Dance in Irish Mythology, Part 3
The Crane Dance
Like any founding mythology of a nation, the Irish mythos is littered with heroes and their glorious deeds—but not many of those stories involve dance. One major exception is the god-hero Lugh (we’ll be discussing the festival in his honor next week!) But before we get into the dancing, we have to tell you a little more about his place as one of the most important heroes in the Irish mythos.
First off—it’s unclear if Lugh was a god or an actual, historical figure. On his god side, Lugh was known as one of the strongest members of the powerful Tuatha Dé Danann: the god of sun and light, an all-seeing and all-knowing deity also associated with poetry, arts, and crafts. While the Romans referred to him as the “Gaulish Mercury”—he’s more like Apollo combined with Hermes, with a dash of Hercules thrown in. His many talents are attributed to being the only surviving member of a set of triplets—he’s often depicted with three faces to represent how he has the power of three (an important number in most mythologies and religions.) On the historical side, Lugh is associated with being not just a mighty warrior, but a skilled one, as well as a symbol of rightful kingship—meaning peace, prosperity, law and order, and oaths and truth. It’s a lot of for one man (or god) to carry!
There are many stories we could tell about Lugh (and probably will in future posts!), but the one that concerns us today is a rite Lugh was recorded performing before he led his men into a fight with the Fomorians (a monstrous, supernatural race from the sea.) While he heats the warriors’ blood with a rhythmic, rousing speech, he…dances. Specifically, he hops to the beat of his chant in a circle on one foot, with one eye closed—and bizarre as this seems out of context, there is an explanation! This is one of the only mentions in Irish mythology of a specific dance being performed by a god, and fitting with his status as a divinity, research shows that he was performing an ancient, Druidic magic called corrghuineacht aka “the crane dance.”
The position Lugh assumes is known as glám dícenn (“satire which destroys,” fitting for this poet-warrior,) and does more than mimic a crane standing in water. Lifting one foot from the ground is meant to place the dancer between worlds, while only one eye is open to block this world and see into the Otherworld. Traveling in a sunwise circle for prayer, blessing, and curses (Lugh, in this instance, is blessing the fighters,) was a common practice in Druidic worship, with infinity figures (circles and knots, foremost,) being the most iconic of Celtic symbols to this day. But the crane was also an important symbol in Celtic mythology: its ability to move between water, land, and air made it a symbol of shapeshifting and magic, as well as the moon to Lugh’s sun—a mirror of his prophetic powers and sacred to the triple goddesses of Irish mythology.
What does this all mean? On one level, it’s a really a beautiful way to view dance and emphasizes the deep, cultural roots of Irish dance in particular: dance in Ireland is something powerful, perhaps even magical, transformative, and of the natural world, tied to the land, the water, and the air of the isle. Lugh performing this dance is of particular significance as his rule as King marked 40 years of peace and prosperity on Irish land where the harvests were abundant and the cows productive—it associates dance with protection of the land and people, something steadfast, comforting, and elucidating in the face of the many invaders over Ireland’s long and often bloody history. Beauty in the midst of chaos—how else could you describe those flying feet paired with perfect posture?
Fun fact: there haven’t been cranes in Ireland for at least three centuries…but a nesting pair was spotted just this year! Up until medieval times, cranes were reportedly the third most common domestic pet in Ireland (after dogs and cats,) usually tamed and kept in the home, near the dinner table. (There are even claims that they were able to be trained to bow their heads in prayer!) Archaeologists also report that crane bones are the fourth most common bird bone found in Ireland, and scholars note that the birds are the second most common in place names throughout the British Isles. Industrialization led to the shrinking of their habitat and many thought the birds had moved on for good, but Irish company Bord na Móna has pivoted their purpose as peat harvesters and committed themselves to restoring the wetlands they had previously devastated. The company was proud to report the pair this past May—and while none of their eggs hatched this year, there’s high hopes for the next!
But there’s more about Lugh (and less about birds) to come…check out our post next week all about the holiday named after this multifaceted god!
This post is part of a series. Take a look at our last Irish Mythology post, all about the “King of the Faeries,” here. Also: 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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