"If I’d never hoped to live in a world of goodness and truth—if the priestess of Artemis, then Leander, and Joanna, hadn’t shown me glimpses of it—maybe I wouldn’t have minded being shut out of it. Maybe the preacher’s death wouldn’t have trapped me in a dungeon, the dungeon of my own self."
Her name is Salome. You may think you know her story…how her seductive Dance of the Seven Veils led to the beheading of John the Baptist. But you don’t know it from her side. You don’t know how a web of betrayal, and greed, and lust was spun around an innocent teenage girl. How she came to doubt her own mother. How she searched for a friend in an unfamiliar land. And how she walked into a trap and changed the course of history.
This is Salome’s story, in her own words. Listen, and learn of strength, of power, of loyalty…and of death.
Reviewers' praise for Salome
In this evocative novel based on biblical events, Gormley (C.S. Lewis: The Man Behind Narnia) fleshes out the beguiling story of Salome that has captivated artists and writers for centuries. Readers meet Salome, granddaughter to King Herod of Judea (the one whose actions brought about the celebration of Passover), at age 14, dreaming of becoming a dancer in the Temple of Diana in Rome. Soon her uncle Antipas visits and woos her mother, Herodias, away from Salome’s father, Herod Junior, to begin a new life in Judea. As the novel progresses, Salome begins to develop into an independent-minded, if still uncertain, young woman, drawn to those who live principled lives. The tragedy unfolds when “John the Baptizer” condemns the marriage of Herod and Herodias as adulterous, provoking the wrath of Salome’s self-absorbed mother. Gormley’s retelling weaves a plausible and harrowing description of how in one fateful night Salome becomes a vessel of her mother’s avaricious desires. Salome remains a sympathetic character as she repents her part in the beheading of John the Baptist, and is redeemed through her generous acts. Gormley subtly depicts the larger forces at work (e.g., just before John is led to his execution, he learns that his cousin, Yeshua of Nazareth, is “the One Who Is to Come,” and goes peacefully to his death). The author’s rendering of Salome’s reflection on the events are appropriately prophetic: “Maybe, in years to come, the story of the Baptizer’s death would be the only thing that anyone remembered about me.”
Ages 12 and up.
An infamous teen femme fatale tells her side of this familiar New Testament story of desire and
death. Raised in Rome as the only child of Jewish nobility, 14-year-old Salome loves dancing and hopes to become a priestess of Diana. Everything changes when her spoiled, scheming mother, Herodias, ditches her husband to marry her brother-in-law, Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee. Transported to the
land of her ancestors, Salome becomes embroiled in the political intrigue created by a popular Jewish prophet, John the Baptizer, who preaches repentance to the poor and accuses Herod of breaking Jewish law by marrying his brother's wife. Threatened by the Baptizer as well as Herod's growing attraction to
Salome, Herodias manipulates the innocent Salome to demand John's beheading after beguiling Herod with her seductive dancing. How Salome accepts responsibility for her tragic actions and transforms her own life by following the message of the man she has killed gives her a modern relevancy far beyond her Biblical antecedent. A fresh look at an old story. (afterword) (Fiction. 12-16)
Read an excerpt:
Chapter 1: Uncle Antipas
Ordinarily, upper-class Roman girls didn’t dance. Dancers were lower-class entertainers, sluts. But it was entirely proper for well-bred girls to dance in the rites at the Temple of Artemis. Artemis, goddess of the moon and of the hunt, was also the protector of young girls. So, many well-to-do families sent their daughters for lessons at the temple. There we received training in deportment (which is what our mothers cared about) and got to run around with other girls (which is what we cared about).
We Herods weren't actually Roman, of course; we were Jews from Judea. But like other wealthy foreigners in Rome--no mater whether they were from Ephesus in Anatolia, Cyrene in Africa, or Gadis in Spain--we lived an upper-class Roman life. There were many Jews of lesser birth in Rome, but for the most part they kept to themselves in the Jewish quarter of the city. Their women hardly went out at all.
