Their Origin and Meaning
The Edward Carpenter Archive
by Simon Dawson

Chapter 11 - RITUAL DANCING | Comment and Feedback

Forward to Chapter 12 - The Sex-Taboo

It is unnecessary to labor the conclusion of the last two or three chapters, namely that Christianity grew out of the former Pagan Creeds and is in its general outlook and origins continuous and of one piece with them. I have not attempted to bring together all the evidence in favor of this contention, as such work would be too vast, but more illustrations of its truth will doubtless occur to readers, or will emerge as we proceed.

I think we may take it as proved (1) that from the earliest ages, and before History, a great body of religious belief and ritual - first appearing among very primitive and unformed folk, whom we should call 'savages' - has come slowly down, broadening and differentiating itself on the way into a great variety of forms, but embodying always certain main ideas which became in time the accepted doctrines of the later Churches - the Indian, the Egyptian, the Mithraic, the Christian, and so forth. What these ideas in their general outline have been we can perhaps best judge from our "Apostles' Creed," as it is recited every Sunday in our churches.

"I believe in God the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth:
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Ghost,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead and buried.

He descended into Hell;
the third day he rose again from the dead,
He ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy Catholic Church;
the communion of Saints;
the Forgiveness of sins;
the Resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen."

Here we have the All-Father and Creator, descending from the Sky in the form of a spirit to impregnate the earthly Virgin-mother, who thus gives birth to a Saviour-hero. The latter is slain by the powers of Evil, is buried and descends into the lower world, but arises again as God into heaven and becomes the leader and judge of mankind. We have the confirmation of the Church (or, in earlier times, of the Tribe) by means of a Eucharist or Communion which binds together all the members, living or dead, and restores errant individuals through the Sacrifice of the hero and the Forgiveness of their sins; and we have the belief in a bodily Resurrection and continued life of the members within the fold of the Church (or Tribe), itself regarded as eternal.

One has only, instead of the word 'Jesus,' to read Dionysus or Krishna or Hercules or Osiris or Attis, and instead of 'Mary' to insert Semele or Devaki or Alcmene or Neith or Nana, and for Pontius Pilate to use the name of any terrestrial tyrant who comes into the corresponding story, and lo! the creed fits in all particulars into the rites and worship of a pagan god. I need not enlarge upon a thesis which is self-evident from all that has gone before. I do not say, of course, that all the religious beliefs of Paganism are included and summarized in our Apostles' Creed, for - as I shall have occasion to note in the next chapter - I think some very important religious elements are there omitted; but I do think that all the beliefs which are summarized in the said creed had already been fully represented and elaborately expressed in the non-Christian religions and rituals of Paganism.

Further (2) I think we may safely say that there is no certain proof that the body of beliefs just mentioned sprang from any one particular centre far back and radiated thence by dissemination and mental contagion over the rest of the world; but the evidence rather shows that these beliefs were, for the most part, the spontaneous outgrowths (in various localities) of the human mind at certain stages of its evolution; that they appeared, in the different races and peoples, at different periods according to the degree of evolution, and were largely independent of intercourse and contagion, though of course, in cases, considerably influenced by it; and that one great and all-important occasion and provocative of these beliefs was actually the rise of self-consciousness - that is, the coming of the mind to a more or less distinct awareness of itself and of its own operation, and the consequent development and growth of Individualism, and of the Self-centred attitude in human thought and action.

In the third place (3) I think we may see - and this is the special subject of the present chapter - that at a very early period, when humanity was hardly capable of systematic expression in what we call Philosophy or Science, it could not well rise to an ordered and literary expression of its beliefs, such as we find in the later religions and the 'Churches' (Babylonian, Jewish, East Indian, Christian, or what-not), and yet that it felt these beliefs very intensely and was urged, almost compelled, to their utterance in some form or other. And so it came about that people expressed themselves in a vast mass of ritual and myth - customs, ceremonies, legends, stories - which on account of their popular and concrete form were handed down for generations, and some of which linger on still in the midst of our modern civilization. These rituals and legends were, many of them, absurd enough, rambling and childish in character, and preposterous in conception, yet they gave the expression needed; and some of them of course, as we have seen, were full of meaning and suggestion.

