Another glimpse of Delilah

Today’s wonderful Bible and Pop Culture essay is by Lachlan Balfour, who takes us back for another look at my favourite biblical character, Delilah. Lachlan has just completed his second year of a law and arts degree, where he is majoring in politics. Lachlan hasn’t decided yet what he’ll do once he completes his degree (he has a while to decide!) but at this point, he is thinking about a career working in politics.  Lachlan tells me that he enjoyed our Bible and Pop Culture course, as it allowed him to gain a knowledge of the bible and to understand just how prevalent it is in contemporary society. So sit back, and relish some more Delilah fabulousness.

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Hedy Lamarr as Delilah in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (Paramount, 1949)

Samson’s Judas: The Portrayal of Delilah as a Vindictive Femme Fatale

By

Lachlan Balfour

The portrayal of Delilah in cultural texts since the first mention of her in Judges 16 has tended to show her as a vindictive femme fatale, something that has little basis in the bible. Judges 16 provides limited background on Delilah, her motivation for betraying Samson or the nature of their relationship. Despite this, creators of cultural works, including Rembrandt in his 1636 work The Blinding of Samson, Rubens’ Samson and Delilah and Cecil B. DeMille’s 1949 film epic of the same name, attempt to fill these gaps to create Delilah the femme fatale. Delilah’s motivation for betraying Samson, the nature of their relationship, and whether Delilah regretted her betrayal are the biblical gaps discussed.  This essay will focus on how the world behind the text, including the creator’s experiences and the views of those around them, and the world in the text – focusing on the piece itself, are used to fill these gaps to create the  image of Delilah we have today.

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Poster for Samson and Delilah (Paramount 1949)

In Samson and Delilah, DeMille gives Delilah a number of motivations for cutting Samson’s hair, all of which aid in portraying her as a vindictive femme fatale. Judges 16 only refers to the possible motivation of Delilah receiving “eleven hundred pieces of silver” from each of the Philistine elders in return for discovering the source of Samson’s strength (JDG. 16.5). While DeMille does incorporate this detail into his telling of the story, he does not make it the sole reason for Delilah’s betrayal. DeMille instead makes her primary motivation that of revenge for Samson’s rejection of her over her sister and an all-consuming jealousy that means if she can’t have Samson, no one can – both very femme fatale like qualities. The world in the text of the film shows Samson rejecting the offer of marriage to Delilah after her sister betrays him by marrying someone else, stating he would “not want a thistle from a rose” (Zwick 2014, 219). After becoming courtesan to King of the philistines, she offers her services in trapping Samson as revenge for his rejection. Once Delilah has cut off his hair she offers another motive for her betrayal – jealousy. Referring to the virtuous Mirjam who loves Samson and convinces him to leave Delilah to save his parents, Delilah remarks:  “I could have loved you with a fire to make all others seem like ice…but one call from the milk-faced Danite and you run whining at her heels.” This is very much portraying Delilah as the femme fatale, a seductress who causes the downfall of a helpless man her for her own gratification. Her near hatred for Samson after his rejection also adds to this image, which is vastly different to the monetary reward which seems to motivate Delilah in the bible.

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Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature, Samson and Delilah (Paramount 1949)

The society surrounding DeMille influenced him in making his Delilah a “scheming little dame,” taking from popular perceptions of Delilah in the 1940s and views on women more generally (Kozlovic 2010, 8). Delilah’s portrayal as a femme fatale fits very much within view of Delilah in the 1940s, that she was a temptress and therefore her whole character was bad. This is in line with the conservative view that promiscuous women were dangerous and immoral that existed during the period – though promiscuous men were not subjected to the same harsh judgement.  Samson is portrayed as an Israelite hero for murdering Philistines in revenge for his broken engagement to Delilah’s sister, but Delilah is seen as a vindictive temptress for doing what was in the best interests of her people. By portraying Delilah as, in DeMille’s words, “quite the bitch” but Samson as above reproach is a reflection of the world behind the text of 1940s society in America where men were seen as the superior sex (ibid., 12). Further, DeMille is enforcing the stereotype of  Delilah as a dangerous woman, determined to bring down Samson for initially rejecting her love. More recent interpretations consider that perhaps Delilah was only betraying Samson for her own survival, knowing that it was dangerous to disobey the Philistine elders (ibid., 10). No consideration is given to her situation, a single woman in a world very much dominated by men, and that maybe her motivations lay only in survival (Zwick 2014, 219).

