The Dance of the Seven Veils
Rev. Jane Page
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Statesboro
February 22, 2009
Note to Reader: This presentation was accompanied by visuals being unveiled as the message was delivered and background music, etc. There really is no way to convey the same experience in narrative form only. However, in an effort for my ministry to be as “transparent” as possible, I share the following with you.
Mark 6: 21-28
21 And when a convenient day was come, Herod made a supper for his birthday, for the princes, and tribunes, and chief men of Galilee. 22 And when the daughter of the same Herodias had come in, and had danced, and pleased Herod, and them that were at table with him, the king said to the damsel: Ask of me what thou wilt, and I will give it thee. 23 And he swore to her: Whatsoever thou shalt ask I will give thee, though it be the half of my kingdom. 24 Who when she was gone out, said to her mother, What shall I ask? But her mother said: The head of John the Baptist. 25 And when she was come in immediately with haste to the king, she asked, saying: I will that forthwith thou give me in a dish, the head of John the Baptist. 26 And the king was struck sad. Yet because of his oath, and because of them that were with him at table, he would not displease her: 27 But sending an executioner, he commanded that his head should be brought in a dish. 28 And he beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head in a dish: and gave to the damsel, and the damsel gave it her mother. 29 Which his disciples hearing came, and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.
In popular culture, the “dance of the seven veils" is believed to be the dance that Salome performed for her stepfather, Herod, as described in the earlier reading from Mark. In the Bible, the daughter’s name is not given and the dance is not named. We find the name Salome in the family lineage of Herod supplied by Josephus, the Jewish historian.
So where did the “dance of the 7 veils” come in?
In 1891, Oscar Wilde wrote a play called “Salome” in which the daughter uses seven veils in her dance. Since that time, the “dance of the seven veils” has appeared as a theme in art and literature. And, of course, more than one striptease artist has used this theme as part of her performance. It is not a traditional Middle Eastern dance, but a Western invention steeped in Orientalist misconceptions, although some believe it to have associations to ancient Eastern religions.
Some have claimed that the dance of the seven veils has its roots in an ancient myth about the Sumerian goddess Inanna. In this myth, the goddess descends into the underworld and must pass through seven gates on her journey, at each of which she must surrender a piece of jewelry.
Modern day mystics see the dance of the seven veils and the story of Inanna's descent as a metaphor for enlightenment, shedding "veils" of illusion on the path to deeper spirituality of self-realization.
In his novel Skinny Legs and All, Tom Robbins offers a similar but updated interpretation of the dance of the seven veils. With each veil the dancer removes, a different worldly illusion is challenged and shattered.
(Note to Reader: Above italicized paragraphs are quoted from: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-the-dance-of-the-seven-veils.htm)
Skinny Legs and All was the first Tom Robbins book that I read and it’s still my favorite. I read it back in the early 90’s when it made the best seller list. I had never heard of the author – and probably was attracted to the book by its unusual title and book cover. After I started reading the book, I turned more than once to the information in the back about the author to assure myself that this was a MAN writing this story. I had never read a novel by a man that was written from such a feminist perspective. And I fell in love with Tom Robbins and his writings. I especially identified with his character Ellen Cherry Charles – for she also had been raised with a very conservative patriarchal theology. Near the end of the book, the artist and waitress Ellen Cherry Charles has the opportunity to observe a middle eastern young woman named Salome do that very famous dance with the seven veils in the restaurant where she worked across from the United Nations. And again, I identified with the shedding of illusions that occurred for Ellen Cherry Charles during that dance. I felt like I had been observing a similar dance for decades.
Today I’m going to share with you some of the truths that were revealed to Ellen Cherry during this dance. Now these are Ellen Cherry’s epiphanies – not mine. And yes, after we unveil these seven truths on the wall, I’ll perform my own dance of the seven veils and you can see if you have an epiphany – other than Jane Page doesn’t mind making a fool of her self. I think most of you probably already know that!
Eric – will you give us a little mood music?
(Note to Reader: All words in italics in the remainder of this message are quoted from Robbin’s novel, Skinny Legs and All.)
Tom Robbins begins his description of the dance with these words:
Salome turned slowly…. Imperceptible to the audience, she emitted a soft, low howl. Then she danced.
Salome danced and the first veil dropped. The veil had not lain long on the floor when Ellen Cherry began to … well, to receive ideas. It was as if they were somebody else’s thoughts, zapped by ray into her brain, where instantly they took hold and became her own.
Earth, it occurred to her, was a sexual globe.
Robbins goes on to describe how Ellen understood that this very special planet covered with a green scum of life was so unique in our solar system – and our special planet was especially sexual. Every form of life vibrated with sexuality, the colors, smells, and activities of the plants and animals were all related to sexual attraction. There was attraction and – yes – rejection – even among the molecules.
Despite an often ostentatious masculine display that would indicate otherwise, the sexual drama…was largely, historically, directed by the female. That was particularly true among human beings, in which species the male had gone to ludicrous and often violent lengths to compensate for what struck the more insecure of men as an inferior sexual role. One of the lengths to which they went was the establishment of patriarchal religion and the recasting of a father figure as the producer of the show…. Those men, envious and anxious, not only fired the Great Goddess but they also spent thousands of years and billions of dollars trying to conceal the fact of her existence….
Yes, that’s it! Thought Ellen Cherry Charles.
After the second veil fell, Ellen Cherry realized immediately that “Human beings do not have dominion over the plants and animals.