A critical and commercial Civilization, such as ours, in which (notwithstanding much talk about Art) the artistic sense is greatly lacking, or at any rate but little diffused, does not as a rule understand that poetic rites, in the evolution of peoples, came naturally before anything like ordered poems or philosophy or systematized views about life and religion - such as we love to wallow in! Things were felt before they were spoken. The loading of diseases into disease-boats, of sins onto scape-goats, the propitiation of the forces of nature by victims, human or animal, sacrifices, ceremonies of re-birth, eucharistic feasts, sexual communions, orgiastic celebrations of the common life, and a host of other things - all said plainly enough what was meant, but not in words. Partly no doubt it was that at some early time words were more difficult of command and less flexible in use than actions (and at all times are they not less expressive?). Partly it was that mankind was in the child-stage. The Child delights in ritual, in symbol, in expression through material objects and actions:

See, at his feet some little plan or chart,
Some fragment from his dream of human life,
Shaped by himself with newly learned art;
A wedding or a festival,
A mourning or a funeral;
And this hath now his heart.

And primitive man in the child-stage felt a positive joy in ritual celebrations, and indulged in expressions which we but little understand; for these had then his heart.

One of the most pregnant of these expressions was DANCING. Children dance instinctively. They dance with rage; they dance with joy, with sheer vitality; they dance with pain, or sometimes with savage glee at the suffering of others; they delight in mimic combats, or in animal plays and disguises. There are such things as Courting-dances, when the mature male and female go through a ritual together - not only in civilized ball-rooms and the back-parlors of inns, but in the farmyards where the rooster pays his addresses to the hen, or the yearling bull to the cow - with quite recognized formalities; there are elaborate ceremonials performed by the Australian bower-birds and many other animals. All these things - at any rate in children and animals - come before speech; and anyhow we may say that love-rites, even in mature and civilized man, hardly admit of speech. Words only vulgarize love and blunt its edge.

So Dance to the savage and the early man was not merely an amusement or a gymnastic exercise (as the books often try to make out), but it was also a serious and intimate part of life, an expression of religion and the relation of man to non-human Powers. Imagine a young dancer - and the admitted age for ritual dancing was commonly from about eighteen to thirty - coming forward on the dancing-ground or platform for the invocation of rain. We have unfortunately no kinematic records, but it is not impossible or very difficult to imagine the various gestures and movements which might be considered appropriate to such a rite in different localities or among different peoples. A modern student of Dalcroze Eurhythmics would find the problem easy. After a time a certain ritual dance (for rain) would become stereotyped and generally adopted. Or imagine a young Greek leading an invocation to Apollo to stay some plague which was ravaging the country. He might as well be accompanied by a small body of co-dancers; but he would be the leader and chief representative. Or it might be a war-dance - as a more or less magical preparation for the raid or foray. We are familiar enough with accounts of war-dances among American Indians. C. O. Muller in his History and Antiquities of the Doric Race (Footnote 1) gives the following account of the Pyrrhic dance among the Greeks, which was danced in full armor:-

"Plato says that it imitated all the attitudes of defence, by avoiding a thrust or a cast, retreating, springing up, and crouching - as also the opposite movements of attack with arrows and lances, and also of every kind of thrust. So strong was the attachment to this dance at Sparta that, long after it had in the other Greek states degenerated into a Bacchanalian revel, it was still danced by the Spartans as a warlike exercise, and boys of fifteen were instructed in it."

Of the Hunting-dance I have already given instances. (Footnote 2) It always had the character of Magic about it, by which the game or quarry might presumably be influenced; and it can easily be understood that if the Hunt was not successful the blame might well be attributed to some neglect of the usual ritual mimes or movements - no laughing matter for the leader of the dance.

Or there were dances belonging to the ceremonies of Initiation - dances both by the initiators and the initiated. Jane E. Harrison in Themis (p. 24) says,

"Instruction among savage peoples is always imparted in more or less mimetic dances. At initiation you learn certain dances which confer on you definite social status. When a man is too old to dance, he hands over his dance to another and a younger, and he then among some tribes ceases to exist socially. . . . The dances taught to boys at initiation are frequently if not always armed dances. These are not necessarily warlike. The accoutrement of spear and shield was in part decorative, in part a provision for making the necessary hubbub."

