Dance, Hermeneutics and Reconstructionism

Etienne Jules Marey, jump with the perch. The movement, 1894. It is one of the first examples of chronophotography, a photographic process in which a sequence of 12 frames is displayed, made with a special tool, the photographic rifle.

In “L’outil photographique et l’étude de la danse antique” (, 2013) the French researcher Audrey Gouy illustrates a method of investigating, the “Reconstructionism”, (thanks to a particular photographic techniques chrono-photography) by putting the individual postures of ancient Greek dance in the right sequence, it is possible to reconstruct the whole dance with a good approximation. The comparison from the reconstruction is contemporary classical dance. The thought process consists of comparing similar postures, both ancient and contemporary. This method allows the scholar to visualize the phases that precede or follow the moment in which the dancer’s gesture is fixed in the image. The postures represented in Greek figurative art – A. Gouy states – are considered reproductions of reality, and the photographic instrument appears as the experimental means used for the analysis of the ancient choreographic movements and the reconstruction of dance”.

The first to apply the reconstructionist theory to the dance was the French scholar Maurice Emmanuel (La danse grecque antique d’après les monuments figurées, 1896). The starting point of Emmanuel’s theory is that the intuition that the choreutic movements represented in the ancient works of art are the same that characterize the contemporary French classical ballet. Germaine Proudhommeau (La danse grecque antique, 1965) continued the master’s work by going into detail on the gestures and movements of the Greek dance, elaborating a wide typology totally free from any chronological reference and making a systematic comparison between the ancient figurative movements and the lexicon of modern ballet.

In 1970 T.B.L. Webster was among the first to express doubts about the retraining method. According to Webster, the procedure developed by Emmanuel and refined by Proudhommeau, however attractive, “carries with it the obvious danger that the modern steps belong to a completely different dance tradition which may be largely misleading” (The Greek chorus, 1970), introduction, xi).

In 1997 the reconstruction method was also questioned by Frederick G. Naerebout who judged it “a somewhat confused account of the positions, steps, and gestures of the ancient Greek dance” (Attractive Performances: Ancient Greek Dance: Three Preliminary Studies, Amsterdam, 1997, page 62).

In the 1990s Marie-Hélène Delavaud-Roux was the author of some important essays on dance in the ancient world (among many: “Les Danses en Grèce antique”, 1998) to distance herself from her predecessors, she introduced a comparative approach that has opened the way to new interpretations of dance movements and functions.

For A. Gouy “the use of contemporary classical dance as a reference point for understanding the postures of Greek dance seems risky. Associating and correlating two types of dance so distant temporally seems to be an anachronism. A dance belongs to the culture that produces it and can only be understood in its context “(Gouy, 2013).


palazzo della ragione 2
Palazzo della Ragione (Bergamo, late 12th century), capital of a pillar in the portico. In-line dance scene performed by male figures dressed in long robes. For the Archeology of Knowledge the starting point for an analysis of the most ancient dance documents is a procedure that consists in recovering in the studied object a knowledge that is partly already available to the knowing subject. For example, this dance scene from Romanic age shows non-random analogies with the dances that are still part of the repertoire of popular tradition, and with similar representations of prehistoric times. So this document is a fundamental tool for understanding the development of a certain type of Western dances.

Over the last few years, I have often wondered how it is possible to understand Greek dance by noting a formal correspondence between the bodily movements of ancient dance images and a photographic sequence of modern ballet movements. I tried to analyze the question in the light of the ‘Archeology of Knowledge’, the cognitive criterion to which the Blog danzadelleorigini aligns itself, finding in tune with the observations of A. Gouy. In fact, according to the criteria of the ‘Archeology of Knowledge’ *, the most important aspects of reconstruction make it difficult to understand the objectives for which it was designed in the first place. The idea that the analysis of ancient dance can be performed outside a chronological context is incorrect, because we would be forced to accept an inexplicable cognitive vacuum of about two millennia between the historical periods we are comparing. Secondly, an excavation of Archeology of Knowledge, like all excavations, has its starting point in the countryside plan. On the contrary to the reconstructionist method which takes into account a similarity criteria that develops entirely at the anatomical and bodily level, between the two choreutic schemes, ancient and modern. There is an exclusively aesthetic connection that, taking place outside of space and time, does not take into account the archaeological layers that separate the only two levels considered. The ‘Archeology of Knowledge’ also adopts a comparative method but has at least for the moment a few but clear rules. In fact we get a greater understanding if analiser and the object being analyzed are part of the same macro-horizon. Furthermore I see no comparison between the anthropomorph adorant of alpine rock art (4th millennium BC) and the so-called “squatting figures” of the American Indians or the “frog figures” of the peoples of Oceania (Pericot Garcia, Lommel, Galloway, 1967). A comparison between such spatiotemporally antithetical horizons is destined to produce unconvincing results. The path that, starting from the gestures of the celebrating priest in the revealed religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam), would be more walkable, would come down to identify the analogies found in the gestures of the adorant between the Greco-Roman antiquity and the protohistoric age.

