Processions - Creative Arts

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

Creative Arts

The Roman victory “triumph,” all sorts of parades, and modern Carnival and Mardi Gras processions complete with floats are rooted in the sacred tradition of the ancient processional. These may be further rooted in primal “follow the leader” type dances, line dances or serpentine snake dances (see Snake Dance, page 246).

Processions were frequent components of ancient spiritual festivals. An image, person or sacred object representing the deity being honored was transported in a wagon. The deity was accompanied by an honor guard of priestesses, priests, devotees, pilgrims, sacred animals, musicians, and, especially, dancers. Sideshow magicians who give crowd-pleasing “magical” performances may be understood to derive from these theatrical traditions, as do sacred clowns.

Processions would proceed in a line from one point—frequently the deity’s official shrine—to a chosen destination: typically another shrine, the ocean or another sacred place. (The procession may or may not eventually circle back to the starting point.) Frequent scheduled stops might be made, as with some modern parades. There might be theatrical performances at these stops or rituals, often incorporating music and dance, masking, and guising.

Many African Diaspora spiritual ceremonials including those of Vodou and Candomble invite the spirits to join the living; the spirits are expected to arrive in a somewhat orderly fashion. This parade of spirits may be understood as similar to the ancient processionals.

Although processions were crucial to the devotional rituals of many spirits including Bastet, Durga, Hathor, Hera, Herta, Isis, Kybele, and Perchta, they are most famously identified with Dionysus, and his processions are believed to have served as the prototype for the medieval processions that eventually evolved into modern parades. A sacred object representing the deity, often a pine tree, phallic pole or other phallic symbol, was transported from one point to another. It was accompanied by an entourage of spirits, including Pan and often Hecate, Kybele, and others.

The Maenads danced in Dionysus’ processions while accompanying themselves with percussion instruments including frame drums, cymbals, and castanets, instruments still associated with women’s tribal dances. Dionysus’ sacred animals were in attendance including donkeys, mules, and leopards. Participants and observers were often masked and costumed. Dionysus was Lord of the Dance and of Theater: the parade would periodically be punctuated with theatrical performances. Dionysus was also Lord of Wine and Intoxication: the sacred blends with the profane. Participants and observers often indulged in Dionysus’ sacraments. Raucous, drunken, masked Carnival celebrations are in direct line of descent from the celebratory parades of Dionysus. (The famous Carnival of Rio de Janeiro remains dominated by traditional dance clubs; each club spends a year preparing choreography and costumes for their Carnival performance.)

Similar processionals—although rarely if ever incorporating the aspect of intoxication specific to Dionysus as Lord of Wine—are common to many indigenous traditions of Africa, Asia, North America, and elsewhere. The concept of a procession incorporating masked and/or costumed dancers, musicians, singers, and theatrical performances for magical and/or ritual purposes is among the oldest spiritual traditions of all.

Even after other pagan customs were forbidden, the much beloved procession went undercover and survived until the Middle Ages in traditions associated with the Feast of Fools, the Feast of the Ass, and similar festivals. Modern Roman Catholic feast days that incorporate a parade featuring the honored saint’s statue pulled on a wagon may be understood as continuing this tradition, particularly when the parade is held in conjunction with a fair. Many traditional Church processions still incorporate special dances performed only at these festivals. (See CALENDAR: February Feasts: Saint Agatha.) Many parades that today honor specific sacred Madonna’s are indistinguishable from parades that once honored pagan goddesses.

The Wild Hunt reproduces the concept of the sacred processional. A sacred rider leads a procession of fairies, ghosts, and spirits. They are accompanied by animals, most notably hounds, and by music in the form of horns. The witches who allegedly join the Hunt as dancers may be understood as stepping in the shoes of the Maenads in Dionysus’ old processions.