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Delilah makes the fatal cut (Paramount 1949)

Rembrandt portrays Delilah as unremorseful for her betrayal of Samson, instead relishing in his pain to add to her image as an evil, vindictive woman. Judges 16 offers no insight into how Delilah felt about her actions, so he has filled this gap in a way that enforces the stereotype of her as an evil femme fatale. The world in the text of The Blinding of Samson shows Delilah as being both repulsed by the gouging of Samson’s eyes but also has a look of fascination and almost satisfaction as she looks on at the struggling Samson (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 249). Further, she is seen to be mocking Samson by clutching his hair in her hand and “flaunting it” in front of him (ibid). He is enforcing the stereotype of Delilah as a femme fatale who revels in the destruction she has caused by painting her as a “projection of the feeling of attraction mingled with repulsion elicited by woman and the danger she denotes” (ibid.). Rembrandt has completely imagined her response cutting Samson’s hair as there is no mention of her after the gouging in Judges 16, and instead of giving her qualities of shame and remorse he has used it to give her the qualities of a femme fatale.

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Rembrandt, The Blinding of Samson (1636)

            Looking behind the text, Rembrandt’s own fear of losing his vision, something that for a painter would be seen as ‘the ultimate deprivation’, combined with societal views impacts his portrayal of Delilah (ibid.). It is thought that the models for Samson and Delilah is the artist himself and his wife Saskia, with Rembrandt having only painted Samson during their marriage (ibid., 252). His own feelings about relationships between man and woman and the dangers that they contained were expressed through The Blinding of Samson. Rembrandt saw from his marriage that women could be unremorseful femme fatales, and used his deepest fear of going blind as a way to show the betrayal which can occur in relationships (ibid.). Further influencing his depiction of Delilah were those around him. There was a strong theme in Dutch art and literature at the time warning of the dangers of relations between man and woman (ibid.). This would have caused him to take a more moralistic approach to Delilah, portraying her as evil personified for betraying Samson and therefore unremorseful for her actions.

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Rubens, Samson and Delilah (1609-10)

Rubens’ Samson and Delilah portrays the relationship between the pair as sex worker and customer to enforce the image of Delilah as a femme fatale. Judges 16 does not give a clear picture of the relationship between Samson and Delilah. Although it assumed she is a concubine, Samson acts differently towards her than the woman he lay with earlier in the text (Jdg. 16.1-3), saying that he is in love with her rather than there just being a sexual attraction (Sasson 1998, 334). In Rubens’ painting, we see from the world in the text that he includes many of the traits of a brothel with an old woman as a ‘procuress’ and the inclusion of towels and jars typical of brothel scenes (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 461). Further hints at this being a brothel scene are that Delilah’s breasts are exposed and she is waring in a red dress, the huge Samson resting on her lap hinting that they have just finished making love (Exum 1996, 192). This sexualisation of Delilah combined with the perception of sex workers as people with ‘loose morals’ contributes to her portrayal as a seductress and dangerous woman – despite this not being the case in Judges 16. That Rubens chooses to portray her as a concubine is very much a reflection of his world and the beliefs at the time. Other artists during the 17th century also adhered to Josephus’ description of Delilah as a “harlot among the philistines” by painting her with an expression of indifference toward Samson, never having loved him (Georgievska-Shine 2007, 462). It is only natural that Rubens would follow this theme in his portrayal, interpreting Judges 16 in such a way that Delilah is made into an immoral seductress.

