Maya Angelou once said that “everything in the universe has a rhythm. Everything is dancing. But all dances are not the same. If you were asked to make a list of the most famous dances in history, you could mention Fred and Ginger, the film’s final scene. Dirty dance, or even the Moonwalk. Perhaps the most influential dance in history was Salomé’s performance for her stepfather Herod Antipas at his birthday party. Salome danced so well that Antipas was ready to give her whatever she wanted up to the value of half of her kingdom, which in this case turned out to be the head of the prophet John the Baptist. Now archaeologists claim they have identified the dance floor that Salome strutted on.
The authors of the Gospels and the historian Flavius Josephus agree that Herod Antipas, one of the sons of King Herod the Great, ordered the execution of John the Baptist. While the Bible describes John as an apocalyptic prophet and religious reformer, Josephus emphasizes John’s popularity among the people and his role as a political agitator. According to the New Testament, it was Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas and the mother of Salome, who prompted the impressive Salome to demand the execution of John. Antipas was reluctant, but he was a man of his word and had the head of John the Baptist delivered to the young girl on a plate. The event has become the subject of many famous works of art, literature and films.
Archaeologists working in Machaerus, Israel, have reportedly discovered the site of Salome’s famous dance. As one of the three sons, Herod Antipas inherited only Galilee and Perea from his father. This region did not include the historic city of Jerusalem, and as a result Herod Antipas regularly ruled from Machaerus, a well-defended palace-fortress 16 miles from the Jordan River. In a new book, The archeology of the Holy Land on either side: archaeological essays in honor of Eugenio Alliata, archaeologist Győző Vörös maintains that he identified the courtyard where Herod’s birthday party took place. The courtyard contains a niche which, according to Vörös, once served as the throne of Herod Antipas. It was from this throne that Antipas oversaw the festivities and watched Salomé dance. Vörös told the Jordan Times that the “historical sources are fully consistent with the archaeological research” that he produces in his work.
The theory arouses enthusiasm in the archaeological community. Even though they are impressed by the archaeological work, not all scholars are completely convinced by Vörös’ arguments. Talk to Livescience Jodi Magness, professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that while Vörös and his team have done a good job, the niche seems a bit small to be a throne. Similar-sized niches found in other palace fortresses, she noted, have never been identified as potential thrones.
Even if it is not the iconic dance floor that Salomé danced on, it is her dance that takes center stage in the history of performance. Although the biblical description is brief and does not give details, when we think of Salome we think of a beautiful young woman who dances seductively for an older man. Maybe you imagine belly dancing, or maybe you imagine something more akin to exotic dancing or striptease, but over the centuries, Salome has gained a reputation as a ‘temptress. “. The late bishop of antiquity John Chrysostom used it to assert that “wherever there is a dance, the devil is also present”. Medieval artwork depicts Salome (a mere teenager) both as a kind of acrobat and as one of a series of lustful beautiful women who represent the temptation and damnation of men. A sculpture from the north portal of the west facade of Rouen Cathedral shows her balanced in what yogis call pincha mayurasana (a pear tree with an arched back and bent legs).
It was in the 18th and 19th centuries, as Udo Kultermann writes, that Salomé came to embody European fantasies about the powers of seduction of “exotic” foreign women. Gustav Flaubert’s description of Salome in his Herodias drawn from his travels in Egypt; he writes: “She danced like the princesses of India, like the Nubian women of the cataracts, like the Bacchantes of Libya. She leaned in all directions… opening her legs wide, without bending her knees, she bowed so low that her chin brushed the ground. The Jewish Salome is here mixed with caricatures of women from India, Nubia and Libya. Culturally distinct dance practices have mixed together to form a confused stereotype of foreign women.
Flaubert was just one of the many 19th century artists who wrote, composed or painted the story of Herodias’ daughter. Perhaps the most famous was Oscar Wilde’s one-act play, The Dance of the seven veils, a dazzling international success in which Salomé undresses while dancing. Salomé de Wilde is not the docile daughter of the Gospels: instead of being manipulated by her mother, Salomé is a despised woman. At the start of the play, she pursues the imprisoned Jean-Baptiste, insisting that she “will kiss [his] mouth ‘to be repeatedly pushed back. This rejection leads him to accept the offer of the predator Herod Antipas. This Salome always knew what she wanted and eventually after dancing the dance of the seven veils and receiving John’s head as a reward, she got that kiss she wanted.
The veil and unveiling had a long pre-Bible history, but Wilde’s 19th-century version and Richard Strauss’s sexually charged opera turned this ancient religious practice into a kind of female liberation. The first soprano to star in Strauss Salome found the movements so sexualized that she refused to perform the dance; others were not so shy. Salomé’s performances would scandalize audiences at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, would be performed at the Metropolitan Opera, and, as Kultermann shows, even inspired an early 20th-century dance school that produced 150 Salomes per month. The enthusiasm for Salomé even entered politics during the 1908 elections, when a New York Times The article used Salome to poke fun at William Jennings Bryan’s impulsive rejection of the political positions of future President William Howard Taft.
For some, infatuation was more of a disease than a fad. As Professor Marlis Schweitzer wrote, ministers and doctors used the language of disease and pollution to denounce these scantily clad performances. Some, like Broadway actress Marie Cahill, wrote to President Roosevelt that Salomania would corrupt respectable women and children. Even so, the infatuation could not be dampened. From inexpensive strip shows at the Moulin Rouge to the world’s most famous operas and ballet companies, everyone wanted to see the Bible’s femme fatale dance. Even Mata Hari, the exotic dancer turned spy, took action: in 1912, she gave a private performance for an aging Italian prince.
Ironically, however, this young dancer-turned-cultural icon may never have existed or ever graced Machaerus’ court. In an article published in 2006, Brown University professor Ross Kraemer wrote that “many researchers agree that the history of the banquet, and therefore the role of the girl, is at least likely to be affected. ‘to be fictitious’. The Bible does not even mention the name of the daughter of Herodias, it is Josephus who calls her Salome. Christian tradition does not call it Salome until the fifth century. But despite her brief and arguably mythological turn in the Bible, Salome leans in and weaves her way through European history to this day.
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