This semester, I’m teaching a class on Wisdom Literature and the Psalms. Over the past 3 weeks, we’ve looked closely at different types of psalms found in the Psalter and considered the various literary techniques used by the psalmist to convey their particular rhetoric. And, for today’s class, the students are going to apply what they’ve learned to a creative exercise, and will try their hand at writing their own contemporary psalm.
To give them a sense of what I’m after, I wrote a psalm myself, which contains some literary features common to the psalms (e.g. parallelism, alliteration, similes, metaphors, chiasm, inclusio, etc). It is an ode to the Kea, the ferry I get every morning from North Shore to Auckland’s CBD. I thought I’d share it with you, and, once the students have finished composing their own psalms, I’ll share some of these with you too in the coming weeks.
Psalm to the Kea
1 O majestic Kea, queen of the Pacific deep!
O sovereign Kea, you rule the waters of Waitemata!
2 You sashay through the breakers like a great sea dragon,
Like Leviathan, across the waves you stretch and prance.
3 Carrying your people aloft from the Great North Shore,
You deliver us across the expanse to the CBD coastline.
4 Every morning we wait for you to visit us,
Like the rising of the golden sun, you never fail to appear.
5 Every evening we stand, tired and thirsting for you,
Like the silver moon, you lead us home to rest.
6 When stormy seas surround you, slashing at your bows,
You push them aside with ease – your strength is so great!
7 Though mighty winds attack you, I do not fear,
For I am nestled in your womb, and know you will prevail.
8 Your café bar brings succour to the weary,
Your wines and expressos revive their shattered souls.
9 You, and you alone, deliver us from the trials of traffic torture,
From tooting horns and car fumes that conspire to choke us.
10 Instead, you revive our spirits with salty breezes and soft sunshine,
You delight us with panoramic views of the Auckland skyline,
Our hearts leap with joy as you soar over the breakers.
11 O majestic Kea, queen of the Pacific deep!
O sovereign Kea, you rule the waters of Waitemata!
Dr Zain Ali of the Islamic Studies Research Unit, along with the Auckland Interfaith Council and the Child Poverty Action Group have organised this meeting on a subject that affects most Aucklanders (and mostly in a bad way for the young, those on even middling salaries, and those who are renting):
Is Housing a Human Right? A Public Dialogue
Paul Barber, New Zealand Council for Christian Social Services
Dr Clair Dale, Child Poverty Action Group
Rau Hoskins, Te Matapihi – National Māori Housing Organisation
Professor Paul Morris, UNESCO Chair in Interreligious Understanding and Relations, Victoria University
7pm, Monday 31st Augusts, Saint Matthew in the City, corner of Hobson and Wellesley Streets.
For those of you in the Auckland area, here are details of our August Theology and Religion seminar, presented by our very own Dr Nick Thompson. Not to be missed.
The Escaped Nun: Taking the Sectarian Temperature of
Nineteenth Century New Zealand
3-4pm, Friday 14 August, 206-201 (Arts 1).
Between October 1885 and March 1886 the “Escaped Nun,” Edith O’Gorman, lectured her way around the cities and towns of New Zealand on a tour hosted by the Grand Orange Lodge. When O’Gorman arrived here she was already a veteran of the international circuit for anti-Catholic lecturers. Her career began in 1868, when she left her convent in New Jersey, and she continued to make a living on the anti-popery platform almost until of her death in London in 1929. Her exposé on the horrors of convent life and perils of the confessional was a best-seller, which ran into dozens of editions, and was still being published in the 1950s.In New Zealand, as in the US and UK, O’Gorman’s lectures drew large and apparently appreciative audiences. The international scope of her activity allows us to make comparisons between her reception in New Zealand and elsewhere in the English-speaking world at the same time, and thus to assess whether 19th century New Zealand was quite as religiously tolerant or indifferent as has sometimes been claimed.
Click here to subscribe to the all new Auckland Religion podcast which will showcase audio recordings from selected seminar talks and public lectures in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Auckland. The first episode is now live, and features Dr Sean Durbin’s (University of Newcastle, Australia) talk from last week to the Theology Research Seminar.
‘It is what it is’: Myth-Making and Identity Formation on a Christian Zionist Tour of Israel
Dr Sean Durbin, University of Newcastle
Date: 2-3pm, Friday 17th July Location: Arts 1, Room 201
This talk will critically examine the ways that evangelical pastors and Israeli tour guides employ religious language at various sites of interest on a Christian Zionist tour of Israel. It argues that applying religious discourse to descriptions of seemingly ordinary sites such as landscapes serves to mystify and naturalise what are otherwise highly contested political realities, by reframing them as manifestations of God’s will. Second, the talk will consider the way these rhetorical techniques work to reframe the touring group’s identity as more authentically Christian in relation to other Christian groups who visit different sites of interest in the region.