* An excavation of Archeology of Knowledge is a hermeneutical process that starts from the inside as a form of knowledge in which the subject who knows and the known object (at least in part) come to coincide with the approach to the “text” that you want to know (an image, a script, a dance, a piece of music) is possible because in the studied object there is still a core of knowledge that is shared. Even if only in partial form and mediated, with the subject analyzing. Interpretation is the act by which, through the recovery of the lost code, the meaning is returned to a historical fact that our cultural memory has not yet been completely removed. Once the object of our investigation has been identified, we can trace back in time, from one historical junction to another, until the moment in which it is reunited with the controls, we can then judge whether or not, to the cultural reality that he produced it. But the identification of the interpretative code is only possible if a map of it is still available in the pre-understanding that our historical-cultural tradition has made available to us.

Danza, Ermeneutica e Ricostruzionismo

In “L’outil photographique et l’étude de la danse antique” (, 2013) la ricercatrice francese Audrey Gouy illustra un metodo di indagine, il “Ricostruzionismo”, in base al quale, grazie ad una particolare tecnica fotografica, la crono-fotografia, mettendo nella giusta sequenza le singole posture della danza greca antica, è possibile ricostruire con buona approssimazione l’intera danza. Il termine di paragone utilizzato dal Ricostruzionismo è la danza classica contemporanea e il procedimento cognitivo consiste nel confronto tra posture simili, quella antica e quella contemporanea. Questo metodo mette lo studioso nella condizione di visualizzare le fasi che precedono o seguono l’attimo in cui il gesto del danzatore è fissato nell’immagine. “Le posture rappresentate nell’arte figurativa greca – dice A. Gouy – vengono considerate riproduzioni del reale, e lo strumento fotografico appare quindi come il mezzo sperimentale utilizzato per l’analisi degli antichi movimenti coreografici e la ricostruzione della danza”.


Etienne Jules Marey, salto con la pertica. Il movimento, 1894. Si tratta di uno dei primi esempi di cronofotografia, un procedimento fotografico nel quale è visualizzata una sequenza di 12 fotogrammi, realizzata con uno speciale strumento, il fucile fotografico.

Il primo ad applicare la teoria ricostruzionista alla danza fu lo studioso francese Maurice Emmanuel (La danse grecque antique d’après les monuments figurées, 1896). Il punto di partenza di Emmanuel è l’intuizione che i movimenti coreutici rappresentati nelle antiche opere d’arte siano gli stessi che caratterizzano il balletto classico francese contemporaneo.

Germaine Proudhommeau (La danse grecque antique, 1965) ha continuato il lavoro del maestro entrando nel dettaglio dei gesti e movimenti della danza greca, elaborando un’ampia tipologia totalmente svincolata da ogni riferimento cronologico ed effettuando una comparazione sistematica tra i movimenti figurati antichi ed il lessico del balletto moderno. Nel 1970 T.B.L. Webster fu tra i primi ad esprimere dubbi sul metodo ricostruzionista. Secondo Webster il procedimento elaborato da Emmanuel e affinato dalla Proudhommeau, per quanto attraente, “porta con sé l’ovvio pericolo che i passi moderni appartengano ad una tradizione coreutica completamente differente, fatto che potrebbe condurre a conclusioni ampiamente ingannevoli (The greek chorus, 1970, introduzione, xi).

 Nel 1997 il metodo ricostruzionista è stato messo in discussione anche da Frederick G. Naerebout che lo giudica “un resoconto piuttosto confuso di posizioni e gesti dell’antica danza greca” (Attractive Performances. Ancient Greek Dance: Three Preliminary Studies, Amsterdam, 1997, pag. 62).

Negli anni ’90 è stata la volta di Marie-Hélène Delavaud-Roux, autrice di alcuni importanti saggi sulla danza nel mondo antico (tra i tanti: “Les Danses en Grèce antique”, 1998) a prendere le distanze dai suoi predecessori, introducendo un approccio comparatistico che ha aperto la via a nuove interpretazioni dei movimenti e delle funzioni della danza.

Per A. Gouy “l’uso della danza classica contemporanea come punto di riferimento per comprendere le posture della danza greca appare azzardato. Associare e correlare due tipi di danza così distanti temporalmente sembra essere un anacronismo. Una danza appartiene alla cultura che la produce e può essere compresa solo nel suo contesto” (Gouy, 2013).

Nel corso degli ultimi anni anche il sottoscritto si è spesso chiesto come sia possibile ricavare un criterio di comprensione della danza greca rilevando una corrispondenza formale delle immagini antiche con una sequenza fotografica che schematizza i movimenti del balletto moderno. Ho provato ad analizzare la questione alla luce dell’Archeologia del Sapere, il criterio cognitivo a cui si allinea il Blog danzadelleorigini, trovando sintonia con le osservazioni di A. Gouy.

