Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Mata Hari

Mata Hari Is Born

She wanted a new life so she baptized herself with a new name: Mata Hari. In Malay, matahari is the term for the sun. Literally speaking, it means "eye of dawn."

Mata Hari in stage costume at Guimet Museum in Paris, 1905
Mata Hari in stage costume at Guimet
Museum in Paris, 1905

It was under this name that a bold, exotic dancer debuted in the Musée Guimet on March 13, 1905. The scene is detailed in Russell Warren Howe's book, Mata Hari: The True Story: "...a half life-size carving of Siva, with four arms, was placed on the improvised stage with a bowl of burning oil at his feet. Mata Hari was dressed from the museum collection, as were four supporting dancers who, in the course of the rite, would vie for Siva's attentions but retire in humility as the god directed his invitation to Margaretha Zelle alone. Bracelets from the collection embellished her wrists, biceps, and calves. A belt from India, encrusted with previous stones, held a translucent Indian sarong in place. She attempted to maximize what nature had given her a minimum of by stuffing with cotton wool the bejeweled metal breast cups she sported for the occasion.

"The diaphanous shawls she wore as the dance began were cast away to tempt the god until finally, as the candelabras were capped and only the flickering oil light gleamed on Siva's features, the sarong was abandoned and her silhouette, with her back to the audience, writhed with desire toward her supernatural lover. The four dancing girls chanted their jealousy as Mata Hari groaned and worked her loins deliriously. All passion spent, she touched her brow to Siva's feet; one of the attendant dancers tiptoed delicately forward and threw a gold lamé cloth across the kneeling figure, enabling her to rise and take the applause."

And the applause was deafening for the audience went wild over Mata Hari's extraordinary performance. She was an overnight success and a success that would have repercussions throughout the world for she was pivotal in elevating the striptease to an art form. The fabulous dancer was courted by many European venues and triumphantly took her act to Spain, Monte Carlo, and Germany. She often stripped down until she was almost naked but never quite. The dramatically jeweled breastcups stayed in place so people could not see what she did not have. She was also covered by a body stocking, one that was similar in color to her own skin but obscured her pubic hair.

Mata Hari gave the public a history of her life designed to aggrandize both herself and her art. While her autobiography varied from time to time, the downtrodden and often impoverished Dutchwoman she had been was always absent from it. Her usual story was that she had been born in India of a Brahman family. Her mother had been a temple dancer who died while giving birth to Mata Hari. She had been raised in the temple of the god Siva and consecrated to his service.

Her European audience, ignorant of the specifics of Indian and Southeast Asian culture, accepted her statements on her own background as well as the Hindu spirituality of her dancing. She would tell them, "My dance is a sacred poem in which each movement is a word and whose every word is underlined by music. The temple in which I dance can be vague or faithfully reproduced, as here today. For I am the temple. All true temple dances are religious in nature and all explain, in gestures and poses, the rules of the sacred texts."

Mata Hari dancing, 1905
Mata Hari dancing, 1905

While the history of herself that she relayed to her adoring (and not-so-adoring) public was fictional, it may not be considered what we usually call just plain lying. It was a common practice for entertainers of various sorts to invent colorful histories for themselves as part of the entertainment package so to speak and Mata Hari fit into that tradition.

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