This motif would later be common as Apollo surrounded by the Muses or the Graces. She notes also that there is evidence of Cretan women making shapes – of a fleur-de-lis (flower sacred to the goddess) or a bunch of grapes – to be pictures offered to the goddess. Dancers with animal masks were common, particularly bird masks but also bull masks and demonic masks. The bull-masked figure may have given rise to the legend of the Minotaur. Later Greek writers mentioned labyrinth dances and the excavated palace at Knossos has been called maze-like. Some researchers think serpents are associated with maze dances (which are common among many peoples) as serpents and a depicted serpent goddess or possibly a snake-handling priestess, are associated with Minoan religion and there are maze-like caves near Knossos. Garland dances (with garlands of myrtle), line dances, and processionals are known from Crete from different sources. She thinks ecstatic trance through dancing was especially involved in fertility rites. Acrobats and tumblers are also depicted. Such were also known in Egypt. Egyptian artifacts have also been found in Minoan excavations and this certainly suggests trade. If there was a Phoenician population there that would explain the Egyptian influence since Phoenicians and Egyptians traded and were mostly friendly for millennia and even shared deities, particularly the goddess of music, dance, and drunkenness, the cow goddess Hathor. Egyptian metal sistrums were found as well. The origin of several Greek dances were attributed to Crete and even in classical times some Cretans considered that the religion of the Greeks derived from Crete although the Greeks disputed that.

The pre-classical Mycenaean civilization that conquered Crete after developing naval power is next explored. The Mycenaeans also conquered Troy and it is their civilization that is venerated in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. The Dorians from the north eventually conquered Greece. It is likely that Cretan dances were adopted by the Mycenaeans and eventually by the Dorians as well. There is a myth of the heavenly twins, Castor and Polydeuces, inventing an armed dance, one that young warriors often danced in their honor. The Cretan pyrlis, an armed funerary dance meant to imbue the dead with new life and ward off negative influences, was practices also by the Mycenaeans, and its origin was sometimes attributed to the Mycenaean hero Achilles, or to his son Pyrrhus, although the attribution to his son may have been a confusion of etymology. She suggests its true origin may have been the homology of leaping dancers to leaping flames (the Greek root pyr means fire). One difference between Cretan and Mycenaean styles is that Cretan men shaved their facial hair but Mycenaeans wore beards. Dances of maiden choruses were attributed to the Mycenaeans and to various myths. Lamenting dances were also known and the swinging of young girls high on swings was known as sympathetic magic for fertility among them and among Dionysians as well as possibly among the Cretans. Wedding dances are described in the Odyssey. There is a scene in the Iliad that describes a wedding processional and dance. The Iliad also describes a dance of picking and bearing fruit in baskets with leaps, whirling, and stomping the earth, likely another fertility dance as well as offering thanks. Mating dances were also described. These dances were described by Homer as being depicted on the shield of Achilles. Hesiod also wrote about some overlapping scenes in his poem, The Shield of Heracles. Euripides noted in his Electra, that the dance scenes depicted on Achilles’ shield were ‘ethereal dances of the stars.’ They often involved several youths and maidens. Lawler even suggests that the remote ancestors to many country dances and line dances might be of this type. Another dance that Greeks assigned to the mythological period was the geranos, which was said to be a maze dance with many dancers originally taught by Theseus and Ariadne and performed at Delos after they killed the Minotaur. It was said to be danced at night around a horned altar. A depiction on a vase shows many people holding hands in a long line perhaps swaying as a long serpent. The word geranos was thought to mean crane but some more recent writers think it comes from the root “to wind” and see it as a winding river or winding serpent form. They may have carried a rope or garland representing the serpent. Homer also describes ball-playing dances including one done by women as they sing. After dinner dancing was known to go on into the night. She also mentions the legend of Circe as an enchanter and prisoner of men. She as ‘mistress of animals’ drugs them and changes them into beasts. This suggests drug-induced ecstasy and masked dance.