Infatti, in base ai criteri dell’Archeologia del Sapere*, gli aspetti portanti del metodo ricostruzionista lo rendono inadeguato al conseguimento degli obiettivi per cui è stato progettato. In primo luogo l’idea che l’analisi della danza antica possa essere condotta al di fuori di un contesto cronologico è quantomeno poco corretta, perché dovremmo accettare un inspiegabile vuoto cognitivo di circa due millenni tra i periodi storici ed i fenomeni culturali che stiamo mettendo in relazione. In secondo luogo, lo scavo che l’Archeologia del Sapere intende operare, come tutti gli scavi, ha il suo punto di partenza nel piano di campagna, mentre il metodo ricostruzionista tiene conto di una somiglianza tutta sul piano dell’anatomia, di un semplice collegamento di natura estetica che avviene fuori dallo spazio e dal tempo, tra piani stratigrafici distanziati tra loro da altri piani di cui non si tiene conto, senza che possano essere utilizzati criteri culturali di valutazione. Per l’Archeologia del Sapere anche l’adozione di un metodo comparativo ha, almeno per il momento, poche ma chiare regole. Infatti una comprensione è tanto più possibile quanto più il soggetto conoscente e l’oggetto da conoscere fanno parte dello stesso macro-orizzonte. Inoltre, non vedo possibilità di confronto tra l’orante antropomorfo dell’arte rupestre alpina (4° millennio a.C.) e le cosiddette “squatting figures” degli indiani d’America o le “frog figures” delle popolazioni dell’Oceania (Pericot Garcia, Lommel, Galloway, 1967). Una comparazione tra orizzonti così spazio-temporalmente antitetici, è destinata a produrre analisi poco convincenti. Più percorribile sarebbe la via che, partendo dalla gestualità del sacerdote celebrante nelle religioni rivelate (cristianesimo, ebraismo, islam), scendesse ad individuare le analogie riscontrabili nei gesti dell’orante tra l’antichità greco-romana e l’età protostorica.

* Uno scavo di Archeologia del Sapere è un procedimento ermeneutico che parte dall’interno come forma di sapere nella quale il soggetto che conosce e l’oggetto conosciuto vengono, almeno in parte, a coincidere. L’avvicinamento al “testo” che si intende conoscere (un’immagine, uno scritto, una danza, un brano musicale) è possibile perché nell’oggetto studiato è ancora presente un nucleo di conoscenze che sta in condivisione, anche se solo in forma parziale e mediata, con il soggetto che analizza. L’interpretazione è l’atto tramite il quale, mediante il recupero del codice smarrito, viene restituito il significato ad un fatto storico che la nostra memoria culturale non ha ancora rimosso interamente. Una volta individuato l’oggetto della nostra indagine, possiamo seguirne le tracce, procedendo indietro nel tempo, da uno snodo storico all’altro, fino al momento in cui esso viene ricongiunto, i controlli giudicheranno poi se debitamente o meno, alla realtà culturale che l’ha prodotto. Ma l’individuazione del codice interpretativo è possibile solo nel caso in cui una mappa di esso sia ancora disponibile nelle precomprensioni che la nostra tradizione storico-culturale ci ha messo a disposizione.

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.

gebo e la croce equinoziale
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.

danza armata elevazione2

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.

The Hora of Frumusica, a perpetual dance

Frumusica, Cucuteni Culture, 4500 B.C. Circular dance performed by four girls. The circle of the dancers is built around a center above which the ritual object should have been placed, perhaps a bowl. It is around this object, and to the axis that crosses its center, that the dance takes place.

Curt Sachs states that each circular dance has a magical object in the center. In the case of prehistoric matriarchal cultures in the center lies a pit, but also a bowl, which according to Neumann, is a symbol of the mother’s womb and fertility of the earth. In this case the material element is strictly implied to the spiritual one, in an incredible contamination of form and matter. The Hora (from the ancient Greek Koros, Horo in Bulgarian) is a circular dance very common in the Balkan area that is performed during the most important ceremonies and weddings. Many archaeologists (Gimbutas, Garfinkel, Dragomir) have recognized one of the oldest circular dance in a class of ceramic artefacts found in some Romanian Neolithic sites (Frumusica, Beresti, Grenovka, Luka Vrublevetskaia, Draguseni, Trusesti, V millennium BC). If we analyze the object called “Hora” of Frumusica, from the formal point of view four female figures arranged in a circle are recognizable, of which only the anatomical features of the buttocks are clearly distinguished; from the functional point of view, the object was probably used as a support above which a container (a bowl?) was placed in which the votive offering was placed. In our hypothesis, the artifact/dance is related to the container/offer above and the center of the dance corresponds to the cosmic axis on which the bowl is placed with the sacrificial offering.

From the whole it is possible to deduce that the only purpose of the prehistoric artist was to create a dancing mechanism with a precise idea of movement in order to produce energy. The artifact does not reproduce a rhythmic dance with large movements and quick enlargements or narrowings of the circle. This is confirmed by the fact that the dancers are tightly connected to each other at shoulder level. So we can assume that the circular movement is very slow and not skipped.

frumusica e grecia
Left: Hora di Bodesti, discovered in 1942. The ceramic artifact depicts a circle formed by six female figures, each of which holds his arms knotted over the shoulders of the figure at his side. The prehistoric artist has neglected to model the head, the arms and the legs. lingering on the buttocks. The object gives no indication of the rhythm of the whole and the movement in progress. Together with the rock carvings this kind of artifacts documents the existence of ritual dances linked to the offer of gifts. Culture of Cucuteni (4000 – 3300 BC). On the right:- The Bronze group of Olympia (Greece, IX century B.C.) is composed of seven female figures, with their arms fastened over their shoulders. The set of dancers is resting on a metallic circle that somehow suggests to us how the dance in progress took place on a predetermined course without variations (from Soar, Katy , Circular Dance Performances in the Prehistoric Aegean, 2010).

