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…
…she may have danced or may not have danced. But, if she did dance, it wasn’t a belly dance that she did, nor was it a tap, the tango, or the quick step. The belly dance aspect was imagined in the late 19th century by some artistic guy, and we’ll get there, later, when it’s timely. She did perform, that much is true, and she performed for the host, her stepfather, at the instigation of the hostess, her mother, and their banquet guests.
It was an entertainment interlude, and it occurred about the 1st century AD in a castle located in area called The Galilee. She may have performed in a play about some Greek mythological character or she may have been the one non-Bedouin ( a guest) in a troop of Bedouin entertainers who did folk dances that non-Bedouins enjoyed seeing. If it was the former, the structure of the play was rigid: it was a pantomime, with stringed instrumentals to keep the story line going, mime actors of both genders, all adults, and young children acrobatics of both genders. Everyone was masked. This was a troop of professional entertainers on the payroll of biggies, not a traveling group (a type not yet invented). They were probably on the payroll of her stepfather and she had time to practice with them before the banquet.
If it was the latter, it was a dance, one with a lot of whirling and head tossing, by females in heavy blue robes with cowls, and there was a flute accompaniment. The company did not live in The Galilee, but were nomads from the desert between The Galilee and Arabia, who had come by request of the biggie. It is unlikely that Bedouin dancers were involved in this banquet, for they had to walk a fine line in their desert migrations, land that abutted both The Galilee and Arabia. at that time There was bad blood between Aretas IV King of Arabia and Antipas, stepfather of Salome, Tetrarch of The Galilee, the place where the banquet and the entertainment took place and the place where Salome lived. And, Salome would not have had time to practice the whirling and head tossing before the banquet.
So, it was a Roman style play about Greek mythology that was probably performed as the intermediate event between courses or the closing event of a posh banquet. The host, her stepfather, was a Herod we’ll call Antipas, (not as high as a King) and the hostess, her mother, was named Herodias (a former Queen, divorced from her 1st husband, Phillip, a King, and now married to a mere Tetrarch, making her a Tetrarchess, I guess). The guest list contained: nobles visiting from Rome, Roman nobles stationed in The Galilee by Rome, aristocrats from The Galilee and maybe Judea, and Antipas’ Steward, Chuza. Some sources say the banquet was thrown by Herodias because it was Antipas’ birthday, an unnecessary embellishment, to my way of thinking. Most sources are silent about the reason for the banquet, so I tend to go with most when it’s a fact such as this kind. Any banquet takes preparation, whether you’re a Queen, a Tetrarchess, or merely the wife of a mope. So, along with the food and seating plan, Herodias prepared for the entertainment and decided that Salome’s participation in the entertainment would be the thing to do before the banquet took place. Herodias is described as a savvy kind of gal by the benign tellers of the tale (she’s vilified by most) and Salome was her only child (by Phillip), so she probably made time to watch Salome rehearse. A lot was riding on Salome being real real good. Nothing anywhere says whether Salome wanted to be a part of the entertainment or was unwilling to be a part of the entertainment.
Herodias planned a staid, Roman affair. It could not have been a bacchanal type banquet (similar to the present Wild On’s on E!), as some sources suggest. There were stringent Roman rules about highborn women and what they can attend and do in while in attendance. Herodias was high born and from Judea. (Antipas, her second husband, was not as high born, coming from an Idumean father and possibly a Samarian mother.)
Salome was just a kid at the time of the banquet. Some sources say she was a teenager, but they have to in order for other parts of the legend to fit. (We’ll get to the other parts later.) I doubt if she was a nubile teenager. She was royalty, a Princess, in fact, with very good blood on her mother’s side, Maccabean blood, which was respected even by Rome, who, by the way, had conquered Judea (and The Galilee) long before this time and made this area a part of their Empire. Modesty and chastity were required for this type female from a Roman standpoint and a Maccabean standpoint (her bloodline was matriarchal). She had to be dutiful, respectful, and learn at her mother’s knee, an important custom amongst the Maccabean women. She was a good kid. So, she couldn’t have been a teenager and allowed to perform. It would diminish her future value in the marriage market, Roman or otherwise, and it would have been a sin. I would opine she had to be less than Nadia Comaneci’s age when she blew away the Olympic judges in 1976, but she was probably just as agile.
It’s probable that Herodias recognized her daughter’s agility long before the banquet, for kids have a tendency to display what they’re good at long before there’s a use for the tendency. It could have been a genetic throwback to the time before the Maccabees were promoted to highborn, the time when the men were just about the best guerrilla fighters in Judea and found the mountainous regions around Judea excellent terrain to entice their foes into combat. She was probably proud of this tendency and savvy enough to see a utilization for her own good. This also pre-supposes that Herodias might have had more contact in Salome’s upbringing than Roman highborn mothers or that there was a lot of contact between highborn mothers and their daughters at that time. In either case, Herodias planned the banquet and the entertainment and included her agile daughter in the entertainment, making sure Salome rehearsed and would do a good job in the acrobatic kid part of the troop…a multi-tasking woman for sure.