By the time I was twelve, I was looking forward more than usual to my class at the Temple of Artemis. I’d been enrolled at the Temple for years, and I’d always liked the training, especially learning the sacred songs and dances. The priestess was strict, but kind to all the girls, and there was a peaceful sense of order in the Temple grounds.
Now I grew quickly, and soon I was tall for my age. My size made me feel awkward, and I had to struggle to make my hands and feet do what they were supposed to. Herodias joked that I would cross a room in order to find the one loose floor tile and stumble over it.
Since I felt so clumsy, I was grateful that I could dance as well as ever. Even with my new self-consciousness, I could still move gracefully when the pipes and tambourines started up. The music seemed to guide my body for me. I danced well even on festival days, when all the mothers came to the temple to watch us take part in the rites.
One afternoon in November when I was just fourteen, I hurried home from the temple, accompanied as usual by Gundi. I was glowing with pride. Today the priestess had taken me aside and spoken to me. She’d been watching my progress, and she wondered if I might have a calling to become a priestess.
“I am going to recommend that you try for a sign from Artemis this spring,” she said. “One night during a full moon, you will sleep in the temple at the feet of the great statue. If the goddess chooses you to serve her, she will give some sign.” She would talk to my mother about it and consult the auspices for a favorable date.
I was flattered, although I hadn’t thought of joining the cult. I knew that my mother’s purpose in sending me to the temple of Artemis was to help me gain poise and a proper sense of my role as a Roman woman. Herodias liked to celebrate all kinds of holidays, but otherwise she wasn't very devout to any deities, including the Jewish god.
At home I brushed past the doorkeeper, eager to tell Herodias how the priestess had complimented me. Then I stopped short, seeing the atrium full of men. Most of them were dressed in Eastern robes, although a few husky fellows wore uniforms -- short tunics and capes and leather breastplates. These guards were throwing dice. The other men talked among themselves, except for a young man in a Greek-style tunic. Leaning against a pillar, he was absorbed in reading a scroll.
“What’s all this?” muttered Gundi. She took me by the elbow to hurry me away from the eyes of so many strange men. I supposed they must be the attendants of someone visiting my father. But my father was usually out, in the Forum, at this hour.
Pausing in the doorway to the garden, I saw Herodias sitting by the fountain. It was a pleasantly warm day, although the afternoons were short this time of year. There was a table beside her with wine and cakes.
“Salome, there you are,” said Herodias. “Come greet your uncle Antipas.” On a bench facing my mother, his back to me, sat a man in an embroidered robe.
I hadn’t seen Antipas (actually Herodias’ uncle and my great-uncle) for years. That time, he’d been visiting Rome with a brother, Philip of Gaulanitis. But I remembered his powerful neck and shoulders. Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee and Perea on the eastern side of the Empire. Like my father, Herod of Rome, Antipas was one of the many sons of the late King Herod the Great of Judea. It seemed these two half-brothers were on speaking terms, for the moment – you never could tell, with the Herods.
I came into the garden and stood beside Herodias. Antipas’ iron-gray hair was short in the Roman style, and his trimmed beard set off a rather delicate mouth. I said politely, “Welcome to Rome and to our house, Great-Uncle.” I hoped he wouldn’t be staying with us.
Taking a sip from his goblet, Antipas looked me over. He remarked to my mother, “She’s grown, hasn’t she? Salome doesn’t look much like you, except for her big brown eyes.”
Uncomfortable, I turned my big brown eyes aside to the mosaic on the fountain wall. It pictured a maenad, an attendant of the god Dionysus, whirling in an ecstatic dance.
Herodias patted my arm. “Yes, she reminds me of a calf – a dear sweet calf.”
They went on with their conversation, mainly Herodias listening with rapt attention while Antipas talked. He had a deep, rich voice, and it grew warmer as he described Galilee. Herodias knew Jerusalem in Judea from her girlhood, but she’d hardly ever been to Galilee.
Antipas had hired a Roman city planner and built himself a beautiful capital city, named Tiberias in honor of the Emperor. This new city, on a slope above a lake (renamed Lake Tiberias in honor of the Emperor), was gifted with all the best features of Rome: a forum, a theater, a stadium. The public baths were especially luxurious, because of the natural hot springs.
And the palace! Antipas made a sweeping gesture, indicating a building grander than we could imagine. (I noticed how small his hands were, in contrast with his thick body.) Whitest marble, the palace was, its roof covered with gold leaf.
Herodias seemed entranced with all these details. She kept her long-lashed dark eyes fixed on this half-brother of her husband. Meanwhile, I watched her. Herodias was a slim, sleek woman, younger-seeming than her thirty-four years. I’d always thought she was beautiful, but I’d never seen a man gaze at her the way Antipas was doing. Antipas and Herodias almost seemed to be alone together. In a charmed circle.
As Antipas talked on about his building program for Tiberias, I fidgeted with the waist-cord of my stola. My mother turned to me as if she’d forgotten I was standing there. “You may go, Salome dear.” Antipas’ eyes rested on me again for a moment.
His look made my insides tighten, and I forgot how to move. I swear the table with the wine pitcher was not in my way when I came into the garden, but somehow I bumped against it as I turned to leave. Herodias caught the pitcher before it fell off the table and broke, but the red liquid splashed over the tiles.
A maid rushed to mop up the spilled wine. Herodias joked to Antipas, “Didn’t I say Salome was like a calf?” Somehow I got out of the garden, my face burning.
I sulked in my room until Antipas left, and my mother found us there. Gundi was sorting out the clothes that were too small for me now, while I sat on the bed, twirling a lock of my hair.
“Uncle Antipas is quite a man, isn’t he?” said Herodias. “I never really noticed that before. He reminds me of a bull.”
“I thought he looked more like a boar,” I said, “with his thick head and body and small hands and feet.” I was just being difficult; I knew what she meant. It was the way Antipas acted, rather than the way he looked. The bull is in charge of the herd, and the other cattle know it. If the lesser cattle challenged him, he’d gore them with his horns.
“Look, Lady Herodias,” said Gundi, “how your daughter’s grown between her thirteenth and fourteenth birthdays.”
“Why, Salome – you’re almost as tall as I am.” My mother turned her dimpled smile on me. “How could you grow up without telling me?”
Then my bad mood melted away, and I told Herodias what the priestess of Artemis had said today. She praised me and kissed me, and I felt the enchanted circle snug around the two of us again.
“Of course you are a gifted dancer," said Herodias. "But the temple can’t steal my dearest friend away from me, even to serve the goddess! No – I won’t allow it.” She winked mischievously. "No harm in going through the motions, though, to keep the priestess of Diana happy. It'll be an adventure for you to stay at the Temple one night."
When Herodias left the room, Gundi made a sort of snort, “Hmph.” I ignored her. Gundi had known me ever since I was a baby, but she could never enter the charmed circle. She didn’t understand my mother and me.
Holding another tunic up to my shoulders, Gundi paused. “My, my. You’re getting to look more like sixteen than fourteen. You care about your Gundi, dear Miss Salome, don’t you?”
This question seemed like a sudden change of subject, and I looked at her in surprise. “Of course I do.”
“Then give a thought to your old nursemaid when they marry you off. Ask to have me included in your dowry.”
Marry me off? Her words opened a door that I’d managed to keep shut until now. Some of my friends in the class at the temple were already betrothed. I’d heard their mothers ask my mother what the family’s plans were for me. Although she answered vaguely, she and my father must be thinking about a match.
Of course I would have to marry and leave Herodias, but that change had always seemed too far in the future to worry about. Now it was in the near future, and I shrank back from it.
Only two days after his first visit, Uncle Antipas was back at our door. In the weeks to come, Herodias spent more and more time with him and less and less time with me. Each time he arrived, Antipas would ask for his brother, but my father was almost always out – at the baths, in the Forum, at the chariot races.
It occurred to me that my father didn’t really want to see Antipas, any more than Antipas really wanted to see Herod. The two men didn’t have much in common. To start, they’d been born to different mothers. Herod’s mother had been the daughter of the high priest of Jerusalem, while Antipas’ mother was a Samaritan noblewoman.
