Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Is the "Lord of the Dance" pagan?

When a newcomer attended a Quaker gathering, she was shocked to hear them sing “The Lord of the Dance.”

Why are you singing a pagan song?” she said afterwards.

The only time she had heard “Lord of the Dance” was at a science fiction conference. There it is sung by “filkers” (a humorous variant on “folk singers”) with pagan lyrics. (See The Westerfilk Hymnal, Volume 2, now out of print). Many filkers believe that this was the original version of the well-known Quaker hymn:

I danced in the morning when the World was begun
I danced in the Moon and the Stars and the Sun
I was called from the Darkness by the Song of the Earth
I joined in the Song, and She gave Me the Birth!

I dance in the Circle when the flames leap up high
I dance in the Fire, and I never, ever, die
I dance in the waves of the bright summer sea
For I am the Lord of the wave's mystery

I sleep in the kernel, and I dance in the rain
I dance in the wind, and thru the waving grain
And when you cut me down, I care nothing for the pain;
In the Spring I'm the Lord of the Dance once again!

These Tolkienesque lyrics are actually by Gwyddion PenDderwyn, Amy Falkowitz, Ann Case, Len Rosenberg, and many others. 

Friends should be not surprised or shocked that “filkers” and Wiccans have “stolen” their song. Sydney Carter, the Quaker author of “Lord of the Dance,” stole the tune from an old Shaker song, “Simple Gifts.” (T.S. Elliot, himself a great literary borrower and/or thief, wrote: “Minor poets borrow, great poets steal.”)

Sydney Carter stole not only the tune but the idea for the “Lord of the Dance” from the Shakers. The Shakers were a celibate religious sect whose worship included ecstatic dancing. Hence, their nickname: “Shaking Quakers.”

As a good Jew, it is likely that Jesus also danced, at least at weddings. Carter wrote:

Whether Jesus ever leaped in Galilee to the rhythm of a pipe or drum I do not know. We are told that David danced (and as an act of worship too), so it is not impossible. The fact that many Christians have regarded dancing as a bit ungodly (in a church, at any rate) does not mean that Jesus did.”

Carter regarded Jesus as a universal phenomenon, not simply a first century Jewish teacher/prophet/savior: "I see Christ as the incarnation of the piper who is calling us. He dances that shape and pattern which is at the heart of our reality. By Christ I mean not only Jesus; in other times and places, other planets, there may be other Lords of the Dance. But Jesus is the one I know of first and best. I sing of the dancing pattern in the life and words of Jesus.”

I don’t know whether or not Carter was aware of the mystical tradition of dance described by Evelyn Underhill in her classic work Mysticism: The Nature and Development of Spiritual Consciousness. Underhill talks about the Christian mystic Plotinus who described the spiritual life as a kind of choral dance with God as the conductor or dancingmaster (Corypheus in Greek): "We are like a choir who stand round the conductor but do not always sing in tune, because their attention is diverted by looking at external things. So we always move around the One—if we did not, we should dissolve and cease to exist—but we do not always look towards the One" (p. 233). In ancient Greece, choirs danced as well as sang.

The image of Christ as "Lord of the Dance" (Corypheus) is found in the apocryphal "Hymn of Jesus" that dates back to the early period of the Church. The Logos or Christ stands in a circle of disciples and says, "I am the Word who did play and dance all things." "Now answer to my dancing." "Understand by dancing what I do." Again, "Who danceth not knoweth not what is being done." "I would pipe, dance ye all!" and "All whose Nature is to dance, doth dance."

A few years ago some Friends were exercised because one lyric of this song implied that Jesus was crucified by Jews rather than by the Romans. Carter of course did not intend this line to be an attack upon Jews, but rather upon those who try to kill the Christ spirit with religious formalism and judmentalism.

What fascinates me about “The Lord of the Dance” is that it is the only hymn that I know of in which the singer must identify with Christ. Hymns are usually addressed to Jesus or are about Him. But in the “Lord of the Dance,” we become Jesus, or the Universal Christ. No wonder we feel such joy in singing it!

Postscript: This piece as written many years ago and published in a British Quaker publication. Since then, some Friends, including many Friends of Jewish background, have objected (and rightly so) to a stanza of this hymn that seems clearly antisemitic (as well as inaccurate):

"I danced on the Sabbath and I cured the lame; 
the holy people said it was a shame. 
They whipped and they stripped and they hung me on high, 
and they left me there on a cross to die.

The "holy people" did not whip and strip Jesus, as the Gospels make clear. It was the Romans who killed Christ, with the complicity of some segments of the Jewish population in Jerusalem. To imply that the "holy people" (i.e. the Jews) killed Christ is a distortion of history and evokes the "blood libel" that accused all Jews of being "Christ killers." This idea fueled antisemitism, pograms, and unspeakable persecution of Jews by Christians. It needs to be utterly rejected.

Quakers have altered offensive lyrics of hymns in the past and should do so in this case. I'm not sure how to do it. Maybe something like:

"They watched as the soldiers hung me on high

and left me there on a cross to die."

That change feels more honest to me. It was the Empire that killed Jesus, not the Jews. And the Empire continues to try to kill the Christ spirit in us, and in others. A more complete discussion can be found at:



  1. Anthony, Thanks for this intriguing background on "Lord of the Dance."

    Fascinating. I first heard the festive song when I attended Quaker meeting in downtown Philadelphia back in the fall of 1967--the best and worst of times.

  2. in fact some Quakers, particularly Jewish ones, still find the offending verse not ambiguous but treacherously easy to use to point the finger at some Jews, and ergo to all. "The holy people" being a phrase Moses uses to describe the Children of Israel, blaming them for hanging Jesus is not an acceptable way of saying the Sadducees, or the High Priest who had sold out to the invaders, the Romans. This complaint has been around for >30 years and is still awaiting people to hear it.

  3. I hear your concern and share it. The fact is that the Romans tortured and killed Jesus, with the complicity and approval of some segment of the Jewish population in Jerusalem. So how could a song reflect this reality? What wording would you consider preferable? I ask this in all seriousness because Quakers have often altered the words of hymns to make them more acceptable.

  4. Thank you for this piece. I have always loved the image of the Dance, and the words clearly need to be changed.

    In my Presbyterian Sunday School in the 1950's I was clearly taught that Jesus was killed by Roman soldiers as ordered by Pontius Pilate, not by any part of the Jewish community (neither the lowly fishermen nor the upper echelons of the Jewish hierarchy). Re-reading Sydney Carter's lyrics carefully I do see inaccuracy and confusion about who killed Jesus.

    Anti-Semitism isn't dead. It is important to avoid any language that might lead to any impression of "the Jews" as the killers of Jesus. Even when using "holy people" (which as a Protestant child I thought meant the religious hierarchs) that implication could easily be drawn.

    _Worship in Song: a Friends Hymnal_ has a footnote saying "'They' refers to the authorities responsible for the crucifixion, mainly the Romans." That's nice, but a footnote does not alter the fault in the lyrics. The editors of _Worship in Song_ suggested changes in many references to gender in the hymns they published; "Lord of the Dance" too should be changed, not merely footnoted.

    The point of the song is the sacred dance that still goes on. Change it. I do not think Sydney Carter would mind. (And even if he would mind...we should change it.)