Every daisy in the field, every anchovy in the bay had an identity just as strong as her own, and a station in life as valuable as hers….
Plants and animals – perhaps even minerals and inanimate objects – were in partnership with humans. Moreover, they, not us, were the senior partners, as a result of their experience and their perfection…. Humanity was a function of nature. It could not, therefore, live separately from nature except in a self-deceiving masquerade. It could not live in opposition to nature… And it could not blind itself to the wonders of nature without mutating into something too monstrous to love.
When the third veil fell Ellen Cherry understood that… it was futile to work for political solutions to humanity’s problems because humanity’s problems were not political. Political problems did exist, all right, but they were entirely secondary. The primary problems were philosophical, and until the philosophical problems were solved, the political problems would have to be solved over and over and over again….
And she saw that primates took their dominant males (for human’s their political bosses) too seriously. …Of course, as long as there were willing followers, there would be exploitive leaders. And there would be willing followers until humanity reached that philosophical plateau where it recognized that its great mission in life had nothing to do with any struggle between classes, races, nations, or ideologies, but was rather a personal quest to enlarge the soul, liberate the spirit, and light up the brain. ON that quest, politics was simply a roadblock….
Exactly! Yes, that’s right! Thought Ellen Cherry….
When the fourth veil fell, Ellen Cherry understood then that religion was an improper response to the Divine.
The Divine was eternally in flux, forever moving, shifting shape. That was its nature. Although it had its god and goddess aspects, it was ultimately no more male or female than it was star or screwdriver. IT was the sum of all those things, but that sum could never be chalked on a slate. The Divine was beyond description, beyond knowing, beyond comprehension. But the puny of soul, the dull of wit, weren’t content with that. They wanted to hang a face on the Divine….
The Divine was expansive, but religion was reductive. Religion attempted to reduce the Divine to a knowable quantity with which mortals might efficiently deal, to pigeonhole it once and for all so that we never had to reevaluate it… Thus since religion bore false witness to the Divine, religion was blasphemy. And once it entered into its unholy alliance with politics, it became the most dangerous and repressive force that the world has ever known.
Yes! I see it now, thought Ellen Cherry. The religious training I was given as a girl was a form of child abuse. And she though she heard somebody next to her say, “Yeah! That’s right! I see it now.”
As Ellen Cherry was pondering all of this, Salome began shedding veil number five. With the falling of that scarf, there vanished the last vestiges of any illusion one might have retained about money.
Whenever a state or an individual cited “insufficient funds” as an excuse for neglecting this important thing or that, it was indicative of the extent to which reality had been distorted… During periods of so-called economic depression, for example, societies suffered for want of all manner of essential goods, yet investigation almost invariably disclosed that there were plenty of goods available. Plenty of coal in the ground, corn in the fields, wool on the sheep. What was missing was not materials but an abstract unit of measurement called “money.” The loony legacy of money was that the arithmetic by which things were measured had become more valuable than the things themselves.
Ellen Cherry also realized that money could not buy security, and if it could, it would be a bad bargain at any price, since security was a form of paralysis
When the sixth veil flew away, Ellen Cherry’s mind was occupied with time, history, and the afterlife.
She saw that the past was a recent invention, that people sacrificed the present to a future that never really came, that those who tied all of their dreams to an after life had no life for there to be an “after” of; saw that time was a meadow not a highway; … and that on every conceivable level, belief in a hereafter was hazardous to health.
“But what about Judgment Day?” Ellen Cherry found herself whispering. And the voice in her head said:
“Every day is Judgment Day. Always has been. Always will be”.
When the seventh veil few away, Ellen Cherry’s thought was: Everybody’s got to figure it out for themselves.
Yes, that was it. The government wouldn’t take care of it for you, no matter how much you’d paid into Social Security… You couldn’t learn it in college, colleges chose largely to ignore it. Churches, conversely, were falling all over themselves to save you the trouble of thinking about it; they would hand you an answer as neat and tidy and definitive as your horoscope in the daily paper – and, unfortunately, just about as useless Of course, …great books, paintings, and music were helpful, in an inspirational way; nature, even more so. And… valuable clues were constantly dropping from the lips of philosophers, spiritual masters, gurus, shamans, gypsy circus girls, and wild-talking tramps in the street. But they were clues, only….
The illusion of the seventh veil was the illusion that you could get somebody else to do it for you. To think for you. To hang on your cross. Was there a more difficult lesson for a human being to learn, a paradox harder to accept? Even though the great emotions, the great truths, were universal; …each and every single individual had to establish his or her own special …hands-on relationship with reality; with the universe, with the Divine. It might be complicated, it might be a pain in the ass, it might be, most of all, lonely – but it was the bottom line.
And with that – Salome’s dance was over. Ellen Cherry had one last epiphany though – and I’ll share that with you at the end of my dance.
JANE’S DANCE OFTHE SEVEN VEILS
(Sorry – there is no way to share this minister’s unveiling in narrative form.)
At the end of the dance the room was silent, transfixed…. And Ellen Cherry thought,
Come on, now…. What’s the punch line? There’s got to be something else. Until finally a voice inside her said:
“We’re making it up.”
Who? And What?
The who is: “Us. All of us.” The what is “It. All of it. The world, the universe, life, reality. Especially reality.”
We’re making it up?
“We make it up. We made it up. We shall make it up. We have been making it up. I make it up. You make it up. He, she it makes it up.”
Oh, Yes! I see it now. We are making it up!
And to our awesome C R E A T I V I T Y,
I say – AMEN and BLESSED BE.