In June I spent a week floating down the San Juan River in Southern Utah with a bunch of dancing goddesses. Well, strictly speaking they were seven little girls ranging in age from four to 12, but the Girl Power they generated was palpable. Richard Louv who wrote Last Child in the Woods is on to something with his idea of nature deficit disorder. On the river kids inclined to slouch in front of the TV and complain about being bored glow with energy and laughter.
However, it might be impossible to completely disconnect from commercial culture. As the girls swam and hiked and found ways to turn rocks, sticks, and mud into playthings they also kept bursting into their current favorite song, “Let it Go,” the anthem of Elsa the Snow Queen from the movie Frozen.
I confess, when I first took my kids to see Frozen I didn’t immediately get the girl power aspect of it; I thought it was mainly about the wonders of computer animation to create images of glittering, transparent ice. But the girls knew better. Frozen is about having magic powers and using them. With a bit of squinting to see past the Disneyfication, Queen Elsa looks a lot like an aspect of the Divine Feminine. Like the Greek goddess Demeter, she has the power to freeze the Earth, but also the power (if she chooses) to end the dark of winter and bring back the green of springtime.
Although original Snow Queen author Hans Christian Andersen had a tendency toward Christian allegory, Queen Elsa seems to belong to an older pagan tradition of female nature spirits who pop up in European folktales as mermaids, frog princesses, swan maidens, willies and veelas (like the ones who cheer for the Bulgarian quidditch team in Harry Potter books). I just finished reading a terrific new book about them, The Dancing Goddesses by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.
Barber is an archaeologist and also a folkdancer, and her book is an archaeological search for the prehistoric roots of European dance traditions. After many years of teaching and learning recreational folk dances Barber began to realize that many Eastern European dances originated in semi-pagan seasonal rituals that were performed in order to beg a gift of fertility and abundance from various female spirits. By tracing images of dancers on potsherds, jewelry and other archaeological relics, Barber was able to trace a history of dancing goddesses back to the European Stone Age.
But back to the San Juan River. Since I had just been reading about the archaeology of European dance, I saw the petroglyph images along the San Juan in a new way, full of water spirits and dancing spirits of the landscape. The San Juan River forms one boundary of the Navajo Nation, and it appears in the Navajo Creation Story as Toh-bakáhni, “Male Water.”
Navajo cultural specialist Judy A. Martin writes that in the Navajo worldview, “Gender was created to enable reproduction and life. In this way, the Navajo refer to the environment as male and female—for example, Mother Earth and Father Sky, male and female mountains.”
Until the Glen Canyon Dam was built, the male San Juan flowed together with the female Colorado River whose spirit is called “Life Without End.” According to the Utah History Encyclopedia, the waters of Lake Powell “rendered unserviceable prehistoric, historic, and religious sites of value. The Navajo lost at least two sacred places.
“The confluence of the San Juan and the Colorado was a meeting place where two Navajo deities, embodied in these rivers, met to create water children of the cloud and rain people. Nearby stood Rainbow Bridge, an arch with a span of 278 feet. Said to be male and female holy beings who created clouds, rainbows, and moisture, this site, like the confluence, is no longer used for worship.”
As we floated down the river towards Lake Powell, all of this swirled in my mind. Perhaps the stories of dancing nature spirits are not literally true, but nonetheless they are metaphorically true and children seem to know instinctively how to dance with them. Perhaps if we adults remembered to dance with water spirits, we would have more gratitude for their gifts. Maybe we never would have made the mistake of building the Glen Canyon Dam in the first place.
Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv. Algonquin Books, 2008.
The Dancing Goddesses: Folklore, Archaeology, and the Origins of European Dance, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. W. W. Norton, 2013.
Utah History Encyclopedia: http://uen.org /utah_history_encyclopedia
Significant Traditional Cultural Properties of the Navajo People, by Judy A. Martin: http://hpd.navajo-nsn.gov/ tcpbook/TCPBook.pdf