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  1. #1
    Senior Member
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    Nov 2006
    Brooklyn, New York

    Default Origin of Dance of Seven Veils? Does it predate Wilde?

    I have spent some time researching the historic Salome story from the gospels of Mark and Matthew (where the "daughter of Herodias" dances for Herod Antipas, but she is not named) and in The Jewish Antiquities by Flavius Josephus (where Salome is mentioned as the daughter of Herodias by name as involved in the unjust beheading of John the Baptist, but dancing is not mentioned). I have also ordered the Flaubert 1877 short story "Herodias" and read the 1895 Oscar Wilde play "Salome" where she definitely mentions seven veils.

    I gather there were also plays by Voltaire featuring the same story in the 18th century.

    I know that Maude Allan did dances around 1905 called The Vision of Salome and The Dance of the Seven Veils. And I know about (but have not seen, heard, or read the libretto for) the Strauss opera based on the Oscar Wilde play.

    I have also heard the theory about the ancient gods Innana as the source of the idea of seven veils.

    My question is: does anyone know whether Oscar Wilde introduced the idea of Salome dancing with seven veils, or got it from somewhere else?

    In case anyone is tempted to point out that what the historic Salome did could not be "belly dance" or Raks Sharki--I realize this. Her stepfather Herod Antipas ruled Gallilee from 4 BC to 34 AD.

    Thanks, Cathy

  2. #2
    V.I.P. Yasmine Bint Al Nubia's Avatar
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    Jul 2006
    Akron, Ohio


    Hi Cathy, sounds like you have your bases covered. I don't have a definitive answer for you, I would guess that the idea didn't exactly pre-date Wilde. Instead, the idea or fantasy was concurrent as this occurred during the Orientalist period that defined Europe's fascination with the Orient.

    Maybe, it would be better to research concurrent cultural ideals that occurred during the time he was alive.
    For example when did the Orientalist period began and did it pre-date Wilde's play?

    What could have been some of the inspiration for his play? Meaning, were there other artists promoting this theme either in literature or art.

    I understand there were many World fairs and expositions demonstrating an orientalist theme. Did these occur before, during or after Oscar Wilde's play?
    Just some suggestions, let us know what you find out!

  3. #3
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    Nov 2006
    Brooklyn, New York


    Well I just read Shira's summary and musings on this topic here:

    Dance of the Seven Veils

    She read the same sources and has come to the same conclusions that I did. The only possible precursor to Wilde's mention of the seven veils that I know about but Shira does not mention is the 1877 Flaubert short story Herodias which I will have soon.

    Yasmine--yes Orientalism and fascination with the "exotic East" was quite prevalent around the turn of the 19th century when Wilde was writing. I don't know about any exhibitions in London where he lived most of the time, but there were exhibitions in the US in 1876 (Philadelphia) and 1893 (Chicago, where Sol Bloom brought Algerian dancers and probably coined or at least popularized the term "belly dance") featuring Middle Eastern music and dancers.

    From what I have read, the first interest in Middle Eastern dance in Paris was somewhat earlier than in the US and Wilde was a fluent French speaker who spent time in Paris so he could very likely have read the Flaubert short story.

    Flaubert actually travelled in the Middle East in 1849-1850 and wrote a book about it called --Flaubert in Egypt.

    I'll let you know what I discover from reading his story "Herodias."


  4. #4
    V.I.P. Sita's Avatar
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    Apr 2008


    Hi Cathy
    I have read a few books on the subject such as Sisters of Salome by Toni Bentley and the dance of the seven veils by Andrea Deagon as well as Herodias and Wilde's play. I personally think their were other inspirations around for Salome actually being veiled although the particular 'dance of the seven veils' appears to begin with Wilde alone.

    The 1870's actually saw an array of Salome type art and lit; one both books mentioned is actually a painting by Gustave Moreau (L' Apparition 1875) where she stands naked with her veil fallen away (pictured hanging around her arms). Another is the story Herodias as Deagon also mentions that in Flauberts play 'she beings her dance "under a bluish veil which concealed her head and breasts"... (although I may have a different translation because mine states her head and neck are covered by the veil, her torso by a hanging scarf from her shoulder to her waist)... which she then drops when dancing'. Although she does not appear to be naked when dancing in Herodias, she only appears to remove only one veil in all and still has her black trousers intact. Also Karl Joris Huysman's 1884 novel Against the grain which shows the main character obsessed with the Salome image by Moreau.

    Deagon also mentions that veil was generally associated with women and also the East during the 19th and 20th centuries, although I would argue that both associations started much earlier. She also mentions Wilde had at point during the plays creation envisioned a naked Salome, as well as one clothed; so he obviously experimented with different ideas. And the dance was mentioned as just a stage direction in the play no instruction is generally given for what he decided the dance should involve. A scholar K. Worth is also quoted as observing 'that Wilde had often used images of veiling and unveiling in his work' especially in regards to spirituality(Deagon, 247).

    He refers to the dance as the 'invisible dance' when he dedicated the play to Arthur Beardsley in March 1893 stating he 'was the only artist who, besides, myself knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see the invisible dance' (bentley, 31). I think this is interesting as Wilde appears to be the only one to give us an interesting and personal reason for her hatred of John the Baptist in his play - thwarted love/obsession. So I would not be surprised if this refers to something like her unveiling in the dance symbolically revealing her many layers or even repressed elements like her sexuality/ true self/ unconscious etc.

    Interestingly Beardsley actually designed an image for the British editions but called it the 'stomach dance' with Salome in a harem outfit.
    I also think Wilde enjoyed mixing the contrasting elements and symbolic meanings/associations of the veil/unveiling e.g purity/sexuality, hidden /revealed, the unconscious etc and a universal number such a seven which also has contrasting meanings 7 deadly sins, 7 days of creation etc. I think it makes sense with his interest in asceticism, decadence and his love of shock.

    In regards to Yasmine's point - Wilde's Salome (1891-3) is quite late in 'Orientalism' which is seen as starting around the 18th century/ mid to late 1700's. But as I said the figure of Salome became quite fashionable in the 1870's so maybe a quick scan of any Salome based art from that time might help your research. Either way I personally feel this Salome and the dance of the seven veils is a product of Orientalism and European imagination I do not agree or see any evidence of this Ishtar connection, that some speak of, in the Orientalist art produced.
    Good luck in your research,

    Also it's interesting to see how Flaubert describes her dance - I definatly think he based it on what he saw of Kuchuk Hamen's dancing.
    Last edited by Sita; 09-28-2008 at 09:08 PM. Reason: Trying to make my rambling actually readable

  5. #5
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    Jul 2008


    There's a nice overview of the history of the "seven veils" in a recently published academic collection Bellydance: Orientalism, Transnationalism, and Harem Fantasy. Edited by Anthony Shay and Barbara Sellers Young. In fact, if I recall correctly, it's written by Andrea Deagon who I think I've seen post here.


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