Salome Revealed

Classic Arts Features   Salome Revealed
John Yohalem looks into the various sources of one of opera's most memorable scenes.

Seven veils, falling one by one, luring the eye within the essential something concealed by the final gauze. So satisfying is this symbol of mystical, or carnal, revelation that we suppose it to be ancient, and its association with Salome‹or with still older names, with Isis or Ishtar‹persuades us that we see some antique ritual.

But the "Dance of the Seven Veils" goes no further back in antiquity than to the composition of Oscar Wilde's Salome in 1891. He gave a name, as no one had done before him, to the performance rewarded with the head of John the Baptist. From Salome, the phrase slipped into common parlance as if it had always been there‹partly because it symbolized the fashionable obsession with the femme fatale, but also because Wilde was a poet, and the event, and the actors, and the props, did boast mythic roots. They all met and mingled in Wilde's play and were set to music in Strauss' opera.

Where did Wilde get this name, perfumed with antiquity, the occult, and other hobbies of the fin-de-siècle? He did not indicate of what he intended the subsequent dance to consist. What did he mean, and why has it gone on to mean so much more?

In Biblical lore (which Wilde had studied), the body is called the veil of the soul‹a metaphor to delight the author of The Picture of Dorian Grey‹but the only veil mentioned in the New Testament is the hanging that separated the Holy of Holies (where only the High Priest might go) from the congregation. It was torn apart, the Gospels say, by the earthquake that followed the Crucifixion. But no veils appear in the Biblical tale of the Baptist and the dancing princess.

Wilde once told a friend that he had been inspired to write Salome by a Romanian acrobat that he saw dancing on her hands at the Moulin Rouge. In fact, Salome, the play, actually has a more distinguished genealogy.

The evangelists Matthew and Mark tell their tale straightforwardly, with clear motivations. Herod Antipas invited a group of dignitaries to celebrate his birthday, and his stepdaughter danced. This is remarkable enough‹then as now, in much of the Middle East, it was improper for women to dance except among other women. Grown women who danced before men were professionals‹and not just professional dancers. If a girl of high birth danced before an audience of strangers, her family must have been a decadent lot (most Jews regarded the Herods as corrupt Roman satraps) or the girl extremely young. The Greek word used for her, koraison, suggests she was a child. Further evidence of her youth is that she seemingly had no will of her own‹when Herod, delighted with her performance, offered her whatever she wanted, she had to ask her mother what to request. In every version of the story before Wilde's, it was Herodias who demanded the Baptist's head, and the evangelists explain why: John had denounced Herodias for her divorce from one uncle and marriage to another. Herod was reluctant to execute the popular holy man, but having sworn before his guests to reward the girl, he dared not lose face by refusing.

This bare tale never satisfied mythographers. Non-Biblical sources mention that Herodias had a daughter named Salome, who married a cousin, had three sons and died of old age. Could this be the girl who danced? No way to be sure‹and so no reason not to use the name. She was painted and sculpted often‹the contrast of a pure young girl and a murderous deed was irresistible‹but the villainy remained that of her mother. Apocryphal tales had her fall into an icy stream, beheaded when it froze around her neck.

The nineteenth century, which began as the age of the accursed Byronic hero, evolved into the age of the femme fatale and, as always, myth kept pace with social change. In Heinrich Heine's dream vision Atta Troll (1841), the ghost of Herodias lovingly kisses the Baptist's severed head. In Salome, a dramatic poem by J.C. Heywood that Wilde reviewed in 1888, Herodias kisses the head while she is still alive. Wilde realized that this incident might become the climax of the tale. To unite the murderess with the dancer was the work of a poet Wilde knew and admired, Stephane Mallarmé, in his unfinished (but much read, and admired) Hérodiade. Mallarmé's princess, idolizing her own beauty and chastity, lives in terror of violation by some inevitable lover.

Wilde was further inspired to ponder Salome's motivations by Gustave Moreau, whose two paintings on the subject caused a stir at the Salon of 1876. The first, Salome, shows no naïve koraison but a mature young woman in gaudy orientalia dancing to excite an aged Herod; the second, L'Apparition, shows her horror at the sequel: a vision of the Baptist's severed, haloed head. These paintings were brought to Wilde's attention by J.K. Huysmans, in whose decadent novel, A Rebours (1884), the syphilitic hero endures hallucinatory raptures over Moreau's paintings and Mallarmé's poem, and divines the cult of the femme fatale from these sources.

If Mallarmé and Moreau fixed Wilde's attention on the dancer and her neuroses, the plot of the play that became Strauss' opera comes straight from one of his favorite writers, Gustave Flaubert. Flaubert had a fascination with the Middle East that, in 1877, produced his best-selling novella, Hérodiade. The incidents familiar to opera-lovers are here: the party full of quarrelsome guests, the prophet confined in a cistern, even Herodias' sneers about her husband's ancestry. One thing, however, is missing‹Salome. She has no personality in Flaubert. Her mother has raised her secretly, to use as a tool. She is all body and no self, and her dance mimicked things Flaubert had seen in Egyptian bordellos‹which did not involve veils. In 1880 Massenet produced a Hérodiade, but its story little resembles Flaubert's: his innocent Salome has a platonic crush on John, and dances for Herod unaware of her mother's identity or the reward she will demand.