(Here Miss Harrison reproduces a photograph of an Initiation dance among the Akikuyu of British East Africa.) The Initiation- dances blend insensibly and naturally with the Mystery and Religion dances, for indeed initiation was for the most part an instruction in the mysteries and social rites of the Tribe. They were the expression of things which would be hard even for us, and which for rude folk would be impossible, to put into definite words. Hence arose the expression - whose meaning has been much discussed by the learned - "to dance out (ezorceisqai) a mystery." (Footnote 3) Lucian, in a much-quoted passage, (Footnote 4) observes:

"You cannot find a single ancient mystery in which there is not dancing . . . and this much all men know, that most people say of the revealers of the mysteries that they 'dance them out.' "

Andrew Lang, commenting on this passage, (Footnote 5) continues:

"Clement of Alexandria uses the same term when speaking of his own 'appalling revelations.' So closely connected are mysteries with dancing among savages that when Mr. Orpen asked Qing, the Bushman hunter, about some doctrines in which Qing was not initiated, he said: 'Only the initiated men of that dance know these things.' To 'dance' this or that means to be acquainted with this or that myth, which is represented in a dance or ballet d'action. So widely distributed is the practice that Acosta in an interesting passage mentions it as familiar to the people of Peru before and after the Spanish conquest."

[And we may say that when the 'mysteries' are of a sexual nature it can easily be understood that to 'dance them out' is the only way of explaining them!]

Thus we begin to appreciate the serious nature and the importance of the dance among primitive folk. To dub a youth "a good dancer" is to pay him a great compliment. Among the well-known inscriptions on the rocks in the island of Thera in the Aegean sea there are many which record in deeply graven letters the friendship and devotion to each other of Spartan warrior-comrades; it seems strange at first to find how often such an epithet of praise occurs as Bathycles dances well, Eumelos is a perfect dancer (aristos orcestas). One hardly in general expects one warrior to praise another for his dancing! But when one realizes what is really meant - namely the fitness of the loved comrade to lead in religious and magical rituals - then indeed the compliment takes on a new complexion. Religious dances, in dedication to a god, have of course been honored in every country. Muller, in the work just cited, (Footnote 6) describes a lively dance called the hyporchema which, accompanied by songs, was used in the worship of Apollo.

"In this, besides the chorus of singers who usually danced around the blazing altaer, several persons were appointed to accompany the action of the poem with an appropriate pantomimic display."

It was probably some similar dance which is recorded in Exodus, ch. xxxii, when Aaron made the Israelites a golden Calf (image of the Egyptian Apis). There was an altar and a fire and burnt offerings for sacrifice, and the people dancing around. Whether in the Apollo ritual the dancers were naked I cannot say, but in the affair of the golden Calf they evidently were, for it will be remembered that it was just this which upset Moses' equanimity so badly - "when he saw that the people were naked" - and led to the breaking of the two tables of stone and the slaughter of some thousands of folk. It will be remembered also that David on a sacrificial occasion danced naked before the Lord. (Footnote 7)

It may seem strange that dances in honor of a god should be held naked; but there is abundant evidence that this was frequently the case, and it leads to an interesting speculation. Many of these rituals undoubtedly owed their sanctity and solemnity to their extreme antiquity. They came down in fact from very far back times when the average man or woman - as in some of the Central African tribes to-day - wore simply nothing at all; and like all religious ceremonies they tended to preserve their forms long after surrounding customs and conditions had altered. Consequently nakedness lingered on in sacrificial and other rites into periods when in ordinary life it had come to be abandoned or thought indecent and shameful. This comes out very clearly in both instances above - quoted from the Bible. For in Exodus xxxii. 25 it is said that "Aaron had made them (the dancers) naked unto their shame among their enemies (read opponents)," and in 2 Sam. vi. 20 we are told that Michal came out and sarcastically rebuked the "glorious king of Israel" for "shamelessly uncovering himself, like a vain fellow" (for which rebuke, I am sorry to say, David took a mean revenge on Michal). In both cases evidently custom had so far changed that to a considerable section of the population these naked exhibitions had become indecent, though as parts of an acknowledged ritual they were still retained and supported by others. The same conclusion may be derived from the commands recorded in Exodus xx. 26 and xxviii. 42, that the priests be not "uncovered" before the altar - commands which would hardly have been needed had not the practice been in vogue.

