The Crane Dance

Peter Mark Adams

Arriving on Delos, and having sacrificed and dedicated an image of Aphrodite to Apollo, along with his youths, Theseus performed a sacred dance imitating the winding passages of the Labyrinth … According to Dicaearchus this dance is called The Crane Dance

Plutarch. Vitae. Theseus. 21. 

One of the rapidly dwindling delights of life in this ever growing metropolis is to catch, if you are fortunate, and attentive enough, one of nature’s finer spectacles: the annual gathering of vast flocks of Cranes each spring and autumn, high over the Asian shoreline where the Sea of Marmara meets the Bosporus. 

The birds arrive in several already sizeable sedges and join a great spiralling vortex, as though a vast whirlwind has been caught and rendered into a slow and graceful ballet; a choral dance at once aware of, and patiently awaiting, the arrival of all its choreuts; for only then do they stream out; first one, then another, the trickle becoming a flood that grows and spreads as the vortex dissolves and the vast sedge soars south-east, deep into Anatolia. 

It is easy to see how the periodicity of the birds’ arrivals and departures could become significant markers of the year’s transitions - marking the elapse of time - one partakes in a great ritual simply by observing them; for in an unfathomable past their carefully orchestrated dance became the exemplar of one of the most universally attested dance forms, the archaic Crane Dance. 

A mirror of the natural world, the dance enacted our most aspirational social and spiritual values, preserving and transmitting them from generation to generation – so long as we performed the dance, in awe and mimicry of nature. 

From the nine thousand year old Neolithic site of Catalhoyuk, situated in the water-rich Konya basin, to this day a wintering haven for these great sedges; the perforated wing bones of the Common Crane (or Grus Grus) attest to their having been worn as part of a costume, almost certainly to celebrate a dance that mimicked the bird’s graceful and complex mating ritual wherein humanity and deity merged. Such are the unanticipated continuities of culture, the dance continues to be celebrated today, called the ‘turna semahi’ - the ‘Crane Dance’, even its name remains unchanged as does its function; to refresh the communal and spiritual life of a people, in this case the heterodox Alevi, the inheritors, and preservers, of some of Anatolia’s most ancient traditions. 

As cultural exemplars, cranes were deeply implicated in the origins of writing, and therefore of literacy more generally. In his Fabulae, Hyginus records the tradition that Hermes devised the alphabet after watching a formation of Cranes in flight1; but such is the porosity of identities in myth, their cultural associations reach far deeper than such fragments of tradition would lead us to suspect. 

I first read about that obscure artefact, the ‘Crane Bag’, in Robert Graves’ erudite and eclectic essay of that name2. Tradition affirms that the ‘bag’ was made from the skin of a Crane, and held the sea god’s most precious possessions; but such was its unstable nature that, 

When the sea was full, its treasures were visible in the middle;

when the fierce sea was in ebb, the crane-bag in turn was empty.3

The elusiveness of these lines more than hints at the intangible nature of both the bag and its contents. Graves interpreted it as a metaphor for a secret alphabet known only to oracular priests and poets, one guarded by three Cranes; the clue – the ebb and flow of the sea that in turn reveals and conceals the letters – acting as a metaphor for the sudden influx of poetic inspiration, the burst of prophetic ecstasy, whose exultation allows the runes – the otherwise intangible letters of a magical alphabet – to be seen and grasped; enabling them to be used; whether to curse or to bless, or to induce visions of things lost, hidden or otherwise unseen. 

The more familiar demotic alphabet, used for commerce, was first introduced to the West by Kadmos, a Phoenician and archetypal representative of that star-guided people. Searching for his sister, Europa, destiny drew Kadmos to the North Aegean island of Samothrace and there, having entered an ancient complex of rites, he was initiated into the Kabiritic Mysteries, so-named after the Great Goddess and her band of ecstatic followers, the Kabeiroi, who set the grass alight when they danced. Conducted in a Pelasgian tongue, these rites were of such an age that even in antiquity no one could understand the liturgy; and yet their sacrality, their efficacy, remained untroubled. An inscription from the sacred sanctuary affirms that Isidorus, an ‘epoptes’ – ‘one who sees’ – experienced first-hand the hierogamic vision, “their doubly sacred light”.4 

The rites owed their longevity to the fact that they were enacted through the medium of dance, a dance whose performance never failed to invoke the sanctuary’s deities; though not, as Proclus warns, before, “the emanations of chthonic demons become manifest”,5 for sacred dance warps even as it creates the very fabric of ritual space. In his encomium, De saltatione, Lucian of Samosata states,  

“Among the ancient mysteries not one is to be found that does not include dancing … persons who engage in the mysteries are popularly spoken of as ‘dancing them out.”6 

Whilst Artemidorus of Ephesus in his Oneirocritica adduced that the choreuts who enact the mysteries, “dream of a chorus of stars”;7 whose celestial movements confer, through the mirror image of the dancer’s steps, the greater harmony of the Kosmos upon the Mystai. 

Transposed to Kadmeian Thebes, we find one of the more curious traditions connected with the rites, the improbable, ‘War between the Pygmies and Cranes’; an archaic theme whose first literary attestation occurs in Homer’s Iliad,8 though for how many millennia the story weaved its way back and forth across the Aegean’s sprawling archipelago, carried by itinerant epic-singers, remains lost in pre-history. 

The Pygmies - ithyphallic, ugly and uncouth - stand in stark contrast to the Cranes who are beset by these grotesque ‘little men’, so prone to acts of violence and cruelty. Are they emblematic, perhaps, of a self-alienated humanity unable to live in peace and harmony with either itself or with nature? The ‘pygmies’ are in need of healing, of redemption; and it was the central task of the ancient Mysteries to provide this and restore the relationship between humanity and nature. 


1 Hyginus, Fabulae, 277. 

2 Graves, R. (1969). ‘The Crane Bag’ in The Crane Bag and Other Disputed Subjects, 1-8. 

3 MacNeill, E. (1908). Duanaire Finn, VIII, 119. 

4 ‘an initiate, great-hearted, / he saw the doubly sacred light / of Kabiros in Samothrace’: Isidorus, Samothracian initiate, cited in Dimitrova, N.M. (2008). Theoroi and Initiates in Samothrace: The Epigraphical Evidence, 82. 

5 Proclus, In Alcibiades, 340. 

6 Lucian of Samosata, De Saltatione, 15. 

7 Artemidorus of Ephesus, Oneirocritica, cited in Csapo, E. (2008) ‘Star Choruses: Eleusis, Orphism, and New Musical Imagery and Dance’ in Revermann, M. & Wilson, P. (eds.) Performance, Iconography, Reception: Studies in Honour of Oliver Taplin, 263. 

8 Homer, Iliad, 3.2-6. 


Peter Mark Adams is a long-term resident of Istanbul (Asian side!) and a professional author specialising in landscape, myth and esoterica. Published works include: Mystai (Scarlet Imprint, 2019); A Guide to the Sola-Busca Tarocchi (Scarlet Imprint, 2017); The Game of Saturn (Scarlet Imprint, 2017); The Healing Field (Balboa Press, 2014); Altered States/Parallel Worlds (Ceres Yayinlari, 2011). Shorter literary pieces and poems have appeared in Reliquiae, a literary journal specialising in landscape, nature and mythology. A review of a poetry collection, Autumn Richardson’s ‘An Almost-Gone Radiance’ has appeared on Abegail Morley’s ‘The Poetry Shed’; and a range of spooky essays in the peer-reviewed journals Paranthropology and The Journal of Exceptional Experience & Psychology.