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Salome was the daughter of Herodias and stepdaughter of tetrarch Herod Antipas of Galilee. She was married 1st to the tetrarch Herod Philip (her father's 1/2 brother) and then to Aristobulu, the son of Herod of Chalcis. Herod Antipas imprisoned John the Baptist for condemning his divorce from Phasaelis in order to marry Herodias after her divorce from Herod Philip. Herodias wanted John killed but her husband hesitated. However, when Salome danced for him at his birthday celebration he promised to give her anything she desired; at Herodias' instigation, Salome demanded John’s head. In the opera by Richard Strauss and Hedwig Lachman (1905) , based on Oscar Wilde's 1891 French play, Herod Antipas was portrayed as lusting after Salome, who lusted after John; after John spurned her she achieved her desire by kissing the lips of his severed head. Later, Herodias divorced Herod Antipas and married Herod Philip's 1/2 brother Herod Antipas, who was one of Jesus' interrogators. The Strauss opera contained the well-known "Dance of the Seven Veils." Wilde was influenced by Gustave Flaubert's story "Herodias," in which Salome danced on her hands (like Gypsy acrobats in the 19th century). Wilde intended to follow Flaubert's version, but changed his mind after reading Arthur O'Shaughnessy's 1870 poem "The Daughter of Herodias" which described Salome dancing:Her long black hair danced round her like a snakeAllured to each charmed movement she did make;Her voice came strangely sweet;She sang, “O, Herod, wilt thou look on me—Have I no beauty thy heart cares to see?”And what her voice did sing her dancing feetSeemed ever to repeat.She sang, “O, Herod, wilt thou look on me?What sweet I have, I have it all for thee;”And through the dance and songShe freed and floated on the air her armsAbove dim veils that hid her bosom's charms:The passion of her singing was so strongIt drew all hearts along.Her sweet arms were unfolded on the air,They seemed like floating flowers the most fair—White lilies the most choice;And in the gradual bending of her handThere lurked a grace that no man could withstand;Yea, none knew whether hands, or feet, or voice,Most made his heart rejoice.The veils fell round her like thin coiling mistsShot through by topaz suns, and amethysts,And rubies she had on;And out of them her jewelled body came,And seemed to all quite like a slender flameThat curled and glided, and that burnt and shoneMost fair to look upon.Then she began, on that well-polished floor,Whose stones seemed taking radiance more and moreFrom steps too bright to see,A certain measure that was like some spellOf winding magic, wherein heaven and hellWere joined to lull men's souls eternallyIn some mid ecstasy:For it was so inexplicably wroughtOf soft alternate motions, that she taughtEach sweeping supple limb,And in such intricate and wondrous waysWith bendings of her body, that the praiseLost breath upon men's lips, and all grew dimSave her so bright and slim.And through the swift mesh'd serpents of her hairThat lash'd and leapt on each place white and fairOf bosom or of arm,And through the blazing of the numberlessAnd whirling jewelled fires of her dress,Her perfect face no passion could disarmOf its reposeful charm.Her head oft drooped as in some languid deathBeneath brim tastes of joy, and her rich breathHeaved faintly from her breast;Her long eyes, opened fervently and wide,Did seem with endless rapture to abideIn some fair trance through which the soul possestLove, ecstasy, and rest.
In Aubrey Beardsley illustration of Wilde's play Salome was bare-breasted and wearing transparent pantaloons; Wilde claimed Beardsley was "the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance." Wilde was also familiar with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar's descent into Kur in search of Tammuz; at each of the 7 gates to the underworld she had relinquish her jewels and robes until she stood naked in the "land of no return." Wilde interpreted this to arriving at a state of truth, the ultimate unveiling. The Wilde play and Strauss opera led to the phenomenon of "Salomania," in which various performers put on acts inspired by Salome's erotic dance; this was an important component in the development of the modern striptease.(In 1940, at the request of Georgia Sothern, H. L. Mencken coined the word "ecdysiast" to replace stripper; the word, from the Greek "ekdysis," used by biologists (like herpetologist O'Shaugnessy) to describe snakes shedding their skin or molting birds.
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