Today’s student contribution takes us back to look at that most colourful character from the gospel traditions – Herodias’s daughter Salome. The author of this piece is Sarah Pearce, who is in her final semester of studying for a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Theology conjoint degree, majoring in English and Biblical Studies. Sarah is a very talented writer, as you will see, and we are delighted that she is hoping to continue her studies with us next semester in the postgraduate Honours programme.
Salome in Art
Salome in art through the ages
In the Middle Ages, images of Salome tended to focus on the dynamism of her dance, which had so impressed the king. She came to be known as ‘la sauterelle,’ from the way she contorted and twisted her body in medieval images, a young, fully dressed girl bent backwards or upside-down (Apostolos-Cappadona 2009). During this time, dance was an accepted part of church liturgy. In these depictions she is an acrobat – she is not sexualised nor is there an explicit effort on the part of the artist to depict her in an overtly negative or bloodthirsty light.
The Renaissance saw the acrobatic nature of Salome’s dance often remain in images of the young woman, her adolescence also enduring in her physical representations. However, a greater focus on her beauty and a gentle, seductive demeanour also developed. This change was representative of a growing ‘awareness’ of the ever-present threat of female sexuality to men, still latent in this young woman (ibid).
By the end of the high Renaissance, moving into the Mannerism, Baroque and Romantic periods, the nature of women began to be dichotomised into the virgin/whore binary due to misogynistic attitudes that seeped through the acutely patriarchal Western societies of the time. Salome represented both sides of the coin: a young royal maiden, yet one so sexually charged in her movement she could bring about the death of a prophet. Combined with the fact that dance was no longer a part of liturgy, the innocence of Salome’s dance began to fade away (ibid).
And, by the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century, Salome had become the archetype femme fatale, whose sexuality, portrayed through her seductive dance, directly resulted in the death of an innocent man. Salome and her mother, collapsed at this time into one character, used her beauty to order the death of a man when offered anything her heart desired: this being the very essence of the femme fatale. As a result, Salome became a favourite topic among Symbolist artists who sought out subjects which represented this theme.
Salome came to be depicted alone, sometimes dancing, and often with a sword or with the head of John the Baptist on a platter (as though she had done the beheading herself). She is depicted naked, exotically adorned, or bare breasted, with a triumphant, smiling or unfeeling expression. She is therefore shown to be pleased with the fruits of her sexual wiles, which artists depicted as the work of Salome alone, leaving her prompting mother, or grudge-ridden step-father out of the scene.
Salome in Bernardo Luini’s Salome with the head of St John the Baptist (early 16th Century)
The young dancer of the gospel traditions (Matt. 14.3-11; Mk 6.17-29) has become integral to the story in artistic reproductions, as though she were the central character within the narrative and often seeming to shoulder the blame alone for John’s execution, as she does in this painting. Yet, Salome comes into the narrative late and her role is described fleetingly in comparison to the amount of space given to Herodias’ grudge in Mark’s account and Herod’s reluctance to execute St John in both accounts. The depiction of this scene is common: the moment when Salome is presented with John the Baptist’s head. In both traditions, the head is bought to the girl on the platter already. Here, the head is placed onto the platter the girl holds as if she might have witnessed the execution and been given the head fresh from its body. Perhaps she waited with her platter ready for the presentation of the decapitated head. Either way, the disembodied arm of the executioner is an eerie touch and breaks with the biblical tradition.
The scene is dark, we cannot see the court or the birthday party described in the text. Nor is Salome dancing or her mother present, prompting her daughter or receiving her request. Salome here averts her face: her expression, mildly troubled with a slightly furrowed brow. Yet I would say that she is surprisingly unmoved and slightly detached for someone receiving the head of an innocent man she just demanded to be killed. There is no horror in her face; her mouth is set and her skin glows, flushed, in stark comparison to St John’s head, pale and yellowing.
