Category: Music and Dance

The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance

By Elizabeth Wayland Barber. 2013. New York: W.W. Norton. 429 pages. ISBN: 978-0-393-06536-7 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Amy Brunvand

[Review length: 1143 words • Review posted on October 22, 2014]


[Cover ofThe Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance]

If anyone outside of Eastern Europe has heard of willies, the sometimes malevolent, sometimes beneficent dancing spirits of young women that inhabit Slavic and Balkan folktales, it’s probably because of the veela cheerleaders who root for the Bulgarian quidditch team in the Harry Potter series. Or maybe it’s from the classical ballet Giselle where white-clad willies lure a fickle suitor to dance himself to death. The soul-sisters of these ghost girls appear in the ballet Swan Lake where transformed maidens can shed their feathers and dance in human form. Who are these girls in white? The cultural scraps have become detached from original tradition, but nonetheless tales of willies are still with us and their persistence suggests that they are part of a story worth re-telling.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s idea is that the historic and pre-historic development of Eastern European dance traditions has been heavily influenced by willies or more precicely, by seasonal rituals centered on metaphors of dancing female nature spirits. Barber has stitched together clues from folk dance, ritual, costume, linguistics, and archeology to track down the origin and cultural meaning of these “dancing goddesses” (Barber uses the English word “willies,” but includes dancing female nature spirits from many different traditions such as vily, rusalki, simargl, mermaids, and so on). Twining together these threads, Barber presents evidence for a continuous Eastern European tradition of pagan fertility rituals centered on dancing female spirits and dating back to the Stone Age.

Barber’s work is informed by a unique combination of expertise: she is a professor emeritus of archaeology and linguistics who did pioneering work on the prehistoric origins of textiles, focusing particularly on women’s role in textile production (Barber 1991, 1995). She is also a “Balkanite” as described by Laušević (2007) who documents an appropriated Balkan music and dance scene composed largely of white urban professionals with no family or ethnic connection to Balkan culture. In 1971 Barber founded a “Folk & Historical Dance Troupe” at Occidental College and her experience learning and performing “mysteriously addicting” partnerless line dances led to curiosity about their origin and cultural context. Initially fascinated by folk costumes worn for dancing, Barber writes, “Gradually I sensed that the dances, too—though sheared from their cultural moorings and even more evanescent than the textiles and costumes—could perhaps be traced. Then I encountered the Dancing Goddesses.”

Willies are particularly evident in dance traditions because, as Zimmerman (1979:169) notes, “One constant in the fluctuating traditions is that the vila loves to sing and dance,” and so dancing becomes a means of communication with the spirit world. Willies are seen as alluring but capricious and often hostile towards human beings—Barber says, “their dancing created life, their wrath could destroy it.” However, when approached with care, they had a precious gift to give human kind: “They had not used up their natural store of fertility and might be persuaded to donate it to villagers and crops.” This metaphor is extended to water sources and to egg-laying water creatures like swans or fish (hence mermaids). Thus for villagers seeking a gift of fertile crops, “the challenge was to lead, cajole, trap, or entice them into cultivated areas to shed their fertility here and one way to do that was to do what they did: dance.”

Barber (1997) previously linked willies to Russian nature spirits called rusalki, though Juric (2010) argues that there is a functional difference between “folkloric” willies/vily/rusalki and “mythologic” vili described in Slavic epics which may have a stronger link to goddesses like the Norse valkyrie and Vedic Apsartl. (Juric particularly wishes that scholars would “cease referring to vili as ‘a Yugoslav fairy’” which Barber is not guilty of doing.) In any case, Barber’s work is focused on folkloric willies and the influence of seasonal fertility rituals on the development of Eastern European and Balkan dance traditions.

The book is divided into four parts. Part I describes seasonal rituals related to rusalki, and Part II relates these rituals to the Russian fairy tale of the Frog Princess (frogs being another egg-laying, water-dwelling fertility symbol) in order to show how these metaphors are integrated with village life and belief systems. Drawing from her previous work on the history of textiles, Barber shines a light on the lives of peasant women who in a pre-industrial age were responsible for spinning, weaving, and sewing textiles, and shows how clothing elements that seem merely decorative, such as embroidered trim, wing-like sleeves, string skirts, and plaited hair, contain coded references to the fertility dances of the willies.

Pagan rituals were frequently suppressed, co-opted, and time-shifted by Christianity, so although the historic linkages are not always straightforward, Barber is able to construct compelling arguments to establish continuity of tradition. Part III traces the deep archaeological history of more recent customs through linguistic evidence and images on archaeological artifacts such as the dancers on Neolithic potsherds described by Garfinkel (2003), and ancient Greek and Roman artifacts that depict dancers wearing wing-like sleeves and symbolic hairstyles. Part IV places the rituals of the dancing goddesses within the general context of dance in human cultures and specifically in the context of non-literate agrarian culture. “To see the coherence and logic of their approach,” Barber writes, “we have to look at the whole system: as long as we just look at little bits, the way urban scholars tend to do, the little pieces seem quite off the wall. In this case, traditional views about the world of spirits and the habits of the dead are as basic to the entire narrative system as logic and hard evidence are to modern science.”

This “whole system” approach offers fascinating insights into the history of Balkan dance, and also illuminates the powerful metaphor of the dancing goddesses that is still with us in songs, stories, costumes, and dance. The willies are not, after all, as obscure a topic as they first seemed. This well-researched, engaging book is a major work that ties together folklore, archaeology, and women’s history.

Works Cited

Barber, E. W. 1991. Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with Special Reference to the Aegean. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

-----. 1995. Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years: Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times. New York: W.W. Norton.

-----. 1997. “On the Origins of the Vilylrusalki.” In Varia on the Indo-European Past: Papers in Memory of Marija Gimbutas, 6-47. Journal of Indo-European Studies Monograph, 19. Washington: Institute for the Study of Man.

Garfinkel, Yosef. 2003. Dancing at the Dawn of Agriculture. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Juric, Dorian. 2010. “Treatise on the South Slavic Vila.” MA Thesis, McMaster University.

Laušević, Mirjana. 2007. Balkan Fascination: Creating an Alternative Music Culture in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Zimmerman, Zora. 1979. “The Changing Roles of the ‘Vila’ in Serbian Traditional Literature,” Journal of the Folklore Institute 16:167-175.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.