Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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“Some Day We'll Have Sacred Dances Again”

“Some day we'll have sacred dances again.”

When my friend Doc said this to me more than 20 years ago, his tone was wistful.

Today, decades later, though we may not quite be there yet, we're closer, closer, to the day that he foresaw.


In 1890, avant-garde French composer Eric Satie (1866-1925) published a mysterious, haunting piano piece that he titled Les Gnossiennes.

The word is Satie's own coinage. What he meant by it is unclear. At least some commentators have derived it from Knossos—in Latin, Gnossus—the First City of Minoan Crete. If so, it would mean either “the Knossian Women” or “the things (fem.) of Knossos.”

American dancer-choreographer Ted Shawn (1891-1972) read a Minoan reference in the term. Accordingly, he choreographed a dance for solo male dancer to Satie's music that presented—in Shawn's own words—“a priest of ancient Crete going through a ritual at the altar of the Snake Goddess.”

Shawn's Gnossienne premiered in 1919 and, though brief (the entire dance clocks in at just over three minutes), it became immensely popular with audiences, much to the chagrin of his artistic collaborator Ruth St. Denis, who regarded herself as very much the senior partner in the relationship.

In Gnosienne, the Goddess and her altar remain offstage, unseen. The dance itself is based on the “stylized two-dimensional” attitudes of figures found in Minoan frescos, keeping the body in profile position, but with fronted torso, and with clean, sharp movement of the arms and legs. It is worth remarking that this same “flatness” also characterizes Vaslav Nijinsky's 1912 Après-Midi d'un Faune and (to a lesser degree) his Sacre du Printemps.

Down the centuries, much choreography has been lost to time but, fortunately for us, Gnossiennes has survived—thanks to Shawn's protegé (and lover) Barton Mumaw—although it is rarely performed today. I myself have never seen it; I have been unable to find it (alas) on Youtube.

That said, it is difficult to believe that at least the very spirit of the piece has not been preserved in Adriaan Kuns' remarkable 2010 Gnossienne: Homage to 'Papa' Shawn, here performed by the boys of the National Ballet Academy in Amsterdam. These boys are utterly amazing, a living Minoan fresco (in shorts, no less). You'll gasp, as I did, when you see that incredible mid-air swoop.

Stylized movement based on ancient art.

From such will come the sacred dance of the future, I'm sure of it. The work has already begun.


We have yet to see the day when, along with its temple orchestra, every temple in Pagandom maintains its own corps of sacred dancers.

But never fear, Doc: the day is coming.

May we all live to see it.


Christine Morris, “Lord of the Dance: Ted Shawn's Gnossienne and its Minoan Conxtext” in Cretomania: Modern Desires for the Minoan Past, Nicoletta Momigliano and Alexandre Farnoux, eds. (2017) Routledge.









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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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