GIlded Serpent presents...
Belly Danced, Part V:
Belly Dancers in the
First Century Banqueting Tradition
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
like in the Old Testament Book, belly dancing can at times be
connected specifically with wine and viticulture
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
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.
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
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.
types might distain such entertainment as perversely superficial,
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.
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.
cropped up, however, during Christian symposia, and in
an odd way were directly related to the issue of belly dancers
performing at symposia.
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.
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.
the ancient Hebrews, and Christian Jews, women belly dancing in
public was perfectly acceptable. For pagans in Rome and
Greece, it was not.
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.
in Greece, however, the hetaera were the only women known
for their musical talent and were, among other things, belly dancers.
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
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.
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.
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.
specifically warned Christian women against doing something called
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).
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.
is worth considering that Clement’s criticism of belly dance was
symptomatic of intercultural conflict between Jewish Christians
and pagan converts to Christianity,
the conflict between the Apostle Paul and other apostles over
whether or not male Gentile converts to Christianity should be
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.
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.
texts used in this study include:
Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Hebrew scriptures).
Novum Testamentum Graece 26th edition (Greek Scriptures)
Stuttgart Septuaginta (The ancient Jewish translation of the
Old Testament translated from Hebrew to ancient Greek).
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.)
Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture.
Patrick E. McGovern. Princeton University Press,
New Jersey. 2003.
at Table: Gender and Greek Literary Culture in Athenaeus.
Laura K. McClure. Routledge. New York. 2003.
Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian
World. Dennis E. Smith. Augsburg Fortress.
Belly Dancing and Greek Barrel Wine.” DeAnna Putnam.
Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture.
University of California Press. Pages 99-102.
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Check the "Letters to the Editor"
for other possible viewpoints!
- 2-14-03 God
Belly Danced. Part 1: Biblical Accounts of Belly Dancing
in the Ancient Near East, , by
While Yahweh is not female, the man may have given Chavah a name similar
to Yahweh because the woman and Yahweh had something vital in common
- 3-13-03 God
Belly Danced, Part 2: Biblical Accounts of belly dance
in the ancient Near East, , by
DeAnna Putman According
to the Hebrew scriptures, female belly dancers were reputable
- .7-10-03 God
Belly Danced, Part 3: Biblical Accounts of Belly Dance
in the Ancient Near East by
character in the Bible has been so misunderstood as Salome.
Critics condemn her as a wanton slut. Supporters embrace her
as a symbol of oppressed female sensuality. Neither is true.
- 5-15-06 God
Belly Danced, Part 4: The Rise of the Pagan Anti-Belly
Dance League by DeAnna Putman
Dancing girls, wherever they came from, at this time
apparently were luxury import items and thus were subject to
a 25 percent duty tax, equal to that of precious gems.
- 8-13-06 God
Belly Danced, Part 5: Belly Dancers in the First Century
Banqueting Tradition, by DeAnna Putnam
So, like in the Old Testament Book, belly dancing
can at times be connected specifically with wine and viticulture
A Meeting with Hallah Moustafa, Haute
Couture Costume Designer in Cairo by Milena Miklos
I’d heard there was an American costume-maker living
in Cairo, but her clients prefer to keep her name a secret.
Spirit of the Tribes 2006 Photos
by Juddy Lane, submitted by Maja, Event Sponsor, April 2006
A Belly dance festival specializing in "Tribal Fusion"
including dance from culturals other than from the Middle East
or North Africa.
Field Report from the Dance Gig
Front by Surreyya Hada
After a pause, and a little embarrassment, I threw my
hands up at him in disgust and walked away. The audience laughed
Rhea’s Travel to Syria, Part
5 –Sex and the Single Girl by Rhea of Athens
The Trials and Travails of a Lone Female Traveler