The world of Salomé, Yaël Farber’s reimagining of the biblical tale, is one shrouded in mystery. It is a place where many stories coexist, where everything has more than one name. They lie on top of one another, intertwined, inseparable. Jerusalem and Machaerus. The Wailing Wall and the Holy of Holies. John the Baptist. Salome.
The Wall in Jerusalem. For centuries, its Hebrew name was the West Wing, or Ha-Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi. In the 19th century, the British started calling it “The Wailing Wall,” from the Arabic El-Mabka, “the Place of Weeping.” Inside the Wall is the Temple Mount. It has been used as a religious site for thousands of years, by all who have lived there, of every religion. A series of concentric rooms, at the center of it lies the Holy of Holies, a place so sacred that nothing is allowed inside. A Hole, and also a Whole.
Nowadays, the area surrounding Machaerus (“The Black Fortress”) looks much as it did thousands of years ago, when Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Judaea, ruled. Towering sandy cliffs look out over the Dead Sea. The Sea of Salt. Yam Hamawet. Nothing grows there, nothing can live there; one can’t swim there, only float. In Arabic it is al-Bahr al-Mayyit, “The Sea of Death.” The Sea of Death is a very different thing than the Dead Sea, and yet the same.
It was here, in Machaerus, that a man known to the Romans as Iokanaan, known today in Syria as Jokanaan, known in the New Testament as John the Baptist, was imprisoned. A deeply spiritual man, Iokanaan was also a political animal. He had been living in the desert, eating a diet of locusts and honey, hunger striking. He wore a loincloth of camel’s hair, which rubbed his skin raw. Punishing his own body, he asserted dominion over it. Much like his people, residents of an occupied holy land, their own and not their own. But Pontius Pilate, Herod’s Roman overseer, refused to let the Baptist die. That would only empower him further.
Iokanaan had been baptizing, leading hundreds of Hebrews across the River Jordan and into the promised land, promising exodus. He prophesied the end of times, the end of occupation, a new Jewish nation. He fashioned himself as a prophet, much troubling the Sanhedrin, the priests inside the Temple Mount. He threatened to turn the sea of death into a place of life, of baptismal waters. So he was locked up in a cistern, underground, where waters bled through the surrounding rocks. All one could see from above was the salt, and hear a man’s prayers rising up in a strange tongue.
Into this society, teetering on the edge, walked a woman. What she did next changed the course of world history.
But we don’t know who she was, a servant girl or a high-born aristocrat playing a sadistic game. We don’t even know her name. A Roman-Jewish historian named Flavius Josephus (another case of multiple names, he was born Yosef ben Matityahu) was the first to identify her as the princess Salomé, Herod’s stepdaughter. The name is Greek, but again suggests other, overlapping ones: Solomon. Suleiman. Shulamith. Shalom. In Hebrew or Arabic, it always means the same thing. Peace.
Solomon. Suleiman. Shulamith. Shalom. In Hebrew or Arabic, it always means the same thing. Peace.
From Flavius’s identification arose the myth of the femme fatale, the death-obsessed seductress, Oscar Wilde’s apocalyptic whore of Babylon with the fatalistic desire to kiss the mouth of John the Baptist.
There are few stories that have more of a vexed relationship to the western canon than that of Salomé, the woman who danced before Herod and asked for John’s head on a charger. It stands both inside the canon, in cryptic passages from the New Testament, and outside it, attracting apocryphal retellings and rescriptings. Most of all, we dream about her dance. We have to squint to see her, standing in this room of powerful men with names and titles, this world where the political and the religious are inextricable, this world where only death can give one a name and immortal life. Who was this woman? We will never know.
The “real” Salomé remains beyond our ken. Like the desert, she is figureless, undefinable, a landscape beyond our pale of settlement. In the thousands of years since Flavius, countless western men have looked at this figure from the Middle East and tried to give her a local habitation and a name. Like a land under occupation, she has been harvested for images, sold for profit, fashioned into a grotesque that tells us much about our own transgressive desires, but little about her. Gaining a name, this nameless woman has lost her voice. Her story, even the language of her body, has been told by others, her own and not her own. As she has been written into history, she has also been written out.
Standing on the Machaerus cliffs, the Nameless Woman looks out over the Sea of Death. She hears a voice, chanting prayers in a strange language. She recognizes a kinship with this man, a prisoner like her, without a voice, without a name, without a body. But how can she take action without speaking a word? What power does a woman’s voice have, when it has been written in man’s name?
She smiles as she dances. She has no words. In this place of many names and stories, there is only one truth: there is no God but God. The Mother Goddess, the Hebrew God, the Child of the Revolution. She is the holiest of holies, the presence who is also an absence, the one without name.