- The Conversation*
- Christian-Georges Schwentzel
Among the female archetypes of Antiquity acclaimed by pop culture in recent years are Cleopatra, the Amazons, and Aphrodite.
But Salomé, a heroine adored until the early 20th century, has fallen into relative oblivion. An injustice that must be repaired!
The Gospels tell us of the murder of John the Baptist at the end of a famous banquet around AD 29 in which Salome is said to have danced. The purpose of the festival was to celebrate the birthday of Herod Antipas, the young woman’s great-uncle and tetrarch, that is, governor of some territories in the southern Middle East on behalf of the Romans.
The dance of Salomé took place in one of the fortresses of Antipas, in Maqueronte, that Flaubert, in Hérodias, one of the “Three stories” published in 1877, very aptly places east of the Dead Sea.
A head on a tray as the price of a dance
Antipas had arrested and imprisoned John the Baptist, a popular preacher whose violent tirades against the established order could have incited a revolt.
John the Baptist was also found guilty of the insults uttered against Herodias, the wife of Antipas.
Herodias never tired of demanding that the insolent prophet be put to death.
But Antipas was not very clear about it, because he knew that John the Baptist was a just and holy man, as we can read in the Gospel according to Saint Mark.
Antipas’s birthday offered Herodias the propitious moment to achieve his goal. The tetrarch’s wife attended the party accompanied by her daughter Salomé, the fruit of a previous marriage.
During the banquet, the daughter of Herodias began to dance and pleased Herod and his guests. The tetrarch, as a gesture of gratitude, made him this oath: “Whatever you ask of me, I will give it to you, even if it is half of my kingdom.”
Then, Salomé, under the influence of her mother, claimed “on a plate, the head of John the Baptist“.
The tetrarch did not dare to refuse, so as not to look bad in front of his guests. He immediately sent a guard to behead him in his cell. And Salome received the head, which she gave to her mother.
Princess Salome was born in the year 18 and was therefore only 11 or 12 years old at that time.
The Greek term by which she is defined in the Gospel is “korasion”, a neuter diminutive of “korè” (girl). The word “korasion” not only evokes a girl, but also deprives her of all femininity.
Salome’s dance was not, therefore, an erotic dance, unless we suppose that the evangelists resorted to irony. That is, the hypothesis that a seductive woman starred in that dance seems unlikely, according to the scriptures, where all familiarity is out of place.
En the origin of the myth of Salomé’s dance perhaps there was nothing more than the performance of a girl on the occasion of her great-uncle’s birthday.
Salomé, a girl transformed into a shameless woman
Salome undergoes a metamorphosis as an erotic figure three centuries after the writing of the Gospels, in Sermon 16 (For the beheading of Saint John the Baptist) by Saint Augustine.
Here, Salomé shows off her breasts in the course of a frenzied dance: “Sometimes he leans sideways and shows his side in view of onlookers; sometimes, in the presence of these men, she shows off her breasts. “
In this way, Salomé became a shameless and fatal adolescent. Like other similar figures in patriarchal societies, she embodies the feminine danger against which men must protect themselves.
The famous dance may well have occurred. However, as historian Harold W. Hoehner points out, the Gospels do not attribute any erotic connotations to Salome’s performance.
Saint Augustine became, despite himself, a promoter of the exceptional destiny of Salome, whose condemnation soon became a fantasy. The girl’s dance was a great success from the Middle Ages.
On the tympanum of the portico of St. John, in the cathedral of Rouen, which Flaubert knew well, an acrobatic Salome writhes with her head bowed and her legs raised.
In the 15th century, the painter Benozzo Gozzoli portrays a proud teenage girl who does not hesitate to attract Antipas with her eyes.
Stunned, the tetrarch has his right hand immobilized on his heart, while, with the other, he grasps a kitchen knife erected on the banquet table, a discreet phallic symbol that suggests his excitement.
Salomé is also pictured, sure of herself, by Cranach the Elder (1531): does not seem impressed by the bloody head that he carries on a plate, like the trophy of his victory, while Antipas makes a gesture of disgust.
Cranach highlights the opposition between the proud beauty of Salome and the tetrarch, depicted as a large figure with a heavy gaze. The artist also plays with the contrast between the elegance of the young virgin and the face of the beheaded prophet, mixing eroticism and cruelty in a work that can be described as sadistic.
The doubling of the female threat
In 1877, when Flaubert published “Herodias” she remembered the contortionist on the tympanum of Rouen Cathedral. He was also inspired by his own experiences, especially in the company of the dancers. Kuchuk Hanem y Azizeh, whom he met in Egypt.
The character of Salomé expresses both the attraction and the terror caused by the power of seduction. The fall of the saint symbolizes the castration of man alienated by desire.
A desire that bewitches, and prevents any judgment, awakened by the simple sight of parts of the female body: “A bare arm reached out, a young, charming arm “.
The young woman’s physique is fragmented. Its various plots or characteristics help to ignite the desire of the viewer: “The arches of his eyes, the chalcedony of his ears, the whiteness of his skin.”
The clothes are also detailed, highlighting the flesh that makes her even more attractive: “A bluish veil that covers her chest and head”, “hummingbird down shoes”.
Flaubert expresses a kind of fetishism for seductive oriental feminine adornments. This image was later used in the cinema, in the dance of Brigid Bazlen embodying Salomé in the film “King of Kings“(1961), by Nicholas Ray.
Although the title of the story refers only to Herod, the work is built on a duplication of the female threat through the closely related figures of the mother, true master of ceremonies, and her daughter, no less formidable, as executor of the maternal script.
This is how Antipas falls into the nets of these two fatal women: the manipulator and the sorceress.
The fallen idol
After Flaubert, Salome still populated the western imagination for a few decades. In 1891, Oscar Wilde invented the theme of the dance of the seven veils for his work Salomé, later brought to music by Richard Strauss (1905). The figure of Salomé then reached its artistic peak.
Later, it was embodied in the cinema by some sulphurous actresses such as Rita Hayworth (“Salomé”, by William Dieterle, 1953) or Brigid Bazlen (“King of Kings”, by Nicholas Ray, 1961). And in 1988, Imogen Millais-Scott perfectly played the role of a cheeky lolita in Ken Russell’s “Salome.”
But in the second half of the 20th century, the public’s fascination for the biblical dancer disappears in favor of new more contemporary and positive female icons or feminists.
Salomé is no longer really an idol of our time.
* Christian-Georges Schwentzel. Professor of Ancient History. Lorraine University.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.