This detachment from the horror of the situation reflects the state of her family: one that places very little value on human life. Her grandfather, Herod the great, ordered that all boys under two be murdered in order to try and get one little boy, the baby Jesus (Matt. 2.16). Her stepfather Herod, who was also her uncle, married his brother’s wife (Matt. 14.3). Herod imprisoned an innocent man and without hesitation put him to death (Matt. 14.3, 9-10). The lack of pain in her facial expression and her peaceful gaze depicts her as equally as callous as the rest of her family. This is also present in the text. Offered half the kingdom, Salome instead opts to please her mother at the expense of the life of an innocent man, which comes cheaply with little consideration (Mark 6.22-23). This is particularly evident in Mark’s account where it states that following the request, ‘immediately she rushed back to the king’ asking for his head on a platter ‘at once’ (v.25). The sense of urgency and impulsiveness betrays her lack of concern for the life of another. This is in turn depicted by the way the artist has portrayed her here.
Salome in Gustave Mossa’s Salome, 1901
Mossa’s depiction of Salome shows the way in which the art of the late 19th to early 20th Century became so fixated on the concept of the femme fatale. The residues of this within the Biblical story of Salome are seized by early 20th Century artists. As a result, depictions of the young dancer came to be a fantasy or myth, so far removed from the Salome of the biblical texts. Here Salome kneels in a child’s cot or nursery, a doll and other remnants of childhood are strewn around her knees. A diaphanous robe drapes around her adolescent body, tucked tight between her legs, exposing her budding breast and left thigh in an alluring fashion. She holds in one hand an ornate sword covered in the blood of her victim and licks it, a consummate femme fatale. The bleeding heads of the Baptiser bloom in a flourish of barbed roses around her, looking down on her, symbolising the nature of the femme fatale, and the thorny danger intrinsic to the enchanting aphrodite. Saint John’s head in the centre of the rose reminds the viewer of the mortal consequences of her beauty.
There is no court, mother or step-father, no dance, nor is there an audience. Nothing from this picture seems to be drawn from the Biblical traditions except the much manipulated character of Herodias’ daughter, a child wildly sexualised. Were the heads of John the Baptist not present, peering lifeless out of the blooms behind her, we would perhaps not be able to recognise the young deviant depicted here as Salome at all. Instead of being a narrative representation of the painting, the painting uses symbols to reveal allegorically what the artist might have believed to be more subliminal elements of the story.
Salome’s character here is both beautiful and bloodthirsty, young and perverse. This depiction of Salome is abject on many levels: the idea of running your tongue down a double edged sword in itself is enough to make us cringe. Yet, Salome licks a man’s blood off the reflective blade. The blood is undried, still fresh and warm enough to run down the sword and drip from the edges. Symbols of innocence lie discarded around the sexually-charged youth. The disjunction of the symbols of childhood next to the exposed and sexually enticing young women adds to the abjection. Altogether, this paints her in a very negative light: an aberrant, wicked young woman, virginal and yet defiled, delicate and yet dangerous.
As aforementioned, it seems that very little of this is drawn from the Biblical accounts. Yet with some imagination, could we say that the urgency in which the young girl rushes back to the king with her request, demanding a head of an innocent man on a platter (Mark 6.25) at once betrays her blood thirst? The demand that the head be presented on a platter could divulge an appetite for blood indeed. The head itself was not enough, nor was a simple execution. Instead in her own words in both the Matthew and Mark narrative, she asks that the head of Saint John be bought to her in a similar way one might request food. So perhaps Mossa touches on this murderous appetite here, symbolically depicting the role of the platter, Salome’s very own addition to her mother’s request, by having Salome literally eat blood, with the freshness of it linking to the sense of urgency in her request for the head in Mark’s rendition of the story.
Comparing the images by Mossa and Luini
Firstly, the Salome in Luini’s portrayal of the scene averts her face from the horror of the decaptiated head. While she doesn’t react as one might expect, she shows some decency and humanity in looking away with perhaps even a sense of guilt in her eyes. Mossa’s Salome on the other hand victoriously licks the blood of her victim with a sense of delight in her face and posture.
Secondly, the differences between these two images are stark, with Luini’s painting following the biblical narrative more closely, depicting the moment in which the young dancer is presented with the head on the platter as requested. The actions of Mossa’s Salome, in a cot with large roses about her will not be found anywhere in the Biblical text. Mossa makes no attempt to follow the Biblical traditions.
Luini’s period is a few centuries from grasping the fetish of the fatal sexaulity of women as it was in Mossa’s. Luini’s depiction comes from a time entrenched in artistic tradition of realism in art to serve didactic and narrational purposes to a largely illiterate audience. This would dictate what art was, limiting artistic licence, ensuring the veracity of the work. It also comes from an overtly religious society, around the time of the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation, inhibiting the ways an artist could portray a bloodthirsty beauty, demanding a certain level of decency in art.
