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Sheikh Zouede Mosaic
The dancer with castanets is in the lower right corner.
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GIlded Serpent presents...
God Belly Danced, Part V:
Belly Dancers in the
First Century Banqueting Tradition

by DeAnna Putnam

Aside from literary references to belly dancers, two well-preserved artistic renderings – one from Gaza and one from Pompeii – might portray a form of belly dancing.  Both involve Bacchanalian rites.  This could not have helped belly dancing’s reputation outside of the Semitic world, as followers of Bacchus were considered a disgrace to paganism.  

Proper Roman women were not allowed to drink wine at all (although many found ways around this) never mind prance around with an orgiastic drunken deity that used clusters of grapes for hair extensions.

Something should be noted here as to what is being referred to as belly dancing.  In this context, we are talking about a dance performed by a female, with a primary focus on torso or hip work.  In this sense, while raqs sharqi, as we call it today for a specific version of belly dance for stage performance, might be belly dancing, but not all belly dancing throughout history would necessarily formally be raqs sharqi.    

The Bacchanalian depiction from Gaza is the Sheikh Zouede Mosaic, which, among other things, depicts a solo female dancer playing castanets.  The Sheikh Zouede Mosaic was a floor design for a triclinium,  the dining room of a Greco-Roman style home, and now is displayed at the Historical Museum of Ismailia in Gaza.  The ancient dancing girl with castanets or finger cymbals most likely performing movements that are hip-centric is an image that appears throughout the Mediterranean world, and not just within the context of a Bacchanalian rite.

The Pompeiian rendering is a fresco on the wall of the Villa of the Mysteries, which also depicts a Bacchanalian rite.  One scene involves a solo female dancer with a veil/large scarf.

So, like in the Old Testament Book, belly dancing can at times be connected specifically with wine and viticulture

(see “Opa!  Belly Dancing and Greek Barrel Wine” written by this author and published by Gastronomica:  The Magazine and Food and Culture for an account of the Tribe of Benjamin kidnapping a group of belly dancers to take them as wives during the annual wine festival in Israel).

For some background, Bacchus was the Roman version of the Greek god Dionysos.  According to Greek myth, however Dionysos actually came from Lebanon.  Wine’s origins actually come from further east than this.  The earliest evidence of wine dregs have been found in Iran, lending credence to the biblical account that after the Great Flood, Noah planted a vineyard in the vicinity of Ararat, which was not in Turkey as tradition claims and most people think.  The account refers to Ararat in the land that later became Persia, and today is Iran.  The ancient Hebrews, of course, attributed all successful crops to Yahweh, and their celebration of wine seemingly involved belly dancing during the harvest and crushing of grapes. 

The Bible esteems wine as a social lubricant. Psalm 104 thanks God for “wine that gladdens the heart of men.”  For his first miracle, Jesus turned water into wine.   But, while the Bible might not have a problem with someone getting a buzz, it criticizes regular drunkenness. Likely this is not just because of resulting sloth and bad temper, but because it also likely would involve theft.  In order to gorge on wine, you would have to steal your family members’ wine rations, which needed to last for everyone all year.

In normal, day-to-day life, regular banqueting circa the first century should not be confused with Bacchanalian rites.  But, if a Bacchanalian rite was going to be rendered decoratively in a household, it likely was going to be in the triclinium. The Greco-Roman banquet, which had become standardized pretty much everywhere throughout the Mediterranean, had two parts. First, a meal, and then second, the symposium, which was the after-dinner drinking party.  During this time, the wine would flow, and cutting one’s wine with water would keep guests relaxed and happy and able to keep drinking through the night without becoming obnoxious or passing out.  While guests reclined and drank, musicians and singers would perform, poets would whip out scrolls and read lines dedicated to, or poking fun at, their hosts, and belly dancers would do their thing.

Deep-thinking types might distain such entertainment as perversely superficial,

preferring instead to debate the exact mathematical value of Pi or what exactly constitutes True Virtue etc.  Think Plato’s Symposium.  All of their philosophical musings no doubt became increasingly profound the more they drank.

