This Week’s Prompt: 77. Unspeakable dance of the gargoyles—in morning several gargoyles on old cathedral found transposed.
The Resulting Story: The Harvest Moon Shines Down
The power of dance is one of the most primal things in the history of the world. I don’t mean that in a dismissive sense—dance is sophisticated, and its uses in religion and folklore will be discussed down below in a moment. What I mean is that dance is probably, along with song, one of the forms of entertainment that can be found everywhere—it requires no instruments, only a body with which to express itself. The dance of the gargoyles will thus lead us into something of a deep dive into dance, from a number of places. I will note that for gargoyles in particular, such dances are probably meant as a part of the Witches Sabbath. But we’ve already discussed that.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the Witch’s Sabbath, there is the whirling Dervish. A mystic Muslim tradition, Dervishes seek to approach God from experience and personal virtue—their dances are often long and strenuous, seeking to reach a state of religious ecstasy and connection in their straining. These dances bring the dervish into a trance, allowing for the experience of god directly. As with many mystic groups, dervishes also swear a vow of poverty and have a reputation in many parts of the world as miracle workers.
Following the dervishes east, we come to India. I feel obliged to note that with a week to do research, Hinduism’s many many practices and tales are not able to be entirely or thoroughly examined. This is at best a summary.
The largest, and most famous form of dance regarding miracles and statues here is the Tandava—the dance done by Lord Shiva on the dwarf demon of ignorance. Doing so maintains the balance of knowledge and ignorance, while at the same time symbolically re-enacting all the cosmos: creation and destruction in one hundred and eight fluid motions.
This dance is not the only dance of course—there is the famed dance of Kali. While Kali has a poor reputation in the West from a certain movie, her role as defender of the world and destroyer of demons is more prevalent. However, in at least one tale, she grows too eager in her efforts. Dancing on the bodies of slain demons, and rampaging without fear, she begins to destroy the world until her husband—Shiva, Lord of the Dance—throws himself beneath her feet, calming her.
Kali and Shiva, along with other deities, are key to the practices commonly called Tantra—a collection of practices that sadly I do not have time to delve into beyond a mere note of its existence as a group of rituals in Hindu and Buddhist traditions that seems interesting.
Moving from India, we go north now to Tibet. Tibetan dances include the Cham Dance—a ritual that seeks to promote prosperity and destroy evil spirits. According to legend, the ritual was invented to allow the construction of a monastery in the 8th century, which was delayed do to the presence of wicked spirits. The dance can last as long as fifteen days, and is as much theater as visual performance. It culminates, ultimately, in the destruction of dough effigy—symbolically the three enemies of Buddhism: Ignorance, Jealousy, and Hatred.
Tibet also plays host to the Snow Lion Dance—a tradition that has spread over China, Japan, and Tibet. The Lion Dance in Tibet takes the form of two boys dressed as snow lion, accompained by musicians who play as they dance from house to house at New Years. The Snow lion is a symbol in Tibet of regional and divine power, snow lionesses raising some of the greatest folk heroes and snow lions serving as the mounts of mountain gods.
The Lion Dance in China has a different origin—according to legend, during the reign of the yellow emperor, a lion stopped a great monster from harassing a city. The monster was not slain, and promised to return the next year. With no lion to defend them, the people of the city made a false lion to trick the beast. And so the Lion Dance was born.
Moving south to Bali, we have another dancing creature that at a glance resembles a lion. The story here is more complex, however, as the dance recreates the battle between Baronga and Rangda. The story goes that Rangda, the mother of Erlangga, the King of Bali in the tenth century, was condemned by Erlangga’s father because she practiced black magic. After she became a widow, she summoned all the evil spirits in the jungle, the leaks and the demons, to come after Erlangga. A fight occurred, but she and her black magic troops were too strong that Erlangga had to ask for the help of Barong. Barong came with Erlangga’s soldiers, and fight ensued. Rangda casted a spell that made Erlangga soldiers all wanted to kill themselves, pointing their poisoned keris into their own stomachs and chests. Barong casted a spell that turned their body resistant to the sharp keris. At the end, Barong won, and Rangda ran away.
Re-enactments of this dance, which can go on for sometime, are sometimes dangerous. Overly engaged dancers must be carefully restrained from harming themselves with their weapons, and the ceremonial masks are themselves sacred forces. An element of this story that is partially interesting to me is the fact that Rangda may in fact be a re-incarnation of an earlier sorcerer queen, Calon Arang, who destroyed settlements and released plagues on the world.
Moving further a sea, and north to Japan, we have their own lion dances, and sacred re-enactments. These recall the story of Amaterasu’s retreat from the world—a result of her brother’s lack of hospitality. Nothing could get her to return, and in her absence, the world began to fail. Not only from the natural consequences of her absence—such as the failure of crops—but also by the growing presence of demons and other creatures. One of the stories of how she was lured out of her cavern was by the Dawn goddess of dancers, Amenouzume. Her performance, dressed in moss and then in nothing at all, inspired cries and laughter among the gods until Amaterasu came out to investigate.
