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Murdered For A Dance

June 6, 2015 Frontpage No Comments

By RAY CAVANAUGH

Many are aware that John the Baptist, whose feast day is June 24, was the one who baptized Jesus. But people may not know about the strange and rather warped circumstances under which he died: While imprisoned by the tetrarch Herod Antipas, John the Baptist was beheaded as compensation for a single dance performed by the king’s stepdaughter.
John the Baptist reportedly was born six months before Jesus. His father was a priest in the Temple of Jerusalem, and his mother was related to Mary, Mother of Jesus. As a young man, John spent much time in solitude in the Judean Desert. He then resurfaced as a preacher who began to attract a considerable following.
Among those who came to hear him preach was Jesus, whom John recognized as the Messiah, and whom he baptized. Though John was the one who baptized Jesus, he knew who was more significant, and began steering his followers toward Jesus.
Both men would have been on the radar of the region’s politically important, such as Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea, who had married his brother’s wife, Herodias, after her divorce. Of this new marriage, the most outspoken critic was John the Baptist, who viewed the marriage as adulterous and incestuous.
Herodias was infuriated that this man would have the audacity to cast negative remarks on someone of her lofty stature. Owing to his wife’s outrage, Herod Antipas had John imprisoned in his fortress of Machaerus, according to first-century historian Flavius Josephus, who wrote Antiquities of the Jews.
If it were up to Herodias, the prisoner would have been put to death immediately. Herod, though, was quite conflicted about the situation. As said in Mark 6:20: “Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe.”
One can imagine that Herodias might have been plotting some way to bring about John’s demise. Her grand opportunity would arrive on Herod’s birthday, when he threw a lavish celebration, which, according to Mark 6:21, was attended by: “his courtiers and officers and the leading men of Galilee.”
There came a point in the festivities when Herod wanted dancing — performed especially for him, and in the form of his lovely young stepdaughter, Salome, who was also his biological niece. The exuberance of the feast and the wine, along with the anticipated stimulation of a dancing Salome, proved too much excitement for Herod Antipas, who — in the heat of the moment — promised to her:
“Ask me for whatever you wish, and I will grant it.” All she had to do was dance for him. Salome, having danced and not knowing what she wanted in return, went to her mother, who knew exactly what she wanted: the severed head of that righteous man they called John the Baptist who dared to criticize her marriage.
When Salome voiced the request, Herod instantly regretted his wild promise. Though Herod was a superstitious and fearful man, he had given his word in front of many witnesses; he felt compelled to honor his part of what turned into a deadly bargain. So he dispatched a soldier of the guard with orders to behead.
The soldier returned with John’s head on a platter. This ghastly offering was given to Salome, who, in turn, gave the platter to her mother, the person who really wanted it.
Artistic depictions of Salome surfaced around the 11th century, with the appearance of medieval carvings and stained-glass windows. She is found on the 12th-century bronze doors at the Basilica of St. Zeno in Verona, and in 13th-century mosaics at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. Her image was also strong at the time of the early Italian Renaissance; Donatello and Giotto were among the artists who gave her their attention.
For whatever reasons, it would take several more centuries for the story of Salome’s fatal dance to impact literature. Writers have portrayed her as having widely varying degrees of moral culpability. Gustave Flaubert wrote a story, Herodias, in which Salome is a young girl who cannot even remember the name of the man whose head her mother has instructed her to request.
However, in Oscar Wilde’s tragedy, Salomé, published in France in 1893 and seen as the foremost literary work on the subject, Salome is cast as a depraved character who ventures so far as to kiss John’s severed head. Wilde’s Salomé was published with illustrations rendered by Aubrey Beardsley, who provides a vivid, if slightly grotesque, touch. Beardsley had quite the morbid imagination, and in one of his renderings Herodias is carving a slice along John’s decapitated head.
Another prominent artwork was Gustave Moreau’s The Apparition, in which Salome is the predominant figure, tiptoed and bejeweled, whose outstretched arm points triumphantly at the severed head of John the Baptist. This painting was rendered in 1876, a time when the mythic account of Salome’s dance was enjoying a mighty, if somewhat embellished, resurgence. She somehow had become the era’s most prominent femme fatale, a ruthless and calculating icon of gyrating concupiscence.
The real-life Salome would — after her brief but influential career as a birthday dancer — go on to marry twice. Her first marriage was to Philip the Tetrarch, another biological uncle, and the half-brother of the man for whom she had so infamously danced. Philip died not long into the marriage. Salome then entered into a second marriage with Aristobulus of Chalcis, the King of Lesser Armenia. The marriage produced three children; that is about all we know of Salome’s life from this point onward.
Her later life becomes very obscure and receives no mention in the New Testament. Her year of death is placed somewhere between 62 and 71 AD.
Certain apocryphal stories circulated about the nature of Salome’s demise; these tales quite possibly were vengeful fantasies expressed by those who resented her for her role in the beheading of the man who baptized the Son of God. Though John the Baptist has never been formally canonized by the Church, it is understood that he always has been a saint — one whose life was exchanged for a single dance.

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(Ray Cavanaugh has written for such publications as Celtic Life, History Today, and New Oxford Review, as well as for The Wanderer.)

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