Then there were dances (partly magical or religious) performed at rustic and agricultural festivals, like the Epilenios, celebrated in Greece at the gathering of the grapes. (Footnote 8) Of such a dance we get a glimpse in the Bible (Judges xxi. 20) when the elders advised the children of Benjamin to go out and lie in wait in the vineyards, at the time of the yearly feast; and

"when the daughters of Shiloh come out to dance in the dances, then come ye out of the vineyards and catch you every man a wife from the daughters of Shiloh"

a touching example apparently of early so-called 'marriage by capture'! Or there were dances, also partly or originally religious, of a quite orgiastic and Bacchanalian character, like the Bryallicha performed in Sparta by men and women in hideous masks, or the Deimalea by Sileni and Satyrs waltzing in a circle; or the Bibasis carried out by both men and women - a quite gymnastic exercise in which the performers took a special pride in striking their own buttocks with their heels! or others wilder still, which it would perhaps not be convenient to describe.

We must see how important a part Dancing played in that great panorama of Ritual and Religion (spoken of in the last chapter) which, having originally been led up to by the 'Fall of Man,' has ever since the dawn of history gradually overspread the world with its strange procession of demons and deities, and its symbolic representations of human destiny. When it is remembered that ritual dancing was the matrix out of which the Drama sprang, and further that the drama in its inception (as still to-day in India) was an affair of religion and was acted in, or in connection with, the Temples, it becomes easier to understand how all this mass of ceremonial sacrifices, expiations, initiations, Sun and Nature festivals, eucharistic and orgiastic communions and celebrations, mystery-plays, dramatic representations, myths and legends, etc., which I have touched upon in the preceding chapters - together with all the emotions, the desires, the fears, the yearnings and the wonderment which they represented - have practically sprung from the same root: a root deep and necessary in the psychology of Man. Presently I hope to show that they will all practically converge again in the end to one meaning, and prepare the way for one great Synthesis to come - an evolution also necessary and inevitable in human psychology.

In that truly inspired Ode from which I quoted a few pages back, occur those well-known words whose repetition now will, on account of their beauty, I am sure be excused: -

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar;

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But He beholds the light and whence it flows

He sees it in his joy;
The youth who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;

At length the man perceives it die away
And fade into the light of common day.

Wordsworth - though he had not the inestimable advantage of a nineteenth-century education and the inheritance of the Darwinian philosophy - does nevertheless put the matter of the Genius of the Child in a way which (with the alteration of a few conventional terms) we scientific moderns are quite inclined to accept. We all admit now that the Child does not come into the world with a mental tabula rasa of entire forgetfulness but on the contrary as the possessor of vast stores of sub-conscious memory, derived from its ancestral inheritances; we all admit that a certain grace and intuitive insight and even prophetic quality, in the child-nature, are due to the harmonization of these racial inheritances in the infant, even before it is born; and that after birth the impact of the outer world serves rather to break up and disintegrate this harmony than to confirm and strengthen it. Some psychologists indeed nowadays go so far as to maintain that the child is not only 'Father of the man,' but superior to the man, (Footnote 9) and that Boyhood and Youth and Maturity are attained to not by any addition but by a process of loss and subtraction. It will be seen that the last ten lines of the above quotation rather favor this view.

But my object in making the quotation was not to insist on the truth of its application to the individual Child, but rather to point out the remarkable way in which it illustrates what I have said about the Childhood of the Race. In fact, if the quotation be read over again with this interpretation (which I do not say Wordsworth intended) that the 'birth' spoken of is the birth or evolution of the distinctively self- conscious Man from the Animals and the animal-natured, unself-conscious human beings of a preceding age, then the parable unfolds itself perfectly naturally and convincingly. That birth certainly was sleep and a forgetting; the grace and intuition and instinctive perfection of the animals was lost. But the forgetfulness was not entire; the memory lingered long of an age of harmony, of an Eden- garden left behind. And trailing clouds of this remembrance the first tribal men, on the edge of but not yet within the civilization-period, appear in the dawn of History.