The portrayal of Delilah in cultural texts differs greatly from her biblical portrayal in Judges 16. Looking at the texts and their creators’ influences for Delilah’s portrayal show a vindictive femme fatale where only a vague description of Delilah exists in the bible. Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah fills the biblical gap of the motivation for Delilah’s betrayal as revenge and jealousy, attributes that feed into the image of her as a femme fatale. DeMille’s world helped to shape this portrayal by its views around the interpretation of Delilah and women more generally. Rembrandt’s The Blinding of Samson also exhibits Delilah as an unremorseful, dangerous woman, with the moralistic Dutch contemporaries and his own personal views on relationships shaping this portrayal. Finally, Rubens’ Samson and Delilah fills the final gap in Judges 16, portraying the relationship between Samson and Delilah as a courtesan and customer. The prevailing view at the time of Delilah as a sex worker influencing his work and helping to add to Delilah’s image as an immoral femme fatale.

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Bibliography

All biblical text references are from the New Revised Standard Version.

Exum, J. Cheryl.  Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic press, 1996.

Georgievska-Shine, Aneta “Rubens and the Tropes of Deceit in Samson and Delilah”. Word and Image 23, no. 4 (2007): 460-473. doi:10.1080/02666286.2007.10435799.

Kahr, Madlyn. “Rembrandt and Delilah”. The Art Bulletin 55, no. 2 (1973): 240-259. doi:10.1080/00043079.1973.10789742.

Kozlovic K., Anton. “The Construction of Samson’s Three Lovers in Cecil B DeMilles Technicolor Testament, Samson and Delilah (1949).” Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal 1, no. 7 (2010): 1-31.

Sasson M. Jack “Who Cut Samson’s Hair? (And Other Trifling Issues Raised by Judges 16).” Prooftexts 8, no. 3 (1988): 333-339.

Zwick, Reinhold. “Obsessive Love: Samson and Delilah Go To the Movies”. In Samson: Hero or Fool? The Many Faces of Samson, edited by Erik Eynikel and Tobias Nicklas, 211-235. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

 

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Controversial Judas

Today’s student essay comes from Flo Cardon, another student who took our Bible and Pop Culture class earlier this year. Flo is currently in the middle of completing her Bachelor of Arts degree, with a major in Classics and a minor in Ancient History. She loves art and history and in her spare time, enjoys painting. Unsurprisingly, her primarily subject matter in her art relates to religion and mythology. She also loves watching films, particularly musicals (which can probably be deducted from her essay topic!).

Flo chose a controversial biblical character to focus on in her essay – Judas – considering his (equally controversial) afterlife in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s a great essay, so read on, and enjoy.

Heaven on Their Minds: Judas in the Bible and Popular Culture

By

Flo Cardon

The name ‘Judas’ has become synonymous with ideas of betrayal, disloyalty and treachery. It is commonly known that in the Bible, Jesus Christ was betrayed by the only ex-disciple, Judas Iscariot, in exchange for money. The Bible presents Judas as a two dimensional person, simplified down to only that one moment in his life where he gave Jesus over to the Romans and sealed his fate as ‘Judas, the one that would betray him’ forever. Norman Jewison’s musical film Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) presents Judas as a complex and tragic character that plays an important part in the story of Jesus Christs’ life. By comparing Jewison’s Judas with his biblical counterpart, many investigations can be made into the history of Judas as a character and his portrayal as the one who brought down Jesus Christ.