There are also stories of “dance mania.” Most of these were associated with Dionysos, and aided by his sacrament, wine. Uncontrollable ecstatic frenzied dancing is described as spreading like a disease. In some cases it may have been the cure as well. The mysteries at Eleusis likely reached back to Mycenaean times as did some of the rites of Dionysus. Figures with bull heads or masks dating to 1200 BCE have been found on the island of Cyprus which was populated at the time by a mix of Greeks, Phoenicians, Egyptians, and Persians. One figure depicts three women dancing around a flute player. There are depictions of circle dances on mainland Greece as well. Funerary urns there depict mourning dances with gestures shown of people with their hands to their forehead, presumably in gestures of beating their brows and tearing their hair in response to grief. Instruments were mainly the lyre, flute, hand drum, and metal cymbals. The Minoan Cretans had a seven-stringed lyre but the Mycenaeans used a four-stringed version. However, in the seventh century B.C. Terpander of Lesbos was said to have added three strings for a return to the seven-stringed lyre.

Animal dances are the next subject. By classical times Greek religion was anthropomorphic and yet the gods and goddesses often had animal companions. Animals do have courtship dances, to attract prey, or for play and amusement. Hera was called “bull-faced” and Dionysus was called the “holy bull.” Athena had owls as companions. Dances in imitation of animals and to attract or ward off animals are known from many cultures. Bird dances were known among the Greeks including owl dances and cock dances. The turning of an owl’s neck and its piercing gaze were imitated. Famous plays like Artistophanes’ Birds and several others included large bird chorus dances. The Greco-Roman Mithraic Mysteries employed animal disguises and invocations. Snake dances were also known among Minoans, and Greeks of all periods. The orator Demosthenes and later the mother of Alexander the Great was said to carry live snakes in connection with the Phrygian Mysteries of Sabazius. St. Cyprian claimed to have taken part as a child in pagan snake mysteries associated with Athena in the 3rd century CE. A snake dance was associated with the story of Apollo slaying the python. There is thought to have been mimetic enactment of the battle accompanied by very specific flute music. Aristophanes and others mention a lizard dance from Lydia. Fish dances were known among Greeks and Romans. A pig or boar dance was known. A depiction on marble drapery with animal-headed women led by one with a pig’s head in a procession is associated with the mystery cult of the old goddess Despoina, “The Lady,” a mistress of animals. Thracian bear masks were made for their god Zalmoxis. There is evidence of bear dances in honor of Artemis, who was sometimes even called ‘the bear.’ There were lion dances as well although lions may not have been native to Greece – they encountered them in Asia Minor and Egypt. Lion-headed dancers are depicted from Minoan-Mycenaean times through Roman times. Later Mithraists roared like lions in rites. Local wolf cults were likely in some mountainous places like Lycosura which means ‘wolf’s tail.’ Deer dances are known from Sicily, Cyprus, and Thrace. Thracian Dionysians had deer dances and some had tattoos of deer and other animals. Thracian Dionysian revelers were associated with foxes and wore fox skins. The drapery mentioned above from Lycosura showed fox-headed dancers. The playful leaping and skipping demeanor of goats inspired various goat dances. There was reputed to be a horse mask dance with mock combat and emblems of death at a temple of Demeter. It was also said that real horses were trained to dance to flute music for entertainment at drinking parties in Greek cities. Donkey mask dances were known as well. Dionysian revelers sometimes wore panther skins and imitated the slinking motions of hunting panthers. Aristophanes included a frog dance in his comedy, Frogs. Animal sounds were made by dancers and ritualists often to ward of negative influences. Animal dancers might also rush at audience members. Crates comedy, Wild Beasts, had multiple animal masked dancers. Dancers and mummers were also associated with shapeshifting.

She turns next to drama beginning with Dionysian dances which were said to come from Phrygia in Asia Minor and Thrace. However, the name Dionysos, was found on Crete in Mycenaean times and Karl Kerenyi among others considers Crete, possibly Minoan Crete to be where Dionysus originated. The rites were wild enough to cause some kings to speak out against them. Frenzied dances, many of bands of women called Manaeds (mythological beings) with wands wrapped with ivy and tipped with pine cones were performed in the wild, sometimes in the dead of winter. Their ecstatic invocations of the god was referred to as en-theo-iasmos, ‘the state of having the god within one.’ This is the origin of our word, enthusiasm. The mad group of Manaeads was considered mass hysteria with violence including tearing apart live animals with their bare hands. Men would dance in honour of Dionysus as the god of wine, after taking much wine, of course. “Outstanding among these was the dithyramb – a song-and-dance performance, to the music of the double flute in Phrygian mode – a feature of the god’s spring festival.”

