Happy feet: These nymphs are almost as joyful as I am about "The Dancing Goddesses" (photo: detail from book cover)
Happy feet: These nymphs are almost as joyful as I am about “The Dancing Goddesses” (photo: detail from book cover)

Yes, I nearly did.

Elizabeth Wayland Barber’s The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance (W.W. Norton) almost escaped my home. It wasn’t any fault on the book’s part–on mine.

Have you done this before? I hadn’t picked it up since it was published early last year, and as I went about some early spring cleaning last week, I decided to give it to the library. Since I couldn’t give it the attention it deserved, I thought, maybe a library could. 

What a mistake that would have been.

A drawing peeked out from its pages — an ancient tureen inscribed with figures from Ukraine — as I was moving it to my giveaway bag, and I stopped. Before I knew it, I was deep in its pages, finding some new inspiration for my novel at just the right time.

Can’t imagine what I might’ve lost if I hadn’t noticed that image.

I’m sure that has happened to many of you, my friends.

Wayland Barber’s book is a revelation. It is a survey of folk mythologies (mostly

Slavic) that’s very idiosyncratic — in the way that James Frazer’s Golden Bough is idiosyncratic, or Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. There’s an exuberance and a tone here that’s undeniably personal, even at its most authoritative moments, such as this one where she refers to the effect of certain spirits or “willies” (from vily; as in “that horror movie gives me a case of the willies”):

With a final push to the crops at Midsummer, the willies have now finished their work: the grain and hay have grown and ripened and await harvesting. All that remains is to reap what the Dancing Goddesses have created. Cohorts of young people go out all day to mow the hay, all the while chanting slow, rhythmic, antiphonal songs to time the long swings of the sharp scythes, until the movement becomes almost a dance and the sound dulls the senses of time and fatigue….

Isn’t that lovely?

Screen Shot 2014-03-19 at 4.42.34 PMIn considering the connections between dance traditions and fertility beliefs and customs, this professor emerita from Occidental College ranges across fields in search of flowers with supernatural meanings. She looks down into the surfaces of rivers and streams to see what water sprites might be gazing back. Sometimes she sees something.

It’s a marvelous book with a style that is easy and accessible, but hardly easy to imitate. And I might’ve lost it, and lost the inspiration. A new declaration: no more spring cleanings!

W.W. Norton has produced yet another exemplary volume that sheds light on our common, mythic heritage. Coming soon to this blog:  more offerings from Norton that are worth your while. They’re definitely worth mine, too.

P.S. Wayland Barber’s book also made me unexpectedly heartsick over Ukraine. The old folk tales and practices that she records reminded this reader of the region’s vibrant, deep customs — enduring, one hopes, in spite of all the current troubles.


  1. Oh, you are now making me deeply regret my recent “book purge,” against my better judgement, I might add. Her writing is lovely. You found a treasure, and you were meant to find it, I think! Good to hear your voice!

  2. I think I’ve definitely let slip some gems over the years. I’m sure we all have. I just wanted to warn people, even at the risk of an irate spouse, to hang onto things unless they’re really sure they won’t need them. Good grief. I’m now a proponent of hoarding.

  3. The quoted paragraph, with its reference to “slow, rhythmic, antiphonal songs” brought to mind not only the call-and-response work songs of the American south, but also the harvest songs and dances of Liberia.

    There’s something deeply satisfying about repetitive work. That kind of statement makes no sense to most people today, but I believe it, absolutely. Planting, harvesting, collecting, sanding, planing, rail-laying, net-pulling: all of those forms of labor have been shared by generations who accompany them by song and “dances” that accentuate the rhythms of the work.

    Have you ever heard the Drakensberg Boys’ Choir from South Africa? Your review and my thoughts called them to mind. You might enjoy this.

  4. Thank you for sharing this, Shoreacres. I hadn’t heard of the Drakensberg Boys Choir. What a wonderful sound. As far as repetition goes, I’ll be playing it over many more times.

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