Belly Danced, Part III:
Biblical Accounts of Belly Dance
in the Ancient Near East
in the Bible has been so misunderstood as Salome. Critics condemn
her as a wanton slut. Supporters embrace her as a symbol of oppressed
is true. You see, Salome's performance during Herod's birthday
party was more akin to Shirley Temple singing and tap dancing
away with "The Good Ship Lollipop" than to a strip-teasing
worse, some who promote Salome as a symbol actually do more damage.
For example, author Wendy Buonaventura in her
book Serpent of the Nile incorrectly states that Salome's
story is an adaptation of a pagan myth, specifically the "Dance
of the Veils of Ishtar" (Serpent of the Nile, page 35).
attempt to merge Salome with Ishtar is just one example of shoddy
scholarship inflicted on the poor girl by so many. By taking
this route, Buonaventura degrades Salome's existence by disallowing
that her dance was historical. Bounaventura and others have failed
to examine truly the case, which, when all the evidence is in,
shows that Salome's dance is biblically vindicated, not vilified.
name is not recorded in the New Testament; we know her name from
non-Christian historical sources such as Josephus. She wasn't the
only Salome in her family. She was the daughter of Herodias (also
not the only one in her family) and Herod Philip, whom Herodias dumped
to marry his brother, Herod Antipas, our birthday boy.
based on the story of Jephthah's daughter (see "God
belly danced: Part II"), we know that it was perfectly appropriate
for Hebrew women to belly dance for male relatives.
rest of how the real story goes depends on how it was recorded
originally in Koine Greek.
Two key Greek
words in the biblical accounts (Mark 6 and Matthew 14) make it
very clear that Salome's honorary dance was not salacious.
Salome is referred to as a korasion, meaning, a
little girl not yet old enough to be married. Basically
this means she had no breasts and had not menstruated yet.
Second, the word used for dance here is orxeomai,
which not only means dance, but the playful goofing off
of young children.
Salome's performance simply "pleased" Herod. Had the biblical
authors wished to convey something lewd, they could have instead
said that her dancing aroused him, or that he lusted after her,
but the Greek word used here is aresko, which does not
convey any kind of sexual titillation.
have concluded that for Herod to promise the girl whatever she
wanted, "up to half my kingdom," she must have ignited his hormones!
This could not be farther from the truth.
Near Eastern rulers quite often promised faithful friends
and associates "up to half my kingdom" as a formal compliment
and public sign of favor.
recipient of the complement was not really expected to say, "Okay,
since it's your idea, I WILL take half your kingdom." When Queen
Esther broke ancient Persian court etiquette at the risk of her
life to initiate a meeting with her husband, King Ahasuerus (a.k.a.
Xerxes or Artexerxes), the king was actually pretty happy she
wanted to see him. He also guessed something serious was on her
mind for her to risk her life by breaking custom.
So, the king
extended his scepter to her (indicating she was accepted in his
presence, and her life was spared) and then Ahasuerus offered
Esther half his kingdom to compliment her in front of his court.
Esther responded by basically saying, "Thanks, but I just wanted
to do lunch." (Esther 5).
A greedy prophet
in 1 Kings 13 even raised the "half kingdom" issue before a king,
letting it be known he would respond to a bribe (Reis, page 201-202).
However, the king did not fall for manipulation, and did not
offer half his kingdom.
So, when Salome
danced for Herod in public, it would have been an insult had
Herod NOT offered her half his kingdom.
Herod's court officials, advisors, and various power players
were at the party, and the girl still probably had yet to be
betrothed, his compliment served another purpose. Herod possibly
was announcing to everyone present that Salome came with his
personal and financial favor, and that she would be a good catch
for any of their sons.