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Carl Anderson as Judas in Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar

In comparison to the Bible, Jewison’s Judas is presented as the tragic figure and the one who the audience should sympathise with. He is shown as only wanting the best for Jesus and the Jews, and uses the entire first musical number as a soliloquy as to how he thinks Jesus is going to doom all his followers and friends as well as himself. Here Judas is not presented as a villain but Jesus’ worried friend. His motivation is to get Jesus to listen to him so that they can prevent Jesus’ movement from getting too large that it will get attention from Roman authorities. This is not a man with evil intent, but one that cares for his friends and the danger he sees they are bringing upon themselves. Biblical Judas is a stark contrast to this; Judas is referred to as ‘Judas, the one that would betray [Jesus]’ more often than not. In the Gospel of John, Judas criticises Jesus’ use of expensive perfume on himself and voices that he thinks the money used on this perfume could have gone to the poor, and is subsequently labelled as a thief (John 12.5-6). This shows that Biblical Judas is motivated to betray Jesus through money, and not friendship like in the film. Judas’ realisation of the inevitability of Jesus’ fate at the beginning of the film contrasted with his obliviousness of the fact that he would be the one that brought Jesus’ downfall brings about an extremely tragic aspect to Judas’ character that isn’t found in the Bible. Before Judas’ death, he sings about how he did not know he was handing Jesus over to die, which is another tragic contrast to how he only intended to betray Jesus so that he would protect the fate of all those that followed his growing movement, including Jesus himself. This emphasises the tragic nature of Judas’ part in this story, as he was unknowingly playing into Jesus’ inevitable arrest and crucifixion much more than he was let on.

Photo of Carl AndersonHowever, in the Bible during the last supper, it is written in the Gospel of John that ‘the devil had already prompted Judas to betray Jesus’ (John 13.2), meaning that Biblical Judas only needed to be prompted in order to actually betray Jesus in exchange for money. Both versions of Judas hang themselves in response to Jesus’ sentence to be crucified, but in the film we feel much sorrier for Judas here than the Judas in the Bible. In the Bible, Judas’ death is short and sweet, with no sympathy or remorse shown towards him, just that ‘he went away and hanged himself’ (Matt. 27.5). This seems to imply that he did deserve this tragic ending, as he was shown as the villain who handed Jesus over to the Romans and only that, nothing more. However, just after Jewison’s Judas dies, we hear ‘So long Judas, poor old Judas…’ sung repeatedly as the outro of his death song, reinforcing the idea that Judas was the victim of this story and that he did not deserve this outcome. No one listened to his accurate predictions of what would happen to Jesus and his movement, and he died as a result.[1] Judas in Norman Jewison’s musical film compared to the Bible provides us with insight into the complexity of his character and differing nature of interpretations of it. Judas is clearly the villain in the Bible because of his betrayal of Jesus, but Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) presents us with a Judas with a much more composite, and therefore human, nature.

 

judas-kiss2The Judas kiss

An important aspect of the change in Judas between the Bible and Norman Jewison’s Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is Judas’ race. It is known that Judas was a Palestinian Jew born in Jericho and one of the most well-educated among the Apostles. However, in the film, Judas is played by Carl Anderson, a black man, which caused a variety of controversy when the film was released. Among the controversy was the accusation that making the ‘villain’ of the narrative black was anti-Semitic. It was argued that by making Judas the only black person gave the character evil connotations, as the ‘true villains’ of the story, the Jewish priests, are also primarily clad in black (Hebron 2016, 157). When the film was initially released, Rabbi Marc Tenenbaum described it as ‘a witch’s brew of anti-black and anti-Semitic venom’ (Bennette 2016). This is in reference to how Judas has been depicted as the prototype of an evil Jewish figure throughout history, with offensive and stereotypical anti-Semitic features like a hooked nose, large eyes and black hair (Meyer 2009, 2). This dehumanized Judas as a biblical figure, cutting him down to being the villain who sold off Jesus Christ to be executed.

