The Dances

Dances as an important part of fertility rites are too well known to need description. The witches' dances, taken in conjunction with the dates of the four great Sabbaths of the year, point to the fact that they also were intended to promote fertility. There were several forms of ritual dances, varying apparently according to the form of fertility required, whether of crops, animals, or human beings. The jumping dance seems to have had for its object the growth of the crops; the higher the performers jumped the higher the crops would grow. The so-called 'obscene' or 'indecent' dance was for the promotion of fertility among animals and women. When the dancers were disguised as animals, the dance was for the increase of the animals represented; when undisguised, for the fertility of human beings.

Although the dances took place at English witch meetings, they are merely mentioned and not described. The Scotch trials give rather fuller accounts, but the chief details are from France.

The two principal forms of the dance were the ring-dance and the follow-my-leader dance, but there was also a very complicated form which was not understood by the Inquisitors, who therefore dismiss it with the words 'tout est en confusion'. It still survives, however, in the Basses-Pyrénées, in some of the very villages which were inhabited by witches in the

2. De Lancre, Tableau, pp. 721 131

3. Doughty, Travels in Arabia Deserta, i, 89.]

sixteenth century those witches whose proceedings de Lancre describes so vividly.[1]

The ring dances were usually round some object; sometimes a stone, sometimes the Devil stood or was enthroned in the middle. Thomas Leyis, with a great number of other witches, 'came to the Market and Fish Cross of Aberdeen, under the conduct and guiding of the Devil present with you, all in company, playing before you on his kind of instruments: Ye all danced about both the said crosses, and the meal market, a long space of time; in the which Devil's dance, thou the said Thomas was foremost and led the ring, and dang the said Kathren Mitchell, because she spoiled your dance, and ran not so fast about as the rest. Testified by the said Kathrein Mitchell, who was present with thee at the time forsaid dancing with the Devil.'[2] Margaret Og was indicted for going to Craigleauch 'on Hallow even last, and there, accompanied by thy own two daughters, and certain others, your devilish adherents and companions, ye danced all together, about a great stone, under the conduct of Satan, your master, a long space'.[3] Jonet Lucas was accused of 'danceing in ane ring' on the same occasion.[4] Beatrice Robbie was 'indited as a notorious witch, in coming, under the conduct of the Devil thy master, with certain others, thy devilish adherents, to Craigleauche, and there dancing altogether about a great stone, a long space, and the Devil your master playing before you'.[5] In the Basses-Pyrénées, 'Ils se mettent à dancer à l'entour d'une pierre, qui est plantée audit lieu, sur laquelle est assis un grand homme noir.'[6] Jane Bosdeau, who 'confessed freely and without Torture and continued constant in it in the midst of the Flames in which she was burnt', said that she had been to a witch-meeting, 'and danced in a circle back to back'.[7]

'Les Sorciers dansent, & font leurs danses en rond, doz contre doz. Les boiteux y vont plus dispostement que les

2. Spalding Club Misc., i, pp. 97-8. Spelling modernized.

autres [et] incitoient les autres à sauter & danser.[1] . . . Quelquefois, mais rarement, ils dansent deux à deux, & par fois l'vn çà & l'autre là, & tousiours en confusion: estans telles danses semblables à celles des Fées, vrais Diables incorporez, qui regnoient il n'y a pas lôg temps.'[2] 'On y dance tousiours le dos tourné au centre de la dance, qui faict que les filles sont si accoutumées à porter les mains en arriere en cette dâce ronde, qu'elles y trainent tout le corps, & luy donnent vn ply courbé en arriere, ayant les bras à demy tournez: si bien que la plupart ont le ventre communement grand, enfIé & avancé, & vn peu penchant sur le deuant. On y dance fort peu souuent vn à vn, c'est à dire vn homme seul auec vne femme ou fille. . . . On n'y dançoit que trois sortes de bransles, communement se tournant les espaules l'vn à l'autre, & le dos d'vn chascun visant dans le rond de la dance, & le visage en dehors. La premiere c'est à la Bohemienne . . . La seconde c'est à sauts; ces deux sont en rond.'[3] 'Ils apperceurent à l'entrée [d'vn bois], vn rond, ou cerne, dans lequel il y auoit plusieurs vestiges de pieds d'hom{m}es, d'e{n}fans, & d'Ours, ou bien d'autres bestes semblables,[4] lesquels estoient seulement enfoncez d'vn demy doigt dans la neige, quoy que pour eux ils y entrassent iusques à la ceinture.'[5]

The Swedish witches danced in the same manner. I We used to go to a gravel pit which lay hard by a cross-way, and there we put on a garment over our heads, and then danced round.''[6] The round dance was so essentially a witch dance that More says, 'It might be here very seasonable to enquire into the nature of those large dark Rings in the grass, which they call Fairy Circles, whether they be the Rendezvouz of Witches, or the dancing places of those little Puppet Spirits which they call Elves or Fairies .'[7]

It will be seen from the above quotations that there were many varieties in the ring dance; this was the case also in the follow-my-leader dance. There seems to have been also a combination of the two dances; or perhaps it would be more correct to say that sometimes the ring and follow-my-leader figures were used together so as to form one complete dance,

[1. Compare the account of the Forfar witch-dance. Kinloch, p. 120.

