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The sword dance

This time we publish a description of an important ritual of the Celtic peoples, known as the ”sword dance”. The ritual is conducted nowadays by, amongst others, Terra Taurina, a cultural association dedicated to the historical reconstruction of ancient Cisalpine Gaul (Northwest Italy), and the following description is from this association. What follows is a detailed overview of the sacred ceremony of warriors, representing a tradition of many millennia and which is preserved in the folk culture of many West European nations. The ritual as performed nowadays can be seen in the accompanying video to this post. We at Via Electri wish inspiration from this ceremony of the nations that travelled the Amber Road!

The sword dance

On the proposal and address of Dr. Filippo Maria Gambari, the cultural association Terra Taurina has developed the reconstruction of what happened in the Early Iron Age, as indicated by written Latin sources (Livy, History of Rome, XX books and following). The inspiration came from some petroglyphs, in particular from the Val Cenischia where a warrior is depicted with his sword held high and his free hand resting on his side. The peculiarity of the image, as it’s taken away from any combat context, and its representation in the context of engraved rocks, therefore in the field of the religious and metaphysical, suggests a type of dance with strong spiritual connotations. The fighting technique of the Celtic warriors involved the use, as described by the sources (Caesar, De Bello Gallico), of a very mobile light infantry, armed with spear, javelins, sword and shield, protected, depending on the economic possibilities of each warrior, by metal mesh cuirasses, leather bodices or helmets. It therefore becomes necessary to ensure that the warrior has a companion to defend his side, in order not to fall victim, being alone, to the enemy. The element of the Pact with the Gods was therefore introduced, as in the consecration of one's being as a warrior, and therefore a fraternal companion in the tribe. The ceremony takes place at the beginning of the dance, in which the new warriors, not yet fully admitted into the tribe, sacrifice wine (Similarly to the Greek world) or mead, of exclusively red color to indicate the blood. If the pact towards the tribe is broken, the blood of the traitor will fall to stain the ground, losing the favor of the gods, in a perspective of divine fatalism that is often found within Celtic civilization (cfr. Caesar, op. cit.). The dance continues, somatizing and idealizing intertribal relationships until the consecration of the dancers as full members of the tribe. The use of dances is not uncommon; they appear in the famous bronze bed of Eberdingen - Hochdorf, associated with a funerary context, and in various rock engravings (in particular: Rock 15 of Vite-Val de Plaha (Paspardo) Val Camonica and Rock 50 of Naquane (Capo di Ponte) Val Canonica), partly conserved up to us in a revised and borrowed form in the form of the "Dance of the Spadonari" in the Susa valley (Massimo Centini, The dance of the Spadonari, on Costume n.3, June, July 2002).

Even if in the western Alps the “Danza degli Spadonari” is often associated with the Saracens also in the costumes (due to the traditional popular habit of referring everything that was considered ancient and "pagan" to this area as ”Saracen”), it derives from an ancient warrior tradition particularly widespread from the end of the second millennium BC in the Indo-European context. In the classical world, the armed dance ("Pyrrhic dance") of the Spartans was known, but the sword dance is a popular dance still remembered today in Spain, Germany, England and Scotland, but also in the Balkans, in the Basque provinces and in some extra-European countries. A recurring element is the arrangement of the dancers to form figures: concentric circles, spirals, bridges and vaults formed with swords. In Scotland, at the end of each figure, the swords were intertwined to form a star of five, six or eight points, and the dance ended with the death of the "fool" by beheading. The typical musical instruments used range from bagpipes to flutes and drums, cymbals and rattles, but also string instruments and in some areas trumpets.
Although local variations are probable, the origin of the dance, typically located at the beginning of the year and before spring, for the Celtic world around the Imbolc festival (February 1), was connected to the public presentation of the warriors, also for the purpose of marriage, the reception of new young people at the end of the training, the celebration or renewal of the oath that bound the young warrior to the leaders, the brotherhood and the community.
The performance before the season typical of military activities linked the dance to different values: the invocation of the rains and the fertility of the fields (even today the Spadonari often have a hat decorated with flowers) and perhaps in some areas also sacrifices for this purpose (remembered in Scotland by the ritual death of the "fool"), the demonstration of agility and warrior skills, the renewal of alliance pacts even with reciprocal marriages, the invocation of divine protection for military campaigns.
In general, however, the characterizing element appears to be the sacredness of the sword, a symbol of the activity and fidelity of the warrior, who not only in the Celtic tradition will remain personally attached to him so as to accompany him in the tomb or to be offered as a votive gift to the deities, especially of the underworld, through deposition into lake or river bottoms.
Even in the medieval world, the sword is the element with which the knight is consecrated and, through the Christianization of the hilt as a cross, the instrument of prayer and oath.
The sword is also the symbol of lightning, still recalled today in expressions such as "the flash of swords'', and as such placed, flaming, in the hands of St. Michael as well as in the hands of the lightning divinities of the Indo-European world of the Iron Age, from Anatolia to Western Europe. In the Indo-European tradition, the god of lightning who is high in the mountains (like Zeus on Olympus) is still the deity who protects oaths and punishes perjuries. It is therefore natural that in the alpine world the Celtic-Ligurian god who occupies the top of the mountains and sends lightning (variously called in the inscriptions as Albiorix, Peninus, Segomo Dunatis, Okelos, with terms meaning "of the mountain", "who is high", etc.), was variously interpreted in Roman times as Jupiter (for example at the Great St. Bernard) or as Mars (more frequently, and in particular in Val di Susa) to be Christianized as St. Michael, who in addition to the attribute of lightning will also have in the West the function of weighing souls before the Judgment, denouncing any lies.
The dance of swords thus became in the Iron Age also a rite of devotion to the divinity, with the explicit reference to invocation as a guarantee of the sincerity of the oath. It is probable that just before the dance was combined with the oath of the young warriors, probably through the liturgy of libation, in which the pact is underlined by the offering to the ground (to the divinity of the Underworld) of a sacrifice and of a few drops of wine, as in the Iliad (III, 276-301), with the logical reference to the shedding of the blood and life of the perjurer in case of lack of fidelity to the commitment.
In Val di Susa, at the foot of Rocciamelone, a true sacred mountain of prehistory and considered for a long time also in the Middle Ages to be one of the highest peaks in the Alps, rock engravings from the Iron Age show dancing warriors with only sword in hand, according to an iconography which also appears on the stele of the fifth century BC from Centallo (CN): the connection to the tradition still surviving today of the Spadonari dances is clear, while the rock carvings can easily be interpreted as an ex-voto, a devotion, a reminder of the fidelity of the warrior oath.
With the reconstruction of the sword dance, it is not possible to philologically recreate a dance that had to know innumerable variations from country to country, but, inspired by common steps in many current sword dances and depicted on the rock engravings, we want to remember the atmosphere of prehistoric rituals and the deep roots of folklore in the Turin valleys, re-proposing the spirit, ideology and gestures of the Taurini to reconnect forgotten but still alive ties in the folds of our much proclaimed modernity.

Filippo M. GAMBARI
(translated by Devisarno)
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