A Dance for Gods, Wars and Beauty: The History of the Elegant and Deadly Ancient Art of Sword Dancing

A Dance for Gods, Wars and Beauty: The History of the Elegant and Deadly Ancient Art of Sword Dancing

(Read the article on one page)

The study and practice of sword wielding has been developing for over 4,000 years and continues to fascinate. Its mastery demands a great deal of a person’s physical and spiritual capacity.  Like any sport, mastering the art of wielding the sword requires extensive physical training which also trains one’s perceptions and reactions, allowing for quick responses to any situation – a valuable skill for self-defense. Finally, one of the most important aspects of the art of the sword frequently quoted in ancient sources seems to be its moral value, as the practitioner would need to learn patience, perseverance, and humility, enhancing one’s physical and spiritual life, thus placing the practice firmly between the realms of spirituality and defense.

Sword dancing has found its place in many different cultures. In Asia, the sword dance is often used for plot descriptions and characterization in Chinese opera. In Pakistan and Nepal, military dances are still commonly performed for weddings and other occasions. In India, the Paika Akhada (“warrior school”) previously used to train Odisha warriors, is performed in the streets during festivals. Sword dances are also performed all over Europe, particularly in areas corresponding to the boundaries of what used to be the Holy Roman Empire.

Sword dance and fencing game of the Nuremberg mastersmith, Nuremberg, 1600.

Sword dance and fencing game of the Nuremberg mastersmith, Nuremberg, 1600. ( Public Domain )

Dancing to Appease the Gods: Sword Dancing in Ancient Religions

As the ancient Greeks were very effective in collecting and adapting the best from surrounding cultures, it was likely that the Greeks inherited their strong dancing tradition from Crete which was conquered by Greece around 1500 BCE. For the ancient Greeks, wine-making, music and dance were activities which marked a civilized and educated person. Therefore, learning to dance was considered a necessary part of any education which favored an appreciation of beauty, and it would have been normal for children to learn to dance at a very young age. The art of dance is frequently mentioned in the Homeric poems. In the Odyssey , the suitors of Penelope amuse themselves with music and dancing and Odysseus himself is entertained at the court of Alcinous with the exhibitions of very skillful dancers. However, as with many of the terms familiar to us today, it is important to understand that the definition of “dance” for the ancients may have been slightly different from our current interpretation. For the ancient Greeks, the term “dance” included all expressions and actions of the body that suggest ideas. These ideas ranged from acrobatic performances, mimetic action to even marching. Therefore, the definition of dance encompassed a broader range than aesthetic or symbolic movements that are more familiar to us today. This philosophy, combined with lively imaginations, paved the way for the use of many subjects for various kinds of dances – including combat.

The invention of military dances was attributed to Athena.  Plato, in Laws, mentions the sword-dance of the Kouretes in Krete, the Dioskouroi in Lakedaimon and in Athens, identifying them as features of cults of the Kouretes, Dioskuroi and Athena. “Our Virgin-Lady Parthenos Athena, gladdened by the pastime of the dance, deemed it not seemly to sport with empty hands, but rather to tread the measure vested in full panoply. These examples would well become the boys and girls to copy, and so cultivate the favor of the goddess, alike for service in war and for use at festivals.”

Statue of Athena

Statue of Athena (Foto: Jürgen Howaldt/ CC BY-SA 3.0 de )

To celebrate Athena during festivals dedicated to her worship, Athenians would perform the Pyrrhic dance. It was a male coming-of-age initiation ritual linked to a warrior victory celebration.

READ MORE…

This is a free preview of an exclusive article from Ancient Origins PREMIUM.

To enjoy the rest of this article please join us there . When you subscribe, you get immediate and full access to all Premium articles , free eBooks, webinars by expert guests, discounts for online stores, and much more!

Top Image: Men perform Batumi, a Georgian Sword Dance ( CC BY 2.0 )

By Martini Fisher

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Ancient Places

Illustration of the "Emmons mask", a Mississippian culture carved cedarwood human face shaped object once covered in copper and painted with galena and used as part of a headdress
The City of Moundsville is located along the Ohio River in Marshall County, West Virginia. From the time of European settlement in the 1770s, Moundsville was regarded by antiquarians as one of the most significant ancient sites in North America. For it was here that the Adena mound builders and their descendants constructed the largest ceremonial center in the Upper Ohio Valley

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article