The performers were considered attendants of the god. Some dancers were called satyrs and took the form of these ‘goat-men.’ These dances too were frenzied and wild. Eventually they became somewhat tamer with specific songs and music rather than improvisation. Spoken verse came later. In some places it was a more civilized affair with contests and awards. The Greek dramas of tragedy paralleled this with their own choruses – all men, though sometimes depicting women. Tragedy was more like opera and filled with music and dances. She goes through the structure of the dramas and specific dance movements, or schema.

She mentions a unique dance introduced into tragedy: “the mystic “lyreless” binding dance of the chorus of Furies in the Eumenides of Aeschylus. With it there was a song addressed to “Mother Night” in the form of incantations and the attitude and gestures are threatening with the dreaded Furies. By the 2nd century B.C. it would appear that dancing had disappeared from tragedy to the chagrin of some (perhaps this is one reason Nietzsche thought that the art of tragedy had degraded in its later forms – the philosopher Diogenes of Babylon agreed).

Although comedy as an art form came after tragedy, some of its features were perhaps very old. Drunken men, animal dances, and processions with ‘village songs’ were a feature of early comedy. Eventually it made it to the theatre or dance place. In so-called Old-Comedy there were features like tragedy with elaborate costumes and dances. One feature unique to Old Comedy was parabasis, a direct address of the audience by the chorus. The characteristic dance of Old Comedy was the kordax, danced to double flute. It was said to be “lascivious, ignoble, and obscene” with “lewd rotation of the abdomen and buttocks.” There was even one Old Comedy that was said to feature the chorus dancing out the letters of the Ionic alphabet. Middle Comedy denotes a change to more allegorical forms. New Comedy was imbued more with plots and “types” drawn from everyday life. The kordax of Old Comedy continued to be used well into Roman times, although was often separate. It disappeared completely after the Christians arose in power and cursed its lewdness. There were also minor comedies that included comic performances of mythic stories. These involved mime, marionettes, and hilarity and included the phlyakes plays.

Another distinctive genre was the ‘satyr play,’ which was introduced in the 6th century B.C. These were short and imbued with verse and often involved a burlesque performance of a mythological theme. These were also loud, riotous, and full of obscenities. “The leader of the chorus always portrayed Silenus, who was elderly, fat, tipsy, and snub-nosed.” Pratinus, a dance teacher was said to be the inventor of the satyr play form. The dance in satyr plays was called the sikkinis, and was distinct from yet similar to the kordax. Satyr plays were different but also popular in Roman times and like the comedies were eventually suppressed as obscene by the Christians.

Throughout the world fertility rites and deities are associated with dance. Choruses of young girls danced ecstatically and sang in rites of Artemis. Apollo and Athena were also honored with dance. Hecate and Pan were honored with dance and wild frolic at night. Dances also figured in the rites of Aphrodite, particularly in her birthplace of Cyprus. In particular, the rites of Demeter and Persephone included much dance. Their mysteries at Eleusis no doubt included dance. The Orphic mysteries had characteristics of both Dionysus and Persephone. Orpheus descended into the underworld and returned. Other pagan ecstatic rites from Thrace, Phrygia, Syria, and Asia Minor were also popular among the Greeks and likely included trance, snake-handling, and self-mutilation. The Phrygian goddess Cybele was associated with such ecstatic rites, including self-castration. She was later equated with Rhea of Greece and the Great Mother of Asia Minor. Troupes of noisy dancers associated with Cybele were the Corybantes. They had several specific dances, including dances reputed to heal. Thracian goddesses Bendis and Cotyo were associated with mountain dances and baptism. Rites of Aphrodite and her lost lover Adonis included dancing and loud mourning on rooftops. Zalmoxis and Sabazius were other deities associated with wild dance. Wild orgiastic dance was thus common to many cults. Plato and others noted the healing nature of such dances, particularly psychological healing. As in the Dionysian dances, tossing back of the head was a common pose.

