The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Beyond casting spells and stirring the cauldron, when one envisions traditional witches, what are they usually doing? Popular depictions of witches flying through the air may be a distorted misunderstanding of shamanic soul-journeying. Witch-hunters’ allegations of baby stealing, cannibalism, and incest are defamation. The single realistic and consistent description of witches shared by both those who love them and those who despise them is that witches dance.
This is a fairly international image: witches all over the world are described as dancers. Wherever traditional witches congregate and rendezvous, observers claim that they dance. (Witches themselves most often maintain professional secrecy.) In fact, Reginald Scot, the Elizabethan authority on witchcraft, quoted witch-hunter Jean Bodin’s suggestion that witches shouldn’t be defined as night-walkers, but instead as night-dancers. (See BOOKS: Witch-Hunt Books: Bodin; Scot.)
In fact dancing is so integral a part of historical witchcraft that among the countless definitions of witchcraft is one that defines it as the persistently surviving vestiges of “Neolithic dance cults.”
Now “dance cult,” like “fertility cult,” is a vague, nebulous term. What is that definition trying to express? Dancing is among the most ancient magical arts of all. It is to some extent a forgotten magical art because information regarding it is fragmentary at best. Dancing was taught by doing; although ancient images depict magical and ritual dance they are by necessity static. We see the dancer frozen at one step; we can’t see the dance as a whole. And prior to modern technological-oriented entertainments such as television, films, computers, video games, and so forth, for millennia dance, whether as a participatory act or as performance, was an incredibly popular form of entertainment, as well as a major component of magical practice and spiritual ritual, including serving as a method of healing.
Even today among traditional spiritual traditions, an incredibly high percentage of rituals involve dance. Dance for spiritual purposes was suppressed in Christianity and Judaism. In 1231, as only one example, the Council of Rouen forbade dancing in church. (Dance-centered spirituality survives in pockets of Islam, most notably the Sufi dervishes; however this too remains controversial and somewhat countercultural.) Church disapproval was based on a variety of reasons:
Dances retained pagan elements—in Judaism, for instance, dancing in groves was associated with devotion to the suppressed goddess Lady Asherah.
Dances incorporated cross-dressing, masking, and the impersonation of animals and deities.
Dances were intrinsic components of female-centered or even female-dominant spiritual traditions.
In modern mainstream Western society, among the majority of those who adhere to the monotheistic faiths, people dance for pleasure, entertainment, enjoyment, and exercise, and also as part of theatrical performance. Witches, however, are persistent preservers of ancient traditions. Some witches still dance with other motivation in mind. Because of course there’s the crucial matter of why people dance.
Why do people dance?
Traditionally and historically there have been rain dances, initiation dances, puberty, fertility, and healing dances. There are harvest dances in particular—grain and wine dances. There are war, victory, and peace dances.
People dance for purposes of entrancement, to induce trances.
People dance for purposes of spell-casting.
Dances honor and appease all kinds of spirits.
Dance is a powerful method of inviting the spirits to appear, as opposed to the commanding and compelling techniques that sorcerers depend upon (see MAGICAL ARTS:Commanding and Compelling).
Dance is frequently the method by which spirits are invited to enter the dancer’s body—usually a trained devotee who then temporarily serves as a vehicle for prophecy and healing (see MAGICAL ARTS: Ritual Possession).
Dance, conversely, is among the methods for exorcising malevolent spirits or those who’ve overstayed their welcome.
Dance is a method for aligning one’s personal energy and rhythm with that belonging to Earth.
Many people dance just for joy. Dance is one of the paths to ecstasy, the magical shamanic state. To this day some types of dance—that of the so-called whirling dervishes, for instance—are defined as “ecstatic dance.”
Dance is among the most accessible and powerful methods of generating fresh magical energy.
Fire-walking, an ancient shamanic art still occasionally practiced, may also be understood as an aspect of dance. Dance is a component of the rituals leading up to the actual fire-walking; participants are as likely to dance over the glowing coals as to walk over them.
Although dance is fun, traditional dance can also be serious business. Many traditional societies have specific social organizations devoted to dances: these include women’s societies, men’s societies, cross-dressers’ societies, sometimes, depending upon the dance, societies that integrate the genders so that women and men dance together, and sometimes even dance/spiritual societies for which being trans-gendered is a requirement of entry. Because harvests, health, fertility, weather, and other crucial issues are understood as dependent upon and controlled by the dance, it’s crucial that the dances are performed correctly and that the dancers adhere to all the ritual and magical requirements so that disaster may be averted.
Those scholars who define witchcraft as a vestige of “Neolithic dance cults” understand witches’ covens to be surviving tokens of these frequently secret dance societies, each of which had stringent initiation requirements.
This type of dance-centered spirituality still exists among Earth’s traditional peoples. Witches’ balls may certainly be understood as the remnants of similar traditions. (See HORNED ONE.)
By necessity, the information that follows is fragmentary. If only there had been video cameras to capture ancient dancers’ moves.