The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Danse Macabre or The Dance of Death
Many of the names for medieval dances are used somewhat interchangeably and carelessly today. The French term danse macabre is sometimes used to refer to any type of dance having anything to do with death, cemeteries or skeletons. It is also sometimes classified among the various dance manias that swept Europe during and after the Black Death, characterized by masses of frenzied dancers unable to stop dancing. (See Tarantella, page 248.)
However, in the context of this book, “danse macabre” refers very specifically to a medieval dance in which a figure representing death leads a procession to the graveyard. It is sometimes also called the Dance of Death. Death may be personified as a black-cloaked figure or as a naked skeleton. Death is not to be confused with the devil but is an independent entity.
The danse macabre is most familiar today as a visual image. The theme first achieved popularity in the fifteenth century and was incorporated into various styles of art, including woodcuts, carvings, frescoes, and paintings on canvas. The danse macabre was painted by innumerable unknown artists as well as by masters like Hans Holbein the Younger. Images corresponding to this theme were painted or carved onto church walls, chapels, ossuaries, and family vaults. Artistic depictions still resonate even to this day: the danse macabre may be witnessed among modern Halloween imagery, although it is now favored because it is “spooky.” Images of dancing skeletons hark back to the danse macabre.
The danse macabre is more than just a visual device, however; it was once an actual and very popular dance. A masked, costumed figure sometimes carrying a scythe represented Death. This person led a serpentine chain dance of the living, each person holding the hands of those on either side. Perhaps originally this procession did sometimes ultimately terminate in the cemetery but eventually it became popular enough to be integrated into public processional performances (see page 245, Processions), including those sponsored by local churches.
Although there are sufficient artistic depictions so that the dance is easily recognized, only a little information exists regarding actual dance practices. It is believed to have first originated in France as a reaction to the devastation of the Black Death. The earliest documented depiction of the danse macabre comes from Paris and is dated 1424.
The danse macabre grabbed hold of the public imagination. It spread throughout Europe. As it entered new regions, it evolved, eventually traveling far from its roots as a simple serpentine dance and transforming into elaborate theatrical productions, particularly in Denmark and the German lands.
There are two ways of understanding this image and perhaps also the motivation behind the dance. These perspectives are not mutually exclusive:
The conventional interpretation of the danse macabre suggests that Death is the great equalizer. Everyone dies, rich and poor, noble or peasant, no one can purchase or ordain immunity. In images devoted to the danse macabre, Death often leads emperors, princes, noble churchmen, leaders, and the obviously wealthy by the hand. (The theme behind this image survives in the tarot card entitled Death.)
It is common metaphysical practice to analyze images by looking at them out of context: in other words, what do you actually see, when you don’t think about what you’re supposed to see? In the case of the danse macabre, one sees the living dancing happily and peacefully with the dead, the spiritual motivation for many traditional witches’ serpentine dances of death.
A recreation of the danse macabre may be witnessed at the conclusion of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, The Seventh Seal.