As I have said before, the period of the dawn of Self- consciousness was also the period of the dawn of the practical and inquiring Intellect; it was the period of the babyhood of both; and so we perceive among these early people (as we also do among children) that while in the main the heart and the intuitions were right, the intellect was for a long period futile and rambling to a degree. As soon as the mind left the ancient bases of instinct and sub-conscious racial experience it fell into a hopeless bog, out of which it only slowly climbed by means of the painfully-gathered stepping-stones of logic and what we call Science. "Heaven lies about us in our infancy." Wordsworth perceived that wonderful world of inner experience and glory out of which the child emerges; and some even of us may perceive that similar world in which the untampered animals still dwell, and out of which self-regarding Man in the history of the race was long ago driven. But a curse went with the exile. As the Brain grew, the Heart withered. The inherited instincts and racially accumulated wisdom, on which the first men thrived and by means of which they achieved a kind of temporary Paradise, were broken up; delusions and disease and dissension set in. Cain turned upon his brother and slew him; and the shades of the prison- house began to close. The growing Boy, however, (by whom we may understand the early tribes of Mankind) had yet a radiance of Light and joy in his life; and the Youth - though travelling daily farther from the East - still remained Nature's priest, and by the vision splendid was on his way attended: but

At length the Man perceived it die away.
And fade into the light of common day.

What a strangely apt picture in a few words (if we like to take it so) of the long pilgrimage of the Human Race, its early and pathetic clinging to the tradition of the Eden- garden, its careless and vigorous boyhood, its meditative youth, with consciousness of sin and endless expiatory ritual in Nature's bosom, its fleeting visions of salvation, and finally its complete disillusionment and despair in the world- slaughter and unbelief of the twentieth century!

Leaving Wordsworth, however, and coming back to our main line of thought, we may point out that while early peoples were intellectually mere babies - with their endless yarns about heroes on horseback leaping over wide rivers or clouds of monks flying for hundreds of miles through the air, and their utter failure to understand the general concatenations of cause and effect - yet practically and in their instinct of life and destiny they were, as I have already said, by no means fools; certainly not such fools as many of the arm-chair students of these things delight to represent them. For just as, a few years ago, we modern civilizees studying outlying nations, the Chinese for instance, rejoiced (in our vanity) to pick out every quaint peculiarity and absurdity and monstrosity of a supposed topsyturvydom, and failed entirely to see the real picture of a great and eminently sensible people; so in the case of primitive men we have been, and even still are, far too prone to catalogue their cruelties and obscenities and idiotic superstitions, and to miss the sane and balanced setting of their actual lives.

Mr. R. R. Marett, who has a good practical acquaintance with his subject, had in the Hibbert Journal for October 1918 an article on "The Primitive Medicine Man" in which he shows that the latter is as a rule anything but a fool and a knave - although like 'medicals' in all ages he hocuspocuses his patients occasionally! He instances the medicine- man's excellent management, in most cases, of childbirth, or of wounds and fractures, or his primeval skill in trepanning or trephining - all of which operations, he admits, may be accompanied with grotesque and superstitious ceremonies, yet show real perception and ability. We all know - though I think the article does not mention the matter - what a considerable list there is of drugs and herbs which the modern art of healing owes to the ancient medicine-man, and it may be again mentioned that one of the most up-to- date treatments - the use of a prolonged and exclusive diet of milk as a means of giving the organism a new start in severe cases - has really come down to us through the ages from this early source. (Footnote 10) The real medicine-man, Mr. Marett says, is largely a 'faith-healer' and 'soul-doctor'; he believes in his vocation, and undergoes much for the sake of it:

"The main point is to grasp that by his special initiation and the rigid taboos which he practises - not to speak of occasional remarkable gifts, say of trance and ecstasy, which he may inherit by nature and have improved by art - he has access to a wonder-working power. . . . And the great need of primitive folk is for this healer of souls."