While during the dance the movement produces energy and magic, in its fixed two-dimensional (image) and three-dimensional reproduction (artifact), the simple form carries out a symbolic transformation of reality.

As the mask concretely expresses “the other dimension”, that of magic and myth, so also the ceramic object of Frumusica, while preserving its nature as a material object and its supporting function, is in all respects a dance that, according to the magical-religious thought that has elaborated it, produces the same effects of the original act made concretely in reality. With one difference. While a dance performed in three dimensions, develops itself in space and time, from beginning to end, and the energy produced by it over time is destined to run out, its copy, image or artifact, is subtracted from the dominion of the natural and human laws and adheres to an absolute space-time dimension. In this way, the dancing figurines of the Hora of Frumusica never stop dancing. The artifact then performs a perpetual dance, whose magical effects will be felt forever.

Hora di Tell Aviv
Port of Tel Aviv, April 1939. Young Jewish women from Germany, just arrived in Palestine express their joy by dancing the “Hora”.

The gesture of Chthonian Man

Reading the book “Morphology of the fairy tale” (Vladimir Propp, 1929), my attention was prompted by some passages of 20th century European popular literature, in which we can find the same conception of the tripartite universe (or quadripartite) that according to the scholar Dumezil constitutes the cosmological and social foundation of European civilizations at least since the fifth millennium BC.
In the fairy tale of Brunella, for example, the breaking of the cosmic levels puts the community of the living in direct communication with the world of the dead, to whom the function of “helpers from the other world” is recognized. The hand of the deceased mother who stretches out of the grave, the tree planted on the grave, the bird perched on the tree, a well known symbol of the soul of the deceased, express the belief, still alive in the popular tradition, that the deceased could cross the threshold that separates them from the world of the living and enter into communication with their descendants. In Finland, on the day of the dead, each family deposited luminous candles and offers of food on the surface of the rocks, some of which were covered by rock carvings, in the belief that the dead came from the afterlife to meet their relatives. (J. Hautala, Survivals of the Cult of Sacrifice Stones in Finland, Temenos, 1965).

uomo ctonio
Naquane, Capodiponte, Rock 35. The image portrays  the bust, arms, and head of an anthropomorph in the pose of the Chthonian Man. It would be wrong to think that the representation of this body, which lacks the lower part, is incomplete. In fact, as Claude Berard highlighted when speaking of this type of representation in the Greek repertoire, the image captures the precise moment when the entity exceeds, but only with the upper part of the body, the thin veil that separates the earthly dimension from the one below. Only the upper part of the anthropomorph is thus visible because the body has not yet completely emerged from the earth.

Using an “Archeology of knowing” procedure (see post 6), the data provided by stories and popular traditions are an interesting contribution to the understanding of some prehistoric images. I refer above all to the anthropomorphic figures who, assuming particular postures, take on the role of mediators between man and the regions of the Cosmos.

anodos 3
Attic vase (Valle Trebbia, VI century BC) Some silen (spirit of the woods and wild nature) beat the earth with heavy bats recalling to the surface Persephone, the queen of the underworld and goddess of fertility who, after spending the autumn and winter in the underworld, reappears in spring to restore life to the world.

In the Western tradition are told many stories that speak about sacred spaces, such as the surface of some rocks or a rift in the ground, which Claude Berard calls “chthonian passages”, where there is a link between the world of the living and the world of the dead. In the figurative imaginary the work of mediation between man and the underground world, place of the seeds and the dead, is conducted by the Chthonian Man with his arms pointing downwards.

stele felsinea 130
One of most interesting exemple of “anodos”  is represented on the Stele of Bologna nr. 130 (5th century BC), in which a warrior faces a being with a human torso, head, and arms, snake-tail legs spilled out of the ground (from Morigi Govi and Vitali, The Archaeological Museum of Bologna, 1982).

The rituals performed in these places had a dual purpose: on the one hand, through gesture, dance, music, men addressed to the deity a request for prosperity and fertility; on the other, in some cases it was necessary to protect the community from negative entities that, after crossing the threshold, disturbed the life of the community, causing drought, ruin, and poorness. The iconography has provided us with a good number of examples that confirm our hypotheses on the beliefs of prehistoric man. On many engraved rocks of Valcamonica are represented warriors armed with shield and spear (with the cusp facing down to the ground) in a guard position near symbols such as the spiral, the concentric circle, the cup mark, or near a fracture in the rock, elements that indicate the presence of a chthonian passage.