judas-jesus-superstarThe decision to make Judas black, as Marc Tenenbaum mentioned, also stirred up discussion of the portrayal as anti-black. This is the reversal of the anti-Semitic idea, as people thought Jewison’s Judas to be anti-black through the fact that the only black character is Judas, the primary image of betrayal and evil, according to the Bible. Carl Anderson being cast to play Judas is also argued to be ‘a comment on the history of African Americans’ (Grace 2009, 98). This can primarily be seen in Judas’ death scene, in which his suicide is clearly reminiscent of the lynching, especially the large amounts of black Americans that were lynched in the first half of the twentieth century as a result of extreme racial oppression and tension in the United States. This blurred the line between the actor and his role, as Judas knew of the violence and oppression that was being carried out by the Romans like no one else did (Hebron 2016, 159), which is a parallel to the racial suppression of black people that was still being carried out when the film was released, and still continues to this day, with the numerous racist responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. Judas understood violence and oppression like no one else did, yet no one listened to him. This afterlife of Judas is vastly different to that of the original biblical Judas, which can be seen in these varying responses to the choice to make Judas a black man in the musical film.

carl-anderson-judasAn interesting yet unique aspect of Jewison’s film is that it is told primarily through Judas’ point of view. It is obvious that Jesus is the hero in the Bible but that is because it is written by his devout followers, whereas it can be argued that Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) was created as a reaction to the lack of investigation into Judas’ side of the story, where Judas himself is the protagonist. This is because of Judas’ character development in the narrative; Judas started off as a follower of Jesus, he believed and supported him, subsequently betrayed him, and then felt such an overwhelming guilt at what he had done that he committed suicide. This is true for both the 1973 film and the gospels. But whereas in the Bible Judas’ feelings and thoughts are ambiguous, the film allows us a look into Judas as the main character and as someone who changes and learns (Miller 2011). The fact that the film is from Judas’ point of view means that the audience is being shown the story of Jesus through the eyes of someone who is critiquing him. Judas is allowed to critique Jesus here, as the audience goes into the narrative knowing the famous story of Judas’ betrayal, and knows that he is seen by many as the ‘villain’ of the musical. Judas’ critique of Jesus shows us mainly that he sees Jesus as not the son of God but a human man who put himself in danger by putting the focus on himself rather than the philosophies he preaches.

judas-5In the Bible, Judas is only mentioned in relation to Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, which does not allow as much character development as the film. This contrast fills in a lot of gaps in the Bible, like what Judas’ thoughts, motives and opinions were when it came to Jesus and the last week of his life. He shows us a Jesus that is human enough to get angry, flip tables at the temple, get overwhelmed at his popularity and even doubt his own faith in his cause. Compared to the cool, calm and collected Jesus shown in the Gospels, this musical Jesus is a lot more unpredictable and human, as shown through Judas’ perspective. Judas can also be seen as he central character through the fact that in the film, Judas is the one resurrected, and not Jesus, as it is more commonly shown. Whether Judas’ reappearance after death is Jesus’ dream or, as some have put it, Satan himself appearing to Jesus to taunt him, Judas uses this last song of his to interrogate Jesus as well as apologise for what he did. Judas doesn’t get to apologise in the Bible, he is just said to have hanged himself and that was the end of biblical Judas. Judas in this film is not the hero, but he is more of one than Jesus is shown to be. Jesus, with his short temper and doubting faith, seems to be more of a villain than Judas in this film, showing how Judas’ point of view presents a unique take on the constantly retold biblical story.

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In conclusion, Judas in the Bible can be compared to his counterpart in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) to reveal some in depth conclusions about his character and reactions to it. While the film may not change too much of the narrative presented to us in the Bible, Norman Jewison fills in gaps surrounding Judas’ thought processes and motivations as a complex character and puzzle piece in Jesus Christ’s last week alive. We are given the ending we expect to see but with new depth and details, which is what a successful rendition of a biblical tale, like Jesus Christ Superstar (1973), should aim to do.