Wilde combined the nervous anticipation of sexual knowledge of Mallarmé's Herodias, the self-disgust of Moreau's L'Apparition (though he transferred it to Herod), and Flaubert's narrative into a dramatization of that ideal of his era: yearning unsatisfied. The Page loves Narraboth; Narraboth and Herod desire Salome; Salome lusts for John; John loves God; and Herodias‹the monstrous realist, the only one whose happiness depends on no one else‹is the only one who gets what she wants. In Wilde's drama, though, Herodias fades to insignificance, and the dance becomes the focus. It has a different meaning for the principals‹where Herod is aroused, Salome is using her newfound sensuality to avenge the loss of her innocence and the frustration of her first passion.

But where did Wilde get his seven veils?

After the American premiere of Strauss' opera, at the Metropolitan in 1907, the New York Evening Sun's magisterial critic, W.J. Henderson, took it for granted that the reader would have heard of the Descent of Ishtar, and that this is the indisputable source of Salome's seven veils. The myth concerns the fertility goddess of the Semitic world, who descends to the underworld. She must pass seven gates, and at each one a guardian removes one of the magical items she wears: her crown, her bracelets, her girdle of birthstones, and so forth. When she appears at last before the throne of her sister and opposite, the Queen of the Dead, she is naked and unprotected, and is slain forthwith. In her absence all the fertile processes of the earth are suspended, until the sky gods send rescue. This curious story may describe ritual practice: the temples of Ishtar being annually closed for a time, in mourning for the absent goddess; her return initiating a season of festivity.

The Descent is among the oldest myths whose telling we can trace. Our account of it comes from the library of King Ashurbanipal in Nineveh, buried in the ruin of the Assyrian empire in the seventh century B.C. It provides a satisfyingly ancient, if hardly sexual, flavor to Wilde's choice of a dance for his princess. The problem is that the Descent was unknown in the real Salome's lifetime. Indeed, from the fall of Nineveh until cuneiform writing was deciphered, no writer speaks of it‹not even the Greeks, those indefatigable collectors and revisers of myths of all lands. Of a confrontation of the queens of life and death, of seven gates and seven stolen ornaments, there is not a trace for two thousand years.

We know the date it came to popular attention, for when George Smith deciphered the Nineveh tablets in the British Museum, among the myths he found were versions of the Creation and the Flood myths in Genesis. When Smith's translations first appeared in a lengthy "letter" to the London Daily Telegraph on March 4, 1875, the Creation and the Flood were the headline-grabbers, and there was an explosion of interest in Mesopotamian lore. Smith also then told for the first time in any modern tongue the tale of the Descent of Ishtar.

The myth was soon as well known as any tale out of Ovid. In 1896 Vincent d'Indy demonstrated his gift for exotic orchestration with a set of seven orchestral variations entitled Istar‹the gimmick being that the piece begins with the most elaborate variation and works its way backward to conclude with the bare theme.

Did Wilde read Smith's letter, and did the removal of seven protective ornaments exposing the bare soul strike a responsive chord? It was of his time and up his alley. He was a voracious and photographic reader and a cheerful plagiarist who once remarked, "Plagiarism is the privilege of the appreciative man. I never read [Flaubert's] Temptation of Saint Anthony without signing my name at the end of it."

We know Wilde found his plot in Flaubert's Hérodiade, but he found no veils there. He might have found one, though, as a symbol of the destructive force of virgin sexuality, and some useful lunar imagery as well, in an earlier work of Flaubert, Salammbô (1863), whose titular heroine is a priestess dedicated to the sacred zaïmph, the veil that conceals the statue of Tanit, Carthage's chaste but bloodthirsty moon goddess. "Do you not see her wandering round him [the sun] like a woman in love running after a man in a field?" mutters a eunuch priest about the waywardly orbiting moon‹a comment foreshadowing many in Salome. Rescuing the zaïmph from Matho the Libyan, who has stolen it to lure Salammbô to his arms, is the heroine's principal action, and she expires at the instant he is executed for his crime. This exotic work may have returned to Wilde's notice in the winter of 1891, when he was attending Mallarmé's famous Tuesday evenings in Paris and Salome was gestating in his brain, for Mallarmé admitted that Salammbô's self-conscious agonies inspired his own Herodias, and furthermore, Ernest Reyer's opera, Salammbô, was playing its second season. It is as though Wilde reached out his hand for a prop for his heroine's dance, and Flaubert was there to hand it to him. The legend inspired the phrase; the phrase established the legend.

Even excluding striptease, it would be difficult to enumerate all the ballets, plays, paintings, novels, movies, poems, even popular songs inspired, directly or indirectly, by the Seven Veils‹but Wilde, surely, would advise every genius to claim it, and sign it. A poetic invention becomes a myth when it incarnates current belief. The Seven Veils of Wilde's Salome have become fixed in her legend as if they had always been there, because Wilde's hints about the sinister power of sex beneath the veils of innocence and civilization were the truths his society was ready to believe.

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