On 7 November 739, Willibrord, a Northumbrian missionary saint also known as the "Apostle of the Frisians", died in Echternach, a place where he had spent many years of his life. Appointing Willibrord as its abbot, Irmina of Oeren had granted him land in Echternach in 698 so that the missionary could expand the existing monastery. In 700 Willibrord opened the first church and in the following decades a town, which would soon become one of the largest and most prosperous in the area, grew around the Abbey of Echternach.
While the form of today's dancing procession dates back to the 19th century, its roots are much, much older. Already shortly after Willibrord's death, the first pilgrims arrived in Echternach to visit his tomb.
|Painting by Anton Stevens|
Even though there are various mentions of the dancing - sometimes also described as hopping - procession, its reasoning remains shadowy.
Saint Willibrord was one of the saints who were invocated in cases of nervous diseases, spasms, epilepsy or (what today is known as) Huntington's disease. So it is very possible that sick people participated in the procession or that pilgrims acted as if they were sick in order not to get these kinds of illnesses. Other sources claim that the dancing part is an expression of thanks to Saint Willibrord who is said to have healed people from said diseases. Others believe that the dancing procession has its roots as a mild and civilised form of flagellant processions, which were common in the 14th century to protect against the plague.
|Tomb of Willibrord|
(Photo: Gerry Huberty /
Luxemburger Wort / Wort.lu)
During the enlightenment period in the 18th century, the dancing part of the procession was heavily criticised by both the secular and the religious leadership. The procession was often regarded as forms of obscurantism and superstition or simply disliked because the pilgrims went into some kind of ecstasy.
In 1778, Prince Clemens Wenzeslaus of Saxony, the archbishop-elector of Trier, prohibited the dancing processions taking place in his diocese. Eight years later, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II followed his example and banned all dancing processions though he quickly revised his decision, most probably because the ban wasn't upheld anyway.
|Photo: Gerry Huberty / |
Luxemburger Wort / Wort.lu
While it is not entirely clear why and how the dancing or hopping part of the procession came into place, there is no question as to why it is held during Pentecost: In the middle ages, more than 150 places which were depended from the Abbey were obliged to come to Echternach at Whitsuntide to give their tithe to the Abbey. In 1825, King-Grand Duke Willem I issued a decret which tried to move the procession from Whit Tuesday to Sunday but it wasn't very successful and taken back five years later.
Today about 12,000 to 14,000 pilgrims take part in the procession, 8,000 to 9,000 of them dancing.
|Photo: Guy Jallay / Luxemburger |
Wort / Wort.lu
A widespread cliché says that the dancers jump three steps forward and two back but this impression only arose when it came to standstills due to less than stellar organisation in times gone by. During the early 20th century, some of the groups of pilgrims actually hopped back and forth but this costum, which turned out to be chaotic, was banned in 1947. Since then, everyone moves forward via steps to the left and right. The procession ends at the tomb of Saint Willibrord at the basilica of the Abbey of Echternach.
It is the aim of the dancing procession to involve the whole body in the prayer while proceeding by dancing back and forth to the beat of an endlessly repeated melody to devote the mind to prayer. Sounds heavy but I have been assured that it is actually a lot of fun for everyone involved. So come back tomorrow and see how much the Hereditary Grand Ducal Couple enjoyed their visit to the Dancing Procession of Echternach!