While tavernas existed throughout the Roman Empire during this time, nightclubs and restaurants on the scale we know them now did not.  Dancers and musicians did perform in tavernas, but the better ones performed during banquets that regularly occurred in middle and upper class homes, where hosts would recline with their guests in the triclinium.

It also was during the symposium that meetings among early Christians would take place in “house churches.”  A symposium consisting of Christian guests did indeed involve musical entertainment, as well as prayer, theological dialogue, and definitely wine. They were odd gatherings in the sense that slaves and their owners, if both were Christian, dined with each other as equals.  But the important thing to note is that the structure of Christian meetings was not a religious service at all like church services today. Christians simply would meet up together for dinner on a Sunday evening after work (Sunday was the equivalent of our Monday, the first workday of the week), hang out and catch up with each other.  What later evolved into an unnecessarily elaborate Eucharistic ritual originally was just a toast at the beginning of a pleasant evening kicking back with like-minded believers at one of your wealthier friend’s homes, enjoying good wine like, say, maybe a fine Roman Falernian.

Problems cropped up, however, during Christian symposia, and in an odd way were directly related to the issue of belly dancers performing at symposia. 

Mingling during a symposium was where things got tricky for Christian women, particularly in pagan Greece, which before Christianity took hold was an extremely misogynist society. In Greece, men married women only to procreate, because for the most part, men did not believe true love could exist between a man and a woman.  Maybe a more stimulating liaison could exist, not with one’s wife, but with hookers.  In pagan Greece, however, the ultimate ideal was homosexual love between two men, as women were considered to be just above animals and the cause of most of the world’s trouble.  Almost all men as young boys had pedophiliac relationships with their male teachers.  Socrates, for example, for all his acclaim as a philosopher, was a rampant pedophile and had a horrible relationship with his wife.

In ancient Greece during the first century, proper women did not banquet with their husbands.  The only women present at banquets usually were hetaera, the topless courtesans often seen fraternizing on Greek vases. 

For the ancient Hebrews, and Christian Jews, women belly dancing in public was perfectly acceptable.  For pagans in Rome and Greece, it was not. 

The exception to this would be in Sparta, where women had it somewhat better.  Spartan women were allowed to dance in public, primarily as a form of physical exercise or sport, as Spartans were into being physically fit even moreso than other Greeks.  Spartan women were not necessarily known for their hip work, however, but were criticized for flashing their thighs when they danced.  Spartan women primarily were known for a dance where they literally jumped up and kicked themselves in the buttocks. An interesting idea, a bit difficult to do, and possibly a good metaphor for Spartan life, as the Spartans were far from being lazy in regards to anything.

Elsewhere in Greece, however, the hetaera were the only women known for their musical talent and were, among other things, belly dancers.

So, in Greece, we have the first concrete connection of female belly dancers not just with slavery, but with full scale prostitution. And, we’re not talking temple prostitution.  We’re talking just plain old secular call girls.  While hetaera should not be confused with porne, which were lower level brothel hookers or streetwalkers, their lives should not be naively glamorized either.  Artistically talented and more educated than proper wives, their education was not for their own benefit, but purely for the entertainment of men.  When hetaera got old and lost their looks, they were not guaranteed a secure retirement.   They were not as independent as often is portrayed.

The Apostle Paul had this issue, among others, to deal with while writing his epistles to various churches around the Mediterranean.  Paul encouraged male and female Christians to mingle as peers during symposia.  While Roman women were allowed to banquet with their husbands and other male relatives and their friends (albeit under strict conditions), this was tricky especially in Corinth, Greece because of the issue of the hetaerae.  Because of this and other things, particularly free-flowing wine at Christian banquets available to both men and women, Christians got confused with cult followers of Bacchus. 

All kinds of rumors spread about their wild partying. Christian women were drinking and debating with men socially,

with the advantage of not having to buy their equality by providing sexual favors.  But, the general public did not understand this, and Christian women were getting a bad reputation.