One final thought
in defense of Salome: Had Salome been so seductive and conniving,
do you think she would have run to her mother before asking Herod
for anything? Would she not have already had a reward in mind
for herself? Also, would Herodias, who indeed was the manipulative
character here, have sent her daughter to dance for Herod if
Salome were sensuous enough to pose a threat to her place in
Salome did not even seem to bat an eyelash at her mother's
request to have John the Baptist's head on a platter and
obeyed her immediately, to Herod's chagrin. Salome likely
was too young to really know what she was asking for; or
at least too young to disobey her mother.
is not about portraying dancing as evil. The story is about the
tragedies that can result from the actions of an abusive, manipulative
parent. Herodias' "fifteen minutes of fame, gruesomely tacky
as they were, remain a twisted inspiration to stage mothers everywhere," (Leon,
have been allowed to bask in the appropriate admiration of her
stepfather. Instead, Herodias ruined it for her, and ruined her
would Jesus dance?
that we've dealt with Salome, on to the most important question regarding
dance in the New Testament: What did Jesus say about dance? At first
glance, it seems he says little - he mentions dance only twice.
mentions dancing in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15).
Jesus mentions dancing as a positive and assumed part of a party,
namely in the context of the party that the prodigal son's father
throws for his wayward child who has returned home. The Greek
word used here is xoros, meaning, a group or troupe dance.
time Jesus mentions dance is recorded both in Matthew 11 and
Luke 15: "To what shall I compare this present generation, and
what are they like? They are like children who sit in the market
place and they call to each other and say, 'We played the flute
for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge and you did not
The word Jesus
uses for dance here again is orxeomai, the same word used
of Salome. The Greek word for mourn is threneo, which
does not refer to dance, but still implies a dramatic physical
of this whole statement is made clear by what Jesus says before
and after the highlighted comment. Just prior to the comment,
he talks about people, namely Pharisees and lawyers, rejecting
God's purpose for their lives. Right after the highlighted comment,
Jesus says John the Baptist was accused of being possessed by
demons while he did not drink and party, but Jesus also is being
accused of being possessed by demons because he DOES go to parties,
drinks alcohol, and enjoys being social.
is basically saying here is that the Pharisees and lawyers think
that it's up to them to set what is proper - that they make the
rules and decide when people can enjoy themselves and when they
have to act properly, but, it's really up to God to "play a flute" or "play
a dirge" and set the pace.
Koine Greek does not offer the reader as earthy nor as varied
vocabulary for dance as Hebrew, we cannot glean details on whether
people were specifically belly dancing in New Testament accounts.
We can surmise gospel characters were engaging in Middle Eastern-style
dancing, however, because the characters were mostly Semitic,
not Greek. We also know that ancient Greek dances involved such
belly dancing-related items as finger cymbals, and that some
ancient Greek rhythms strongly resembled ancient Near Eastern
what's most interesting in the New Testament is that according
to Jesus, God is like a musician and human beings benefit when
they willingly dance to his tune. Jesus' statement echoes David's
Psalm 29, where David describes Yahweh as a belly dancing frame
drummer (see "God
belly danced, part I").
our decision to choose or reject following the pace God sets
for our lives to music and dance. That Jesus would use the example
of dance to make such an important theological point clearly
shows his approval of it.
Novum Testamentum Graece 26th edition (Greek Scriptures)
United Bible Society
Greek New Testament, fourth edition
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.)
the Lines: A Fresh Look at the Hebrew Bible by Pamela Tamarkin
Reis; Hendrickson Publishers; 2002.
in Biblical Israel by Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager;
Westminster John Knox Press; 2001.
in Ancient Israel and Palestine by Joachim Braun; William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company; 2002.
Women of Ancient Times by Vicki Leon; MJF Books; 1995.
of the Nile by Wendy Buonaventura, Interlink Books; 1998.
Music of Greek Antiquity, Vol. 2" CD by Petros Tabouris; FM Records.
a comment? Send
us a letter!
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
of the 25th Anniversary San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival photos
by Susie Poulelis
3, held June 21 & 22, 2003 presented by World Arts West at
the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco, California
Journey to Nepal by Daleela
I will never forget Nepal and the dance adventures we encountered. They will
remain etched in my mind forever. What I found most amazing is how much I learned
about Middle Eastern dance going to Asia.
Artwork of Scott Arguette
essence, a good dancer owns the stage; she requires it and manipulates
it as a fighter dominates the field.
7-7-03 Baraka & the
Bus or What happened to Baraka? by Baraka/Beth
By now, having lost my home, my studio, my library, my
recordings, and my database, you would think I would start to get
the hint that it might be time to move away from dance. Having
been a dancer literally all of my life, I simply couldn't give