SALOME and HERODIAS, A Curious Mothers Day Story, Part 2 of 2 Parts
First, a disclaimer:
This article requires information about John the Baptist, whose life and works and words are holy, divinely inspired, to Christians. The sources I've accessed are religious, historical, literary, exegetic, and anecdotal. In order to avoid disrespect for the sacredness of the words and concepts with which Christians hold The Gospels and with which Jews hold The Torah, I've renamed both 'translated redactions.' I also use the euphemism, monotheistic god, to avoid any disrespect to any deity and religion. This is an essay designed to entertain and inform you, Dear Reader, not to cause any religious discussion or foment.
Second, a thank you:
To friend Pam and friend Vanessa, both of whom got my research juices going on Salome, whom, I believed, was trivial, too trivial even for our newsletter. It boiled down to "Who did she do the belly dance for?" I hadn't a clue, because I didn't think she was real. They both assured me she was a real person. I checked it out. Yup, she was real and...To discover how the belly dance became associated with Salome, we have to veer away from her. It's Herodias and John who carry the story line forward.
At the time of the banquet, Herodias was the 2nd wife of Antipas, and they had been married for about 10 years. (Antipas was the only father Salome had known.) Salome's biological father was Phillip, who was King of Judea, a large land mass, much larger than the area called The Galilee, and he and Herodias were divorced when Salome was about 1 year old. Herodias had been an important wife when Phillip was first made King by Rome because of her Maccabean blood. The Maccabees had been rulers of Judea long before Phillip came on board, but through a lot of circumstances, Judea was ruled by the Herod bunch and had accepted Rome's yoke by that time. The Maccabees were prolific (as was Herod The Great), and there was a large pool of eligible Maccabean women for rulers to marry. It was a stable region in Rome's empire. In any event, the divorce was with Rome's permission. Phillip was allowed to marry some one else with Rome's permission, and I didn't check out who. He never asked for visitation rights.
Some sources say Antipas first met Herodias when Herodias was on a trip to Rome with Phillip petitioning Rome for something or another at the same time that Antipas was in Rome (alone) petitioning Rome, yet again, for the title of King and more land from his father's estate, neither of which Rome never granted him in his lifetime. I don't think it matters how they met. They met, they talked, a deal was struck.
I don't know why Herodias left Queenship of Judea to become a Tetrarch's wife. There are always sources that attribute lust to this sort of situation, and these sources do arise in this story, some attributing lust to Herodias, others attributing lust to Antipas. Personally, I find lust a poor reason. A Queen, one of royal blood, just doesn't think lust. She thinks power and lineage. A tetrarch, although not as powerful as a King, doesn't have to go far from his little castle, even as far as Judea, to satisfy a lustful thought. An unhappy Tetrarch thinks power and lineage, too. Maybe it was her Maccabean blood and her Maccabean ties that Antipas thought would help him become a King of a landmass that included Judea, which her ancestors ruled before Rome put the Herods there. Maybe she thought The Galilee plus Judea is bigger than just Judea. Maybe she thought that The Galilee plus Arabia, which abutted The Galilee, is bigger than Judea should Antipas go to war for the Arabian territory. In any event, she left Phillip before the divorce (which came through quickly) and went to Antipas' puny area, The Galilee.
She also jumped the gun. Antipas was not yet rid of his first wife, Phasaelis, when Herodias and the baby arrived. And, he hadn't petitioned Rome to get rid of Phasaelis and marry Herodias. Although Phasaelis was a Princess by blood and the daughter of a powerful neighbor and King, Aretas IV of Nabatea (Arabia), Antipas decided to circumvent Rome by merely 'putting her aside,' an ignominy. This was not nice. Phasaelis went home to Poppa (and took the kids, if there were any with she and Antipas) who bided his time a bit, then attacked The Galilee, because of the dishonor.
Troops from all of Herod the Great's sons (half-brothers to a man) jumped in to help The Galilean troops, even Phillip (inherited family land was a big thing; a former wife was nothing) and Roman legions jumped in to help, too. But land was lost and that, by definition, means The Galileans lost the war. He never did divorce Phasaelis and she never returned to him.