Mossa’s version comes out of a time of great social upheaval and chaos, following the wars, revolutions and uprisings of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries in an increasingly secular society with the first great world war on the horizon. The artist’s dark disillusionment with society is reflected in the way subjects are depicted as being more sinister and ominous than ever before, evident in this very undisguised depiction of blood thirst and loss of innocence.
Apostolos-Cappadona, Diane. “Imagining Salome, or How La Sauterelle Became La Femme Fatale.” In From the Margins 2: Women of the New Testament and their Afterlives, edited by Christine E. Joynes and Christopher C. Rowland, 190-209. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009.
I have another piece of student work for you to enjoy today, this time from Nicole Marais, who is nearing the completion of her BA, in which she is majoring in Media, Film, and TV studies. Nicole has focused on one of my favourite biblical characters – Delilah, from Judges 16. She first looks at her presentation in a painting from the 19th Century, before turning to consider the ‘Delilah-like’ character of Meredith Johnson in the 1994 movie Disclosure. Nicole’s discussion is fascinating and creative – I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
Delilah in visual culture
Paul Albert Rouffio, Samson and Delilah (1874)
And she made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him. (Judges 16:19)
The first representation of Delilah we will be looking at is a painting by Paul Albert Rouffio entitled simply Samson and Delilah (1874). This is the moment just before Samson’s hair is shorn and the Philistines capture him and take him away to Gaza.
In Rouffio’s rendition, Delilah is being handed a pair of scissors by a female servant while the Philistine soldiers wait in an alcove for the moment to attack and seize him. This differs from the biblical text where the narrator tells us that Delilah called for ‘a man and she caused him…’ to cut Samson’s hair. (Judges 16:19) Here Delilah is the one to not only deceive Samson by telling the Philistines his secret, she deals the fatal blow by cutting his hair herself.
Again in the text we are not told where this scenario unfolds. (Exum 82) Are we in Delilah’s house? Is this a brothel? Wherever they are here it looks to be a very opulent and decadent setting. The Egyptian art on the walls in the back ground is intriguing. Perhaps a marker of Delilah’s foreignness?
None of the characters in the image engage with the viewer. At first glance Samson captures our eye, his vulnerability is twofold as he lays naked and asleep. I can’t help but feel compassion for this man who, in the glow of post coital bliss, has no idea that in an instant his world and legacy will change forever. The image serves a dual purpose too. While Delilah’s nakedness is intended to be a pleasure for the male gaze to behold, Samson’s vulnerability and the viewer’s knowledge of things to come serves as a warning against the power of female seduction. (Exum 78) If a great man like Samson can fall prey to the evil wiles of a woman’s sexual prowess, what hope do ‘normal’ men have?
The biblical text says only that Delilah ‘made him sleep on her lap’. There is no evidence in the bible to point to their love making, yet Rouffio (and countless other artists before and since him) implies this in his interpretation of the text. In Samson and Delilah shown above, the state of undress of both Samson and Delilah as well as the crumpled sheets of the bed are more than a subtle hint to what has come before. If that were not enough, the pomegranates and figs next to Delilah’s bed are themselves symbols of Delilah’s heightened sexuality.
But who was Samson to Delilah? Did she fear him, love him, loathe him? Or was she just a vindictive woman set on destroying a great man? The Biblical text says simply that she was a woman that Samson loved;
‘And it came to pass afterward, that he loved a woman in the valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah.’ (Judges 16:4)
She obviously knew of his love for her;
‘How canst thou say, I love thee, when thine heart is not with me?’ (Judges 16:15)
But there is no mention of her love for him. Indeed her actions lead us to believe the opposite. She manipulates him into telling her the secret of his power, betrays his confidence to the Philistines and hands him over to his enemy, without a hint of remorse. (Or at least there is no indication that she feels any in the text)
I don’t think Rouffio was in any doubt of whether she loved him or not. Her facial expression in his painting is one of smug victory. A woman content in the knowledge that she has succeeded in her task. She appears to be very assured of herself, confident that he will not awake before she cuts his hair and knowing that when the deed is done she will be a wealthy woman. Or, if the decadent room in which this is set is indeed in her home, and not a brothel like I suspect, an even wealthier woman.
