In Rome, the men-dancers, twenty-four strong, were dedicated to Mars, the god of the first month, March. Each carried a staff as they marched about the city, stopping at certain loci to ‘act’ their medicine-dance and promote growth. During the Feast of the Lupercalia, the young men-dancers, after they had been `blooded’, danced through the streets flicking the women with strips of goatskin to render them fertile and give easy delivery. These were of the priesthood of Faunus or Pan, the Indo-European God of the forests and of the herdsmen who recognized him by his cloven feet and ears like a goat’s. Still today in Thrace a drama-cult is performed by men dressed in goatskins and carrying sticks. One of them, the ‘Smith’, `acts’ the forging of an iron plough-share which rapes Mother Earth. A baby is born, grows to manhood, is ritually murdered and resurrected to make the corn grow; in the presence of antic gods all now become fools and clowns.
The great migrations of these Iron-Age stick-dancing medicine-men five or six thousand years ago carried such spring-festival rites across Europe from the Balkans to Spain and Portugal, from Sicily north to Scandinavia and the British Isles. After a pause in Europe of a few thousand years, they reached forward again to cross the Atlantic into Mexico and Brazil. Here in Central and South America the European stick dancers with their ‘fools’ and animal characters mixed their customs with similar indigenous customs evolved from rites belonging to another family of gods.
I have been fortunate during my life to see groups of these stick-dancing men in different countries. With their hobby-horses, hobby-goats, animal masks and antic hays, they flutter their ribbons, rattle their bells, and clash their sticks to generate life-bringing ‘medicine’ and dance in procession to dispense it through their communities.
In rural Rumania the `Caluari’ dancers have a cure for a sick child as valued as a bottle of modern physic. In Macedonia the `Rusallia’ dancers are thought to improve a girl’s prospects of marriage. The spring-festival dance of the young men is in demand for the farm-yard as well as for the crops. It may be regarded as just a hangover from our pagan days, but in all these country places the old identification with Nature, with the animal world and with growing crops is still much more than skin deep.
In England it is in our Morris Dance that we recognize the Spring Festival of the early medicine men. On May-Day or at Whitsuntide, the white-clothed Morris dancers festooned with flowers, fluttering ribbons and jingling bells, waving white handkerchiefs and clashing their staves, march through the villages to stop at different loci where they generate ‘medicine’ for the community. With them may be a Fool with his cow’s tail and pig’s bladder, animal-men of sorts and perhaps a grotesque female figure—a Baba or Betty or Old Mother; even if one had no clue whatever as to the source of these ‘antiques’ there is something arresting in their ‘acting’ and their close relation to the group of dancing men mystically absorbed in their rite.
In India of today, the stick dancers in their immaculate white garments create new life with their acting-medicine. In near-by Ceylon, dance dramas of the ancient fertility-design and older than Hinduism or Buddhism are acted in the more remote villages. The dancers who wear the white clothes and who are men despite the `breasts’ sewn to their costumes are dedicated to the Earth-Goddess, mother of fertility. The Sky-God also lives on here in Ceylon with his ‘pole’ up which he himself ‘ascends’ carrying his symbolic torch of fire.
The jump from Ceylon to Mexico, while indeed a long one in distance, would seem to telescope time, for we find a Mexican Sky-God with his high pole from the top of which his dedicated medicine-men throw themselves head-downward to ‘fly’, each on an unwinding `trapeze’, until they reach the receiving earth with their inverted magic touch.
In other parts of the world the magic seems to lie in the leap up rather than down. The bounding Basques caper high for good crops and `raise’ one of their initiates high aloft on a shield of sticks. Their sticks are little ‘poles’, rich with the magic of trees, symbols of evergreen and ever-renewing life, and able to beat out and drive away death. With such a wand each dancer is a magician, still working the spells of the Earth-Goddess he has so long represented.
The white-robed stick dancers of Miranda in Portugal have a womanish look about them. Are they priests or earth-mothers or half-men half-women? In India the women still dance stick dances for fertility and there are women ritual dancers in Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary