Despite its excesses, the postmodern movement has offered us a lot of gifts. One of these gifts is its insistence that story-telling always involves questions of power, and so in any history or tale we need to ask ourselves whose story isn’t being told. We’ve seen some of the good fruit this approach can bear in Wilda Gafney’s wonderful reflections on Hagar, and to a lesser degree my reflection on Jezebel, and the discussion on those ‘not chosen’ in the recent post on misunderstandings of Christian election. Today, I’d like to do something similar with the character of the dancing girl — named Herodias in Mark but known as Salome in Josephus and later art and literature — in the story of John’s beheading.
There is no question that our tradition has had a ‘woman problem’. It has had a hard time seeing women as real, nuanced, people and has preferred to cast them in roles of either virginal purity or as erotic temptation. It says far more about our culture and its hang-ups than it does about the Scriptures that both of these buckets into which women have been tossed are defined by sexuality. I bring this up here because Western art has cast Salome squarely in the role of seductress, a young woman who manipulates King Herod through her feminine wiles. But, while an erotic reading of the scene is certainly possible, it is by no means necessary, and I would argue, not even the most likely reading.
There are three main reasons I would not want to centre the erotic interpretation of the story. First, Salome is Herod’s close blood relation — either his daughter or step-daughter/niece. While we shouldn’t be naive about incestuous relationships in the Ancient Near Eastern and Classical worlds, in a story that revolves around John’s speaking out against Herod’s immorality when it comes to family and sex (he is married to his brother’s wife), it would stand to reason that Mark would play up any incestuous desires at work in the story, if this was indeed what he had in mind. But he doesn’t. Second, Mark refers to Salome as a korasion, a rare diminutive form of kore, which is the typical Greek word for ‘girl’ or ‘maiden’. So, he goes out of his way to call her not just a girl but a ‘little girl’. We are not talking about a young woman here, but most likely a pre-pubescent child. Again, this does not necessarily prohibit an erotic reading of the story, but it does make it less likely without further details. And it certainly lessens the likelihood that she would be scheming to seduce Herod. Third, the erotic reading of the story implies that the only way a girl could please a man by dancing is for her dance to be sexual. But dancing is an important part of most cultures around the world, and very few of these traditions are overtly erotic. I would argue that Western art’s assumption that Salome’s dance was seductive has far more to do with Orientalist (that is, Westerners (mis)interpreting Eastern cultures through their own cultural filters and for their own purposes) assumptions that imagine all Middle Eastern dancing as “belly dancing” than it does with the text before us. In other words, I think this interpretation in European art and literature was primarily about titillating Western readers and viewers.
Not only does the text itself make me disinclined towards the traditional erotic reading, but that reading is also simply unhelpful. It further reinforces harmful assumptions in our culture about men’s supposed helplessness in the face of sexual temptation — the same assumptions that blame victims of rape for their clothing choices instead of rapists for their violence. This narrative in our culture is perhaps best articulated by American fundamentalist leader Bob Jones, who once said, “God will hold you women accountable for the downfall of thousands of men” — as though men could not be accountable for their own behaviour! This whole realm of thought, so common in many cultures around the world, is beyond disturbing. These are self-serving stories men have told in order to let themselves off the hook for their attitudes and behaviour towards women. So let’s put a stop to this as much as we can. It’s a lie. Contrary to the stories men tell ourselves, we men are not powerless against our libidos. Being horny is no excuse.
If we strip the story of our assumptions about its supposed eroticism, we are left with something very different, and I think far more interesting and instructive. Salome is then allowed to emerge no longer as nothing more than a seductress archetype, but as a little girl who becomes a pawn in the political maneuverings of her parents’ dysfunctional relationship. Her mother uses her as an instrument in her own game, and weaponizes Herod’s affection for Salome against him. There is still a lot about the situation that is messed up — we Christians would say ‘sinful‘. But the blame is removed from the child and placed back onto the shoulders of the adults where it belongs: Onto Herodias for her desire to silence the meddling prophet, and for her manipulation of her daughter and husband to get it done; and onto Herod for his weakness in the face of those schemes and his ultimate decision to kill a man for telling the truth rather than risk losing face in front of his courtiers.
I mentioned above that, while I think there is good reason in the text to read it in this non-erotic way, the erotic interpretation is still possible. But even if we do choose to read the situation as sexually-charged, the process of looking more deeply into the story still helps to clarify things. Salome still ceases being the sexual aggressor but is, essentially, a girl sent into sex work for her mother’s advantage. She is not the subject of the scene’s eroticism but its object. That is to say, the sexuality at play is not Salome’s but Herod’s. The responsibility for everything that happens is still his. He is still a grown man who is accountable for his libido. He is still the king who is accountable for the decision to kill the prophet. He still has all the power and all the authority in the situation.
Either way, we would do well to rid ourselves of the problematic image of Salome as femme fatale and see her instead as someone caught up in the machinations of other people. When we do this, we see that how she has been understood by the Western world has itself been a manifestation of the scapegoat mechanism. Like the woman in John’s Gospel whom Jesus saves from a vigilante mob, Salome has received an inordinate amount of vitriol for a situation over which she had little control. Our collective response to her, as with so many other women throughout history, has been to blame her for our response to her. And as we saw just a few months ago with the shootings of Asian women working in spas in Atlanta by a young man who saw them as symbols of sexual temptation, this type of attitude can have deadly consequences. (As those killings also demonstrated, in these situations the assumption of eroticism can be deadly irrespective of whether it is grounded in fact.)
All this is about taking responsibility for ourselves and our behaviour. As long as we’re looking for people to blame — often people with a lot less power than us — true faith is impossible, for the very act of pushing our responsibility on to others is a break of faith.