Scene4-Internal Magazine of Arts and Culture

How Old Was Salome?

Kim Chernin

Two short verses in the New Testament: Mark’s a bit longer than Matthew’s. From this laconic cornucopia, hundreds of  years of cultural adaptation, revisiting and revising, have flowed down to us.  Artists  have been more interested in re-creating the dancing girl, with her lascivious stepfather and vindictive mother, than in asking why the central dilemma, simple in itself, and in the biblical telling not even particularly dramatic,  continues to fascinate. 

Behind the scenes the story gathers depth. Salome’s mother Herodias hates John the Baptist, who has declared it unlawful for Herod to marry her, the wife of Herod’s brother.  Herod would like to put him to death but fears the people who regard him as a prophet. Herodias prompts Salome to dance; she tells her exactly what to ask for when Herod rewards her by granting her wish. When she asks for the head of John the Baptist, Salome is acting out her mother’s revenge.

It can’t be the palace scheming that has fascinated the artists who have adapted the biblical story,  more likely the nubile, perhaps pre-adolescent girl dancing for her (step)father in the  murderous, drunken atmosphere of the court.  When Oscar Wilde added the strip tease of the seven veils he might have known that he was telling a story of incest and child abuse. If so, he would have been almost alone in seeing it that way, although Flaubert, no doubt getting at the same thing, has the young girl forget the name of the man who will soon be murdered.  Salome has come down to us, in film, literature, song and opera, as preeminent femme-fatale, as decadent as the court in which she has been raised. It’s hard to remember that she is a girl, young enough to be still under her mother’s thumb, scarcely responsible for the fever pitch in which Herod agrees to murder John the Baptist. What does she do with the head once she gets it?  She doesn’t kiss its lips, which taste of blood, as in Strauss’ opera based on Wilde’s play.  She certainly doesn’t fall into an erotic daydream  as she clutches the bleeding head. The bible says simply: “And his head was brought on a platter and given to the girl, and she brought it to her mother.” (Matthew 14:3-11) 

She brought it to her mother.  How did this girl (how old? The bible doesn’t say; perhaps as young as Lolita?) manipulated by her mother to dance for her drunken (step)father, acquire such a bad reputation?  “No longer was she merely the dancing-girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old Vice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs her flesh and steels her muscles, a monstrous Beast of the Apocalypse, indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning. This description, from the 1884 novel  √Ä rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans, sums up our culture’s take on Salome.

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Kim Chernin is an award-winning author who writes in many genres. Her books include: In My Mother’s House, Everywhere a Guest, Nowhere At Home.
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©2017 Kim Chernin
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April 2017

Volume 17 Issue 11

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