Updated: Jul 13, 2022
Who is the Seventh Daughter? and what does she have to do with Salome?
The woman in the photo is Maude Allan. Allan portrayed Salome in a 1906 production of Vision of Salomé in Vienna. It was later captured and distributed in 1908 and titled, Salome, or the Dance of the Seven Veils.
“The erotic dance performed by Salome was not a dance in the way we have been made to believe. Instead, it was a ritual in preparation for the beheading of John the Baptist.”
The unveiling of women for erotic, creative, and societal purposes is nothing new. But what if we, as women, reclaimed both the veiling and unveiling on our own terms?
let's back up a minute.
Who the hell is Salome? According to the Christian Bible, Salome was the daughter of Herodias and King Herod II. Some accounts describe her as being the step-daughter of Herod Antipas whom her mother remarried. Salome is mentioned in both the Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of Matthew. Mark 6: 21-29 tells us that Herod, for his birthday, ordered a great banquet and invited many guests. When Salome came and danced for Herod and his guests, he was so pleased that he promised her with an oath, saying: "Whatever you ask I will give you, up to half my kingdom." At the ushering of her mother, Salome asked for the head of John the Baptist on a platter. While Herod was upset by this request, he complied and gave Salome her wish.
In the many years and interpretations to come, Salome is depicted most often as an erotic character performing an erotic dance. The pleasure Herod experienced while watching her was transformed into sexual pleasure and desire. It was then argued that Herod's sexual desire for Salome is what prompted his giving her whatever she asked for. But, how old was Salome to begin with? Was she a child simply doing what she was told? Was she just a young girl performing an innocent dance for party guests that delighted her step-father? And what about the word "pleased"? "The particular Greek word used for “please,” areskō, is also used in places like 1 Thessalonians 2:15 (“they please not God, and are contrary to all men”). This would suggest the word doesn’t have a particularly erotic connotation...", but is used in its most base sense of the word.
How much of the over-sexualizing of a young girl do we have to blame Orientalism for as well? In the artistic re-enactments and representations of Salome's dance, we are often presented with an erotic belly dancer performing in an exuberant palace in the Middle East that visually mimics something that we might find in Disney's Aladdin. Our notions of foreign being exotic and therefore somehow overtly sexual often leads to the demonizing of whole groups of people, cultures, religious customs, and is heavily steeped in racism and fetishism. But, that's a much bigger topic to unpack (and don't worry, I will).
These exoticized representations of Salome are frustrating but, unfortunately, nothing new when it comes to how society views and treats women. But there's an article I stumbled upon recently that really got my brain moving in a different direction. In The Journal of the Society for Dance Research, there's an article written by Peter Cooke that examines two distinct paintings of Salome by Gustave Moreau. The first was an oil painting titled, Salome, and the second was a water color called The Apparition.
Salome portrayed the figure of Salome standing on her tip-toes as ballerina's do, completely frozen in a hieratic (of and relating to priests or "of or concerning Egyptian or Greek styles of art adhering to early methods as laid down by religious tradition") pose; one arm outstretched and the other holding a lotus flower. The Apparition sets a new scene where Salome is frozen in horror at the vision of the beheading, whereas all the other figures in the painting are enraptured by her dance and do not see what she sees. These were debuted in 1876 and were the immediate cause for contemplation and discussion. But, the reason these paintings received the renown and fame they did was thanks to the descriptions they were given by writer Joris-Karl Huysmanns in his book, A Rebours published in 1884. A portion of the description of Salome's dance is as follows:
"In the perverse smell of perfumes, in the overheated atmosphere of this church, Salome, with her left arm extended, in a gesture of command, and with her right arm folded, holding a large lotus flower level with her face, advances slowly on her toes, to the chords of a guitar whose strings are plucked by a squatting woman. With her meditative, solemn, almost august face, she begins the lubricious dance which is to awaken the slumbering senses of the aged Herod: her breasts undulate and, rubbed by her whirling necklaces, their nipples stand up..."
Concentrated, with her gazed fixed, like a sleepwalker, she sees neither the trembling Herod, nor her mother, the ferocious Herodias, who is watching over her..."
A similarly interesting description is given of The Apparition: "With a gesture of horror, Salome repels the terrifying vision that nails her, immobile, on her toes; her eyes dilate, her hands convulsively grips her throat... under the burning darts that escape from the Precursor's head..."
While Moreau's contemporaries had also released paintings of Salome during this time, this notion of complete hieratic stasis leading to thoughts of priestly poses and reverence, was only found in Moreau's work. These images, along with their illuminating descriptions, brought me to a groundbreaking conclusion: the "erotic" dance performed by Salome was not a dance in the way we had been made to believe. Instead, it was a ritual in preparation for the beheading of John the Baptist. This sacrificial death ritual performed by Salome the Priestess, enraptured her audience to the point of putting them into a trance-like state where only Salome saw the outcome before it was finished.
In later blog posts, we'll get to topics of Temple Priestesses, their roles and, in particular, their depictions and erasure in male god dominated societies, but for now I'll say that the Bible painting Salome (and her mother) as sexual, wicked, and sinful is an excellent way to drive home the idea that women can't be trusted and therefore must not be given true power. This doesn't erase the question of Salome's age and, in turn, her mother's influence over her choices, but it does make me question why her age is left out when there are plenty of descriptions of her dance and her request for John's head on a platter. Her innocence or, in my belief, role as Temple Priestess, is swept aside in order to make room for her sexuality and bloodlust. Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils (as depicted in film and other artistic mediums) in which she removes one layer of clothing while sensually dancing for Herod provides us with a more modern depiction and really drives this point home for me.
Salome's true role as Priestess and Moreau's depiction of her as Seer and Prophetess made me think of how that role has permeated in folklore and mythology throughout history through the archetype of the Seventh Daughter. To put it briefly, the Seventh Daughter of a Seventh Daughter is thought to have the abilities of a Seer and Prophetess. They are considered to be very lucky and, in some societies, are looked at as Witches. This can be expanded to include all genders and there are records throughout history that speak of "lucky" seventh children able to cure remedies and cast spells.
It is the combination of both Salome's erasure and mutation into a character that causes the downfall of a "great man" in history, and her connection as Seer and Priestess that inspired me to call my offering the Dance of the Seventh Daughter. Through my work I hope to honor all of history's Salome's and all of the women who have had their voice and power taken away or transformed into something society viewed as "wrong" or "evil".
Let us choose to veil or unveil or our own terms. Let us have autonomy over our bodies. Let us be sacred and sexual according to our desires. Let us be magical and powerful. Let us dance our dance as Priestesses and let us honor all women of all times and spaces.
Check out the podcast episode here: https://anchor.fm/freia-serafina
https://www.jstor.org/stable/41428399?seq=4 (JSTOR is a FREE academic source! You can set up a free account and get access to so much great info!)