The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005
Dance of the Seven Veils
Salome performed the Dance of the Seven Veils for her stepfather King Herod Antipas, the husband of her mother Herodias. King Herod was so moved by her performance that he offered to give her whatever she desired. At the behest of her mother, Salome requested that the head of the prophet John the Baptist be served to her atop a silver platter as her reward.
As with so many other legends, it is unknown whether this story is true or how much of it is true; however it is a deeply entrenched legend and many consider it to be gospel. Indeed aspects of the tale are included in the Gospel of Mark (6:21-28) and the Gospel of Matthew (14:6-11). The Gospels do not name the dance, although neither do they name the dancer. The legend as it is known today derives from an amalgamation of sources. Disagreements regarding details of this story still arouse tremendous passions, not least as to whether the Bible can be considered a historical source.
Herodias, the actual manipulator of events, the brains behind Salome’s beauty, emerged as a prototype for the evil anti-Christian witch. Centuries later, Herodias would emerge as a European Queen of Witches, in the company of Diana and Lilith. (See DIVINE WITCH: Aradia; Diana; Herodias; Lilith.)
There are two versions of the motivation behind John the Baptist’s murder. The original historical motive explains that John the Baptist, then an important prophet whom some considered to be the Messiah, publicly denounced the marriage of Herodias and Herod Antipas. Both had been previously married, she to his brother. They engaged in an extra-marital affair, eventually divorcing their respective spouses so that they could marry. Due to technicalities of Jewish law, their marriage could be construed as incest.
The House of Herod had been imposed upon the Jewish nation by their Roman occupiers and was exceedingly unpopular. John the Baptist’s criticism could be understood as rabble-rousing. Herodias took this personally; taking matters into her own hands, according to the legend, she decided to eliminate John, reminiscent of the actions of that other hated biblical queen, Jezebel. The authors of the Old Testament despised Jezebel, not only because of her murderous behavior but also because she was the high priestess of Lady Asherah, Judaism’s forbidden goddess.
That’s the version that draws on proven historical events, as well as the basic gist of what’s contained in the two Gospels. However that version didn’t bewitch nineteenth-century storytellers nearly as much as the idea of beautiful, lascivious Salome dancing with a severed head. A new plot-line eventually emerged suggesting that Salome was sexually obsessed with the handsome ascetic prophet. When he rejected her advances, she decided she’d have him one way or another, dead or alive.
As traditionally told this story focuses on perverse, ruthless women. If one focuses on the dance itself, rather than on female depravity, an entirely different perspective emerges. Neither of the versions explains two aspects of the tale:
What was the dance of the seven veils?
Why was Herod so moved?
The Dance of the Seven Veils reproduces the goddess Inanna-Ishtar’s mythological descent to the underworld, the realm of death ruled by her twin sister. Readying herself for the visit, Inanna-Ishtar dons all her finery so that she will appear as powerful and divine as possible. She begins the journey secure and arrogant in her identity as the beautiful Queen of Heaven. At each of the seven gates leading to her sister’s kingdom, however, Inanna-Ishtar is forced to relinquish one item of clothing (her crown of stars, her famous lapis lazuli necklace, and so on) until finally she approaches Death completely naked, vulnerable, and powerless.
Once upon a time back in Mesopotamia, Inanna-Ishtar’s priestesses channeled the deity during the annual sacred marriage and during other crucial rituals. (See DICTIONARY: Great Rite; MAGICAL ARTS: Ritual Possession.) The Dance of the Seven Veils reproduces Inanna-Ishtar’s solitary journey to Hell. At the very least, the dancer impersonated Inanna-Ishtar; perhaps she also ritually channeled her. This would not have been mere entertainment but a tremendously potent act of spirituality. In first-century Judea, it would also have been a highly controversial, forbidden spiritual act, which would perhaps explain Herod’s excessive reaction to what many consider nothing more than a striptease.
If Herodias did initiate the performance, than her resemblance to Jezebel might be intended to imply something about her spiritual inclinations. Devotion to the goddess may have been what earned Herodias’ reputation as a witch.
The dancer sheds one veil as she passes through each gate; her final nudity may have shared as much with the danse macabre as it does with erotic entertainment. (See page 241, Danse Macabre.) Inanna-Ishtar’s ancient myth may be understood literally, allegorically or as a shamanic soul-journey. Although the war goddess Inanna-Ishtar also has dominion over sex and fertility, and many of her hymns are very erotic, this particular myth is not a particularly titillating story—or not unless one finds any reference to female nakedness to be sexually stimulating, which may have been the case in medieval Europe but was not necessarily so for a king like Herod who presumably had access to naked female flesh whenever he wanted.
The Dance of the Seven Veils developed a reputation as a bewitching erotic performance that held men irresistibly spellbound and persuaded them to commit all sorts of foolish, perverse, and evil acts. The name “Dance of the Seven Veils” retained an aura of powerful bewitchment and so was incorporated into many forbidden sex shows and theatrical performances. By the early twentieth century, the Dance of the Seven Veils had become just another version of the burlesque hoochy-coochy, only with some implied extra erotic magic powers.
The legend continues to evolve: the spiritual components of the dance have once again risen to the forefront. Ruth St Denis (1880—1968), the grande dame of early modern dance, described herself as a prophetess and devoted much of her life to sacred dance. Among her sacred dances was one entitled “Ishtar of the Seven Gates.” Many modern belly dancers have choreographed their own personal interpretations of the Dance of the Seven Veils, frequently in tribute to Inanna-Ishtar.