The ancient Greeks had a series of rituals related to war and combat. Among them are war dances, of which the oldest and best known, thanks to sources and art, is the Pyrrhichios (πυρρίχιος, Pyrrhic Dance).

It was a war dance, probably of Dorian origin, commemorating bravery and skill on the battlefield. It began to be used as a form of warfare training, with dancers carrying all their military equipment: armor, shield, spear, and helmet.

It was primarily used by the Spartans, who instructed their children from the age of five in the art of war. But also by the Athenians, who practiced it in the wrestling grounds as part of gymnasium training, and many other cities in the Greek world.

There are three mythical versions about the origin of the Pyrrhic dance. The first one says that during the reign of Cronus, before the Titan Wars and when Zeus was still a baby, the Curetes danced around the little god making a loud noise with their weapons and shields to prevent Cronus, who was devouring his children, from hearing the infant’s crying.

The second version narrates that during the burial of King Cizico, the youngest of the Argonauts, following Orpheus’ instructions, danced armed and in formation, waving their swords and shields to drive away the cries of the inhabitants mourning their monarch.

Finally, the third legend says that during the siege of Troy, Achilles danced the Pyrrhic on a wood platform before delivering Patroclus’ body to the funeral flames, or that Pyrrhus, son of Achilles, danced this rhythm under the walls of Troy, celebrating the death of Eurypylus.

In his dialogue Laws, Plato describes the Pyrrhic dance as an expression of war, different from peaceful dances. According to the philosopher, this dance, performed accompanied by the [sound of the aulos], imitates defensive movements to avoid blows and projectiles, such as dodging, crouching, jumping, and retreating, as well as offensive movements, such as shooting arrows, throwing javelins, and strikes. Plato emphasizes the uprightness and tension of the dancers’ bodies and souls, manifested in the alignment of their limbs.

The warlike dance is different from the peaceful, and may rightly be called pyrrhic; the latter imitates the ways of avoiding blows and projectiles by dropping or yielding, or leaping aside, or rising or falling; also the opposite postures which are those of action, as, for instance, the imitation of archery and javelin-throwing, and of all kinds of blows. And when the imitation is of brave bodies and souls, and the action is direct and muscular, giving for the most part a straight motion to the members of the body, that, I say, is the true kind; but the contrary is not right.

Plato, Laws VII.815

Strabo attributes the creation of the Pyrrhic dance (or at least its musicalization) to Thales of Crete, a musician and lyric poet who introduced it among the Spartans. Thales, who was originally from the island of Crete, had received an invitation from Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, to settle in his city.

However, the Spartans believed that the dance had been created by the Dioscuri, Castor and Pollux, the twin brothers of the mythical Helen who triggered the Trojan War.

Lucian believed that it was Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, who devised this type of Pyrrhic dance, since he was nicknamed Pyrrhus (meaning “blond”).

Xenophon also refers to the Pyrrhic dance in his works, where we find the oldest description of its movements:

But as soon as the libation was over, and they had sung the hymn, first some Thracians stood up and danced under arms to the sound of a flute, leaping high in the air with much agility and brandishing their swords; till at last one struck another, and they all thought he was wounded for good, so cleverly and artistically did he fall, and the Paphlagonians shouted. Then the man who had struck stripped the other of his arms and departed, singing the Sitalcas, while other Thracians carried off the other, who lay as if dead, though he had not received a scratch.

Xenophon, Anabasis VI.1

He also mentions a lighter version called pyrriché, which was danced at banquets and in which women also participated:

The Paphlagonians were astonished at seeing all these dances performed by armed men. Mysus, observing their surprise, persuaded one of the Arcadians, who had a dancing-girl, to allow him to bring her, which he did, after decking her out in the handsomest attire he could get and giving her a light shield. She danced the Pyrrhic dance with great agility, so that loud clapping was heard, and the Paphlagonians asked if the woman also fought with her troops. The others replied that it was they who had driven the king out of his camp. Thus ended the spectacle of that night.

Xenophon, Anabasis, VII.1

The participation of women in the Pyrrhic dance became widespread throughout Greece, although initially it seems that only Sparta allowed women to perform it, usually naked.

Athenaeus of Naucratis, who wrote in the early 3rd century AD, states that in his time the Pyrrhic dance was only practiced in Sparta, having been abandoned in the rest of Greece:

But the Pyrrhic dance is not now preserved among any other people in Greece; and along with its disuse, their wars also have come to an end; but it still continues in use only among the Lacedaemonians, being a kind of preparatory prelude to war: and all who are more than five years old in Sparta learn to dance the Pyrrhic dance. But the Pyrrhic dance, such as it exists in our day, seems to be a kind of Dionysiac dance, and a little more peaceful than the ancient one.

Athenaeus of Naucratis, The Deipnosophists XIV.29

In the Roman imperial era, the Pyrrhic dance became a kind of dramatic ballet performed by men and women, representing (like Roman pantomime) mythological themes often taken, as Athenaeus pointed out, from the legend of Dionysus. For these performances, emperors hired dancers who devoted themselves to it as a regular profession.

The Pyrrhic dance offered an image of solemn, heroic, and tragic bearing, which survived, at least until the Roman era, parody and mockery. Pyrrhic movements consisted of placing one foot directly in front of the other, or one foot “challenging” the other, while the body as a whole maintained an upright and perpendicular axis in relation to the dance surface.

Thus, the movement projected a sense of marching and momentum, of firm determination and elegance, with arm and hand movements that could be delicate or violent, always maintaining the effect of military composure and mastery of space.

The Pyrrhic dance has left its mark on Greek culture throughout the centuries. Lord Byron mentions it in his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, praising its ability to strengthen souls and hearts.

Today, it is the Pontic Greeks who have preserved the tradition of the Pyrrhic dance, although in a form closer to the pyrriché, without armor and forming a circle or a straight line. This version, with 63 dancers, could be seen at the closing ceremony of the Athens Olympic Games in 2004.


This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on March 7, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Pírrica, la danza de guerra de los antiguos griegos con la que los espartanos entrenaban a sus hijos

Sources

Karl Toepfer, The Pyrrhic Movement | Goulaki-Voutira, A. (1996). Pyrrhic Dance and Female Pyrrhic Dancers. RIdIM/RCMI Newsletter, 21(1), 3–12. jstor.org/stable/41605006 | Πυρρίχιος. Ο πολεμικός χορός…(Mixani tou Xronou) | Ateneo de Náucratis, El banquete de los eruditos | Jenofonte, Anábasis | Wikipedia


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