GIlded Serpent presents...
God Belly Danced, Part IV:
The Rise of the
Pagan Anti-Belly Dance League

y DeAnna Putnam

The oldest visual depiction of belly dance generally is considered to exist inside a 5,000-year-old tomb in Saqqara, Egypt.  Hieroglyphics reportedly state that the women in this particular relief are engaged in a dance representing “the mystery of childbirth.”   Saqqara, however, has a new challenger – a much older cave drawing in, of all places, Creswell Crags, England. 

Yes, it’s true.  The oldest visual depiction of belly dancing possibly is in the British Isles, far and away from the Middle East.

In 2004, anthropologists announced that 13,000 years ago, someone in Creswell Crags drew a picture of women dancing around, shaking their rather prominent posteriors.   Anthropologists originally thought the cave etching depicted a flock of birds.  That was until someone blinked a couple of times and realized that instead, this was a group of Magdelanian-era divas getting their pre-historic groove on, courtesy of the same generation of artists who brought us Upper Paleolithic drawings of bison on the walls of Altamira Cave in Spain. 

To an untrained eye, the etchings may not be convincing as either, but to be fair, the artists in question were doodling during the pre-school of human creative history. 

Apparently, similar etchings exist in continental Europe as well, so technically maybe the Cave-Brits were trumped at belly dance by the Cave-French.  But for the purposes of this article, we’re going to give the thumbs up to Merry Olde (very, very, very Ye Olde) England. 

The Creswell Crags etchings differ from Saqqara on the downside for their lack of sophistication, but on the upside for the fact the specific motion they depict

Experts assure us that these Magdelanian gals are clearly shaking their derrieres. 

Saqqara relief
Conversely, one scholar simply calls the dance depicted in the Saqqara relief  “energetic.” But that could mean anything.   The same scholar seems to lump it in with the more acrobatic style of dancing usually considered to be Pharonic. Maybe this dance was interpretive.  Maybe the dancers, when they really got into it, did not shimmy or do hip drops of any kind, but instead acted out birthing -squatting and straining and moaning and the like (think Grace Jones playing the character Strangé giving birth to a perfume bottle for a whacked-out commercial in Eddie Murphy’s movie “Boomerang”) which never would fly with an audience at a modern Egyptian nightclub. 

A dance representing childbirth is one thing. A dance representing the “mystery of childbirth” sounds much more…well, much more mysterious. One always thinks that a dance representing childbirth automatically focuses on the woman’s role in giving birth.  What if, instead, the dancers were trying to act out what a newborn baby goes through coming down the birth canal?  What would that look like?  Probably something also unlikely to fly with an audience at a modern Egyptian nightclub…

All this is to say that we can’t really know for sure what this ancient Egyptian dance actually looked like.  Now, it’s not an unreasonable theory that this involved a form of belly dancing.  In fact, it’s probably very likely that it did.  The above diatribe simply was to note that this theory could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. 

Creswell Crags

Juxtaposed to Saqqara, Creswell Crags offers no written caption telling us why the Magdelanian women are dancing.  While their moves are hip-centric, nothing indicates that this activity specifically has something to do with childbirth or fertility rites. The Magdalenian women are naked, but tastefully in profile rather than, to put it politely, full frontal.  Given its prehistoric and rough-sketch nature, one might expect to see crudely depicted giant phalluses or pendulous breasts (the usual stuff related to fertility cults) lurking around. Anthropologists insist that a couple of etched triangles nearby in the cave represent female genitalia, but this might be an overly hopeful theory.  Sometimes a triangle is just a triangle. 

The Magdelanians could have been dancing just to keep warm.  It was, after all, the Ice Age. 

Flash forward to the New Testament era, first century A.D.  By this time, the Celts, only one tribe that lived in the British Isles, had descended into Spain and traveled at least as far east as Turkey.  In fact, the Celts at this time had taken over all of central Anatolia, before being subdued by the Romans.  The Apostle Paul’s New Testament Letter to the Galatians, written between A.D. 48-57, was, in fact, written to Christian Celts in Turkey. 

Before and/or while the Celts traveled overland south and east, the ancient Phoenicians (from what is now Lebanon) had sailed west in the opposite direction throughout the Mediterranean, establishing settlements in Tunisia, Sicily,

and, most importantly for belly dance history, Spain. 

