The Crane, Ariadne’s thread, labyrinth and dance

by | Apr 1, 2019 | Senza categoria | 0 comments

“After arriving in Delo while he was returning from Crete … Theseus danced with the young Athenians a dance still performed by the inhabitants of the island, consisting of twisting and twisted movements that reproduce the shapes of the labyrinth. Dicearchos states that this dance is called “Crane” (Plutarch, Theseus, 21).


The upper register of the decoration of the attic crater with black figures (François jar ca. 570–565 BC), Florence, Archaeological Civic Museum.

The Crane dance (Geranos) was performed for the first time in Delos by the young Athenians (seven males and seven females) whom Theseus had freed from the Minotaur and led out of the Labyrinth thanks to Arianna’s thread. Although the writers of antiquity have described the Geranos in very vague terms, the historians of dance have worked hard in an attempt to reconstruct its development and understand its meaning. In the oldest descriptions of dance, the three repeating elements – Arianna’s thread, labyrinth, crane – although the mutual implications are not clear, could actually be read as three distinct ways of expressing the same concept. The thread is the instrument that Arianna offered to Theseus to find the way from the outside towards the center of the labyrinth and from the center towards the exit from the labyrinth. This is what Marcel Detienne called “the longest journey in the shortest space”. A few centuries later Virgil (Aeneid, VI) will mention the labyrinth depicted on the door of the cave of the Cuman Sibyl, which the ancient Latins considered a gateway to the underworld. For the Greek-Roman culture, the kingdom of the dead was a physical place present in the world, which could be accessed through inaccessible and secret ways that men could travel only on the day of their death.

aninas tarquinia

Tarquinia, tomb of the Aninas family (3rd century BC). Two infernal spirits stand guard at the door of the Beyond: On the left, Charun (Charon), ferryman of the river of the underworld, on the right is Vanth, the winged goddess with the torch in one hand, and the key to the entrance to the underworld in the other.

For every human being the journey to the Beyond is without return. In the Greek myth only heroes such as Odysseus, Orpheus, Theseus, Hercules, Aeneas, are allowed to return from Hell. In the dance of Delos Arianna’s thread is symbolically represented by the line of dancers that travels in both directions the curves of the labyrinth. When the dancers, guided by a choir leader, move towards the center, the destination of their journey is the Hereafter. When then, certainly at a precise musical signal, the direction of travel is reversed, the one who previously closed the line becomes, in turn, a choir leader and starts guiding the dancers towards the exit, on the way back to the world of alive. Thus the tail turns into a head and the end is identified with the beginning. And the crane, why does the dance have its name? What relationship does the crane have with Theseus and the Labyrinth? The issue has been analyzed by some scholars. L. B. Lawler (The Dance in Ancient Greece, 1964) has argued that, although dances in animal imitation have been performed in antiquity, “in reality there is no literary or figurative testimony of dance movements somehow referable to cranes”. R. Graves (La Dea Bianca, 1998) provides a solution to the question by stating that the Geranos is the imitation of a courtship dance of cranes. But this does not yet explain the connection between the thread, the labyrinth, and the dance. The correct key to the interpretation was provided by Marcel Detienne (La grue et le labyrinthe, 1983) who claims that for millennia the crane like the stork has been associated with rebirth after death. In the stories of the first zoologists, this wader is such a bold traveler that his migration leads him from the Scizia plains, one of the coldest parts of the world, to the hot lands of Egypt, Libya, and Ethiopia. According to Aristotle, the crane flies from one end of the world to the other, connecting the two extreme corners of the earth. This is the point. If the crane, like other water and migratory birds, each year completes the journey that leads it to the edge of the world, it also knows the path that leads to the Hereafter. What Detienne could not know is that this hypothesis is confirmed by the figurative documents collected in recent decades, which have deep roots in the imagination of the Indo-European peoples, from the end of the third millennium BC up to the middle Iron Age (600 BC).

ornitomorfo roccia 50

Rock nr. 50 of the National Park of Naquane (Capodiponte), 6th century B.C. Four boats “with ornithomorphic protome”, two of which contain a word in northern Etruscan characters, perhaps the name of the deceased. (from Fossati).

On many engraved rocks and vessels containing the ashes of the deceased, water birds have been depicted. On the rock nr. 50 of the Naquane National Park (6th century BC, Capodiponte), for example, the so-called “ornithomorphic protome boats” are represented. This name derives from the water bird shape attributed to the front and back of the hull. Above the plane of the boat, there is an inscription in Reto-Etruscan characters, which Morandi translated (although for the time being this is only valid for some cases) as a personal name (Epigrafia camuna, 1998). In the Greek-Roman religion, the deceased reached the afterlife by a waterway, that is by crossing the underground river (Acheron, Styx, Cocytus, Lethe, Flegeton) with a boat that separates the world of the living from the world of the dead. In this case, the boat is driven by a ferryman (Caronte). The ancient Camunian “artist” has therefore created on the sacred support the image of a boat, guided by aquatic birds that know the way to the afterlife, which carries the name (that is, the spirit, the soul) of the deceased to his last abode. This is the best wish for perpetuity that could be formulated at that time.

scudo di achille1

The graphic restitution of the Shield of Achilles as described by Homer (Iliad, XVIII ).

In “Le Isole sonanti” (1989) G. Salvatore provides an important clarification regarding a misunderstanding that in recent decades has confused ideas regarding the Crane Dance. The famous dance of which Homer speaks when he describes the shield of Achilles, is not directly connected to the dance that recalls the exit from the labyrinth, but to the dance area of the Palace of Knossos, built by Daedalus for Arianna, where a choreography was danced whose conception is attributable to the same Dedalus “(p. 7). The dance that Homer depicts on the shield of Achilles is therefore not the Geranos. The clothing of the young girls and the shining arms of the young are more in line with the performance of a party rather than to the re-enactment of the rescue of a group of prisoners saved by the Minotaur. The actual development of the dance does not describe the curves of the labyrinth, but takes place in three distinct movements: first a dance round, “like the wheel that the potter spins”; then the circle is broken and the young men and women run in rows, towards each other, and finally “two acrobats meanwhile spin in the middle starting the party,” (Iliad, XVIII). In the ritual of ancient Greece, the Crane Dance, therefore, has a precise identity. The crane knows the path that leads to the Hereafter and, like Arianna’s thread in the labyrinth, determines the connection between the beginning and the end, the visible and the invisible, the human and the divine. In every time, in every place man is able to discover the most perfect synthesis of the fundamental values of his culture in the rhythmic measure of steps.

La Danza delle Origini

Versione cartacea

di Gaudenzio Ragazzi


C’era una volta il Torchio

Versione digitale

di Gaudenzio Ragazzi


L’ Albero del Tempo

Versione digitale

di Gaudenzio Ragazzi




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