Maenad Dances - Creative Arts

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Maenad Dances
Creative Arts

When anthropologists mutter about witchcraft as surviving vestiges of dance cults, frequently what’s really being implied, without being explicitly spoken because, of course, this can never be scientifically proven, is that in one form or another the Maenads survive.

The Maenads were the female devotees of Dionysus. Among Dionysus’ titles is Lord of the Dance. The word “Maenad” would also eventually come to be used as a synonym for female “witch.”

The Maenads were not sedate women, at least not during rituals: they danced, sang, reveled, and drank. Magical practices were incorporated, as was ritual possession. When possessed by the deity, the Maenads were wild and fierce. Whether they really tore animals to bits by hand and consumed them raw is unknown, however that was their reputation in Greece. Conventional society considered the Maenads dangerous, disreputable, and out of control. Women had few rights in classical Greece and were expected to remain quiet, discreet, and well behaved. The Maenads defied convention.

Very little information survives regarding the Maenads. What exists tends towards the sensational, written by observers and, in general, by those who beheld these independent women with vehement disapproval. Virtually the one neutral thing that can be established about the Maenads is that they danced.

The Maenads danced bull dances, erotic dances, and labyrinth dances. They danced in public ritual as part of Dionysus’ processionals, and they danced in secret in moonlit forests, where they ritually channeled Dionysus and perhaps other spirits, too. (Many spirits joined in Dionysus’ retinue, including Pan the goatfoot god, Hecate, and Kybele.)

The Maenads were frequently depicted in Greek sculpture and vase paintings, often in the company of satyrs and very often dancing. Much of what we know of their dances is derived from this imagery, which of course is static. However, this much is generally believed:

Image Their dances were characterized by an absence of symmetry, thus they did not have the appearance of “orderliness” typically valued by classical Greek civilization. The women dance together in a group but each dances as an individual with slight variations.

Image Their movements were loose and flexible, characterized by stiff or waving arms and deep back bends, followed by immediate deep forward bends. Sometimes the movements seem unconsciously erotic: in other words, there is no self-conscious attempt to titillate the viewer.

Image They whirled, presumably whirling themselves into an ecstatic state, similar to the so-called whirling dervishes.

Image They danced holding lit torches as well as the thyrsus, the magic wand associated with Dionysus, which consists of a stiff fennel stalk topped with a pine-cone. They struck the ground with the thyrsus.

Image The Maenads accompanied their dance with castanets, cymbals, and frame drums. They attached small bells to their clothing.

Image They wore swirling scarves and capes while they danced. There is no indication of veils. Instead, in some depictions, the Maenads dance so hard, their breasts fall out of their clothes, seemingly causing no distress or embarrassment.

Image Dances involved walking, running, and leaping, often executed on their toes or on the balls of their bare feet. (This may or may not reproduce the “shaman’s limp”—see The Step of Yu page 248.)