Herodias stayed put and she and Antipas married (with Rome's permission, whose attitude toward provinces was very pragmatic: the war is over; they lost; let 'em marry; who gives a damn) and lived in a castle somewhere in The Galilee with the baby.
Antipas' reputation went from an annoying pest to miserable in Rome's eyes because of this double screw up (stupidly and unnecessarily dishonoring a neighbor's daughter thereby incurring an unnecessary troop expense on Rome's tab and loosing land to a King who was not conquered by Rome). He decided to Make It Better. Tiberius was now the Caesar and Antipas decided to build a city to honor him. He commandeered land in The Galilee and his construction people began building a city. But, Antipas and his building contractors either didn't do their homework, or if they did, they didn't think it through. The land upon which the city was being built was a cemetery, sacred ground to every person in the world then as well as today. There was an uprising amongst the folk that local troops could not quell. Again, Rome had to help Antipas out, for Judea wouldn't, since they sided with the people, not Antipas. The people were quelled and the city was built. It remained uninhabited. No one would go there to live no matter how sweet the pot Antipas created (free homes, free land, tax abatement). Rome had to send troops to forcibly move families to Tiberius and to guard them so they wouldn't move out in the dark of the night. Flavius Josephus liked this morsel a lot when he heard of it. He checked around and then comments that riff-raff were recruited to populate the city. He observes that even the riff-raff were afraid of the monotheistic god, so local holy people made a rule: the new settlers would only be defiled for 7 days, then everything would be okay.
And life went on in The Galilee.
John, during some of this, had been going about his business in The Galilee. One particular thing he did caught on amongst the folk. No one knew what to call it, so it had two different names: sprinkling and lave-ing, both of which were already accepted cleansing rites in most, if not all, religions before that time and during that time in that area and most of the known world. Water was always the cleansing agent and John used the nearby Jordan River as the sprinkling and lave-ing site. What John did was total body immersion, a new twist, one the people liked a lot, for it made sense to them and made them feel good and purified from sins committed previously. This total body immersion always occurred after John would talk about sinning and give definitions. He would call for penitents, people who wanted to cleanse themselves. They would step forward and get in a line, so he could do them one-by-one. He had set himself up as a person who knew what the monotheistic deity expected of good folk (mostly it was to stop acting like Romans and revert to the Galilean ways, the ones prevalent before Rome took over the area). While he was in prison and after his death, other people did the immersion for him. What he had said before he was imprisoned was credible to the folk.
But then, John was imprisoned and killed years after he was imprisoned.
Very soon a very lot of other things happened in The Galilee. These events were written down and pondered and interpreted by brilliant, eloquent, and sincere men, three of whom decided that John and what he said and his immersion twist was a ceremony that would be important to incorporate as a ritual for their testimonials. They were the redactors whose words have been translated and pondered for centuries. Their decision caused his death to be discussed (and his childhood, parents, vocation, inspiration, relationships, etc. to be determined) and this is how Herodias' name was never forgotten.
The earliest redactor, a stickler for details, had a problem with her daughter's name, when he read Flavius Josephus, who says 'a damsel, the daughter of Herodias, brought the head?' in his book to Rome. This was not good enough for him. He did some easy homework, for Herodias' royal lineage was known and available. He determined that Herodias' daughter was named Salome. This was not good homework. Herodias was Maccabean. No Maccabee, male or female, would ever name a child for a still living person, let alone the actual name of a relative, this case, a blood aunt, who was living at the time of her daughter's birth. But, it's all we have, so she must remain misnamed Salome (which means 'peace,' a nice touch, don't you think?) when John's beheading is talked about and when Herodias' progeny is included.
And this is how Salome and Herodias and John were tied together forever more. Many centuries have to pass by before the triangle comes into focus again. We have to wait for society to go from antiquity all the way to modern?at least 1,970 years or so. More specifically, we have to wait for a religion to formalize; we have to wait until John's contributions become important and incorporated; we have to wait for churches to be invented; we have to wait for representational art to be used for something other than decorative purposes; we have to allow for the Bubonic Plague interlude when absolutely nothing happened except the death of millions; we have to wait for literacy to occur; we have to wait for Gutenberg and his printing press; we have to wait for portraiture to be invented.