4. Compare the dittay against Bessie Thom, who danced round the Fish Cross of Aberdeen with other witches 'in the lyknes of kattis and haris'. Spalding Club Misc., i, 167.

as in the modern Lancers. In both forms of the dance one of the chief members of the society was the 'ring-leader', or leader of the dance. In the follow-my-leader dance this was often the Devil, but in the ring dances this place was usually taken by the second in command. When, however, the Devil was the leader, the second-in-command was in the rear to keep up those who could not move so quickly as the others. As pace was apparently of importance, and as it seems to have been a punishable offence to lag behind in the dance, this is possibly the origin of the expression 'The Devil take the hindmost'.

At North Berwick Barbara Napier met her comrades at the church, 'where she danced endlong the Kirk yard, and Gelie Duncan played on a trump, John Fian, missellit, led the ring; Agnes Sampson and her daughters and all the rest following the said Barbara, to the number of seven score of persons." Isobel Gowdie was unfortunately not encouraged to describe the dances in which she had taken part, so that our information, instead of being full and precise, is very meagre. 'Jean Martein is Maiden to the Coven that I am of; and her nickname is "Over the dyke with it", because the Devil always takes the Maiden in his hand next him, when we dance Gillatrypes; and when he would loup from [words broken here] he and she will say, "Over the dyke with it."'[2] Another Scotch example is Mr. Gideon Penman, who had been minister at Crighton. He usually 'was in the rear in all their dances, and beat up all those that were slow'."[3] Barton's wife 'one night going to a dancing upon Pentland Hills, he [the Devil] went before us in the likeness of a rough tanny Dog, playing on a pair of Pipes'.[4] De Lancre concludes his description of the dances (see above, p. 13 1) by an account of an ' endlong' dance. 'La troisieme est aussi le dos tourné, mais se tenant tous en long, & sans se deprendre des mains, ils s'approchent de si près qu'ils se touchent, & se rencontrent dos à dos, vn homme auec vne femme; & à certaine cadance ils se choquent & frapent impudemment cul contre cul.'[5] It was perhaps this

[1. Pitcairn, i, pt. ii, pp. 245-6. Spelling modernized.

dance which the Devil led: 'Le Diable voit parfois dancer simplement comme spectateur; parfois il mene la dance, changeant souuent de main & se mettant à la main de celles qui luy plaisent le plus.'[1] In Northumberland in 1673 'their particular divell tooke them that did most evill, and danced with them first. The devill, in the forme of a little black man and black cloaths, called of one Isabell Thompson, of Slealy, widdow, by name, and required of her what service she had done him. She replyd she had gott power of the body of one Margarett Teasdale. And after he had danced with her he dismissed her, and call'd of one Thomasine, wife of Edward Watson, of Slealy." Danaeus also notes that the Devil was the leader: 'The{n} fal they to dauncing, wherin he leadeth the daunce, or els they hoppe and daunce merely about him.'[3] This is perhaps what de Lancre means when he says that 'apres la dance ils se mettent par fois à sauter'.[4] A curious variation of the follow-my-leader dance was practised at Aberdeen on Rood Day, a date which as I have shown elsewhere corresponds with the Walpurgis-Nacht of the German witches. The meeting took place upon St. Katherine's Hill, 'and there under the conduct of Satan, present with you, playing before you, after his form, ye all danced a devilish dance, riding on trees, by a long space.'[5]

Other variations are also given. 'The dance is strange, and wonderful, as well as diabolical, for turning themselves back to back, they take one another by the arms and raise each other from the ground, then shake their heads to and fro like Anticks, and turn themselves as if they were mad.'[6] Reginald Scot, quoting Bodin, says: 'At these magicall assemblies, the witches neuer faile to danse; and in their danse they sing these words, Har bar, divell divell, danse here danse here, plaie here plaie here, Sabbath sabbath. And whiles they sing and

5. Spalding Club Misc., i, pp. 165, 167. Spelling modernized. The account of the Arab witches should be compared with this. 'In the time of Ibn Munkidh the witches rode about naked on a stick between the graves of the cemetery of Shaizar.' Wellhausen, p. 159.

6. Pleasant Treatise of Witches, p. 6.]

danse, euerie one hath a broome in hir hand, and holdeth it vp aloft. Item he saith, that these night-walking or rather night-dansing witches, brought out of Italie into France, that danse which is called La Volta.'[1] There is also a description of one of the dances of the Italian witches: 'At Como and Brescia a number of children from eight to twelve years of age, who had frequented the Sabbat, and had been re-converted by the inquisitors, gave exhibitions in which their skill showed that they had not been taught by human art. The woman was held behind her partner and they danced backward, and when they paid reverence to the presiding demon they bent themselves backwards, lifting a foot in the air forwards.'[2]

In Lorraine the round dance always moved to the left. As the dancers faced outwards, this would mean that they moved 'widdershins', i.e. against the sun. 'Ferner, class sie ihre Täntze in einem ronden Kreiss rings umbher führen, und die Rücke zusammen gekehret haben, wie eine unter den dreyen Gratiis pfleget fürgerissen zu werden, und also zusammen tanzen. Sybilla Morelia sagt, dass der Reyhen allezeit auff der lincken Hand umbher gehe.'[3]

One form of the witches' dance seems to survive among the children in the Walloon districts of Belgium. It appears to be a mixture of the ordinary round dance and the third of de Lancre's dances; for it has no central personage, and the striking of back against back is a marked feature. 'Les enfants font une ronde et répètent un couplet. Chaque fois, un joueur désigné fait demi-tour sur place et se remet à tourner avec les autres en faisant face à l'extérieur du cercle. Quand tous les joueurs sont retournés, ils se rapprochent et se heurtent le dos en cadence.'[4]

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