Salome and the Dance of the Seven Veils

This is not such a simple story as it may appear.

For one thing, Salome is not named in the Bible; she is simply described as the daughter of Herodias. Herodias was the wife of Herod Antipas; she had previously been married to Herod II. Herod II and Herod Antipas were both sons of Herod the Great – but by different mothers. Herod the Great was the one who (as told in the Bible) ordered the so-called Slaughter of the Innocents on hearing of the birth of Jesus.

The Bible simply says that the daughter of Herodias danced at a feast called by Herod (Antipas) to celebrate his birthday, and Herod was so pleased that he promised to give the girl anything she wanted. Not knowing what to ask for, she consulted her mother, Herodias, who told her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. John was already in prison, for disapproving of Herod's marriage to Herodias; Herod sent a bodyguard to cut off John's head. The bodyguard duly beheaded John and presented the head to Herodias's daughter on a platter.

The first reference to Salome by name was by the Romano–Jewish historian Josephus, who was born in around 37 AD (i.e. about 4 years after the events in question) and died around 100 AD.

The phrase 'Dance of the Seven Veils' originated in Oscar Wilde's play Salome, written in French in 1891 and translated into English in 1893. The play includes the stage direction, "Salome dances the dance of the seven veils."

Wilde may well have been influenced by the English poet Arthur O'Shaughnessy, who wrote in The Daughter of Herodias (1870): "[Salome] freed and floated on the air her arms / Above dim veils that hid her bosom's charms / The veils fell round her like thin coiling mists / Shot through by topaz suns and amethysts." O'Shaughnessy goes on to describe brief views of her "jewelled body" as the flowing veils swirl and part.

Another influence on Wilde was the story Herodias, by the French writer by Gustave Flaubert, in which Salome dances on her hands to please Antipas. This type of dance was common among "gypsy" acrobats in the 19th century.

The erotic impact of Wilde's vision was greatly enhanced by Aubrey Beardsley's illustration, depicting what the artist called a "stomach dance". Wilde wrote in appreciation of Beardsley's design: "For Aubrey: for the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance." The concept of 'belly dancing' had become widely known in 1893, the year before Beardsley created his designs, when it was featured at the World's Fair in Chicago.

Richard Strauss's opera Salome (1905) also includes a Dance of the Seven Veils.

© Haydn Thompson 2017