 Some stories dating back to the most ancient Western tradition also describe man’s concern for the occurrence – in the most delicate moments of the year, when the time comes to bury the seeds or collect the harvest – of the ascent from the underworld to the human one of spirits good or infernal entities.

guerrieri con lancia r12

The rituals that took place in these sacred spaces, therefore, had a twofold purpose: on the one hand, through gesture, dance, music, men asked the spirits good protection, prosperity, and fertility; on the other, in certain situations it was necessary to protect the community from those infernal entities that, after having crossed the threshold, disturbed the life of the community, causing drought, ruin, and hunger.

seradina 12
In the rock engravings of Valcamonica, the Chthonian Man is often represented. On the rock 12 of Seradina, a group of anthropomorphs repeats the gesture carried out by an entity of much greater dimensions, with a great phallus, large hands, and large feet, elements that denote its nature of being superior.


aratura e uomo cosmico
A plowing scene by Seradina (Capodiponte) shows a plow pulled by two horses, driven by a plowman and followed by a group of diggers. The scene witnesses both the warrior who exercises his function as a defender of the earth from possible incursions of spirits (very close to the Roman dance of the Salii priests), and the anthropomorph in the pose of the Chthonian Man who invites the spirits of the land to be propitious for the future harvest.

The gesture of Universal man

Like the gesture of the Cosmic Man in which the arms are turned to the sky, even the gesture with the arms open and parallel to the ground, which the French esoteric philosopher René Guenon attributes to the Universal Man, is widespread in every time and place.
This gesture is connected to one of the most important symbols of the primordial tradition: the sign of the cross, which is hierarchically governed by the principles of Harmony and Conformity and ordered in the sense of Amplitude and Exaltation.

Fludd 1617
Leonardo’s Vitruvian man corresponds to the Universal Man of esoteric doctrines. This means that even at the beginning of the seventeenth century a strong symbolic correspondence was recognized between the microcosm (man) and the macrocosm (the universe) (by Robert Fludd, 1617).
Masso di Cemmo nr. 2 (period IIIa of the rock art camuna (2800-2500 BC) The two anthropomorphs are in frontal position, do not perform any specific act and show no distinguishing elements.The absence of a country plan and the coexistence of daggers whose dimensions are disproportionate, it authorizes the attribution of anthropomorphs to a dimension outside the space and time of reality.

Assuming the gesture of the cross the anthropomorph on one side superimposes the arms on the horizontal axis, thus expressing the maximum opening of the body in space (Amplitude), despite the limits imposed by the conditions in which the world manifests itself. According to Guenon, the extension of Amplitude, which is a passive and feminine principle, does not concern only the body, but includes all the modes of the human being, of which the bodily condition is only one aspect.
The expansion along the vertical axis (Exaltation), is a principle (active and masculine) that implies the loss of individual consciousness and, through the overcoming of the multiple states of being, that is, of the various levels of existence, leads to identification with the Whole. This practice consists in arriving at the effective realization of the totality of being, that is, at the attainment of what the Hindu doctrine calls Liberation.

uomo universale
The anthropomorph, wearing a sun hat, shows a triangular bust, open arms with the palms of the hands facing forward and feet facing outwards, unmistakable signs of its frontal position. The figure is part of a more elaborate image in which a ceremony performed by the community in front of the stele is represented. Therefore also the anthropomorph as the one who looks at the stele, is turned towards the same stele.

If in the rock art of Valcamonica the Cosmic Man has been represented only on rocks that emerge from the earth, the Universal Man is represented primarily on horizontal supports like the steles and shares the particular cosmological context of them. In the rock art of the first metal age (Calcolithic, 2900-2500 BC), the Universal Man is rendered in a schematic style that could express, as in the case of the anthropomorphs we encounter in the repertoire of “primitive” art, “a regression to the spirituality and essentiality of the world of the dead “(Neumann, The Great Mother, 1981). In the following period (first bronze age, 2500-2200 BC) the Universal Man assumes a more elaborate form, with the triangular body as the blade of the dagger.
Compared to the pose of the adorant, arranged on the vertical axis that connects the celestial reality to chthonic, the man with horizontal arms shows interesting potentialities and dynamic openings: a) introduces the frontality as a mode of manifestation of the sacred; b) constitutes the basis of the rotation movement on its axis (see the dance of the Whirling Dervishes) which produces vertigo and leads to loss of consciousness; c) is the basis for the simulation of the flight of birds, well known pose and also used in children’s games.

uomo universale
The scheme of the Universal Man is found in a vast area of prehistoric Western cultures. Its most ancient formulation is the cruciform anthropomorphs, more often of female sex, found in the tombs of the Chalcolithic period of Cyprus (in the center). These are objects, perhaps talismans or amulets, that women wore hanging around their necks, which refer to a system of ritual beliefs related to fertility, pregnancy and childbirth (Lukas, 2013). (Left) The Universal Man of Les Oullas (Ubaye Valley, Haute Provence). (Right) Anthropomorph in the form of a cross from Cessero (Herault). The head is rendered by a circle surrounded by dots (solar symbol?), the hand is rendered by three points.

The gesture of Cosmic Man


orante oggi
Since there are various dispositions of the body, the preferred one consists in raising the hands and raising the eyes, because in this way the body introduces into the prayer the qualities that belong to the soul “(Origene, Peri Euchès).

