Have Archaeologists Found History's Deadliest Dance Floor?
Archeologists working in Machaerus, in Israel, have allegedly discovered the site of Salome’s famous dance that cost John the Baptist his head.
Maya Angelou once said that “Everything in the universe has a rhythm. Everything dances.” But not every dance is the same. If you were asked to compile a list of the most famous dances in history you might mention Fred and Ginger, the concluding scene of the movie Dirty Dancing, or even the Moonwalk. Arguably the most influential dance in history was Salome’s performance for her stepfather Herod Antipas at his birthday party. Salome danced so well that Antipas was willing to give her anything she wanted up to the value of half his kingdom, which in this case turned out to be the head of the prophet John the Baptist. Now, archaeologists are claiming that they have identified the dance floor upon which Salome strutted her stuff.
Both 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 with the people and role as a political agitator. According to the New Testament it was Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas and Salome’s mother, who goaded the impressionable Salome into asking for John’s execution. Antipas was reluctant, but he was a man of his word and he had John the Baptist’s head was delivered to the girl on a platter. The event became the subject of numerous famous pieces of artwork, literature, and film.
Archeologists working in Machaerus, in Israel, have allegedly discovered the site of Salome’s famous dance. As one of three sons, Herod Antipas inherited only Galilee and Perea from his father. This region did not include the historic city of Jerusalem and, thus, Herod Antipas regularly ruled from Machaerus, a well defended fortress-palace 16 miles from the river Jordan. In a new book, Holy Land Archaeology on Either Side: Archaeological Essays in Honour of Eugenio Alliata, archeologist Győző Vörös argues that he has identified the courtyard where Herod’s birthday party took place. The courtyard contains a niche that, Vörös claims, once served as Herod Antipas’s throne. It was from this throne that Antipas oversaw the festivities and watched Salome dance. Vörös told the Jordan Times that the “historical sources are in full accordance with the archeological research” he produces in his work.
The theory is generating excitement in the archeological community. Even though they are impressed by the archeological work, not every scholar is completely persuaded by Vörös’ arguments. Speaking to Livescience Jodi Magness, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said that while Vörös and his team have done good work, the niche seems a little small to be a throne. Similar sized niches found in other fortress palaces, she noted, have never been identified as potential thrones.
Even if this is not the iconic dance floor upon which Salome danced, it is her dancing that takes center stage in the history of interpretation. Though the biblical description is brief and gives no specifics, when we think of Salome we think of a beautiful young woman dancing seductively for an older man. Maybe you picture belly dancing, or perhaps you imagine something closer to exotic dance or stripping, but over the centuries Salome gained a reputation for being a “temptress.” The late antique bishop John Chrysostom used her to argue that “wherever there is a dance, the devil is also present.” Medieval artwork portrayed Salome (a mere teenager) both as a kind of acrobat and as one of a series of beautiful lascivious women who represent temptation and damnation for men. A sculpture from the north portal of the west façade of Rouen Cathedral shows her balanced in what yogis call pincha mayurasana (a handstand with an arched back and bent legs).
It was in the 18th and 19th centuries, as Udo Kultermann has written, that Salome came to embody European fantasies about the seductive powers of “exotic” foreign women. Gustav Flaubert’s description of Salome in his Herodias drew upon his travels in Egypt; he writes that “She danced like the princesses of India, like the Nubian women from the cataracts, like the Bacchantes of Libya. She bent over in every direction…opening wide her legs, without bending her knees, she bowed so low that her chin brushed the floor.” The Jewish Salome is here intermingled with caricatures of women from India, Nubia, and Libya. Culturally distinct practices of dance blended together to form muddled stereotype of foreign women.
Flaubert was just one of a score of 19th century artists who wrote, composed, or painted the story of Herodias’s Daughter. Arguably the most famous was Oscar Wilde’s one act play the Dance of the Seven Veils, a runaway international success in which Salome disrobes as she dances. Wilde’s Salome is not the compliant girl of the Gospels: instead of being manipulated by her mother, Salome is a woman scorned. Early in the play she pursues the imprisoned John the Baptist, insisting that she “will kiss [his] mouth” only to be repeatedly rebuffed. This rejection leads her to accept the predatory Herod Antipas’s offer. This Salome always knew what she wanted and, finally, having danced the dance of seven veils and received John’s head as a reward, she gets that kiss she wanted.
Veiling and unveiling had a long history that predates the Bible, but Wilde’s 19th century version and Richard Strauss’s sexually charged opera transformed this ancient religious practice into a kind of female liberation. The first soprano cast to play the lead in Strauss’s Salomé found the movements so sexualized that she refused to perform the dance; others were not so coy. Salome performances would scandalize the public at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893, be performed at the Metropolitan Opera, and, as Kultermann shows, even inspired an early-20th century dance school that churned out 150 Salomes a month. The Salome craze even entered politics in the 1908 election, when a New York Times article used Salome to poke fun of William Jennings Bryan’s knee-jerk rejection of future president William Howard Taft’s political positions.
For some the craze was more like a disease than a fad. As Professor Marlis Schweitzer has written, 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 craze could not be dampened. From cheap stripteases to the Moulin Rouge to the most celebrated opera houses and ballet companies in the world everyone wanted to see the Bible’s femme fatale dance. Even Mata Hari, the exotic dancer turned spy, got in on the act: 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 graced the courtyard at Machaerus. In an article published in 2006, Brown University professor Ross Kraemer wrote that “numerous scholars concur that the banquet story, and thus the role of the daughter, at least is likely to be fictitious.” The Bible doesn’t even mention the name of Herodias’s daughter, it is Josephus who calls her Salome. Christian tradition doesn’t start calling her Salome until the fifth century. But despite her brief and arguably mythological turn in the Bible, Salome bends and sashays her way through European history to this day.