Protocol at posh and formal banquets where Roman mucky mucks were invited was stringent. This would have been very important to Antipas, also. He had been raised in Rome (maybe even a hostage child) and the land he administered at the time of the banquet had been bequeathed to him by Rome. Augustus (of the Cleopatra story) had handled the apportioning of Antipas’ father’s enormous estate when he, known as Herod The Great, died. Antipas was not happy with the way Poppa’s estate was apportioned, felt he had gotten the short stick amongst his four brothers. (He had.) He would have been very, very Roman at this Roman banquet in order to make nice and have this get back to Rome.
The men would have reclined on the equivalent of 1st century Barco-Loungers and ate lovely things and drank lovely wine moderately, while trading amusing stories and quips and bantering amongst each other. I’m not sure just what bantering is, but I am sure they bantered. They would have been arranged in a horseshoe pattern. The women guests and their hostess would have sat on chairs and I couldn’t figure out where the chairs were placed, within the horseshoe in a line or outside the horseshoe in a line. But in any case, they would have sat on fancy, but hard backed, chairs in a line and would not have eaten, drunk wine, but I suggest they may have bantered. Their job was to just sit, all gussied up and smellin’ good. (They would eat and drink, later, when they got home or when the guests left, depending on your perspective.)
Salome could not have been invited. If she had been invited, she would have left her fancy, hard-backed chair vacant in order to get into costume and perform. Antipas would have noticed the empty chair and have asked someone, “Where did the kid go?” And, someone would have said, “She’s going to perform.” That would have taken the drama out of this next part of the story. Let’s agree; she was not invited to the banquet.
At the proper time, the play was performed, and the audience clapped after it was over. Antipas complimented the performers, then singled one out. Because it was Salome that was singled out, I believe she was one of the masked acrobats. It only makes sense. Antipas apparently didn’t recognize the stepdaughter he had raised since infancy as the excellent acrobat in the play. Rather, he thought her one of the professionals, for if he had recognized her, he wouldn’t have offered the giftreward. He just would have said, “Good job, sweetie. Go get washed. You’ll catch cold.” Therefore, because he didn’t recognize her, he made a magnanimous gesture (It’s not unlikely that he was showing off for the guests, for Antipas was a doodle-head, didn’t think things through. We’ll get to that, later.), and he offered the acrobat-Salome anything she desired as a gift from him for her fine performance. This is exactly what Herodias had planned to happen. She knew her guy pretty well and she knew her little girl real well. The benign tellers were right: she was a savvy gal.
Since all sources attribute what comes next as engendered by Herodias, the acrobat-Salome had to have asked him to wait a minute and had to have gone to the chair line, where her mother and the other women were sitting, otherwise Herodias would not have been associated with what comes next. (It would have been only Salome who would have been associated with what comes next.). So, the mother and daughter had to have conferred quietly, while Antipas (and the guests) watched. Perhaps, Salome said, “Euwww,” as kids do when they hear something revolting; or perhaps, not. She was a 1st century kid and they may have been different from 21st century kids. I think not. Kids are kids. She said “Euwww.” Dutifully, she listened closely to what her mother told her and she probably repeated it back to Herodias, so that she got it right and straight. Then, she, the acrobat-Salome, came back to Antipas with the gift idea: the head of the long time prisoner John (who later became John the Baptist, but who was merely the prisoner John at this time) on a platter (which was probably not a platter, but a charger).
It’s possible that he recognized Salome at this point. It doesn’t really matter. I do know he knew he had been set up by his wife, Herodias, via this acrobat-Salome, when he heard the performance reward. And he was startled and embarrassed and in a public quandary. It’s possible he questioned the acrobat-Salome with an ‘are you kidding? kind of question, while looking in Herodias’ direction, who either shrugged her shoulders or nodded ‘yes.’ From a legal standpoint, he did not have to honor this acrobat-Salome’s request, for it wasn’t hers. It was Herodias.’ But that’s not how it went down.
Everyone at the banquet knew there had been a big mad between Herodias and Antipas regarding John for a long, long time. She had wanted him killed outright for talking often and badly about her and her marriage to Antipas to everyone and anyone who would listen to him. John had labeled it incestuous and it was, kind of, but by only a technicality, like the small print in a big long contract. Herodias’ first husband, the Herod we’re calling Phillip, was Antipas’ half brother. They shared the same father, Herod The Great, but had different mothers. Phillip was still living in Judea where he was King (Rome gave him a large portion of his father’s estate, larger than Antipas..) and as long as Phillip lived, Herodias and Antipas had an incestuous marriage. As soon as he died, it would be an okay marriage. But, he hadn’t died, yet.
