The true origins of the infamous ‘dance of the seven veils’ supposedly danced by Salome for the head of John the Baptist is indeed a mystery. It is believed by many scholars to have most probably derived from cumulative Judaic and eastern myths and folklore. The bible itself reveals little; its few clues are confined to a handful of verses in Mathew [14:3] and Mark [6:17-29] that mention only the dancing by the daughter of Herodias that so pleased Herod he offered her anything she desired, even half his kingdom; Luke mentions only his arrest, and John makes no mention of the Baptist’s fate at all.
Salome is herself, known to us only through the writings of the first century Jewish chronicler, Josephus, who in his ‘antiquities of the Jews’ tells us that after the death of John, both Salome and her scheming mother Herodias are exiled [along with Herod] to Lugdunum [near Spain]. Salome is said to have drowned crossing a frozen river and Herodias survived in legend to become identified during the middle ages with ‘diana nocticula’ – queen of the night hags. Here we see clear examples of Christian morality justifying the fate of these two women, so despised by the church.
However, despite the omission of the dance as the ‘seven veils’ or its association with any eroticism, there is within biblical academia an understanding that when ‘dancing’ is mentioned in the old testament, it does indeed refer to a long tradition of ecstatic dancing, upon which no prohibitions were placed. The sacred nature of all dance, perceived as the union of spirit with deity was accepted as erotic. Moreover, women who performed these dances were often hierodules - sacred priestesses. Co-incidentally, Inanna/Ishtar was the ultimate hierodule and her cult in the east was eventually suppressed by pious Christians wishing to subjugate both the goddess and the power of all women who served her.
Dancing became increasingly pious and in the New Testament was devotional, yet even as they endeavoured to conceal the former free licence and eroticism, by the 4th century ce, the church fathers admit to railing against it. In one of the earliest and most influential scholarly histories of dancing, published in 1754, and written by Louis de Cahusac, is cited historical sanctions given by the eminent church father Gregory of Nazianzus [330-390 ce], who in his letter to emperor Julian states…………………
“ ……….if you give yourself up to the dance, i consent to it……..but why revive the licentious dances of the barbarous Herodias, who spilt the blood of a saint………….”
Damning evidence indeed for the early understanding of the dance of Salome to have been an erotic one.
Historically of course, erotic and/or ecstatic dancing has been widely practised throughout the world by all ancient cultures as far back as the Palaeolithic [old stone-age]. Nude/erotic dancing is a common feature upon ancient and classical Greek, roman and Egyptian pottery. In fact right throughout the Mediterranean and Asia, erotic dance was widely celebrated. In particular, the pre-Islamic Middle East cherished a close affinity with the goddess as enjoyed through the rites of sex and fertility performed in dance, song and ceremony. In biblical times the eternal feminine was revered in the Song of Solomon, a series of erotic verses related to the Shekinah, the female [wisdom] spirit-bride of god.
With the rise of patriarchy, Yahwist priests demonised former female deities including the Sumerian wind spirit ‘Lilith’ into succubae; Inanna/Ishtar devolved into a harlot [the whore of Babylon]; the Shekinah became virginalised and quietly disappeared, surviving in the mystical but frequently patristic Jewish Kabbalah. Thus did these former goddesses enter the realm of folklore and legend to exemplify the desired and detested states of womanhood. Tales abound within the Jewish Midrash [studies of Hebrew legends] of woman as seductress, and many concern the women of the bible, including Salome.
In the ‘alphabet of ben sira’, written and collected during the 7-10th centuries ce, a series of commentaries make stern judgements on the seductive elements of the Hebrew bibles [the torah]. Naturally artists, drawing inspiration from these and other ancient texts have created visual works that represent a record of how history has perceived biblical and mythological events.
Renaissance Europe was no exception, moreover, with the fall of Constantinople, a cultural tidal wave enveloped the west, from which we did not recover our fascination with the oriental/exotic until the turn of the 19th century. Prolific images displayed the female form in various stages of undress, often subject more to the imagination of the artist rather than to historical accuracy.
