The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Dances of Death
These particular “dances of death” do not refer to a specific dance but to the motivation behind a genre of witches’ dances. The danse macabre, which is sometimes also called the dance of death, and is a specific type of dance, is discussed in its own entry on page 241.
Witches famously dance in the graveyard. This is true not just in witch-hunt era Europe but wherever one finds cemeteries. They don’t even have to be cemeteries in terms of literal burial grounds: in India, magical practitioners devoted to Kali and Shiva dance in cremation grounds.
This is an old stereotype involving ancient legends, traditions, and practices. Witches still gather in cemeteries to dance as well as to conduct rituals, cast spells and commune with ghosts, ancestors, and spirits. Why do they do so?
Dances were once traditional components of funerals. These dances stem from many motivations and serve different purposes:
Dances help see the dead soul off on his journey to the next realm
Dances invite (and then dispel) necessary funerary spirits—the ones who’ll make sure the dead soul departs in a timely fashion and reaches his destination safely.
Merry-making propitiates the spirits, honors ancestral spirits and pleases ghosts, some or all of whom may join the living dancers in their revelry.
Dancing dispels fear and gloom, the existence of which increases malevolent magical powers.
Dancing cheers the living.
Because these are pre-Christian traditions, it stands to reason that they would meet with disapproval from the Church. Witches may be understood as maintaining (or at least attempting to maintain) their ancient practices. Fairy tales where the heroine is forced to gather magical materials in the cemetery inevitably find her doing so in the midst of dancing witches.
Cemeteries are also threshold areas packed with highly charged magic power (see DICTIONARY: Threshold). There are few, if any, places on Earth with more power and so magical practitioners go to cemeteries to gather materials, cast spells, hold rituals, commune with spirits, ancestors and ghosts and, yes, not least, to dance. (See MAGICAL ARTS: Necromancy; PLACES: Cemeteries.)
Exactly what kind of dances are these dances of death? Although they vary depending upon culture, region, tradition, and individual, two types of dances are consistently popular: circle dances, especially around grave markers, the cemetery’s central cross or other monuments, and serpentine line dances that spiral around graves and throughout the entire cemetery.