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[1] This is reminiscent of the Greek myth of Cassandra, who was a prophet that no one listened to before she was killed; She is known as a central figure of epic tragedy, which shows how clearly Judas’ portrayal in Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) is one of the most tragic nature, emphasising how the complexity of this version of Judas is a stark contrast to the two dimensionality of Biblical Judas.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

All references to the Biblical text are from the NRSV

Bennette, Georgette, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar Resurrected’, The Huffington Post, 8 October 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/georgette-bennett-phd/jesus-christ-superstar-resurrected_b_1712061.html

Grace, Pamela, New Approaches to Film Genre: Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic. Great Britain, Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

Hebron, Carol A., Judas Iscariot: Damned or Redeemed: A Critical Examination of the Portrayal of Judas in Jesus Films (1902-2014). Bloomsbury Publishing, 2016.

Meyer, Marvin W., Judas: The Definitive Collection of Gospels and Legends About the Infamous Apostle of Jesus. Harper Collins, 2009.

Miller, Scott, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 2011.

 

 

Salome – victim, seductress, or both?

Today’s advent student offering is a marvellous essay written by THEOREL 101 student Wen-Juenn Lee. WenJuenn is a third year student majoring in English Literature and Media Studies. She tells me that she likes to read, write and discuss everything related to Harry Styles being a contemporary messiah. But, for her Bible and Pop Culture essay, she tore herself away from Harry and wrote this excellent piece on that most enigmatic biblical figure – Salome. Read on, and enjoy.

The Dance of Seduction: the Power of Popular Culture on Shaping the Portrayal of Mark’s Dancing Daughter in the Bible

by

Wen-Juenn Lee

Although religion and popular culture are often perceived as two distinct categories, the relationship between the Bible and popular culture has often been dynamic. This is seen in the biblical portrayal of Herodias’ dancing daughter in Mark, and her subsequent afterlives in film, literature and art. As society alters and gives meaning to biblical characters in a way they can understand, we see the dialectic process in which popular culture, societal attitudes and religion shape one another in an ongoing evolution.

In Mark 6:21-29, Herodias’ daughter danced before King Herod and his guests, which delighted the King. As a reward, he offered her “anything you like and I will give it to you.” Herodias, furious that John the Baptist had condemned Herod’s marriage to Herodias, told her daughter to ask for John’s head. So the daughter requested, “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In front of his guests and in swearing an oath to the girl, Herod was reluctant to break his promise to her. So Herod sent his guard to execute John, and to bring his head on a dish.

As Mark simply referred to the dancing daughter as “daughter of Herodias,” inevitable gaps surrounding the daughter’s identity and motivations emerge. In Flavius Josephus’ historical account The Antiquities of the Jews, a stepdaughter of Herod’s is referred to as Salome. (Book XVIII, Chapter 5, 4) In this way, people came to identify Salome as the same person as the dancing daughter, explaining why the daughter is only ever referred to as Herodias’ daughter and not Herod’s. Thus, the dynamic between “Herodias’ daughter” and Herod becomes a crucial factor in the way artists and writers understood Salome’s dance. According to Josephus, Salome was born around 14 A.D and married twice. Her name, deriving from the Hebrew word Shalom, means peace. Her status as a daughter of a queen, and eventually becoming queen herself, gives her a position of relative power, not to mention indicating her wealth.

Nevertheless, apart from these few inferences we can make, information about Salome, and the dance she became associated with, are scarce and few. Referred to as “the girl”, Salome’s age when she performed the dance could range from a pre-pubescent to a young adult. Her personality, which may have contributed to her motivations to dance, remain unstated. Thus, society is fascinated with a character and a dance about which there is has virtually no historical information. Furthermore, the question of Salome’s motivations for performing her dance, and in obeying her mother to ask for John the Baptist’s head, remains a mystery. In both Mark and Matthew, Herodias tells Salome to ask for John the Baptist’s head, but Salome is the one who makes the specific request “I want you to give me John the Baptist’s head, immediately, on a dish.” In asking for John the Baptist’s head, specifically “on a dish”, was Salome merely obeying her mother, or did she have personal investments in asking for his head?