First century pagans were far more repressed than Jews or Christians.  Ethical monotheism at the time offered women more freedom.  When Roman and Greek pagans converted to Christianity, pagan misogynist predispositions lingered and unfortunately mingled with newly forming Christian tradition. The first Christian leader who could be said to have come out against belly dancing might be Clement, a pagan convert and the first Apostolic Father, who became bishop of Rome in the later first century. Clement’s writings are not considered scripture, but they did carry a lot of weight. 

Clement specifically warned Christian women against doing something called “walking saula.”

  “Walking saula” refers to an exaggerated and skillfully executed Marilyn Monroe-ish walk, with hips swinging back and forth with the intent of inviting male attention put on by hetaera.  It possibly also was used to describe belly dancing, as it is used to describe Ionic dances performed by hetaera notoriously involving hip shaking and sinuous movements (see Courtesans at Table by McClure).

If Clement was not just complaining about women strutting their stuff and also was complaining about belly dancing, then he might even trump Martial for being the first Roman to give belly dancing a thumbs down.  It’s not clear.  The interesting thing to note here is that apparently plenty of regular Christian women who were not prostitutes at all “walked saula” without thinking it to be a big deal, so much so that Clement became alarmed enough to complain about it.

It is worth considering that Clement’s criticism of belly dance was symptomatic of intercultural conflict between Jewish Christians and pagan converts to Christianity,

similar to the conflict between the Apostle Paul and other apostles over whether or not male Gentile converts to Christianity should be circumcised.

“Walking saula” comes from the Greek verb saleuo, which shares some similarities to the Hebrew word for belly dancing, which comes from the Semitic root chyl or chol.  Saleuo means to shake or roll, possibly in connection to an earthquake, and more commonly it refers to the rolling of waves in the sea.  The Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament that came about sometime between the third and first century B.C.) uses saleuo with regards to the shaking of an earthquake (for example, in Isaiah 24).  The Septuagint, however, does not use this word to translate machola (a noun form of chol) with regard to the celebratory dancing of the Prophetess Miriam and other Hebrews recorded in the Book of Exodus.  The writers of the Septuagint instead chose the more generic Greek term xoros, which simply refers to any group social dance.  Likewise, Gospel writers did not use the word saleuo to refer to Salome’s dancing .  This is an example of how important nuances can be lost in translation.  The word saleuo might technically have been a more accurate rendering for chol or its noun form machola, but possibly carried with it too many negative connotations for a Greek audience.

Both saleuo and chol clearly refer to the swinging and shimmying of a woman’s hips.  But the difference between the words seem to be the fact that the Hebrew chol is connected with childbirth and carries with it a positive view of a woman’s physique and sexuality, whereas saleuo has no connection to childbirth.  Instead, for the ancient Greeks, saleuo referred to sex-for-sale with women with whom one would not ever want to have children.  

Biblical texts used in this study include:

  • Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Hebrew scriptures).
  • Nestle-Aland Novum Testamentum Graece 26th edition (Greek Scriptures)
  • Biblia-Druck, Stuttgart Septuaginta (The ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament translated from Hebrew to ancient Greek).
  • Harvest House Publisher’s New Inductive Study Bible, New American Standard Bible updated edition (the NASB is the most accurate English translation of the Hebrew and Greek texts available today.)

Other References:

  • Ancient Wine:  The Search for the Origins of Viniculture.  Patrick E. McGovern.   Princeton University Press,  New Jersey.  2003.
  • Courtesans at Table:  Gender and Greek Literary Culture in Athenaeus. Laura K. McClure. Routledge.  New York. 2003.
  • From Symposium to Eucharist:  The Banquet in the Early Christian World.   Dennis E. Smith. Augsburg Fortress.  Minnesota. 2003.
  • “Opa!  Belly Dancing and Greek Barrel Wine.”  DeAnna Putnam.  Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture.  University of  California Press.  Pages 99-102.  Fall 2005.

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