Dance of the Seven Veils

by Richard Hall

For most of human history there was no such thing as the written word. Even when reading and writing was invented most people didn’t know how to do so.  Consequently, knowledge was often encoded in stories because, everyone can remember a good story. 

Religious, moral or political information was often encoded in allegories.  An allegory is a story that can be interpreted to reveal a hidden meaning.  Problem is, if the allegory has not been explained you take the story at face value.

Case in point is the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’.  I guarantee that the vast majority of people will know the story I’m talking about.  It’s an ancient tale in which a powerful woman carries out a striptease by removing her seven veils in a dance. She goes by different names in different cultures.  To the Sumerians she was the goddess Inanna.  To the Babylonians she was Ishtar.  In the Bible she is Salome, the daughter of the princess Herodias, who danced before Herod II for the head of John the Baptist. 

Dance of the veils. Photo by Shlag on Unsplash

The Dance is an allegory.  

So, let’s have a look at the true meaning of the story.

The oldest records of the story originate from the Sumerian tradition around 3000 B.C. The Babylonian story (c.2000 BC) is very similar but the records are more detailed.

The trinity

In ancient times it was a common belief that the universe consisted of three realms – the Heavens, the Earth, and the Underworld.  There were many gods but each realm had its own supreme ruler.  This is the origin of ‘The Trinity’.  Most people in the western world will know of the Christian ‘Trinity’ – God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost; or the Hindu Triad – Brahma the Creator, Vishnu the Maintainer, and Siva the Destroyer.  The concept of the trinity is an ancient belief and pre-dates all existing religions. Some religions were ruled by a Triumvirate of powerful priests known as the Priest (Pope), the Prophet and the King.  So too were religious orders of knights – the Grand Master, the Seneschal, and the Marshal. 

In the Babylonian version of the tale Ishtar (Earth-Mother Goddess) was the ruler of the mortal realm. Her brother Shamash (the Sun) ruled the realm of the gods, the Heavens.  And, her sister Ereshkigal ruled the Underworld (Realm of the Dead). 

Akkadian cylinder seal from sometime around 2300 BC or thereabouts depicting the deities Inanna, Utu, Enki, and Isimud. British Museum

The mortals

Ishtar had a male companion, a young man who, although a mortal, was the love of her life.  But one day he is mortally wounded.  Following his death the Great Goddess pined for her lost love and the world began to die.  The leaves shriveled and fell from the trees and the food supplies of the people began to disappear. Eventually she decided to do that which no mortal woman could.  She would descend into the Underworld and retrieve her lover.

Her sister ruled the Underworld but, unfortunately the two sisters didn’t get on.  When Ishtar asked for her lover back, Ereshkigal said “No way, all those that come to me never return to the mortal plain”.  Ishtar flew into a rage and threatened to break down the gates of the underworld and free the dead, who would devour the living.  

The journey to the underworld

Ereshkigal eventually agreed to allow her sister to descend through the Seven Levels of the Underworld, on the condition that at each of the Seven Gates she part with one of her veils.  This is the ancient story enacted by the “Dance of the Seven Veils”.  

Veil Nebula, By ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0

Now, if your mind is conjuring up the image of a nubile young woman carrying out the original striptease, you have lost the plot.  In New Zealand, Maori will say that when a man loses his mana or power he is naked. The removal of her garments, the vestments of her office, is symbolic of her relinquishing her powers.  Consequently when she arrived before her sister she was naked, she was powerless.  The evil Ereshkigal set Namtar, the plague demon, loose upon her sister and Ishtar was covered with disease and imprisoned in the Underworld.

Back on the mortal plain things went from bad to worse. Because Ishtar was absent, the earth was without fertility.  The Babylonian texts explain, in some detail, that when the goddess is absent from the earth all male creatures, including man, become totally impotent.  There could be no procreation.  The world began to die.

The rebirth of nature

When her brother Shamash (the Sun) realized this he and the other gods threatened war on the Underworld and demanded Ishtar’s release.  The demon Namtar, fearing reprisal, sprinkled Ishtar with the waters of life, which flow through the Underworld, restoring her health and beauty, and returned her veils at each of the seven gates.  Ishtar, accompanied by her lover Tammuz, returned to the earth.  Spring was sprung and nature resumed its normal course.   

There was however, a price to pay.  In the deal brokered with Ereshkigal, because Tammuz was originally mortal he would spend half of the year on Earth and the other half in the Underworld.  When Tammuz returns to the Underworld Ishtar refuses to work and the world once again begins to die.  This is ‘The Fall’, the Autumn Equinox.  When he returns to Ishtar, life on earth is born again. This is the Spring Equinox.  Thus, The Dance of the Seven Veils is an allegory of the origin of the cycle of the seasons.  

Photo by Sergey Shmidt on Unsplash