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The Crane Dance: Walking the Worlds

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

The Labyrinth may be the most well-known and widespread symbol to come out of ancient Minoan spirituality, but it is a static image. What if it were to come alive, to move, to dance? It did so on ancient Crete, and it still does today in Greek folk dances. And the motions of this sinuous dance have many layers of meaning. Let’s explore some of them. Maybe we’ll be inspired to set our own feet moving. 

The Labyrinth-in-motion I’m talking about is known as the Crane Dance or Geranos Dance (the word geranos is Greek for ‘crane’ – the bird, not the construction equipment). The Greeks immortalized it in their version of the Theseus myth. You’ve probably heard the tale of Theseus traveling to Crete as one of the fourteen Athenian youths who were the tribute (that is, the sacrifice) to King Minos and his horrible monster, the Minotaur. The king’s daughter Ariadne gives him a ball of yarn by which he marks his path into the Labyrinth, then uses it to find his way out again after slaying the Minotaur. Having accomplished his heroic goal, he rescues the youths and returns home to Athens. That’s the short version, but it leaves out something Theseus does on the way home. 

The island of Delos is fairly close to the Greek mainland; Theseus and his friends were most of the way home when they stopped there to celebrate their victory. Our hero went to the temple of Apollo and made a sacrifice there, also dedicating to the god a statue of Aphrodite that Ariadne had given him. Bear in mind, the Greeks plastered their own deity names on the gods of other cultures so they could understand them better; I suspect Aphrodite is one of the native Minoan goddesses, considering that Ariadne is the one who gave the statue to Theseus. It’s also interesting to note that the Greeks considered Delos to be Apollos’ birthplace. So this isn’t just any temple to Apollo – it’s the original, real, best one. Way to go, Theseus! 

According to the legend, the altar in this temple was built by Apollo himself out of the horns of goats. It was around this altar that he led the youths in a dance that mimicked his journey into the Labyrinth and out again. Some versions of the story describe the dancers imitating the motions of the crane, which is so large and ungainly that it supposedly has to take eight running steps before it can lift off in flight. So the dancers would take eight steps, then leap on the ninth. The dance is often described as snaking back and forth, or spiraling in and out, or both. 

That’s what the Greeks had to say about the Crane Dance. Let’s see if we can tease out what it meant to the Minoans. 

The Greeks believed that dance originated on Crete. In fact, they believed Rhea, the Minoan Earth Mother, had invented it when she taught the Kouretes to dance so they could guard her infant son Dionysos in the sacred cave where he was born. Early dances were dedicated to Dionysos, who eventually came to be the divine patron of drama as well as dance. To this day, Greek folkloric dancers say that all the circular/winding/sinuous dances originally came from Crete. Why circular? Two possible reasons. 

First, many ancient Greek dances were performed on the circular threshing floors where grain was processed after the harvest. Once the work was done and the area was cleared, the people celebrated the harvest with dances that necessarily conformed to the shape of the floor. This may connect circular dances to the harvest celebrations of the ancestors the Minoans held. In the Iliad Homer describes a fancy dance floor just like the one Daedalus made for Ariadne at Knossos. Perhaps this is a later, ritualized version of the original threshing floor. 

The second reason for circular dances is equally practical: if you’re dancing around an altar of some sort, the dance is necessarily going to be circular. And if you wind inward toward the altar then back out again, the dance will take on a spiral or labyrinthine shape. 

So what does the Crane Dance mean? We can’t know for sure, since symbolism changes significance over time, but I have a few educated guesses. 

We know that the ancient temple-palaces on Crete were built with careful astronomical alignments, much in the same way that Stonehenge and other structures were aligned to celestial events. The Minoan buildings mark the solstices and equinoxes, risings of the Moon at certain points in its cycle, the appearance and disappearance of Venus, and the heliacal rise of the star Spica in the constellation Virgo. And those are just the ones we’ve already found; there may be more that we haven’t discovered yet. 