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Gustave Moreau, L’Apparition (c.1876)

A hugely significant force that influenced society’s perception of Salome was Gustave Moreau’s L’Apparition, where Salome is interrupted by an apparition of John the Baptist’s head in the climax of her dance. Although the Bible does not describe Salome’s dance, Moreau interprets it in an extremely sexualised manner. Using Jospheus’ report, Moreau understood Salome as a step-daughter dancing sexually in front of her king. A languid leg peeks out from behind the sheer fabric of her dress, and an outstretched arm directs us to the decapitated head of John. Her body, twisted at the waist, directs the male gaze to her fully frontal and almost nude torso. Crowned with ostentatious jewels and Byzantine-like patterns on her skirt, Salome reinforces Western attitudes on the eroticised and oriental ‘Other’ (Said). The power of the gaze is extremely important in L’Apparition.

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Moreau’s L’Apparition, detail

Expressionless, Salome’s eyes directly meet John’s bloody head, floating in mid-air. His mouth is open in horror, while his eyes beseech and plead for Salome’s mercy. In the background, Herod, Herodias and the executioner gaze oblivious to the head of John the Baptist, while a performer looks off in the distance. While everyone averts their eyes, thereby averting their responsibility in the beheading, Salome’s expressionlessly gazes up to meet her victim’s, confirming her guilt. In depicting Salome as defiantly staring at the man she is about to behead, Moreau puts her at the forefront of the beheading, cutting out Herodias and Herod’s responsibility in John’s beheading. In this way, the nature of Salome’s dance changes. Salome is not a pawn who obliviously follows her mother’s orders, but a femme fatale who uses her sexuality to intentionally charm Herod, and simultaneously bring the downfall of a holy man. Like Eve tempting man to sin, Salome dances to ‘charm’ the King, “indifferent, irresponsible, insensible, poisoning,” to the consequences of her actions (Huysmans, 24).

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Barry Moser, Salome kissing the head of Iokanaan (2011)

In this way, the gaps of Salome’s dance and character in the Bible are filled in inadvertently by 19thcentury attitudes towards female sexuality. A dancing female who then follows her mother’s request for the beheading of a man can only be understood in one way; sexualised, immodest and manipulative. Moreau interprets Salome as solely guided by her sheer, destructive lust, an ‘enchantress’ intentionally wreaking havoc through dance. Similarly, Oscar Wilde expanded on Salome as evil seductress, seen in his L’Apparition-inspired play Salomé. Salomé, in love and spurned by John the Baptist, kisses John’s mutilated head after the climax of her vengeful dance. In this way, Moreau twists the biblical Salome to become the ultimate metaphor of destructive female sexuality, a metaphor that artists used to perpetuate patriarchal attitudes towards women. Merely referred to as “daughter of Herodias”, she is twisted into a sexualised step-daughter whose “dance”, barely described in the Bible, is interpreted as sexually manipulative. This is what shapes Salome’s appearance and personality, presented as a dark haired “exotic” temptress that is equally seductive as she is destructive.

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Salome in True Blood (HBO)

More recently, Salome emerges in HBO’s Television Series True Blood, as an elite and powerful vampire and leader of the antagonist group “The Authority.” Speaking to, and engaging in, conversation with her portrayal in the Bible and in art, Salome says, “They made me a convenient villain, a symbol of dangerous female sexuality. But I was just a girl with a severely f**ked up family.” In this way, Salome presents herself as a victim, one who was “just a girl” as opposed to the sexually developed femme fatale Moreau portrays her as. Instead, “they wrapped me up and delivered me to my step-father’s bed,” which was a “dance, of sorts.”

