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The Experience of the Other: Dance and Empathy in Ancient Mystery Rites

Karin Schlapbach

This paper examines the nexus of dance and emotion in ancient mystery rites. It does so by focusing on the apocryphal Acts of John, a little studied text which continues the literary tradition related to the ancient mysteries. This text spells out most clearly the intimate connection between dancing, sensory-emotional experience and cognition. The analysis is complemented with recent neurobiological research on intersubjectivity.

It is universally acknowledged that music and dance are crucial aspects of ancient mysteries; nevertheless they have received little sustained attention (among recent exceptions are Kowalzig 2005; Bremmer 2014). As all practices, they can be studied only indirectly, via texts, images and other material remains, and the difficulty is compounded by the fact that mystery rites were by definition shrouded in silence. Yet we know that dance played a key role in these rites from the very fact that the act of divulging a secret could be described as “dancing out the mysteries”.

The paper reviews a number of texts starting with Plato’ Euthydemus and Laws to show that music, especially piping, and dancing in the round were used to unsettle the initiands at one point—presumably before the initiation—and fill them with joy and serenity at another—during or after the initiation. Arguably, music and dance are directly linked to Aristotle’s claim that in mystery rites one does not learn but experience (οὐ μαθεῖν τι δεῖ ἀλλὰ παθεῖν καὶ διατεθῆναι, fr. 15 Ross).

The dance hymn of Acts of John (chs 94-96) enriches this picture with a more detailed account of how a choral dance provides a sensory-emotional experience that yields self- knowledge. The hymn, which in all likelihood reflects an actual cult practice, is sung by Jesus, who leads the dance. The disciples dance around Jesus and respond with repeated “Amen”. The communal dance, as reflected in the language and the content of the hymn, loosens the boundaries between self and other (Bowe 1999). What has not been noted hitherto is that it also confounds the categories of active and passive, which is crucial in understanding intersubjectivity. As Christ dances, those who see what he does perceive him as experiencing (ὡς πάσχοντα), and they themselves are inwardly and outwardly moved by what they see (96.7f.; for the text see Junod / Kaestli 1983, 651). Dancing is thus not so much an activity as a means to access another’s sensory and emotional experience, which becomes one’s own.

Put differently, dancing is a ritual practice that ensures empathy, understood as a shift in awareness from an experience witnessed in another to one’s own experience, or from projected to actual experience. And the latter—the awareness of one’s own, alterable being—is in itself the insight to be gained from the ritual. Seeing and moving form a continuum in this process. Seeing a dancer and dancing both work towards the same twofold goal, empathy and experience of self.

These intuitions resonate in interesting ways with recent research on mirror neurons, which has shown that witnessing someone who moves involves the very same parts of the brain that are activated when those movements are executed and not just seen in another (Iacoboni 2008; Iacoboni 2011; Gallese 2014a). From the perspective of neurobiology, we see the other “as experiencing” (rather than as doing) quite simply because we experience the other. For in witnessing someone else, we “reuse” our own mental states in an “embodied simulation” (Gallese 2014b). While Acts of John does not define the sensory-emotional experience of initiation in any detail, the way it portrays the method of providing it is strikingly accurate. 

Session/Panel Title:

Ancient Music and the Emotions

Session/Paper Number

10.5

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