Coincidence, they say , is the mother of suspicion. But maybe that’s all it was. Just coincidence. I’m talking about demon possession and the outbreak of dancing mania on St. John’s Day. Let me back up a minute here. For untold centuries, June 24, give or take a day or two, was regarded as one of the holiest days of the year. Ancient man had profound reverence for the movements of sun, moon and stars. And June 24 occurs each year near the summer solstice. You know what that is--the longest day of the year. On the day following the solstice, the days will begin to grow shorter and the sun will begin to move in a southerly direction.
Our pagan ancestors saw this as a day fraught with opportunity and danger. Opportunity as it was an occasion to celebrate the majesty and wonder of nature’s great cycles. Danger as the southward turning of the sun was thought to signal the release of evil spirits on the earth. This auspicious day was celebrated--and in some countries is still celebrated--by the lighting of bon fires as a call to festivities and to ward off demons.
With the advent of Christianity, the church fathers outlawed the pagan midsummer revelries. Old habits die hard, though, and the common people continued their happy rites in secret. As a side note, the word “pagan” originally meant “country people.”
Back to the story. Since the church couldn’t totally stamp out the midsummer parties, they were co-opted and June 24 became the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist. As a result, people were allowed to go on with their celebrations, but instead of pagan rites, they were said to be dedicated to St. John. It really was a convenient card trick.
Then that weird coincidence came around. On June 24, 1374, the party got out of hand in Aachen Germany. What started out as a mildly enthusiastic celebration on St. John’s day exploded into a runaway dancing frenzy. Really--an out of control dancing frenzy. Nearly the entire population of Aachen was gripped by fits of frantic, uncontrolled dancing accompanied by screaming and hallucinations. The victims of this disease leapt, shouted, twitched and danced until they were literally too weak to stand.
And it didn’t stop in Aachen. It spread. Thousands of people across Europe were “infected” by this choreomania, (dancing madness). It became an epidemic. Naturally, the church fathers saw the devil’s hand at work here. This was payback for stubborn adherence to ancient pagan worship practices. Mass exorcisms were organized. This helped some, but not much. After prayer and exorcism failed, in desperation, the people turned to music. Trumpet and fife music didn’t help at all. In fact, they just made things worse. No, the screaming, dancing and shaking that tormented whole communities could only be eased by soft, calm harmonies.
But, once the outbreak got calmed in one area, it popped up in another. This went on for centuries. Though medical science came up with a name for it (chorea imagnativa aestimative), the cause had never been finally determined. Some modern researchers claim that rye infected with a certain type of fungus can have hallucinogenic effects. That would explain the twitching and hallucinations, but not the crazy non-stop dancing.
So what has this got to do with manliness? Well, first off, a manly man ain’t afraid to dance--especially if dancing is something his sweetheart enjoys. But a manly man won’t ordinarily let himself get frenzied about it--even in a case of demon possession. After all, he’s got his dignity to think about. Sometimes a man’s just got to put his foot down and keep it in one place for awhile.
In addition to St. John’s dancing fever, this week marks the anniversary of another of history’s weird mysteries. According to legend, June 26, 1284 is the day the Pied Piper lured the children away from Hamelin, Germany. You remember the story. The town was overrun with rats and the city fathers hired the piper to get rid of them. He kept up his end of the bargain but when it came time to pay up, the town folks reneged. So, while the adults were off in church, the Piper came back and led 130 children off somewhere and they never returned. Here’s another lesson in manliness. Once a manly man makes a deal, he keeps up his end.
Okay, that’s enough for this week. Next time you hear from me, we’ll be on the other side of the solstice.
I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
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Thu, June 25, 2009
by Michael Hinkle