Shrines and festivals always included dance, by priests and priestesses and by trained dancers. In many rites the Muses and Graces were first invited to partake and inspired bodily movement as well as inspired verse were a feature. Muses and Graces were also thought to engage in dances. Verse and song were often accompanied by bodily movement. Epic hymns might be accompanied by processions, often solemn. Pantomime was a feature of some songs and dances. The island of Delos was known as a place to engage in dances to Apollo. Mariners would often stop to dance there and there was one odd rite where one would bite off a piece of the trunk of a sacred olive tree. This was done to avert danger. An all-night dance on the island of Samos was dedicated to Artemis where women carried sesame honey cakes. The pyrrhic dance was part of the training of warriors in Athens and Sparta. Spartans focused more on the military aspects while Athenians apparently focused as well on gracefulness of movements. There were also dances that mimicked the moves of wrestling and boxing, performed by nude boys in Sparta. Beautiful young girls were chosen to be ‘basket-bearer’ for rites of Demeter, Artemis, Athena, or Dionysus. The basket was held on the head and in some they danced in this configuration. There was also the kernos-carrier, where the maiden(s) would carry a vessel with milk, oil, grain, or wine in veneration of a goddess. This was thought to be Cretan in origin. Athletic and military victories had associated victory dances often devoted to Heracles. There was also a schema where the dancer clasped his or her hands behind the head. This was depicted in figures with Asiatic and Persian dress features is thought to have originated there.

At the Rural Dionysia was a curious dance called the askoliasmos which involved dancers jumping and hopping up and down on greased wine skins. She notes that secular and religious dancing were the same and any dance could be an offering to the gods. The rhythmic treading of the grapes to ready them for wine making was considered a dance. Wedding and funerary dances were popular among the people. Drunken dancers late into the night in the cities annoyed some. Other popular dances included one called the keleustes, or ‘the man who sets the tempo for the oarsmen,’ one in Sparta which consisted of kicking one’s own buttocks to the musical beat, high kicking dances, and slapping and kicking dances. There was a Persian dance similar to the Russian ‘squat-fling.’ There were many other dances as well.  

There was a dance called the hormos, or ‘chain.’ Youths and maidens danced possibly alternating side by side or one in front of the other with the boys dancing militarily and the girls more gracefully so that the chain was woven with ‘manliness and sobriety.’ A trained youth would lead the maidens. Ancient Greeks learned dance at an early age. The great tragic poet Sophocles was well trained in dance and music and as a youth led the victory dance after the battle of Salamis. Plato and the philosophers considered training in dance to be indispensable. He did, however, classify dance into noble and ignoble forms. Grace and skill were associated with noble dances. He was not so fond of the Bacchic and comic dances. Socrates was quoted: “those who honour the gods most beautifully in dances are best in war.” Aristotle, as most Greeks, noted that professional status as dancers and musicians was the domain of slaves, freedmen, and foreigners, although one may become skilled. He noted that citizens should not overly pursue such arts. Most Greeks however did promote excelling particularly in playing the lyre. The idea was that civilized Greeks should not resort to music, dancing, and other arts to make a living. There were, however, paid professionals that danced as part of their temple duties, looked upon more as devotees of the gods rather than as professionals. In the third century B.C. there was a group of dancers, actors, poets, musicians, etc. that made up the Artists of Dionysus. It was considered a religious organization and its members, servants of the god. Among the professional dancers were slaves from Greek and non-Greek lands. Teachers would purchase them very young and train them. Many of them ended up courtesans at symposiums and dinner parties. Courtesan dances could be lascivious and/or employ the comedic moves of the kordax. Hip-swaying was a major feature. There are also statues of dancing dwarfs.

In Greco-Roman times there were complaints that the state of dance was deteriorating which seems to indicate that some found dances and dancers less beautiful than before. Newer pantomimic dances came to dominate Greco-Roman and later Roman times. These theater dances included elaborate costumes and many musical instruments. They were enacting stories related to tragedies but one dancer played all the roles. Their performances were extremely popular. Two slaves were said to have invented this type of dance, Bathyllus and Pylades. Pylades went on tours, opened a school of dance, and even wrote a book on his dance. The Cynic Demetrius challenged one mime to dance the story of Ares and Aphrodite without any musical accompaniment and was convinced of his ability to tell the tale with mime, noting that he seemed to be speaking with his hands. “At least one scholar has ventured the suggestion that the actual dance which Salome performed for Herod was a pantomimic version of the dance of the Thracian Nymphs around the severed head of the mutilated Orpheus.” The pantomime craze had also been imbued with corruption, with overly erotic, sensational, or horrifying performances. Their popularity gave them high pay. Christian and pagan moralists came to despise them and led eventually to their downfall. They left the cities as Christianity took over. The latest of the known pantomimic dancers was the courtesan Theodora in Constantinople. The emperor Julian was smitten by her and married her and made her his empress. The author notes that her conversion to Christianity can symbolically be seen as the end of the influence of Ancient Greek dance.       

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