Latest sighting of women in the past: spirts honored in early Europe were willies -- girls and young women who died without giving birth and therefore donated their fertility to the good of the agrarian community. These willies spent "their nights and days dancing in the fields and forests" the way living girls did. Also honored was the Cosmic Bride.
Here are some great visual images and tidbits from The Dancing Goddesses by Elizabeth Wayland Barber.
"There existed a very special group: young women born into the clan who have died before having any children – hence not ancestors of the living but still belonging to the community. Most important, they have not used their natural store of fertility. So, people reasoned, if we're especially nice to them, they might bestow their unused fertility on us. Because unmarried girls in the living community spent much of their time singing and dancing together, people inferred by analogy that the spirits of dead girls would likewise band together and spend their time singing, dancing, swimming, laughing, and so on. These dancing goddesses inhabited the wilds, controlling the rain and other waters, creating the fertility and healing powers people needed. The challenge was to lead, cajole, trap, or entice them into the civilized areas to share their fertility here, and one way to do this was to do what they did: dance." Page 4
The Cosmic Bride: "But another sort of Dancing Goddess existed who was very much not a dead girl. This divine creature shared with the willies or her skill at dancing, her youth, femaleness, beauty and fertility, even the tendency to metamorphose into egg layers such as swans and frogs. Unlike willies, however, she was the picture of health, gorgeously arrayed, exceedingly clever rather than malicious, and faithful to her mate. She had no particular name and also Everywoman's name: we could call her the Cosmic Bride, for the world she inhabits is that of the wedding. Pg. 151 [Love this reference, as my new novel includes women involved in weddings in a wild and irreverent way!]
"Why make a sleeve so long that it needed bracelets to keep it up? That seems an impractical design for farm wife, especially given how much work we know she had to do. In fact, the extra length of sleeve has practical aspects: convenient as in the winter as a mitten and in summer as protection against mosquitoes. Males, too, sometimes wore extended sleeves,: sometimes when working, they allow the sleeves to hang free below the hand. Some slaves and rogues carried stones and bludgeons in them, which are difficult to detect. Frequently, especially at night, they attack and murder people with these weapons." "But one of the most important reasons for their existence was ritual: human hands were thought to block the sacred, whether by touch or through activity; with hands covered, magic could happen." Page 190
For more musings on Barber's work, see my blog post on the String Revolution and women's work.
"A woman who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s ... between Devon and Somerset in southwestern England comments: I never saw a farmhand marry until his girlfriend was pregnant.… A girl had to prove herself fertile before marriage. Because country people needed children during these days (country children work very hard), a man and a girl [sic] needed to assure themselves of the family before they married." Page 158
"Friday related historically to women's work. Friday, after all, was literally FREYJA who is the old Northern goddess of love and fertility, of women's crafts (like spinning) and other female concerns." Page 113
"Folk dancing swept the United States as a cheap, popular past time during the great depression and World War II. Unfortunately, the war made it increasingly hard for women to find the male partners required by our Anglo German dance tradition, so recreational folk dancers begin exploring the vast pool of partnerless line dances of the immigrants from eastern and central Europe. Now one could go alone to a dance and not be a wallflower." Page 1
About the Author: "Archaeologist and linguist by profession, folk dancer by avocation, Elizabeth Wayland Barber has sleuthed through ethnographic lore and archaeological reports of east and southeast Europe, translating enchanting folktales about these "dancing goddesses" as well as eyewitness accounts of traditional rituals — texts that offer new perspectives on dance in agrarian society. She then traces these goddesses and their dances back through the Romans and Greeks to the first farmers of Europe. Along the way, she locates the origins of many customs, including coloring Easter eggs and throwing rice at the bride. The result is a detective story like no other and a joyful reminder of the human need to dance."