Thursday, 14 June 2018

Witchlines: Zemya–Zmiya

The first unit of Witchlines finished in early May, and the second unit started just last week, so I am running very behind with the creative tasks! 

This is the sixth (and second-last) creative piece (from Unit 1), which explores a dance of Old Europe, inspired by the existing dance traditions of Bulgaria. In this instance I have described a ‘chain dance,’ known throughout eastern Bulgaria as the bouenek, and more generically throughout Europe as the farandole. The dancers, with linked hands, form a living body, which draws figures on the ground like a snake. 

A note on the title: In Bulgarian, zemya = earth and zmiya = snake; both words come from the same etymological root—zumya, which means both of these things (as related by Anna Ilieva and Anna Shturbanova, in ‘Some Zoomorphic Images in Bulgarian Women’s Ritual Dances in the Context of Old European Symbolism’). 


The women gather around the flat stone—the throne—the centre—Her ancient mineral eye. The eldest of them—grandmother, aunt, sister—pours the libation from the breasts of the vessel, the milk that nourishes—and calls in Snake.
There is a song that is sung in spring, in early summer, that the women find humming on their tongue, in their veins, as the life of the earth awakens, and She spreads her wings with joy. And the young maidens, all fresh with the beauty of youth and growing knowing, begin to hear it too, first softly, and then louder, more insistently. It brightens their eyes, quickens their feet. They let down their hair and bathe in cold streams. They wind garlands of leaves around their bodies, and tie sinuous belts round their slim waists. Fringed skirts fall from their hips, clay beads clinking. And with the women, they climb to the top of the hill, gathering like a swarm of humming bees, to circle the stone—the starting place, the doorway that opens.
The older women teach the younger the steps, the rhythm, the chant, rocking to and fro, skirts swaying—singing and dancing until Snake appears—emerging from the space between song and land, between body and spirit.
The maidens join hands, and the snake begins to move, circling around the sacred stone, spiralling in and out, pulsing and gliding to a rhythm made visible, given form, in a long, graceful body with many eyes. The snake coils slowly down the hillside, caressing and caressed by new green shoots, fragrant herbs, pulled by an irresistible force.

The women begin to sing more loudly, and the green-clad snake to move more quickly, as they near the foot of the hill, and the fields where the emmer will grow, the beans, the vetch. Past the enclosures where the pigs wallow, and where the goats gaze out with curiosity. The snake glides, guided by the song, pulling energy from the ground, and releasing it into the air, thrusting it up from plant roots into leaves and buds.

When the snake nears the village its body coils in one last spiral of turning energy, before it is dismembered, disappearing back into the fertile earth, as the maidens unlink their hands. Then they dance with the young men, who call their own energy up from the ground, from their bodies, to mingle with the women’s song.

That evening, after a long day of singing, dancing, and feasting, the people return to their houses to sleep. Joyful. Grateful. 

Small green snakes lie coiled in the corners of the rooms.

Image of a dancing woman wearing a ritual belt, from Magurata Cave,
north-west Bulgaria, c. 4500–4000 BC (Source: Wikimedia Commons, by Vislupus


  1. i have danced similar dances with other women, in my belly dancing class. it is...most participate in such a dance. i am a poor kinetic learner; it's hard for me to learn new steps and movements, so i had to concentrate pretty hard on doing what seemed so simple to most others. but once i finally got it, there was a special sort of effect in dancing like that. even though i was used to dancing with the other women in choreographed movement, being physically linked like that, and the spiralling/coiling motions we were executing, did something different. it removed separateness, stopped time, stopped thought. there was only the drumming, the music, the motion. it confirmed my academic opinion that dancing (and later, perhaps, chanting) were the original rituals of humankind.

    1. Oh yes! The article I mentioned about Bulgarian dances made just that assertion, that dance was the method used by ancient peoples to attain ritual ecstasy, and to transcend the boundary between "here" and "beyond". Dancing was also an important part of initiation ceremonies, and believed to have an influence on nature—thus, the need for the maidens to dance to bring forth spring. Though the modern dances may have lost some of their original wildness, and have become part of more Christianised rituals, the repetitive movement still has the ability to take the participants into a kind of sacral realm, apart from everyday life.

      It is interesting that almost all of the pieces I have written for Witchlines have referenced dancing in some way. It is clearly a key part of ancient culture.


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