Symbolism of the Veil

A veil symbolises a separation. The separation might be:

  1. between two states of being (e.g. married and unmarried)
  2. between physical objects
  3. between concepts

Veils are typically made from diaphanous material. At first glance the nature of the separation appears flimsy. Importantly, the separation is two-directional.

Veil as both ‘revealing’ and ‘hiding’

The word ‘revelation’ comes from Latin revelatio, which means to draw back the veil. Hidden knowledge is often said to be ‘veiled’. These two functions highlight what is easy to miss about the symbolism of the veil: It means two quite different things at once. Symbols are commonly ‘multivalent’, meaning they have multiple applications, interpretations, meanings and values.

Let’s take the example of a nun. Crucially, a nun who ‘takes the veil’ to become a Bride of Christ is removing herself from the world, but she is also removing the world from herself.

Perhaps this same symbolism holds in marriages between flesh-and-blood people, though the veil as marriage symbol does differ somewhat. These days the veil is often simply a wedding accoutrement, but across cultures, marriage veils traditionally symbolise patriarchal claims on women as wives.

In a crystal clear example of misogyny, the Greek word for veil is ‘hymen’. Historically, the lifting of the bride’s veil at a wedding symbolises the tearing of the hymen on her wedding night. (The hymen does not in fact ‘tear’ but ‘stretches’ and makes for terrible proof of virginity, in turn a terrible concept.)

Veils Around The World

The veil is thought to protect (as an apotropaic item of clothing). Therefore, somehow penetrating or lifting a veil happens in many kinds of initiation around the world and across history, not just in marriage.

In Islam, the Qu’ran says women should be addressed from behind a veil, hence the existence of the hijab, which is how the symbolism has been put into practice. Because veils are seen as bi-directional, defenders of the hijab say that it offers women freedom (from objectification) as well as protection.

Brides often wear veils, and perhaps again once widowed. The veil is a crucial part of the attire of the 19th century Black Widow. Ironically, these veils afforded the opposite of ‘protection’ — they were actively harmful to health:

Called a “weeping veil,” this shroud was made of a crimped silk fabric called crape, and wearing it allowed one to “weep with propriety,” as the women’s magazine M’me Demorest’s Quarterly Mirror of Fashions put it in 1862. Unfortunately, due to the dyes and chemicals used to the process the fabric, these veils could also cause skin irritation, respiratory illness, blindness, and even death.

Racked

When did Western women give up the tradition of wearing a mourning veil?

…by the 1890s, mourning conventions had shifted. Many fashion magazines and etiquette manuals were now urging readers to wear just a light net veil, or stick with the crape veil but let it hang down one’s back. Sales of mourning crape plummeted.

Racked

We still see the custom of mourning veils. In Muslim tradition, woman mourners are asked to wear a scarf or veil to funerals.

In Buddhism, the concept of Maya (translated as “pretense” or “deceit”) functions as a symbolic veil which separates pure reality from the illusory nature of the world we live in. I suspect the symbolism of the mask also comes into play here and is equally bi-directional — the separation clearly works both ways.

The following is from an anthropologist studying the Pentecostal and supernatural beliefs in Papua New Guinea. Importantly, many people in this part of the world mix supernatural beliefs with beliefs introduced by Christianity, hence talk of witches:

First, Christian piety manifests as “light” or “shine” in the body and person of the devout. Pious Christians, those who especially exhibit the presence of the Holy Spirit, are so bright they are like “mirrors”: they reflect back the invasive gaze of the witch. Second, and similarly, people discuss the blood of Christ as offering protection from witches. While often used as a metaphor, where the blood of Christ symbolizes redemption from sin, it is often described by my informants in quite material and bodily terms as a veiling shroud that prevents witches from seeing inside a person. Rather than the interior of bodies, the witches will instead see only the blood of Christ. One might say that the blood of Christ on the exterior of the body is actually the interior of the Christian body being made exterior, a body being turned inside-out. All of these ideas evoke powerful Melanesian constructs linking power and persuasion to what can and cannot be seen, how people make themselves visible to one another, and how that visibility implicates people in moral relationships to each other.

Becoming Witches

In other words, symbolic veils help to make someone immune from the powers of persuasion, whether that persuasion comes from witches, or capitalism, or wherever. When I think of a veil, I conjure the image of a wedding veil, made of diaphanous material. But in this part of the world, the Blood of Christ functions as a veil.

Therefore, when considering the concept of a veil, the Papua New Guinean example reminds us that veils come in various forms, in their case, the blood of Christ. As a Westerner, I personally find this idea of blood as veil a difficult concept. This difficulty demonstrates how significantly our own cultures mould us when it comes to the ‘universal’ interpretation of symbols (not so universal after all).

The Hag of Beara

The Hag of Beara (Irish: An Chailleach Bhéara, also known as The White Nun of Beara, or The Old Woman of Dingle) is a mythic Irish Goddess (a Cailleach or a divine hag, crone, or creator deity; literally “veiled one” (caille translates as “hood”, the implications that the woman is a nun) associated with the Beara Peninsula in County Cork, Ireland, who was thought to bring winter. She is best known as the narrator of the medieval Irish poem “The Lament of the Hag of Beara”, in which she bitterly laments the passing of her youth and her decrepit old age.

Wikipedia

Cailleach means three things in Gaelic, unrelated until you know the mythology:

  1. Hag
  2. Nun
  3. Veil

Like many violent, ugly, cannibalistic hags from folklore, the Hag of Beara is unhappy because she hasn’t had any children. She must also live forever because she doesn’t have children to carry on the family line.

Why the veil, given what we know about how veils function symbolically? It’s popularly believed that she wore a veil to make herself mysterious. But does that go far enough?

The guy in the video below uses the analogy used by Joseph Campbell, the snake shedding its skin. One standout feature of this particular Irish hag is that if a man dares to kiss her, he experiences the privilege of a rebirth. So the veil in relation to this particular hag might emphasise the fact that there is a barrier between two quite different states of being.

Veils and Katherine Mansfield

Taking The Veil” is a short story by Katherine Mansfield, about a young woman who imagines a life in which she is about to become a Bride of Christ instead of a flesh-and-blood earthly bride. Many of Mansfield’s short stories lamented the disappearance of freedom and autonomy which came with subsuming oneself inside a relationship, especially as experienced by women. For me, the veil in this story exists symbolically as a division between the main character’s fantasy life and her real one.

Mansfield was no doubt interested in the symbolism that could be eked out of a veil. In “A Dill Pickle“, about a woman who meets an old beau and finds him even more insufferable than he was six years ago, Mansfield concludes with:

She had buttoned her collar again and drawn down her veil.

This is an excellent example of multivalent veil symbolism. Sure, Vera is closing herself off to the possibility of marriage with this man. But I think there’s more going on. Throughout their meeting in the cafe, Vera has been careful to subdue her appetite. She hesitates before accepting sustenance, as expected of a lady. But this is a thin disguise. The ‘beast’ in Vera is clawing to get out. In the end, she must leave the cafe before it reveals itself, busting her cover as a society lady, living covertly in genteel poverty. The ‘thinness’ of the veil is what’s emphasised here.

Header image: The Entombment c. 1805 William Blake 1757-1827

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