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 Bible in Matthew 14:6-11 and Mark 6:21-28. In the Bible, the dance is not named, and this name first appeared in print in the stage notes to Oscar Wilde's 1891 play Salome. It is not a traditional Middle Eastern dance, but more probably a Western invention steeped in Orientalist misconceptions, although some believe it to have associations to ancient Eastern religions. In the modern Western world, the dance is often associated with striptease, although some belly dancers perform more artistic interpretations.
The dance of the seven veils has appeared as a theme in art and literature since Oscar Wilde's play first appeared. It is the climax of Richard Strauss' Salome opera, based on Wilde's play. Women playing Salome through the years have performed memorable and often scandalous versions of the dance. The dancer begins the dance wearing seven veils and removes them one by one as she dances, often, but not always, ending the dance nude or nearly so.
Some have claimed that the dance of the seven veils has its roots in an ancient myth about the Sumerian goddess Inanna or the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. 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 or a symbol of her royalty. The number seven was significant to the ancients, as it is the number of heavenly bodies visible to the naked eye without a telescope: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn and Jupiter. Therefore, there are seven major gods in many ancient religions, and the number seven appears in many myths and classification systems.
Modern day mystics see the dance 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. The idea of "the seven veils of mystical experience" actually predates Wilde's play. These "seven veils" are, in order, Dreams, Reason, Passion, Bliss, Courage, Compassion, and Knowledge.
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. Memorably, the dancer in Robbin's novel removes the veil covering her groin first and saves the one covering her face and head for last, suggesting that the dance is not about titillation, but about shedding one's worldly hangups.