So, what is next for Delilah? After she delivers Samson to the Philistines, she disappears from the biblical text. Does she become a member of the Philistine elite? Or does she take her silver and go home? The décor in the back ground of the painting leads me to believe that she is not from those parts and will most likely return to her home, be that Egypt or Mesopotamia (?) as a wealthy single woman who has no need for a man to look after her. Perhaps she even becomes the Madam of her own brothel…
Delilah-like Demi Moore as Meredith Johnson in Disclosure (1994)
Dan Clanton argues in Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music that there is a perpetual negative rendering of Delilah in literature, film and contemporary music. (Clanton 65) While Clanton focused on representations of Delilah in music, I will look at how Delilah, as the quintessential femme fatale, is given new life through Demi Moore’s portrayal of Meredith Johnson in Barry Levinson’s 1994 film Disclosure.
The film focuses on a week in the life of Tom Sanders (Michael Douglas). He has to fight to save his job after his new boss, and former lover, accuses him of sexual harassment following her failed attempt to seduce him. (Although, it must be said that director Levinson took a very ‘Clinton era’ approach to what constitutes sexual relations in this scene.)
Like the biblical text there is a three way split in the power play between the characters of the film: Meredith the femme fatale (Delilah), Tom the victim of the temptress (Samson) and the men that use a deviant female to ensnare their captive, in this case the board members of Didgicom (the Philistines). (Clanton 66)
Demi Moore is the ultimate Delilah incarnate. A femme Fatale that uses her sexual prowess to ensnare an unsuspecting man and thereby endeavouring to destroy him. However, unlike the biblical text where the all-powerful Samson is undone by Delilah, Tom Sanders manages to outwit Meredith and come out on top. Meredith is fired from her position of Vice President and Tom is lauded as the architect of a merger that will ensure his position at the company.
It is unclear what Meredith’s reasons are for wanting to destroy Tom in such a grandiose manner. In Judges 16, Delilah agrees to help the Philistines when they offer her a handsome financial reward in return. However in Disclosure, Meredith’s justification for setting up and betraying her former lover remains ambiguous. Could it be that she is a woman scorned, who after 10 years still wants revenge for a love affair that ended badly? Or is she seduced by the idea of power? Does she want to be the top woman in a man’s world? Meredith admits as much to Tom in the beginning of the film when she tries to rekindle their romantic relationship.
‘Now you got the power. You got something I want.’
Like Delilah in the book of Judges, we are not sure what will become of Meredith after she is booted from Digicom. She tells Tom that she has already been approached by 10 head hunters in the hour since her public shaming at a press conference. Here Levinson insinuates that she will land on her feet. Like Delilah of the bible she will not be too severely punished for her actions, for which she too shows no remorse.
Meredith Johnson in Levinson’s Disclosure and the Delilah of Rouffio’s Samson and Delilah are separated by a hundred and twenty years, yet have much in common. They are both used as pawns in facilitating the power play of a man’s world. Delilah is used by the Philistines to ensnare Samson and Meredith by the male members of the board at Digicom. They are both aware of their part in this power struggle and comply willingly.
Delilah and Meredith reinforce the ideology that women are responsible for men’s undoing and are a threat to the fundamentals of a patriarchal society. (Anders 97) A world in which hetro-normative ideals of procreation and the family unit are to be preserved above all else. Women who challenge these ideals with their desire to forge a life for themselves that is not guided by the moral compass that a husband and a family will give them, are dangerous.
What is interesting to me is that the Delilah of Rouffio’s painting seems to wield more power that Meredith does in Disclosure. This is of concern because Disclosure was set in the 1990’s, a time where gender roles were being questioned and women were being given opportunities that had since eluded them. In the end Levinson’s film, maintains the current gender status quo. Women are either sexually charged vamps who use manipulation to control and destroy men, or they are insipid and dowdy, only allowed to succeed if they put a lid on their sexuality so they can access their brains. A very disappointing rendering of Delilah indeed.
Rouffio, Paul Albert Samson and Delilah, 1874.
Disclosure. Dir. Barry Levinson. Perf. Demi Moore, Michael Douglas. Warner Brothers. 1995. Film.
Anderson, Lesley Cecile Marie. ‘The Femme Fatale: A Manifestation of Patriarchal Fears’ UBC Retrospective Theses Digitization Project. University of British Columbia, 1995.
Clanton, Dan. “Trollops and Temptresses.” In Daring, Disreputable, and Devout: Interpreting the Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music, 65-78. New York: T&T Clark International, 2009.
Exum, Cheryl. Notorious Biblical Women in Manchester: Spencer Stanhope’s Eve and Federick Pickersgill’s Delilah. Bible Art Gallery. Edited by Martin O’Kane, 69-96. The Bible in the Modern World, 21. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2011.