Ricks, Stephen D., and Shirley S. Ricks. “‘With Her Gauzy Veil before Her Face’:” The Veiling of Women in Antiquity.” In Bountiful Harvest: Essays in Honor of S. Kent Brown, edited by Andrew C. Skinner, D. Morgan Davis, and Carl Griffin, 245-56. Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2011. [Near East/Israel/Sacred Vestments]
Review: In this brief article Steve and Shirley Ricks survey the use and symbolic meaning of women’s face veils in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern world. As is apparent from their footnotes, their research is based largely in the work of other scholars. According to them face veiling was first mentioned in a 13th Century B.C. Assyrian text which specified that veils were restricted to noble women, but was apparently later expanded to include free married women, widows and concubines. Common women and prostitutes were prohibited from wearing veils.
There were originally two interpretations of a woman’s face veil. First, it symbolized that she was the property of a man. As a bride she often wore a veil until the night of the consummation of the marriage when the man was permitted to raise the veil symbolizing the groom was taking possession of his bride. Ancient Judaism viewed it as a symbol of the couple becoming one in the marriage bed. The second, was that the veil was the mark of the well born woman, a symbol of wealth and privilege. This notion was even adopted by the ruling class in ancient Greece. However, our authors point out that in the Bible some women wore veils to disguise themselves and the story of Tamar was actually an exception to the rule that prostitutes were not veiled.
Most of the article is devoted to a rehearsal of face veiling among the major cultures in the northern and eastern Mediterranean basin. The longest section discusses “Face Veiling in the Bible” and reviews the major biblical accounts regarding face veiling and its symbolic meaning in each. The authors also briefly discuss face veiling in the Hellenic world, in Egyptian mythology, in the early Christian tradition and in early Islam. In this section we learn that there were subtle differences in the use and symbolic meaning of the face veil among these different cultures. Some interesting facts are introduced regarding each culture. For example, it may seem counter to one’s expectations to learn that face veiling was “not generally practised in ancient Egypt.” (p. 352) In early Christianity candidates for baptism were often veiled. This held different meanings for such interpreters as Theodor of Mopsuestia (it was a sign of freedom), St. Augustine (unveiling was a sign of freedom), and John the Deacon (the veil was symbolic of the priesthood, since priests of that time wore a “mystic veil” on their heads). Surprisingly, the strict veiling for women was apparently not the norm for early Islam until its second century.
This discussion also includes an important tangent to the effect that the Bible refers to the veiling of Moses (a man) when he came off of Sinai, and to veils over various parts of the temple. They assert without ascribing the assertion to any other authority, that “Such veils were intended not so much to obscure as to shield the most sacred things from the eyes of sinful men, which purpose would also make sense in the veiling of women.” They return to this theme in the “Conclusion” of the article in a summary of various meanings of the veil in ancient times: “What is holiest among us–the most sacred precincts of the tabernacle or temple, and women–is protected with veils.” (p. 356).
The conclusion also introduces a thought or two not dealt with in the body of the paper and one particular meaning of the face veil is elaborated. This involves veiling women to reduce or eliminate the distraction of men by the hair or faces of women. However, in the body of the paper where this matter is discussed it is placed on a different basis. Baptismal candidates were veiled, they quote Wilford Cote as saying, “in order that their mind might be more at liberty, and that the wandering of their eyes might not distract their soul.” (p. 353, my emphasis.) In the conclusion our authors reverse the referent of the one being distracted, but again, without ascribing this difference to any authority other than themselves. They do cite Hugh Nibley in reference to Mormon veiling in the prayer circle to this purpose: “the complete concentration and unity of the participants that requires the shutting out of the trivial and distractions of the external world.” This isn’t entirely transparent because only half those participating are veiled. Perhaps the face veil is intended to assist both men and women in avoiding distractions and focusing on “the religious task at hand” but this reasoning leaves open the question as to why it is women who were and are veiled.