Analyzing the typology of the archaic gesture, I have been able to identify the three basic gestures to which correspond three specific ways of cosmological approach: the gesture of Cosmic Man, that of Universal Man and of Chthonic Man. These are gestural archetypes that can be found (with a small number of exceptions) in every human culture, in every time and in every place. During the Christian mass even today the priest raises his arms towards the sky repeating the gesture of the Cosmic Man. The image of Cosmic Man is represented throughout the time frame that goes back from the Middle Ages to Antiquity and Prehistory, up to the oldest anthropomorphic representations of Upper Paleolithic (16,000 years BC). Assuming this position, the man identifies himself with the axis-mundi; while his feet touch the earth and his arms rise to heaven he exercises the function of cosmic mediator, in order to draw on the energy of the universe to make it available, through the rite, to the various needs of man.

St Porchaire Poitiers
Church of Saint Porchaire, (Amiens, 11th century). Psalm 62, 5 says: “So I will bless you as long as I live, in your name I will lift up my hands”. This gesture is a sign of prayer, supplication, intercession, openness, availability. For many centuries, the people joined the priest in the same gesture.

According to Arturo Schwarz, the gesture of the Cosmic Man is the allegorical expression of the reconciliation between the masculine (heaven) and feminine (the earth) principle. It is also the mediator of their contradictions and translates into figurative terms the universal aspiration to immortality, evoked by the recurring solar and lunar cycle (Schwarz, 1979). Even in the Vedic culture, when the shaman reaches the top of the sacrificial pole, the cosmic axis that connects heaven and earth, he raises his arms and shouts: “I have reached the sky, I am immortal” (Eliade) In the archaic tradition the man who assumes this position abandons his limited nature and his attitude of dependence on the gods and turns into an autonomous, immortal entity, capable of exerting a magical and direct control over natural events.

luine foto
Bronze age Adorant from rock nr. 49 of Luine ( Valcamonica). “Assuming the position of the odorant, the individual identifies himself with the axis mundi.” His feet touch the ground, his arms are raised to the sky, he turns into a mediator of their opposition (A. Schwarz).

In a more recent phase in the history of spirituality, sacred texts and myths tell stories in which the gesture of the Cosmic Man has lost his autonomy and turns into a prayer addressed to the spirits and superior deities who occupy a high position , for example the heights or the sky, in order to request their intervention in the mediation with the natural world. Two interesting examples are provided by the Bible. In Isaiah, 1:15, God, offended by the errors of the people, says: “When you lift your hands, I look away, you multiply your prayers, I do not listen”. In another case (Exodus, 17) God offers exceptional help to man: “Moses said to Joshua, “Choose some of our men and go out to fight the Amalekites. Tomorrow I will stand on top of the hill with the staff of God in my hands.” So Joshua fought the Amalekites as Moses had ordered, and Moses, Aaron and Hur went to the top of the hill. As long as Moses held up his hands, the Israelites were winning, but whenever he lowered his hands, the Amalekites were winning. When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up—one on one side, one on the other—so that his hands remained steady till sunset. So Joshua overcame the Amalekite army with the sword.

In Egyptian religion, the gesture of adorant is part of the cosmogonic tale. “In the classic scene of the creation of the world, the god of the atmosphere Shu separates Nut, the goddess of the sky, from the reclining figure of Geb, god of the earth and Nut’s brother-groom. Shu supports Nut with his arms raised and performs its function of axis-mundi separating and connecting at the same time the Sky and the Earth. The Kha, like the ipsilon, has here the function and meaning of support of the sky “.


The warrior, in front of and profile


naquane r50

On the rock nr. 50 of the National Park of Naquane (Capodiponte, CCSP relief) two warriors armed with short sword and small shield, adorned with ritual skirt and fringed helmet, dance around (or fight in front of) to another warrior who has his arms up and he is holding a long battle sword and a round shield in his hands  assuming an attitude of jubilation. In Iron Age rock art (VII-IV / III century BC) there are thousands pairs of warriors facing each other in a duel, but only in a limited number of cases between the two warriors, or near them, is represented a further element (anthropomorph, aquatic bird, cup ring or something else) that indicates in figurative terms the cosmological relationship existing between the image and the support that hosts it. The rhythmical and bloodless behavior of the warriors confirms that there is no battle going on, so much so that in the entire Camunian repertoire only a very small number of warriors is reached by sword shots. The rock scene 50 offers interesting hints to ponder. In the first place we find here the confirmation of a general rule: in each phase of the Iron Age the warriors facing each other are without exception portraits in profile. On the contrary, the central character is raised (as if suspended in the air) with respect to the support surface of the dancers and every body detail (head, arms, torso, lower limbs) expresses a frontal view, which inserts this figure into a category of super-human beings. Following an intuition by Silvio Ferri (Ferri, 1972), a few years ago I presented a hypothesis (G. Ragazzi, 1994), according to which the warrior at the center of the scene is the hero killed in the battle attending the funeral ritual held in his honor. We are facing what Berard calls the scene of “Anodos”, the ascent from the inferior world through a “chthonic passage” (C. Bérard, Anodoi, Essai sur l’imagerie des passages chthoniens, 1974) which links the “below “and the” above “.

uomo ctonio
Naquane. Anthropomorphic with arms facing down, of which only the upper part of the body is visible. Applying Claude Berard’s hypothesis to the Valcamonica’s iconographic repertoire, the anthropomorph of which only the upper part is visible is a spirit of the earth caught in a moment of its vertical movement of ascent on the earth (anodos) or descent into the inferior world (cathodos).