Worse, there was the matter of the inheritance. Before their father, old King Herod of Greater Judea, had died, Herod Junior was second in line to take the throne. Instead, Herod's last will had divided his kingdom among three other sons: Archelaus, Philip, and Antipas.
I couldn’t see what Herodias had in common with Antipas, either, but she continued to be entranced with him. These days, even when my mother spent time with me, she spent most of it talking about Antipas and his wonderful city, Tiberias. "Antipas is the only Herod brother who understands how to live in the grand style," she said.
"Father certainly doesn't," I agreed. Herodias laughed and rolled her eyes; my father's disappointing way of life went without saying.
"But aside from Junior," she went on, "there's Philip--do you remember Uncle Philip of Gaulanitis? He never even travels to Rome anymore because of the expense. Imagine, a client ruler going for years and years without visiting the Imperial City! Instead, Antipas says, Philip spends all his time traveling around his pathetic little realm--letting his subjects pester him with their concerns! How does he expect to keep his subjects in awe if he hobnobs with them?"
Antipas, on the other hand, understood how to impress his subjects with showy ceremonies and fabulous banquets. He’d persuaded one of Rome’s finest cooks to join his court. Apparently, this cook’s baked fish was famous among the nobility all around the Mediterranean Sea.
“But Antipas’ wife refuses to eat fish – can you imagine?” My mother giggled. “She’s from a desert kingdom, Nabatea. It was a purely political marriage.”
I disliked my uncle for taking my mother’s company away, but beyond that, he made me nervous. Not that he paid much attention to me – he was all taken up with Herodias. But when he did notice me, I felt that he paid too much attention to me, just for a moment. The feeling was hard to explain, even to myself. I certainly didn’t try to explain it to anyone else.
Many times that winter Antipas escorted Herodias to the theater, and often they took me along. Why not? – they had a whole train with them already. There were Antipas’ bodyguards and courtiers and secretary, and slaves carrying drinks and snacks and cushions, and of course Antipas’ personal food taster. I suppose there were many people who would have liked to poison him. I almost wished they would.
The youngest courtier was Simon, a son of one of Antipas’ many half sisters. He was related to me, too, distantly. I thought Simon was ridiculous, the way he dropped names of powerful people in Rome--even that of Sejanus, the Emperor's regent. Simon seemed to think that he was being groomed for an important position in the Empire. At every opportunity he spoke up, trying to sound experienced and knowledgeable. Other times he would strike a noble pose, as if a sculptor were working on a statue of him. At the theater I sometimes ignored what was happening onstage and watched Antipas’ Greek secretary, a young man named Leander. He always carried a scroll, a note tablet, and a stylus in the folds of his draped pallium, or cloak. He had deep set hazel eyes and curly brown hair, tied back with a headband, and he spoke with a cultured accent. Herodias said he was from Alexandria, across the sea in Egypt, where he’d studied with some important philosopher. (This was one of Herodias’ examples of how Antipas was willing to spend money to get the best of everything. My father, in contrast, was so stingy that he didn’t even keep a scribe, but hired one from the library at the public baths.)
Now and then Antipas would call Leander to his side and order him to come up with a fitting quotation from a Greek philosopher or to note down some insightful remark that Antipas had just made. Leander waited courteously on his master, but I thought it must be hard on an educated man to work as a mere secretary. Antipas seemed to enjoy keeping a pet philosopher at his beck and call, like a hunting dog. Herodias laughingly called Leander “our Socrates.”
One time we went to see a Greek tragedy, but hardly anyone liked it. Antipas dozed off, his attendants whiled away the time by eating bunches of grapes and spitting out the seeds, and Herodias sighed through the long speeches. Antipas, awakening to one of her sighs, patted her hand. "A bit tedious, hmm? At my theater in Tiberias, they perform nothing but comedies."
Only Leander seemed intent on the play, mouthing the words along with the actors. At the end, all the characters were either dead, or wished they were dead.
What I remembered most about that tragedy, long afterward, was the masks. After the play, the chief actor came out front to talk with Antipas, his patron. He took his mask off and set it on the edge of the stage, where it seemed to stare at me. The mouth was open, wrenched down at the corners. The eyes, too, were wide open in agony.
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