Salomey was a dancer, she did the hootchie kootch, And when she did the hoochie kootch, she didn’t wear very mooch (skipping rhyme quoted in Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood).

Who is Salomé?

I am not well versed in biblical studies, but, from what I have gathered, Salomé was the daughter of Herodias and stepdaughter of Herod.  It seems that on the occasion of Herod’s birthday, she danced for him and asked, to her mother’s request, the head of John the Baptist.  John the Baptist, who had announced Jesus’s coming, had been made prisoner by Herod because he had denounced his unlawful marriage to Herodias.  She thus stands as a Christian warning against dancing and female seduction.

This weekend, I read Salomé by Oscar Wilde (you can easily find an online version).  It is a short play, which was first written in French in 1891.  His version seems faithful to the original story of Salomé but emphasises even more Salomé’s seductiveness. 

Illustrations and photos for Wilde's Salomé (Tiger Books)

During the banquet given by Herod, the Young Syrian admires Salomé, while his friend is admiring the moon, which is compared to a woman.  The Young Syrian keeps looking at Salomé despite the warnings of his friend: “You must not look at her… Something terrible may happen.”  Both also notice how Herod is looking at Salomé.  Salomé then leaves the banquet because she cannot stand her stepfather looking at her constantly and joins them.  When she hears the voice of the prophet, Jokanaan, she asks to see him.  The two friends refuse.  However, Salomé, aware of her seductive power on the Young Syrian, convinces him.  She immediately falls in love with Jokanaan.  She is fickle in her tastes.  She first admires his body, but ,after his rejection of her because she is the “daughter of adultery”, she admires his hair and finally his mouth, which she wants to kiss: “Let me kiss thy mouth.”  This last remark brings the Young Syrian to kill himself. 

Beardsley's illustration for Wilde's Salomé (Tiger Books)

When Herod and his wife come out, Herodias keeps asking him to stop looking at her daughter.  Not paying attention, Herod begs Salomé to dance for him, offering her whatever she desires in exchange.  Salomé asks for Jokanaan’s head to the satisfaction of her mother, who felt insulted by Jokanaan’s words.  Salomé, still filled with desire for Jokanaan, kisses his head.  The play ends as Herod orders to have Salomé killed.

The way I see this play is as a critique of women’s vanity, fickleness and power of seduction.  However, there are some other meanings to it.  One could see it as a comment on religion, Judaism in particular, as the Jews keep having ridiculous arguments and never seem to agree with each others.

I do not find this play as enjoyable as Wilde’s other works.  I think it is not as entertaining and witty, although I smiled on a few occasions.  Maybe more research on it could help me to appreciate it?

I find Margaret Atwood’s take on Salomé in The Tent much more sarcastic and entertaining.  Atwood uses the story of Salomé and sets it up in our modern world.  The tone is that of gossip and the story becomes a kind of tv drama.

Atwood's own illustration for "Salomé Was a Dancer" (The Tent, 50)

In this little story entitled “Salomé Was a Dancer”, the narrator tells us how Salomé seduced her Religious Studies teacher because he gave her a bad mark.  According to the narrator, this is not surprising “with a mother like hers . . . Divorced, remarried, bracelets all up her arms and fake eyelashes out to here, and pushy as hell.”  Salomé started to do beauty contests and dance shows at an early age, as in the school play, when “Seven layers of cheesecloth was all she wore.”  Salomé also has a stepfather, a banker, who had “promised her a Porsche when she turned sixteen.” 

Salomé got caught with her teacher, there was a scandal, but the narrator suggests that the banker pulled a few strings and now the teacher has “grown a beard, looks like Jesus, crazy as a bedbug.  Lost his head completely.”  Atwood then gives an ending descent of this modern version of the depraved woman and by doing so expands on Wilde’s own version.

Atwood says that “strong myths never die”.  Indeed, in this modern version she revives the myth of Salomé and turns it into a satire of pop culture and our avidity for tv drama.

Although it seems that the story of Salomé occupies only a small part in the New Testament, she was not even named, the myth of the femme fatale she created has certainly taken bigger proportions.

You can also read Carol Ann Duffy’s poem “Salomé”, another modern take on the story.  There is also a short story by Flaubert called “Salomé”; I must try to dig it up.