In Prehistory the rock represents a sacred space, a passage connecting the inferior world with the surface of the earth. The rock engravings constitute the formalized corpus of the relative cosmological knowledge. In the case of rock 50, the warrior has not only completed the passage, but is flying in the air. J. David Lewis Williams, a scholar of the Kalahari Bushmen (San People) rock art, also says that we must not understand the surface of the rock, or other types of sacral support, as a silent support that is limited to receiving a form. Rather, as he himself discovered by questioning the last Bushmen artists, the surface of the rock is conceived as a veil, a thin film that separates the human world from the underlying world, home of the spirits of the earth. According to the South African anthropologist, it is not possible to understand the rock paintings of the San people if it is not taken into account that the Bushman artist, translating the conceptions of his people into images, worked in full awareness that the support was a threshold that separates the two worlds. Some snakes, for example, are represented at the turn of the upper and lower reality, with some visible coils, because on this side of the veil, and others not represented because conceived by the artist still inside the rock.

Dos of Mirichì, Valcamonica, medium-late Iron Age (from Anati). Two warriors face each other in a ritual duel, not bloody. They are in fact armed with short swords and small shields (peltès) which, as happens in the Salii rite, were probably clashed against each other to produce sounds or noises. Between the two warriors, there is a small anthropomorph with arms bent at right angles and facing down where the seeds and the dead are deposited.

Some important iconographic studies (particularly Vernant, The death in the eyes, 1985) have remarked how even in the imaginary of ancient Greece the frontality indicates that man is placed face to face with an entity of divine nature, for example the mortal gaze of Medusa, and this makes the radical otherness of death perceptible. In this sense, the frontality expresses in a surprising way this position of transition and perhaps also the tragic ambivalence of the glorious death that takes the warrior away from humanity (Frontisi-Ducroux, 1986). On the basis of these premises the warrior represented in frontal position is the hero killed in battle, represented in the precise moment in which, after rising from the world of the dead, he attends the funeral games organized in his honor.

If the scenes of armed dance engraved on the Camunian rocks are an expression of the deep bond with the earth, this does not depend only on the context of the funeral ritual, as documented by the image engraved on the rock 50 of Naquane. In fact, other Camunian scenes show how the earth is not considered exclusively as a place where the dead are placed, but also that in which the seeds are planted. On a rock engraved by Seradina (Capodiponte) we can see a scene of plowing in which, together with the plow and the plow followed by a group of diggers, two anthropomorphs also participate in the act: a warrior armed with lance and shield which defends the seed just inserted into the earth, and an anthropomorph with the arms turned downwards that addresses a prayer to the earth. Since the two anthropomorphs are represented in a frontal position, we must conclude that their function is completely “metaphysical”.

aratura e uomo cosmico
Seradina, Capodiponte, rock nr. 12: In the plowing scene, in addition to the human figure driving the plow followed by the diggers,  were also represented two symbolic actions: the warrior who exercises his function as defender of the earth from all possible threats and the anthropomorph with his arms pointing to the earth who prays the spirits to protect the future harvest.

Also the dance of the Curetes sword described in the Cretan myth of the birth of Zeus, expresses a link with the earth very similar to that of the ancient Camuni. The myth says that after the birth of Jupiter, the Curetes, the warrior spirits in the service of Rhea, wife of Cronus, staged a sword dance during which the beating of the shields was crucial to cover the cry of Jupiter and save the newborn from the murderous rage of his father. What is striking about this myth is the surprising analogy with the history transmitted by popular tradition, according to which the newborn son of Rhea and Cronus, whose cry is covered by the noise produced by the shields, embodies the spirit of the vegetation in its budding stage that must be protected from the inclemency of natural events.

Sword dance of the Curetes, (Campanian terracotta found in Cerveteri, II-I century BC, British Museum, London). As also in the Camunian representations the shield is almost always opposed to another shield, their beat and the consequent noise could have had the same function of scaring and keeping the spirits away from the cultivated fields.


Pythagoras, the lyre and the harmony of the Cosmos.


medio evo cinese
The human body inscribed in the square (the earth) and in the circle (the sky) expresses one of the highest forms of harmony, that between the gesture of cosmic mediation, which man performs in the course of religious ceremonies, and the whole universe (China, Middle Ages).

If we consider geometry, music, and cosmology exclusively as scientific disciplines, it is difficult to understand the reasons for their possible use as the only discipline available to the ethnoanthropological investigation, i.e. for the understanding of some key aspect of prehistoric symbolism. Pythagoras (575ca.- 490 ca. a.C.) was the first among the ancient philosophers to affirm that “the number governs the forms and the ideas” and he was the first to use the term kósmos for indicating the harmony and symmetry that regulate the Universe. He also wonders about the nature of sounds, whose mutual relation is numerical, just like that of celestial bodies. Even the movement of the planets orbiting the Earth produces a range of sounds, a celestial music that our ears are no longer able to hear because they have always been used to hearing it. The harmony that we perceive in music and we feel in the motion of the planets is based on the magic power of numbers.
Pythagoras came to discover the close relationship between music and number listening to the sound that casually came out from a forge where some smiths were beating with their hammers a piece of iron on the anvil, producing sounds partly fully consonant with each other, partly dissonant. Experiencing the nature of the sounds with his monochord, Pythagoras came to the conclusion that a vibrating string produces a sound whose “height” is inversely proportional to the length of the string itself. In this way, he proceeded to associate each emitted note with a number. For example, he attributed the number 1 to the note produced by a 1 -meter long string, the number 2 to that produced by a half meter long string, etc. With the aid of this method, each note is distinguished by a number that is, in fact, proportional to its frequency.