Several of these linked the descent of Inanna/Ishtar to the wearing of and dancing with veils. However, within Turkey, it is known that harem dancers used silken scarves to flirt and tease while dancing for the sultans. This dance is named the ‘kaytan oyuna amoros’………….
Modern Turkish dance still retains the half veil, despite the changing cultural use of the veil, which in Islamic countries is now perceived as a modesty garment. But it must be remembered that this was not so in the biblical period of Salome. Most interesting of all is a Persian dance, of the nomadic qashqai in the fars province named the ‘raqs-e haft dastmal’ – the dance of the seven scarves!!!!
Ultimately, it is not clear if Wilde really did invent the term ‘dance of the seven veils’, though I personally feel this is highly unlikely given that Oscar wilde was a well-educated man, well versed in mythologies and traditions of the ancient world. In addition, he was on good terms with many Jews, both traditional and mystical, therefore privy to a separate cultural viewpoint to the western Christian world. He could therefore have just inserted into his then controversial play ‘Salome’, a simple stage direction, whereby she is asked to perform what to him was accepted [understood] knowledge.
Unfortunately for both Wilde and Strauss, moral outrage from a paradoxically sexually ambiguous society crushed the cumulative perceptions of artists and visionaries of several hundred years. Pornographers and feminists still hotly debate the historical accuracy of this dance. Ultimately, each generation of scholars will exploit those elements that support their own teleological viewpoint.
The foundation of this dance is the ‘descent of Inanna/Ishtar’, through the seven gates, and is one of the greatest myths to be revealed to us from the ancient world. Historically, there are two main versions, written in cuneiform [simple texts made by pressing a reed stylus into wet clay] and found in Mesopotamia. Dated around two and a half thousand years apart, they relate how the Sumerian goddess Inanna [later to become known in the second version as Ishtar [after the Bronze-age Akkadian invasions] made an epic journey into the underworld. In the first and oldest version the Tutelary goddess wishes to gain the secrets of death and the afterlife; the second tale relates how she seeks to rescue her lover Tammuz/Damuzzi in a perennial fertility rite, ……..either way, her journey necessitated her entering a series of seven gates, believed by scholars to represent the seven stages of our humanity.
At each gate, veils are removed one by one to allow the complete sublimation of the ego. These veils may be viewed as metaphors for either the material aspects of our material world that surround and encompass our material bodies,’ or they may be viewed as levels of the subconscious, which when removed lay bare our true selves. This is indeed a true and much valued analysis of this ancient tale. However, I believe that its original context reveals it to be more ritualistic, a magickal tool evincing a journey through seven stages of altered consciousness for a higher purpose
[please note that the following selected verse is a direct translation of the original Sumerian cuneiform script]
The Descent of Inanna……………
‘From the great above she opened her ears to the great below
From the great above the goddess opened her ears to the great below
From the great above Inanna opened her ears to the great below
My lady abandoned heaven and earth to descend to the underworld
She abandoned her office of holy priestess
To descend to the underworld
She gathered together the measures of
Heavenly and earthly powers
She took them into her hands
With the measures of heavenly and earthly
Powers she prepared herself
Inanna set out to the underworld………’
The goddess Inanna is unfamiliar with the Mysteries of death and rebirth; she possesses only the virtues of life and fertility. And so she seeks entry to the Mysteries.
At each of the seven gates of the underworld she pauses, asking permission to enter.
She is challenged there to remove her jewellery, girdles, and royal regalia that bind her spirit to the material world. Only thus, ‘naked’ may we gain entry to the halls of eternity.
Then as now we approach the underworld to battle and learn through facing ‘death,’ the other self, the balance of light and dark within, here only do we learn the true cycle of life and discover our worthiness to receive deity.
It is also noteworthy to remember too how Neith, the oldest and wisest of Egyptian goddesses; though originally a war goddess of Sais, was also a universal goddess maintaining links with the dead. Her symbol of crossed arrows represents the strife between opposites, the paradox of life and death, of destiny and fate and light and dark. She was the personification of the eternal feminine and the mysteries. These roles were later usurped by the rising cult of Isis and her followers awarded the new and popular goddess many of Neith’s epithets, including …….’the lifting of the veil..’., the rhythm of eternity.