Dance in Irish Mythology, Part 1
Faeries Love to Dance
Irish dance is unique from other popular dance styles—jazz, tap, modern—not just in technique, but in its deep-rooted ties to ancient Irish culture even as this artistic sport evolves into the present day. Learning and performing Irish dance isn’t limited to the Irish, but each step that’s taught stems from a place before Ireland’s written history, times full of magic and heroes and monsters that we can only call mythologic. While there’s not precisely proof of faeries (but don’t tell the Irish that--many still at least passively believe in the Sídhe, pronounced shee) and the people who lived beside them, one part of the stories is clear: faeries love to dance. (Want a quick overview of some of the basics of Irish mythology? Check out our post about the Tuatha Dé Danann, the ancient Irish gods, here.)
Any dancers knows that while dance is hard work and constant practice, there are moments where dancing can make you feel as if you’ve been transported to another world. Nowhere is this clearer than in Irish mythology, where tales of beautiful, unearthly music and dance partners so enchanting one can’t help but keep dancing, abound. As Greek mythology has the pomegranate seeds (and almost every known mythology has a correlation—Japanese, Norse, even Christianity) that trap Persephone in the Underworld, Irish mythology has dance. The sense of timelessness, peace, and joy we feel when we dance evokes the feeling the ancient Irish associated with the perfection of Tír na nÓg (the “Land of Youth” or the “Otherworld”)—a place where time is frozen and no one grows old. To dance with the Fae in their underground realm is dangerous game in Ireland—you may emerge unscathed, but you may emerge days, weeks, years later…or not at all. Time is a tricky thing in the Otherworld, after all!
But, dancing for the Sídhe is more than a deception—it’s their most beloved activity! Yeats, world renown poet perhaps less known for his extensive work recording and examining Irish mythology, features dance heavily in his poems that focus on the legends of the Fae and all the associated creatures. For example, Leprechauns (read a fuller description of these mischievous troublemakers here) are typically excellent musicians and cobblers, with Yeats explaining: “Because of their love of dancing, they (the Fae) will always need shoes.” It was thought that a good dancer or musician was favored by the Fae with their blessing, but Yeats’s take uses dance and tales of the Sídhe as an exploration of idealistic, national pride as the world was changing around him. The constancy of national identity and tradition the Irish have fought long and hard to protect (dance included) exists perpetually and perfectly in the Land of Youth, no matter what skirmishes may be being fought above ground.
But this is all fairytales and stories, right? Well, most stories we tell children—to comfort or warn them—do have a root in reality somewhere. The concept of dance as an inseparable part of Irish mythology and culture may be due to the importance of ritualistic movement in Druidic times. Historians agree that pagan priests most likely practiced a ceremonial dance of sorts called cor deiseal (pronounced kor dy-ash-al,) from the Irish deis for “right hand” and deas for “South.” As the Druids were sun-worshippers (learn more here!), these dances were performed in complicated clockwise patterns to follow the sun’s path. These rites are considered by many to be the earliest form of Irish dance, and it’s no wonder the storytellers of Irish mythology picked up on these culturally important ceremonies and wove them in to their own tales.
With the first feiseanna in Ireland believed to be a literally three millennia ago at Tara—a site known for its ancient ruins that align with the sun on Samhain, featured in many an Irish legend—it’s clear that dance has been inextricably linked with Ireland’s culture and beliefs since day one. Even modern Ireland isn’t empty of this more ritualized form of Irish dance today! Visit any holy sites or wells in Ireland (popular on festival days like Beltane or Lughnasa, and many other religious holidays, both pagan and Christian) and you may see regular citizens walking clockwise around the site as they tie clooties to trees. Paganism has also seen a resurgence in Ireland in recent days, with huge festivals being thrown on ancient, holy sites that include music, dance, and celebrations so raucous one wonders if they’ll bring the Sídhe from the Otherworld to join in. How could they resist?
Tune in next week where we continue to explore the links between Irish mythology and dance by asking one, very important question: who exactly is the king of the faeries?
This post is part of a series. Read our last mythology post, all about Springtime Old Wives’ Tales, here. Check out the blog every Monday and Thursday for more posts about Irish history, dance culture, community news, and spotlights on our dancers, staff, and families—among other fun projects! And don’t forget to dance along with us on both Facebook and Instagram.
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