Our author further insists on the enormous play and influence of Fear in the savage mind - a point we have touched on already - and gives instances of Thanatomania, or cases where, after a quite slight and superficial wound, the patient becomes so depressed that he, quite needlessly, persists in dying! Such cases, obviously, can only be countered by Faith, or something (whatever it may be) which restores courage, hope and energy to the mind. Nor need I point out that the situation is exactly the same among a vast number of 'patients' to-day. As to the value, in his degree, of the medicine-man many modern observers and students quite agree with the above. (Footnote 11) Also as the present chapter is on Ritual Dancing it may not be out of place to call attention to the supposed healing of sick people in Ceylon and other places by Devil-dancing - the enormous output of energy and noise in the ritual possibly having the effect of reanimating the patient (if it does not kill him), or of expelling the disease from his organism.

With regard to the practical intelligence of primitive peoples, derived from their close contact with life and nature, Bishop Colenso's experiences among the Zulus may appropriately be remembered. When expounding the Bible to these supposedly backward 'niggers' he was met at all points by practical interrogations and arguments which he was perfectly unable to answer - especially over the recorded passage of the Red Sea by the Israelites in a single night. From the statistics given in the Sacred Book these naughty savages proved to him absolutely conclusively that the numbers of fugitives were such that even supposing them to have marched - men, women and children - five abreast and in close order, they would have formed a column 100 miles long, and this not including the baggage, sheep and cattle! Of course the feat was absolutely impossible. They could not have passed the Red Sea in a night or a week of nights.

But the sequel is still more amusing and instructive. Colenso, in his innocent sincerity, took the side of the Zulus, and feeling sure the Church at home would be quite glad to have its views with regard to the accuracy of Bible statistics corrected, wrote a book embodying the amendments needed. Modest as his criticisms were, they raised a storm of protest and angry denunciation, which even led to his deposition for the time being from his bishopric! While at the same time an avalanche of books to oppose his heresy poured forth from the press. Lately I had the curiosity to look through the British Museum catalogue and found that in refutation of Colenso's Pentateuch Examined some 140 (a hundred and forty) volumes were at that time published! To-day, I need hardly say, all these arm-chair critics and their works have sunk into utter obscurity, but the arguments of the Zulus and their Bishop still stand unmoved and immovable.

This is a case of searching intelligence shown by 'savages,' an intelligence founded on intimate knowledge of the needs of actual life. I think we may say that a similarly instinctive intelligence (sub-conscious if you like) has guided the tribes of men on the whole in their long passage through the Red Sea of the centuries, from those first days of which I speak even down to the present age, and has in some strange, even if fitful, way kept them along the path of that final emancipation towards which Humanity is inevitably moving.


  1. Book IV, ch. 6, Section 7. Return
  2. See also Winwood Reade's Savage Africa, ch. xviii, in which he speaks of the "gorilla dance," before hunting gorillas, as a "religious festival." Return
  3. Meaning apparently either simply to represent, or, sometimes to divulge, a mystery. Return
  4. peri Orchsews>, Ch. xv. 277. Return
  5. Myth, Ritual and Religion, i, 272. Return
  6. Book II, ch. viii, Section 14. Return
  7. 2 Sam. vi. Return
  8. Epilhnioi umnoi: hymns sung over the winepress (Dictionary). Return
  9. Man in the course of his life falls away more and more from the specifically human type of his early years, but the Ape in the course of his short life goes very much farther along the road of degradation and premature senility." (Man and Woman, by Havelock Ellis, p. 24). Return
  10. Milk ("fast-milk" or vrata) was, says Mr. Hewitt, the only diet in the Soma-sacrifice. See Ruling Races of Prehistoric Times (preface). The Soma itself was a fermented drink prepared with ceremony from the milky and semen-like sap of certain plants, and much used in sacrificial offerings. (See Monier-Williams. Sanskrit Dictionary.) Return
  11. See Winwood Reade (Savage Africa), Salamon Reinach (Cults, Myths and Religions), and others. Return

Forward to Chapter 12 | Return to Top of Page