A charming hypothesis about Sword Dance

chillie gallum dance

The Ghillie Callum is one of the oldest Scottish sword dances. The myth tells that Prince Ghillie Callum, the Celtic hero of the Battle of Dunsinane (1054), after killing one of the enemy commanders placed his sword on the ground and crossed it  together with that of the defeated enemy starting to dance over it. Soon this act of dancing on two crossed swords was repeated by all the highland warriors, becoming an essential moment before any battle. In the beginning, the dancer performs a series of steps around the swords keeping the back straight, the arms raised and the hands in a particular pose. At this point he turns to the swords while two living beings and ask them for permission to dance above them. The dance continues with a repeated jump in and out of the four spaces created by the crossing of the blades, avoiding standing with their backs to their swords and moving counterclockwise along what is called “the witches’ path” (widdershins). The dance requires great dexterity because, despite the speed with which each step is performed, the dancer must not touch or move the swords, under penalty of death (yesterday, in battle) or penalty (today, in the games). It is possible to give an interpretation of this dance if we analyze the matter starting from two indisputable facts: (1) the geometric shape on which the dance is performed is the image of a diagonal cross, a very common symbol in Western iconography since prehistoric times; (2) the dancer moves between the blades according to a strict sequence of steps whose importance is linked to the cosmological value attributed to the shape of the space. We are allowed to think that what happens outside and inside the geometry drawn by the swords is not at all random. The intriguing hypothesis consists precisely in attributing to the diagonal cross, and to the choreutic act that takes place in that space, a deeper and much more ancient cosmological meaning than the legends that attribute its beginning to the Middle Ages. In other words, the warrior who dances in the spaces between the blades moves rhythmically within a miniature cosmos, just as the child does when jumps into the Hopscotch game boxes and pays a pawn when he puts his foot on the line. Therefore, the geometric symbols that appear in prehistoric iconography express a specific orientation towards those points on the horizon to which a special value has been recognized. The geometric figures are archetypes that have crossed the millennia and have come to this day after having lost the original symbolic value or having adapted it only to the times.

1 – The Gebo rune, also called “the gift of the solstice”, is one of the sacred letters of the Nordic alphabet and corresponds perfectly to the image of the two crossed swords. If the orthogonal cross expresses an orientation towards the cardinal points, the diagonal cross is oriented towards the points where the sun rises and sets the day of the solstices. 2- rock n. 49 of Luine (Valcamonica, Bronze Age) An adorant, the man with his arms pointing towards the sky, is placed in front of a circular symbol with an internal cross representing the organized universe with respect to its center and its axis oriented towards points on the horizon; 3- one of the Hopscotch game models. The square in the center (the Earth) is divided into four parts by two diagonals ending in the four points where the sun rises and sets at the summer and autumn solstice (G. Ragazzi, 2010); 4- In this image from Bohuslan (Sweden, Iron Age), the circular symbol with an internal cross has become a ritual object held in the hands of three anthropomorphs.

The cosmic symbols of the center (axis mundi) – the most suitable place for the manifestation of the transcendent – which express a strong idea of ​​passage (anodos) between the levels of the cosmos, constitute the spatiotemporal foundation of the sword dance. These characteristics can probably be found in all european Swords Dances, but in some of them, like Fenestrelle’s “Bal do Sabre“, they are even more evident. Harlequin also participates in this dance, a nice and spiteful creature halfway between the earth and the underworld that, after being put to death, returns from the underworld on the earth passing through the star made with the swords of the dancers, a clear reference to nature that is renewed at the beginning of spring.

 A similar path can also be found in some Spanish, German and French armed dances, such as the one performed in Quevaucamps, around which a fun half-man and half-wolf entity moves, which, after its killing, is reborn and travels along the path of elevation.

Left: (Castelletto Stura, Cn) the Bal do sabre of Fenestrelle. Detail of the Harlequin lifting. Right: the moment when the head of Harlequin passes through the cross of swords which is the passage that allows Harlequin to return from hell to earth.

Autore: Gaudenzio Ragazzi

(English). My name is Gaudenzio Ragazzi, a long time ago I graduated in Philosophy with a master in History of Theater. To realize my thesis on the "origins of dance", a theme that still today boasts only two or three specialized researchers in the world, I became a scholar of Prehistoric Iconography. In the last thirty years I have not been able to escape the responsibilities of life. So, after the death of my father, I led the family artisan company that produces tailored shirts. A few years ago I decided that it was time to resume my studies and complete the research I had started as a young man (that nobody else had yet completed). Good luck Gaudenzio! Mi chiamo Gaudenzio Ragazzi, molto tempo fa ho conseguito la laurea in Filosofia con specializzazione in Storia del Teatro. Sono diventato uno studioso di Iconografia Preistorica per realizzare la mia tesi di laurea sulle "origini della danza", argomento che ancora oggi vanta nel mondo solo due o tre studiosi di una certa levatura. Negli ultimi trent'anni non ho potuto sottrarmi alle responsabilità della vita. Così, dopo la morte di mio padre, ho guidato l'azienda artigiana di famiglia che produce camicie su misura. Alcuni anni fa ho deciso che era arrivato il momento di riprendere i miei studi e di fare da vecchio quello che non ho potuto fare da giovane (e che nessun altro nel frattempo aveva completato). Buon lavoro Gaudenzio !

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