By the first century A.D., the Phoenicians had long since lost Carthage in Tunisia to Rome during the Punic Wars and, like the Celts, were now under Roman rule.

A particularly valuable conquest for Rome was Spain, where the Phoenicians had descended upon Iberians and then mingled with incoming Celts. The Phoenicians founded the Spanish city of Cadiz – the oldest city in Western Europe - in 1,100 B.C. The Celts arrived about three centuries later.  The defeated Phoenician leadership in Carthage handed Spain over to Rome in 201 B.C. during the Second Punic War.  Phoenician Spain continued to rebel until the Roman Emperor Augustus clamped down hard around 19 B.C., finally bringing Spain to heal around A.D. 14.  

Once subdued, Spain proceeded to lubricate the dietary habits of the Roman Empire by producing vast amounts of excellent quality olive oil, as well as contributing enormously to the entertainment industry of the Mediterranean.  During the first century A.D., Christianity was being exported from Israel, Lebanon, Syria in the east as were acclaimed musicians and belly dancers, usually as slaves.  Belly dancers in particular also were coming from the west — from Phoenician Cadiz.   

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. 
Some performers were free, or managed to gain their freedom.  Modern British mystery writer Lindsey Davis brings such a belly dancer to life in the character of Thalia, a snake dancer/rope dancer who moves up in the world when she becomes the owner of a Syrian circus.  Thalia is a supporting character in Davis’ fabulous and witty series about the trans-Empire adventures of Marcus Didius Falco, a first century private investigator under the Emperor Vespasian. 

One of Falco’s comments regarding Thalia is something to the effect of “This was not the first time I had see a dancer with her clackers in a frazzle.”

It was during the first century A.D. that belly dancing experienced a significant evolution as a soloist performance and trans-Mediterranean phenomenon.  

The first century A.D. also may be the first time someone widely published negative comments about belly dancing. The poet Martial, a pagan and a Spaniard with Roman citizenship had this to say about his own preferences for banquet activities:

“…your host makes a solemn promise not to read from a fat manuscript or assault you with cheap dancing girls from Spain waggling their lascivious thighs in the same old bumps and grinds…”    Epigrams, V1xxviii

Keep in mind that as a poet, Martial got paid to be sarcastic and entertaining.  In one of his epigrams, he calls his own hometown of Cadiz “that sink.”  So, in reality, maybe he liked belly dancing, or maybe to him it really was just “the same old, same old.”  But he never had anything really positive to say about it on the record.  He generally portrays belly dancing as a tawdry endeavor.  Here’s another example:

“She knew all about belly dancing to the rhythm of Spanish castanets.

She could writhe to those Spanish tunes in a way to stir up the libido of Peleus, trembling with age, or Priam at Hectors funeral.

Now Telethusa’s got her master – that was on fire and in torture with love. She was a slave girl when he sold her. She’ll be his mistress now he’s buying her back again.”  Epigrams, VI 1xxi

Martial also notes, incidentally, that Rome’s latest pop songs usually came from either Spain or Egypt.

Conversely, the Roman poet Ovid was a fan of belly dancing.  In “The Art of Love” (published in A.D. 1) he encouraged all women – including proper Roman wives and daughters - to learn some belly dance moves so they could show off after dinner when guests are over. 

Ovid was banished to the Black Sea shortly thereafter by the Emperor Augustus, who felt that his “Art of Love” was too risqué for pagan moral values. 


  • “Dancing Girls and the Merry Magdalenian.” Sean Clarke, The Guardian. UK, April 15, 2004.
  • Epigrams.  Martial.    Translated by Barriss Mills.  Purdue University Studies, Indiana. 1969.
  • Epigrams.  Martial.  Selected and translated by James Michie.  Modern Library.  New York. 2002.
  • The Art of Love.  Ovid.  Translated by James Michie.  Modern Library.  New York.  2002.
  • Pagan Holiday:  On the Trail of Ancient Roman Tourists. Tony Perrottet. Random House, New York. 2003.
  • Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, 2 vol. Edited by Jack Sasson.  Hendrickson Publishers.  Massachusetts.  1995.


  • The first century fictional belly dancer Thalia appears in Venus in Copper and Last Act in Palmyra by Lindsey Davis.

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