Kagura dances began in the imperial household, as sacred entertainment. Over time, however, the dances spread out to the general populace and gained a number of variations. All of them are presented are forms of worship, and are pleasing to the gods when preformed. The imperial versions have been preformed since the year 1000 A.D. and many of the folk variations include re-enactments of tales and ritual workings. Some resemble possession dances, others lion dances of China, and so forth.
Moving from the Phillipenes, across the Pacific, we reach Hawaii. Here stories of dance, particularly the hula, are tied to a handful of gods—the goddess Pele, the goddess Laka, and the goddesss Hi’iaka. In some variations, Laka was the inspiration for the dance, in the swaying of the leaves and trees. In other cases, Pele dances the first hula to signify her victory over the goddess of the oceans. And in the cases of Hi’iaka, the dance is done to appease an angry Pele.
Coming back to the United States, the power of dance was recognized by First Nations for sometime. The one I remember best, however, was a relatively recent development—the Ghost Dance movement of 1889-1891. The Ghost Dance was a religious movement, beginning in Nevada, and spreading outward on two seperate occasions. According to it’s practitioners, the Ghost Dance would, when done properly, reunite the world of the living and the dead. The returning spirits would then help drive the colonists out of the Americas, and usher in an age of prosperity and peace. The movement had variations, notably among the Lakota, and other spiritual practices—such as ghost shirts, which would repel bullets. The Ghost Dance movement met its end in an unfortunately predictable way—while some practitioners remain, the US Military considered the movement ‘troublesome’, and at the Wounded Knee Massacre, effectively ended the movement by force.
An interesting aside—the Dene are the only tribe that refused to take part in the Ghost Dance when offered. Speculation varies as to why, but I had always heard it was because “the dead returning” came across significantly more sinister then elsewhere.
Crossing the United States and going north some, we come to Europe. Here there are two traditions to discuss—and then onto the horror story. The first is the Egg Dance. The dance is an old Easter Celebration, potentially pagan before that. There a few variations, but in general the dance involves dancing around or with eggs and attempting to break as few as possible while doing so. In some traditions, as is reported in 1498, if a couple danced among the eggs and no eggs were broken they were instantly betrothed—regardless of parental opinion.
The other dance in Europe I would like to discuss is far more horrific. The Dancing Plague of 1518 is an incident of mass hysteria in the Holy Roman Empire that compelled four hundred individuals to begin dancing for days on end rest until they collapsed—resutling in deaths from exposure, heart attacks, or exhaustion. The plague lasted one month, and is not the only one of it’s kind. Dancing outbreaks in Europe are documented over a one thousand year period—from the seventh to the seventeenth century. Incidents range from around twenty dancers to the four hundred above. Most documents indicate women as the primary participants, although some dancing plagues were predominantly children or even a lone man. Explanations ranged from natural causes of excess hot blood, the curse of St. Vito, the curse of St. John, and demonic possession. Cures were thus various: hired musicians to play, prayers and pilgrimages, exorcisms, isolation and containment. Eventually the plagues simply ceased.
Which brings us to the horror aspect of our story. One part of dance that can be horrific is its compelling, instinctive in a compelling way—as silly as it sounds, dancing can invoke a loss of control, especially in a communal context. And losing control is a frightening experience at times. If the dance is the sole source of horror, this would be the place to start. But our prompt points away from this, at first at least. No, our prompt presumes we are witnessing the dance of another—Gargoyles, which here may as well stand in for strange, monstrous creatures. Perhaps Lovecraft meant to invoke the fear of a community of Gargoyles at all. The story The Festival seems the most likely to have come from this prompt—it is an archaic Yule-Tide celebration that involves strange winged creatures, crowds, and a procession. As we’ve seen, dances often recount communal history and celebration, and The Festival in a way centers around such notions.
To make a revelation horrific, it must reveal something horrifying. This is perhaps self-explanatory, but one of the faults of Lovecraft’s writing is the difficulty of such revelations. It can’t merely be “things man was never meant to know”—such secrets feel more of a cheat in these days then an actual horrific reveal. Digging into Lovecraftian and Gothic secrets, there are plenty to choose from. There are revelations about family, about self, about the real nature of the universe—although that one descends quickly into “it was so profoundly shocking I can’t describe it” which is cheating.
Another potential reference is a story from the Dreamlands—here a priest goes up a mountain, to where the gods dance. And there, he encounters more than he bargained for as the gods are joined by more terrifying and powerful gods, who do not take kindly to being watched. This I think—the discovery of the size and breadth of a community of monsters, or the violation of a secret pact and the consequences there of, are perhaps more interesting to examine then simple revelation.
Of course, this is already running longer than normal—and I’ve only barely touched on the nature of dance in folklore and traditions! What are some you know? What meaning or purpose do they have? How have they touched you?
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