The Muse Project—She Who Dances

Tersichore, sculpture at the Wilam Horzyca Theatre, Torun, Poland

“Terpsichore, because she delights (terpein) her disciples with the good things which come from education.”  

Diodorus Siculus

Terpsichore (tərp-SIK-ər-ee) is the muse of dance and her name means “delight in dancing,”. Usually seen holding a lyre and plectrum, her name comes from the Greek words terpo (“to delight”) and choros (“dance”).

While the Muses are named individuals as far back as the 8th century BC and in the late Classical/early Hellenistic period were given specific attributes, they are most often invoked as a group and are often first to be honored in epics such as the Theogony. In this genealogy of the Gods Hesiod begins the story only after devoting the first 115 lines to the Muses. The first thing he describes them doing is dancing.

Let us begin our song with the Heliconian Muses,

Who dwell on the great and sacred mount of Helicon,

And dance with delicate feet around

The purple fountain and around the altar of mighty Zeus;

And when they have washed their soft skin in Permessus

Or in the Horse’s Spring or in Olmeius they perform

On Helicon’s sacred summit choral dances,

Both lovely and delightful, with swift motions of their feet.

Theogony, Hesiod 1-8

Dancing was tremendously important to Greek religion, education, and civic life, with singing and choral dancing the basis of education. Dance taught virtue “because rhythm and harmony penetrate most easily into the soul and influence it most strongly” (Plato, Laws,660c). According to Plato, a person who does not know how to dance is uneducated and therefore not a citizen, which explains the Diordorus quote above. As Steven Lonsdale notes in his book Dance and Ritual Play in Greek Religion, “In Greek theogonic myth the Muses represent a primordial ordering power.” And while Apollo leads the Muses in dance, the Muses are the driving force.

“The Muses attach themselves to Apollo, who is their chorus leader (choregos). But Apollo also derives inspiration from the Muses and is in a sense subordinate to them. In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes Apollo says, ‘I too am a follower of the Olympian Muses, who cherish the dance and the bright path of singing, the bloom of song and dance, and the lovely resonance of auloi.’ The prominent position of the Muses in the Theogony suggests their primacy as animator and arrangers of the cosmic order.”

Lonsdale, Dance and Ritual Play in Greek Religion p57
Dionysus

The Greeks considered properly performed dance an ordering force, but dance could also be a disordering force. Apollo and the Muses were leaders of dance, but there was another: Dionysus. His dance was a reversal of order involving frenzied movements, but this was important to restore order, for this type of dancing could heal internal agitation. Submitting to the mania led to wisdom, but refusing the mania led to madness. This is dramatized well in Euripides’ play Bacchae.

Dancing was instrumental in initiation rites and for socialization, especially the dancing of young girls as arktoi, the “little bears” at the Brauronia in honor of Artemis. The theory is that the wildness was taken out of the young girls to prepare them for marriage.

Dancing was also an important way to commune and honor the Gods. Dance was included in the processions of festivals such as the Panathenaea, the Anthesteria, and the Dionysia, and many poleis (city-states) had dancing grounds in their civic spaces. Theater began as an offering to Dionysus, whose statue was present to preside over the competitions of comedies, tragedies, and satyr plays. The tragedies always had a chorus who danced as well as sang.

Dance was also integral to weddings and funerals, and was training for warriors. There was even in Rhodes a ritual performed by young boys called the Begging Swallow song where they went door to door singing and dancing for food. If they were refused, some sort of punishment was inflicted on the homeowner, like the Trick or Treat ritual at Halloween.

Pan

There is one other Greek god of dancing: Pan. Known as Philochoros, lover of dance, he leads the Nymphs while playing his reed pipes. He was worshiped at caves. He was also worshiped at Delphi and Athens, where a cult to the god was established which included torch races and castrated goat sacrifices. According to the historian Herodotus, the cult was established in return for Pan’s assistance to the Athenians at the battle of Marathon.

Outside of the Greek pantheon there is Shiva Nataraja, an important god in the Hindu pantheon. He is called lord of the dance who creates and destroys at the same time while crushing the demon of illusion and ignorance underfoot.

For us today, summer is the time of year for June weddings, July 4th picnics and summer vacations. It is a time of increased activity, a time to delight in dance and call on Terpsichore. As Lonsdale declares in the closing of his book, “Dance, like laughter, food and other things which bring pleasure, has a socializing, even life-affirming force that can triumph over the most obdurate curmudgeon. We must all one day face the music!”

Terpsichore,

graceful one, in dance you take delight,

in swaying form and nimble step, in the heartbeat of

the drum.

In the practiced pace of the rhythmic waltz,

in the wild, whirling joy of the maenad, we know

you.

As the heart speaks, the body moves;

as the body moves; the mind transcends all

and pauses in awe and reverence.

Terpsichore, goddess, child of Olympos, I honor you.

Hester Butler-Ehle, from Seasons of Grace: A Devotional in Honor of the Muses, the Charites, and the Horae

              

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