The first monochord is the musical bow. If the interpretation of the Sorcier scene in the Cave of Trois Frères was true, the hypothesis could be taken that, even before its use as a hunting weapon, the bow was used as a tool for producing sounds.

trois freres 1
Cave of Trois Frères France (17000-15000 years ago). Scene “of enchantment”, during which an anthropomorphic, disguised as a bison, plays a musical bow using the mouth as a sound box. The action involves an unknown number of animals (bison, reindeer, horses). A bison is portrayed as it turns its head towards the place from which the sound stimulus comes, indicating the radical neurological effect that music produces on a great variety of living species.

anfora di Milo

The decoration of the amphora of Milo on one side provides a literal description of the meeting between Apollo and Artemis, an event narrated by the myth known to all Greeks; on the other, those geometric elements are interpreted as a figurative expression of an ancient esoteric language, known only by a small circle of initiates, according to which the meeting of the sun (Apollo) and the moon (Artemis) is the formulation in hermetic terms of a truly cosmic event: an eclipse of the sun.
“Apollo – says Ferrero – does not drive his horses while holding the reins, but through the mediation of the lira to which the reins are tied. If in everyday life playing the harp and driving the horses are two separate acts, in the symbolic life they are united, so that the trajectory and the speed of the chariot that leads the sun into the sky is drawn by the sound of the zither, so that the ratio between the various speeds supported by the cart is identical to that of a musical interval “.

The gesture of prehistoric man and his linguistic code.


Paphos Souskiou
Paphos / Souskiou (Cyprus, 2nd millennium BC) Small female cruciform Idol with bent knees. Note the expressiveness of the gesture: the position of the fingers informs us that the palm of the right hand is facing upwards while the palm in the left is pointing upwards. This is the same gestural pose used by Dervish when he rotates on itself during its dance (from: M. Lucas, 2013).

In every period of post-paleolithic art the anthropomorph is the most represented subject. In the logic of archaic religion, the ordinary movements performed by the man in daily life are not object of representation. Sacred iconography highlights only the most significant aspects of human behavior, those that in archaic belief possess magical efficacy and ability to interact with the cosmos. The opportunity to understand the reasons why gesture and dance are one of the most recurring themes in prehistoric iconography, despite the figurative technique is not able to fully convey the idea of movement, rhythm, musical accompaniment, singing, was offered to me by an important text of the anthropologist Maurice Bloch: “Symbols, Songs, Dance and Features of Articulation” published in Arch. Européennes de Sociologie, XV, 1975). Before Bloch’s essay, some scholars such as Bettelheim (1962) and Turner (1967) had analyzed the symbols of the ritual using the Saussurian signifier / signified model, so as to isolate the symbols from the ritual process of which they are part and to interpret them as units containing meaning. On the contrary in Bloch’s analysis, “which is concerned with the theories of such writers as McCawley, Fillmore, and G. Lakoff, who have stressed the identity of syntax and semantics”, the meaning is primarily transmitted by the way lexical units can be combined in utterances (p. 20). Starting from this premise we can see that, in the first place it is not possible to understand the symbols of a ritual if you do not study the means of communication in which they are involved before. Secondly, the logical potency of language depends on the creativity of syntax, and, as long as the syntax is creative and can operate freely, it can convey any content. Thanks to the survey conducted on the circumcision ritual of the Merina people of Madagascar, Bloch comes to the conclusion that in ritual language the syntax can no longer freely regulate the parts of the speech. This fact produces a strong reduction in its ability to argue and the force of its locutions is transformed.
Thus, in a free communicative situation, that is not conditioned by extra-linguistic factors (for example a legal or religious norm), an act “A” can be followed by a wide and discretional number of acts “B” (Open Code). On the contrary, if proper forms of language, that is to say formalized, are introduced into communication, as it happens when we are dealing with a sacred communication, some communicative potentials fall off and with it, syntactic freedom, individuality, and creativity quickly vanish. In this way – says Bloch – by placing a linguistic act “A”, the resulting acts will form a code whose rules will be pre-determined and whose acceptance will influence the structure of the new language (Closed Code).
We can already say that the figurative technique used in the creation of Prehistoric Rock art is configured as a closed code.
Moreover, the typological differences between Open Code and Closed Code, if applied to the gestural context, particularly clarify the function and the sense of gesture and dance in the repertoire of prehistoric iconography. If we want to understand the meaning of gesture and prehistoric dance we must therefore preliminarily conduct an investigation on the linguistic structure of images, through which the substantial difference between daily act and sacred act becomes perceptible.

tabella codici gest english