Crane-Dance in the Labyrinth?

Over the past few months I’ve been involved with several of the work parties building a labyrinth for ‘fun, exploration and meditation’ at Brockholes Nature Reserve. It was designed by John Lamb (an archaeologist and Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Senior Conservation Officer) and opened on April the 23rd 2016.

During the period the labyrinth was being built, I was researching links between Gwyn ap Nudd as a ‘bull of battle’ and Gwyddno Garanhir (‘the Knowing One with Long/Crane Legs’) and Tarvos Trigaranus (‘The Bull with Three Cranes’).

Coincidentally I came across a ritual crane-dance in Greece called geranos initiated by Theseus after defeating the minotaur in the  labyrinth in Crete. Its blows and crane-like turns imitated the battle and the labyrinth’s winding course and the leader of the dance was known as geranoulkos. This got me wondering whether the name Gwyddno Garanhir may have been a title deriving from a similar role.

Crane-dances are found in many parts of the world. One of the most famous is the Japanese Shirasagi-no-mai ‘White Heron (‘Crane’) Dance’ which is one thousand years old and ‘was originally performed to drive out the plague and to purify the spirits on their passage to the next world.’ Cranes are also associated with the otherworld in Celtic mythology.

Shirasagi no mai (White heron dance) of Sensō-ji, Wikipedia Commons

Shirasagi-no-mai, Wikipedia Commons

Cranes are depicted accompanying the Eight Immortals in Chinese mythology. They inhabit five islands in the Bohai Sea which include Mount Penglai. This is known as Horai by the Japanese. In both cultures it is a paradisal place with endless amounts of food and drink where nobody grows old. This is intriguing because Gwyddno is a sage-like figure.


Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea, Wikipedia Commons

One of the earliest finds relating to a crane-dance is an 8,500 year old crane wing found on top of a cattle horn core in Çatalhöyük in ancient Anatolia. The crane bones were pierced by holes of a suitable size for string which suggests they were tied to the arms of a crane-dancer. Two black cranes are depicted on a painting on one of the walls facing a bull  on the opposite wall. A dance scene depicting a sacred marriage and mother and child may prove the dance focused on fertility and birth.

Dance of the Cranes John-Gordon Swogger

Dance of the Cranes by John-Gordon Swogger

Crane-dances have many meanings across cultures. One theme that stands out is passage: from the trials of the labyrinth, from one world to the next on birth or death. Gwyn and Gwyddno’s conversation takes place upon Gwyddno’s passing from thisworld to Annwn, possibly in crane-form.

At Brockholes the closest likenesses to a bull (or minotaur!) with cranes are the long-horned cattle and numerous herons who can be seen on the river Ribble and lakes.

When I walked the labyrinth for the first time my intention was getting a feel for its path within the nature reserve between the car park and stone circle as skylarks loudened the summer sky and oystercatchers pipped overhead.


I found myself pondering whether a geranoulkos would have used such a setting for a crane-dance and what the steps would have looked like at various rites. But I didn’t dance. I’ll leave that to those more agile with longer legs…


Edward A. Armstrong, The Folklore of Birds, (Dover, 1970)
Nerissa Russell & Kevin J. McGowan, ‘Dance of the Cranes: Crane Symbolism at Çatalhöyük and beyond’, (2003) HERE
‘Hypocherma’ (Geranos), Wikipedia HERE
‘White heron (“crane”) dance: Shirasagi-no-mai and heron symbolism’, Japanese Mythology and Folklore HERE

9 thoughts on “Crane-Dance in the Labyrinth?

  1. greghi11 says:

    Interesting speculations – Jackson Knight thought labyrinths wove magical patterns of protection around places as well as being difficult to get through in themselves. I wonder if the crane dance might be a way of making those patterns as well as unmaking them in finding a way through? This would provide an analogue to also finding the way to the spirits of the Otherworld.

    • lornasmithers says:

      I haven’t really used a labyrinth before so using it as a way of connecting more deeply with the genius loci/ spirit(s) of place and the spirits of the otherworld are certainly things to consider. Thanks for the suggestions 🙂

  2. lostinlindsey says:

    After reading this I woke up during the night with the most marvelous idea for an embroidery featuring a crane, a bull and a labyrinth in a marsh. Hmm, might have to draw it and see.

  3. Lee says:

    Random occurrence; just had to walk down to the shops and passed a house I have passed a hundred times. Noticed hanging in the window a piece of fabric with a print on it – 2 dancing cranes 🙂

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