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Salome, Daughter of Herodias

Gustave Moreau, L’Apparition, 1876–77, oil on canvas, 55.9 x 46.7 cm (cropped). Courtesy Harvard Art Museums.

Who is Salome, the daughter of Herodias?

Salome is the daughter of Herodias, the wife of King Herod. She is unnamed in the biblical text but named by Josephus in the Jewish Antiquities (18.5.4). Salome’s brief story is found in Mark 6:17–29 and Matt 14:3–12; both narratives begin by describing how John the Baptist has been seized by Herod for saying that Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, is unlawful (see Lev 20:21). In Mark, Herodias holds a grudge against John for this and wants to kill him, but she refrains because Herod fears him. In Matthew, Herod wants to kill him but refrains because he fears the people, who believe he is a prophet.

In both narratives, Salome dances at a banquet thrown on King Herod’s birthday. In exchange for her pleasing dances, Herod promises that he will give her whatever she asks. When she asks her mother, Herodias, what she should request, her mother instructs her to ask for “the head of John the Baptizer.” When Salome requests this of Herod, she adds to her mother’s words “on a platter” (Mark 6:24–25). In Matthew’s version, Herodias herself requests John’s head “on a platter” (Matt 14:8). Salome declares her wish, and despite his fear earlier in the narrative, Herod grants it. He then sends one of his soldiers to behead John and delivers his head on a platter to Salome, who serves it to her mother.

How does this passage depict mother/daughter relationships?

Hilary Lipka categorizes Salome as a “fille fatale” (a “deadly girl”), meaning that she is a young femme fatale (“deadly woman”) in training. She utilizes her “innocence and budding sensuality” to manipulate the older men for whom she performs. Salome is deadly in this narrative because of her capability to manipulate Herod. But is she the narrative’s only femme fatale?

Salome’s mother, Herodias, is the mastermind behind John the Baptist’s death and seems to be a seasoned femme fatale. She is deadly because she can kill behind the scenes, having an innocent-seeming child do her dirty work. In the narrative, Herodias has no hesitation. It is John’s head she wants, and she wants it in a very gruesome manner. Her maternal role and influence are essential to the narrative as she advises Salome to make her request, and it is this which allows her to be so successful.

What is the function of women in this narrative?

The narrative is almost carnivalesque, as it mixes grotesque imagery and scenes of revelry to subvert the standing power structures. As the only active characters within the narrative, the mother/daughter pair steals the power from the male characters surrounding them. In both narratives, Herod’s fear prevents him from executing John, and it is up to the women to get the job done. Herod does not have the courage to execute John himself, and it is only Salome’s captivating performance and Herodias’s gruesome direction that finally lead Herod to retaliate against John. This unconventional and grotesque narrative exemplifies how fille and femme fatales, like Salome and Herodias, can have social and political influence by inciting and taking advantage of the revelry.

  • Mallory Challis is a senior at Wingate University, majoring in Religious Studies. She intends to continue her theological education as she pursues a Master of Divinity Degree to prepare for full-time vocational ministry.

  • Christy Cobb is Assistant Professor of Christianity at University of Denver. Prior to joining the faculty at the University of Denver, Cobb taught at Wingate University where she had the pleasure of having Mallory in numerous biblical studies courses. Cobb’s research focuses on New Testament and early Christian narratives as well as issues of gender, slavery, and sexuality. She is the author of Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power in Luke-Acts and Other Ancient Narratives (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019) and the coeditor of Sex, Violence, and Early Christian Texts (Lexington Books, 2022).