It is hard to believe that the biblical character associated with two of history's immortal phrases— "Bring me the head of John the Baptist" and "The Dance of the Seven Veils"—is not even named in the Bible. Fleetingly mentioned in the New Testament Gospels of Mark and Matthew, Salome is identified simply as the daughter who so inflamed a king with her sensual dancing that he granted her request to behead the prophet who preached the coming of Christ.
Yet she has become a creature of legend, her story commandeered and bent to the imaginations of countless artists, writers, and dancers centuries after she lived.
Maybe it was all her mother's fault.
Salome's mother, Herodias, was a granddaughter of Herod the Great, the King of Judea from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. In the account of Flavius Josephus, the first-century historian, Herodias's first husband was her uncle, Herod Philip. After the birth of their daughter, Salome, she left Herod for her husband's half brother Herod Antipas, the tetrarch of Galilee.
This rather incestuous union was repeatedly criticized by the prophet John the Baptist. "It is not lawful," he told Herod Antipas, "for you to have your brother's wife." At the same time, the religious movement John began was growing in popularity, threatening Herod Antipas with a rebellion among his subjects. In fact, Herod's military losses in a border war with the King of Nabatea were seen by many subjects as divine punishment for his marriage to Herodias after he had divorced Nabatea's daughter. In an attempt to weaken John's influence, Herod imprisoned him in the remote fortress of Machaerus on the cliffs above the Dead Sea in southern Perea. John's popularity, however, made Herod reluctant to martyr him through assassination.
At a celebratory banquet given at the palace fortress at Machaerus, the story goes, Herodias deviously arranged for Salome to dance for the pleasure of her stepfather. The sensual dance, although it is not described in detail, so delighted Herod—and, by implication, so aroused him—that he offered "even half of my kingdom" to the young girl. Delivering her well-planned coup de grâce, Herodias instructs the girl to make one request: "I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptist on a platter."
The king, though deeply shocked, is nevertheless unable to retreat from the magnanimous offer he made in front of so many witnesses. So John is retrieved from his prison cell, and his head is cut off. The head, sitting in a pool of fresh blood, is brought to Salome on a tray. She then gives it to her mother.
Gruesome in its details, and even more stunning in its portrayal of the young girl's lascivious dance, the drama of Salome has long been suspect. "Some scholars have questioned the entire story," writes Ross Kraemer in Women in Scripture. Kraemer cites, among other discrepancies, Josephus's account of the death of John, as well as differing dates in the Gospel and Josephus accounts that would have made Salome the wrong age for the role. Kraemer says it seems likely that "the entire narrative is a fabrication."
Amy-Jill Levine, professor of New Testament studies and director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality at Vanderbilt University Divinity School, also questions the historical accuracy of the dance of Salome. "Her existence—including her marriage to the king of Chalcis—is noted by Josephus," says Levine, "and he'd have no reason to invent her. As for whether she danced for Herod Antipas and his friends, or whether she was involved in the death of John the Baptist—highly, highly doubtful."
Both Kraemer and Levine say Salome's story bears more than a passing resemblance to an earlier Roman narrative. "The story of Salome's dance appears to be modeled on the 2nd-century B.C. story of a Roman senator, Lucius Quinctius Flaminius, who, at a dinner party with a paid attendant—courtesan may be the nicest term—beheaded a man upon her request," Levine explains. "She wanted to see what a decapitation looked like."
Levine says readers of Mark and Matthew, "if they knew this earlier story, would see Herodias in the role of the courtesan." And the dance itself would have been a very improper event, Levine notes, saying a member of the royal household would never have performed for friends of the king. "The ancient world is not like today, where the kids are trotted out to play the piano for guests."
The motivations for the Gospel writings are also open to question, Levine points out. "Mark and Matthew use the story to show the corruption of the Herodian court in Galilee and the weakness of Herod Antipas; he is depicted as ruled by, or at least manipulated by, his wife, much as Pilate is seen as manipulated by the high priest or the crowds." In other words, says Levine, "once we look at the story as part of a narrative, it can be seen to emphasize other Gospel scenes."
Not so fast, says Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. "I consider it rather pathetic that any scholar should doubt the historicity of the biblical references to Salome," he says, "since all reports in the Gospels regarding Herod Antipas, his second wife, Herodias, and her dancing daughter accord perfectly with outside information on these people."
Maier points out that Josephus was an expert on the Herodian dynasty, figured out Salome's name, and pinpointed John the Baptist's execution site as Antipas's fortress palace. "The mound still stands today," Maier says, "waiting to be excavated." Details of the Salome event dovetail perfectly with the biblical version, Maier says, concluding, "Any critic who uses this episode on which to superimpose a question mark has chosen a hopelessly wrong target."
Whether Salome's role in biblical history was fictional or real, it was the adoption and adaptation of the story by later painters, playwrights, and dancers that ensured her lasting fame. In almost every medium, artists have explored Salome, from medieval bas-reliefs in France, to 13th-century Italian mosaics, to Gustave Moreau's intricate 19th-century watercolors. Artists have long been inspired by Salome's holding the head of John the Baptist, finding in the event a compelling story of eroticism and violence.
But with the writing of his 1891 play Salome, Oscar Wilde ushered in a new era of interpretation for the story—a portrait of Salome that has overtaken the Gospels. "It was left to Oscar Wilde...to give Salome a fame that would reach far beyond the elite artistic and intellectual circles where she ruled from her distant pedestal," writes author and former New York City Ballet dancer Toni Bentley in her book Sisters of Salome. "Wilde's Salome would become a pop icon."
The play was banned before its first scheduled performance, whipping a waiting public into a frenzy even before the appearance of accompanying erotic illustrations in the 1894 English version by a 22-year-old artist named Aubrey Beardsley. The German composer Richard Strauss used Wilde's text as the libretto for his hugely successful 1905 opera, Salome. Salome's performance finally had a name: The Dance of the Seven Veils, an elaborately sexual unwrapping that makes Herod's lust understandable, though not excusable.
"It's a striptease," says Bentley, who has no doubt that Salome's dance was deliberate. "However you cloak it, whether it's classical ballet or striptease, dance is sexual," she says, noting that women who dance have often been portrayed in history as dangerous women. "I think the Bible sends the message that Salome is a bad woman—meaning sexual woman," says Bentley. "Even though the mother is complicit, even though the stepfather orders John's death, Salome is ultimately held responsible for the death of a holy man—a classic case of blaming the woman."
And what end did Salome herself meet? According to the legend presented by historian Nicephorus, Salome fell through the ice on a frozen lake, the shards piercing her neck and decapitating her—a fittingly dramatic death for a woman who so easily solicited murder. The historian Josephus, however, tells us that Salome led a fairly routine existence, marrying and bearing three children by her cousin Aristobulus, living out her life without further scandal.