Once churches were invented, representational art was applied as a method to tell the stories to the illiterate devout people. The triangle story was not as popular as other stories, so it was represented only some times. The scene chosen was most always was when the plattercharger is proffered takes place. No one character of the triangle is more important that the other. It's the story behind the scene that's important, and that is John's death (but not as a martyr, I don't think, but I may be wrong). Typical friezes and frescos from churches in the early 14th show the scene with figures that are medieval in demeanor and costume. That's what the medieval people needed; that's what they got. Their eyes could roam the church for something to center on, if their attention drifted from the devotions at hand.
Everything gets pretty quiet everywhere, beginning 1330, when the first Bubonic Plague episode begins and we have to wait a long time, about 150 years, for normalcy to occur.
In 1485, the beheading surfaces. Portraiture had been invented by then, and art has gone into homes of wealthy people, who ask artists to do pictures for them, often of them and their family members. One type of portraiture allowed the viewer to be a voyeur, to glimpse an intimate scene, a freeze frame, if you will, from a larger story, if the artist was good. Religious art was a popular theme. The artist selected the motif and there was a lot of symbolism to get the whole story line into the canvas. It's Salome and the plattercharger that's chosen, when this subject is chosen at all, and truth be told, it's lousy, static portraiture. She's not portrayed as a child, but she's not portrayed as a woman, either. "Damsel," was apparently interpreted as that twilight zone a female has between childhood and woman. I don't know why the subject matter was chosen by the patron or the artist, who apparently just couldn't get into 'it.' I guess my opinion was shared by the patrons from 500+ years back, for this theme dies out.
John and his sainthood, not his death or Herodias or Salome, become the theme of most art, and we have to wait until 1630 to find the others of the triangle depicted again.
In 1630, a blockbuster piece of art is produced (my opinion) that asks you to consider Herodias, not John. It's my absolute favorite, by a guy named Francesco del Cairo, "Herodias with Head of John the Baptist." It is so different from all others than came before (and after). Is she exhausted, meditative, musing, or in a trance? A closer look might surprise you. Could she possibly be holding his tongue while on the verge of stroking his hair? I believe she is. What could del Cairo have been thinking? What is he asking us to believe about Herodias? Frankly, I don't wanna go there. No one else did either, for depictions of Herodias (and Salome) simply stop until the 1800's and John in his sainthood continue...with one exception.
In 1732, Giovanni Battista does a picture of the actual beheading at the fortress site, which I think is worthwhile to mention for its interesting consideration. Could that be Antipas, the doodle-head, Battista places in the scene? Perhaps. I think Battista's got a neat mind. No one else did. This theme is not picked up either.
We have to close the books on artwork at this point in time, jump about one hundred years forward. Because of a single painting of Herodias by Paul Delaroche in 1843, it's the literary arts, the poets and authors and playwrights, who pick up the story and fiction supercedes reality. Herodias, first, and Salome, next, sans John, are the motifs for the first time. They move from real people to fictional characters.
Delaroche shows Herodias as exotic (read, non-European) (The euphemism used for most any type non-European at that time was Occidental.), regal (He did his homework.), authentically dressed (more good homework), and very, very lovely. The look on her face is open to interpretation. Has the grotesque event occurred or not yet? Is she serene or is she challenging us to question her? I don't know who is represented in the background, for it certainly cannot be Salome. Herodias is a person in her own right. I would like to tie Delaroche's interpretation to having viewed del Cairo (although I don't know if this occurred, not having the resources to track the provenance of the del Cairo picture to align its location with Delaroche's life).
Apparently Heinrich Heine, a German poet of some renown, was enchanted by the picture. He wrote a poem in 1843, "Atta Troll," which sources say is a mock epic about Herodias. I was unable to find an English translation, so I have to accept what sources say as true. What I do know is that an epic is a very long and twisted story (the Iliad and the Odyssey are epics) about fanciful adventures of a protagonist (usually heroic) in pursuit of good end. How Heine got enough ideas about Herodias, who was arcane by this time, to go on and on about her pursuit of an end, good or not good, I don't know. I guess that's called talent. In any event, he catapults Herodias (and the triangle) back into the minds of artistic people and they make her (and the triangle) interesting enough for public contemplation.