Although it was the gossip that bothered Herodias (A good spin doctor would have helped, but they were 2000 years down the road in development.), it was the religious twist John put on the technical incest that bothered Antipas. John attributed all the stuff that had gone wrong in The Galilee since they married (and stuff had gone wrong, for Antipas was a doodle-head) to the marriage. And, John said that the monotheistic god was angry with her, more than Antipas, because of her good Maccabean blood (a mix of Idumean and Samarian blood results in a person that the monotheistic god doesn’t expect much from), and would stay angry with her and get more so, so the anger would spill over to the whole of The Galilee, until she and Antipas split (or, I guess, until Phillip died, a factor that was out of her hands).
People listened to that kind of stuff at that time and in that place and they got real scared. A monotheistic god’s anger was a terrible thing. Famine, drought, disease, pestilence, flood, invasion, even eclipse – anything could happen when a monotheistic god was angry. While there hadn’t been famine, drought, disease, pestilence, flood, invasion, or even an eclipse in The Galilee, Antipas had lost a war, his first, with Nabatea, their neighbor in Arabia.
Herodias could have been a vulnerable position should important people have listened to John’s predictions. Luckily for her, the important people had other things on their mind. Antipas said ‘no’ to killing John and ‘yes’ to imprisoning him, believing that would shut John up. Some sources said Antipas had a feeling that John’s predictions were true; others said he had a feel for the monotheistic deity. Still others say he was merely acting like a political animal, notably, a fox. At any rate, John was not killed, but imprisoned, and he had been languishing in the prison for many years at the time of the banquet.
Now, killing a local prisoner was no big deal anywhere in the 1st century world of the Roman Empire and having a prisoner killed to reward an agile acrobat was stretching the reward idea, but… it could work. The thing is that the head on a plattercharger was the note that made it a bigger deal. This touch was a gruesome, certainly barbaric, dramatic thing and would cause a scandal and gossip all over Judea and in Rome, what Antipas did not need if he were to ever get any more land from his dead father’s estate from Rome. (And it did, for Flavius Josephus in his book, “Antiquities,” writing to and for Rome about 100 years after the event ,included the event for it was still so juicy. This, by the way, is how we know about some parts of it.) (An important question occurs to me and that is this: How and where did Herodias get this notion? The very best I can come up with is the Greek myth of Perseus and Medusa and their fight to death. Perseus won. He decapitated Medusa and waved her head around and took it a bunch of places as a talisman. It must have been awful after a time. Maybe that’s where she got it, for she was well educated. Perhaps, she then pragmatically adapted it to the opportune situation at hand. Beheading was a popular type of death and an honorable type of execution for criminals and warriors amongst the Romans and the Maccabees and the Arabians. This, I discovered, from plunking around on the Internet to some very weird websites. I don’t recommend you check this out for yourself. Truthfully, I cannot imagine where she got this embellishment. One of these weird websites calls her talented.)
The doodle-head complied.
A messenger was sent to the fortress named Macharerus (now called Mukawir) in an area called The Perea (now part of Amman, Jordan) where John was imprisoned. A nameless guard cut off his head, and got a messenger to convey it to the castle somewhere in The Galilee, where the banquet guests were waiting, the males still bantering with one another, I guess, to pass the time; the females still sitting quietly on their hard chairs, smellin’ good. The acrobat-Salome probably went off somewhere to bathe and change clothes, then returned to the banquet room to stand next to her (talented) Momma or stand with the performers. The guards put the headless body somewhere, waited for further orders.
I couldn’t find out how far away the area The Parea was from The Galilee, for I couldn’t pin down exactly what city the castle was located in the area known as The Galilee, then, the area where the banquet occurred. Let’s believe it wasn’t terribly far, so the messenger conveying the head could get from there to there quick. He arrived and a kitchen servant brought a plattercharger (No one knows if it was a platter made out of silver, gold, porcelain, or stoneware. In fact, no one cared. Furthermore, it may not have been a platter, but a charger, which is larger than a plate and smaller than a platter and rested under a plate at a table service and was often of precious metal. Since it’s a Roman banquet, people took morsels of this and that from servant-held chargers, didn’t have a table service at all. They were reclining.) where the head was placed. Another servant, a serving type, brought the head to the banquet hall and stood in front of Antipas. It’s possible he directed the servant to acrobat-Salome, who took the plattercharger and gave it to her Mother. One redactor source makes Herodias even more gruesome stating: she got a sword and stabbed the tongue. This is an embellishment that even Flavius Josephus didn’t believe, so he doesn’t mention it. What she really did with it, I don’t know. (People who thought John had a direct line to the monotheistic god requested his body and his head from Antipas, who released both parts to them. They took it to an area called Samaria, which was close to The Perea, and buried it.)
What happened after this part of the banquet took place, I don’t know. I imagine some guy yawned and said, “It’s been quite an evening. I think it’s time to get going.” And the guests all went to their lodgings. It’s probable that Antipas and Herodias had a long conversation, after the guests left. When they were alone in their private rooms, he probably opened the conversation with: “We never talk anymore, Herodias. Tell me what’s going on with you.” Salome, who had been up long past her normal bedtime, was probably overtired and went to sleep or was put to sleep immediately.
And there you have it. Salome didn’t dance, didn’t wear veils, and had a strong bond with her Mother.
End of Part 1