Dance of the Seven Veils

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For other uses, see Seven veils (disambiguation).
Salome (as portrayed by Maude Allan) asking for the head of John the Baptist after her Dance of the Seven Veils.
Dance of Salome. Armand Point, 1898.[1]

In several notable works of Western culture, the Dance of the Seven Veils (usually described as danced by Salome) is one of the elaborations on the biblical tale of the execution of John the Baptist. Although the Bible does not give the dance a name, details enriching the story in later Christian mythology include providing a name for the dance, and describing the purpose of the dance as being to inflame King Herod with incestuous desire so that he would grant Salome her wish for the head of the Baptist.

Biblical account[edit]

According to ten verses of Matthew 14, John was imprisoned for criticizing King Herod Antipas's marriage to Herodias, the former wife of Antipas's "brother" Herod II. Herod offered his niece a reward of her choice for performing a dance on his birthday. Herodias persuaded her daughter to ask for John the Baptist's head on a platter. Against his better judgment, Antipas reluctantly acceded to her request.

Account by Flavius Josephus[edit]

The historian Josephus lists the stepdaughter's name as Salome, but neither mentions a dance nor makes any connection between Salome and John the Baptist.[2]

Possible reference to pagan/pre-Christian myth[edit]

1920s American vision of Seven Gates

The Dance of the Seven Veils is also conjectured to have originated with the myth of the fertility goddess Inanna of Sumer or the related Ishtar (Astarte) of Assyrian and Babylonian religion, though these may only have sparked the elaborating imagination of playwright Oscar Wilde in his play Salomé, see below. In this myth, Inanna or Ishtar decides to visit her sister, Ereshkigal, in the underworld. When Inanna or Ishtar approaches the gates of the underworld, the gatekeeper lets Inanna or Ishtar pass through the seven gates, opening one gate at a time. At each gate, Inanna or Ishtar has to shed a symbol of sovereignty which she carries, mainly jewelry items, and one or two articles of clothing such as her royal robe, but never a veil in particular. When she finally passes the seventh gate, she is naked. She is then imprisoned by Ereshkigal. When she is later rescued and passes back through the seven gates, Inanna or Ishtar receives one of her shed items back at each gate, and is fully re-ennobled by her symbols and regnal clothes as she exits the last gate.[3]

Cultural references[edit]

Oscar Wilde's play Salomé (see section above), and Richard Strauss's operatic adaptation both feature the Dance of the Seven Veils. The dance remains unnamed except in the acting notes, but Salome's sexual fascination with John seems to motivate the request—though Herod is portrayed as pleased. The most famous music for the dance comes from near the climax of the opera. The visual content of that scene (about seven minutes long with standard tempi) has varied greatly depending on the aesthetic notions of the stage director, choreographer, and soprano, and on the choreographic skills and body shape of that singer. In the 1953 film Salome, Rita Hayworth performs the dance as a strip dance.

In the 1961 film King of Kings, Salomé, portrayed by Brigid Bazlen, performs a similar dance;[4] her voluptuous seduction of a drunken lascivious Herod Antipas remains highly praised and is now widely regarded as Bazlen's best performance.[5]

In The Night Porter (Il Portiere di notte), a controversial 1974 art house film by Italian director Liliana Cavani, Charlotte Rampling plays concentration camp survivor Lucia Atherton. In an iconic scene, Lucia sings a Marlene Dietrich song and dances for the camp guards while wearing pieces of an SS uniform, and her Nazi abuser Max rewards her with the head of a male inmate who had been bullying the other inmates.

The climax to the Tom Robbins 1990 novel Skinny Legs and All features the mysterious belly-dancer Salome performing an hours-long version of the Dance of the Seven Veils. As each of her veils drops, the main character comes to an epiphany about life.


  1. ^ "Point, Armand." Benezit Dictionary of Artists, Oxford Art Online, Oxford University Press. Retrieved 20 June 2014.
  2. ^ From Josephus' Jewish Antiquities (Book XVIII, Chapter 5, 4):

    Herodias, [...], was married to Herod, the son of Herod the Great, who was born of Mariamne, the daughter of Simon the high priest, who had a daughter, Salome; after whose birth Herodias took upon her to confound the laws of our country, and divorced herself from her husband while he was alive, and was married to Herod, her husband's brother by the father's side, he was tetrarch of Galilee; but her daughter Salome was married to Philip, the son of Herod, and tetrarch of Trachonitis; and as he died childless, Aristobulus, the son of Herod, the brother of Agrippa, married her; they had three sons, Herod, Agrippa, and Aristobulus.

  3. ^
  4. ^ King of Kings - Variety.
  5. ^ Nicholas Ray's - King of Kings - DVD Review Jeffrey Hunter DVD Review Nicholas Ray King of Kings DVD Review Jeffrey Hunter DVD Review