This mock epic and Delaroche's painting next enchanted Stephane Mallarme, another poet of some renown, a Frenchman. He got his juices flowing and wrote a poem in 1869, "Herodiade," whose English translation I was unable to find. I have absolutely no idea what his poem says. Critics say she described sultry (for the first time). I have to believe that Mallarme associated Occidental with sultry, not an uncommon association amongst fanciful European guys. Herodias is changing to heroic (maybe if Heine's epic shows her to be this), Occidental, and sultry (read sexy).
All this got a French artist (of some renown) all excited. Gustave Moreau pondered the triangle and centered on Salome, instead of Herodias. He figured if Herodias was sultry, then Salome was more sultry. I don't know why, but that's what he did. He worked and worked this theme and ended up with a bunch of pictures with her as the (undressed) focal point, a first in Salome's depictions, and threw in John's head to make it all understandable. They were finished in 1876. All are amazing. The very last time Salome was the chosen subject matter was in 16th century (bad) portraiture. She's always holding the plattercharger and has a boring look on her face and is all dressed up in 16th century costume. What the hell did Heine's mock epic and Mallarme's poem allude to with regard to Salome? I don't know.
Anyway, Gustave Flaubert, a French writer of some renown, apparently read Heine and Mallarme and saw the picture interpretations of Delaroche and Moreau. All inspired him to write a short story in 1877 about Herodias, which indicates excellent homework, by the way. This, I read, and in this short story, she is called a Jezebel, albeit an aging one, for the first time. Her daughter is described as resembling her mother in her youth. You can read it, too. Go to http://www.classicbookshelf.com/library/gustave_flaubert/herodias/0/. It's now fictional open season on Herodias and by association, her daughter, Salome.
Then came Joris-Karl Huysman, who liked what Heine, Mallarme, and Flaubert wrote and liked Delaroche's and Moreau's pictures. He went with Salome, not Herodias, in 1884, for his essay, "Against the Grain." The essay is really prose poetry in the style of "The Song of Solomon," real, real sexy. The essay was labeled decadent after it was published. You can read it, too, if and when you get in the mood for 19th century decadence. Go to http://www.imagi-nation.com/moonstruck/salome1.html.
In the 19th century, certain people loved decadent stuff, especially the artistic types who felt stultified with conservative stuff and who felt they had to push the envelope of public taste. This decadent Salome idea percolated for ten years in Oscar Wilde's mind before his play, "Salome," was performed in 1893. An interesting touch was his collaboration with Aubrey Beardsley to do playbill artwork. Wilde was jailed it was so damn decadent.
Within a year after Wilde's play, Beardsley came out with a folio of images of Salome. It's racy for the bare breasts and belly button, but it's also a curiously clunky, non-sexy posing of Salome. Why is her midriff covered? Why is she wearing high heeled shoes with bows at the ankle? What the hell is going on here? Mere titillation, nothing more. Shame on you Beardsley.
Everything rested until 1905, when Richard Strauss, a German of music renown, chose Salome as his opera subject. His librettist, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, an Austrian poet of some renown, put words to the decadent musical motifs. A costume designer, whose name I could not find, turned her eastern Byzantine and gave her a harem twist and a costume of 7 veils. A choreographer had her shimmy (belly dance). In the first performance of "Salome,' Marie Wittich, described as an ample soprano Salome, refused to do the dance or wear the costume. A nameless ballerina accommodated the scene and this became a tradition each time the opera was performed. One critic, a word wizard, called Strauss the apostle of decadence. This made the people want to see it for themselves. Strauss' "Salome" was performed 50 times in the first two years after it was written in opera houses all over the world.
This chronicle has ended.
PS. A beheaded John, not yet a saint, is so very popular that I had to find a depiction of John with his head on. Caravaggio was quite taken with him and did a lot of versions of John with his head on.
Barbara Nell, publisher of The Perspicacious Woman OnLine, a bi-monthly fashion e-zine in its 10th year of publication, has been a closet bug on history all her life.
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