A tale credited to the semi-mythical Cretan poet Epimedes from the sixth or seventh century BCE says that the Labyrinth was dark when Theseus entered it, so he had trouble seeing to find his way back out again. Ariadne helped him by wearing a radiant crown of shimmering gems and gold that Dionysos had given her. We know this crown today by the name Corona Borealis, one of the familiar constellations in the night sky. 

So we can say with confidence that the Minoans were like many other ancient societies, watching the movements of the stars and planets and timing their religious events to those motions. We’re also pretty sure that they used these astronomical events to construct calendars – a solar year, a lunar calendar and an eight-year cycle that neatly combines the movements of the Sun, the Moon and Venus. This eight-year cycle may be the source of the legend about the king being sacrificed every ninth year, and it looks to me like it’s echoed in the eight-step-then-leap portion of the Crane Dance. Also, I find it interesting that the ‘tribute’ Athens paid to King Minos came in the form of fourteen young people, a number equal to half a moon cycle. Numbers are never neutral in mythology. 

Something else I find interesting in connection with this spiraling dance is the fact that the Minoans appear to have envisioned the yearly motion of the Sun as a spiral. We know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but it looks like the Sun spins around the Earth in a big circle, going ‘under’ during the night and coming back up the next morning. The Sun shifts in the sky from day to day throughout the seasons, rising farther and farther south in the winter until it reaches its southernmost limit on the horizon, then turning around and rising farther and farther north in the summer until it reaches the limit in that direction. Then the process begins again. If you visualize the Sun’s motion as continuous from one solstice to the next, going around the Earth in a constant circuit, it looks like the Sun draws a giant spiral around our planet, from north to south and back again, as the seasons move along. 

So if the spiral depicts the Sun’s motion, including its journey through the Underworld at night, then a spiral dance depicts the Sun’s motion throughout the year, from one solstice to the next. I find it intriguing that the Greeks say Theseus went to the temple of Apollo on Delos, since one of Apollo’s major aspects is a Sun god. The Greek dance called the hyporchema was performed as part of Apollo’s worship among the Dorians during Classical times, and is considered comparable to the Geranos dance so…sun symbolism again. Also, the altar in Apollo’s temple is described as being made from the horns of female goats. On Crete, the goat-goddess is Amalthea, who nursed the infant Dionysos. And yes, one of Dionysos’ aspects is a Sun god – he is the divine child who is born at the Winter Solstice and emerges from hiding in the cave at Summer Solstice. 

Speaking of caves, in some versions of the Labyrinth story with Theseus and the Minotaur, the Labyrinth is *in a cave.* Remember I said there are lots of layers to this? So where does the cave lead us? 

The cave is the Underworld, the place the Sun journeys through during the night. The spiral connects the Upperworld with the Underworld, bringing together the two halves of each day. In classical times, the people of Delos performed the Geranos dance after dark, carrying torches as they wound back and forth in their spiraling or serpent-like path, the serpent being a denizen of the Underworld, of course. This suggests a similar concept to Epimenides’ story about Ariadne lighting the way out of the dark Labyrinth. 

The Underworld is a dangerous place, dark and creepy, full of spirits of the dead and heaven knows what else. But it is also a necessary place, the abode of the ancestors, whom we might want to consult occasionally about our future or thank for our blessings. The Labyrinth is a spiraling path that invokes the Underworld, a path downward and inward, a gateway that allows us to reach that deep inner space but that also keeps the denizens of the Underworld from escaping back up into the daylight. It is a safe doorway, and hence the spiral dance is a powerful but safe act. 

If we look back at Rhea and her cave, we can see how going into a cave, especially a multi-chambered one that has a labyrinthine feel to its layout, would take you down into the Underworld. The cave and the Labyrinth are both metaphors for the human subconscious and unconscious mind, which is the ultimate gateway to the ancestors and the gods. But it’s a dark and scary place. We need torches and a map. The Crane Dance is a set of instructions for navigating this area – into the Labyrinth and back out again – safely in the company of others who also seek to make the journey. 

There are so many layers of meaning and significance to the Crane Dance; which ones speak to you? Would you rather spiral around a Sun altar at midday with the light pouring down around you, or snake your way around in the dark, torches held high, the hiss of a sistrum keeping the beat as you journey through the Labyrinth?

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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