Thus,  Salome is portrayed as a pawn in which her mother “trades” her body in exchange for John the Baptist’s head. The syntax of “wrapped me” and “delivered me” stresses Salome’s passiveness in the face of her mother’s schemes. Helpless to the politics and “f**ked up family” she is a part of, Salome has no personal motivations in “dancing” in front of King Herod, or in asking for John the Baptist’s head. Instead, Salome is coerced by a heartless mother, and taken advantage of by her lustful step-father; the victim of the “dance” as opposed to its perpetrator.  Thus, Herod and Herodias become the vilified agents that drive Salome’s dance and John the Baptist’s beheading. Although Salome’s dance is interpreted with an underlying sexual nature like Moreau’s L’Apparition, True Blood uses the “metaphorical” dance of coercive sexual intercourse to highlight Salome’s vulnerability as a victim of the sexual act, cementing her empathy with the audience. Bill’s horror, depicted in a close up shot of his face, and Salome’s own suppressed emotions reinforce the empathy we are meant to feel for her.

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Salome and Bill, in True Blood (HBO)

But as quickly as True Blood tries to deconstruct Salome as dancing femme fatale, it perpetuates it. Salome uses her sexuality as a tool for power, in gauging the trustworthiness of Bill and Eric, and in coercing them to join “The Authority.” Her attempts and success, in seducing both Bill and Eric, are depicted as calculative and insidious, rather than acting out of genuine affection. Meanwhile, Bill and Eric, unaware that the other has been “wooed” by Salome, are depicted as helpless victims in the face of Salome’s aggressive sexuality: “She gets what she wants.” The gratuitous panning shot over Salome’s nude body as she slowly disrobes in front of Eric parallels Moreau’s male gaze, directing our attention to Salome’s breasts and hips. Staring at Eric as she undresses, Salome’s defiant gaze also parallels Moreau’s Salome, depicting her sexual agency as diabolical through the power of her gaze. Clothed in black lace and pink silk, Salome’s dark hair, red lipstick and heavily accented speech reinforces her depiction as a “foreign” femme fatale, who uses her sexuality to bring about the downfall of men. As Bill and Salome become lovers, Salome is depicted as bringing about Bill’s moral downfall, coercing him to do increasingly immoral acts. Urging Bill to feed on a pregnant women, and causing him to betray his best friend, Salome “taints” Bill’s moral compass, threatening his notions of good and evil. In this way, Salome embodies the stereotype she claims not be, seducing men for her own evil purposes.

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Sexualised Salome in HBO’s True Blood

On the one hand, then, True Blood seeks to dismantle the patriarchal interpretation of Salome as destructive femme fatale, by offering an alternative interpretation of Salome as victim, rather than perpetrator of a dance that caused John the Baptist’s beheading. Echoing mainstream feminist thought, Salome draws attention to the misogynistic portrayals of women in art: “I became a convenient symbol of dangerous female sexuality.” But the on the other hand, Salome as victim also has the danger of perpetuating gendered stereotypes. She must either be a damsel in distress or a manipulative whore, there is no in between. True Blood, reflecting wider Hollywood discourses, still relies on simplified and dichotomous understandings of female sexuality to interpret and depict Salome’s dance; as a virtue, with Salome as victim, or as a sin, with Salome as sexual agent. Either way, Salome’s physicality, as an object to be dressed in revealing clothes, and to be gazed at with long panning shots, perpetuates society’s hyper-sexualised treatment of female bodies; Salome, as a biblical dancing woman, is part of that. Perhaps “a progressive straight feminist reading…is actually impossible in light of the heavy misogynist cultural burden the Salome figure has carried for almost two thousand years” (Dierkes-Thrun, 201). Thus, True Blood’s Salome reflects conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality, shaped by a society whose own negotiations with gender and sexuality attempt to be progressive, but are equally influenced by lingering, traditional ideologies.

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True Blood‘s Salome – sexy and terrifying

From the gaps that emerge in Salome’s depiction in the Bible, her motivations to dance, and her responsibility in John the Baptist’s beheading, popular culture understands and depicts Salome’s motivations and character as a hyper-sexualised femme fatale, reflecting the varying and sometimes conflicting attitudes towards female sexuality. As L’Apparition and True Blood shows us, popular culture has the ability to adapt and shape Salome, through contemporary cultural attitudes that transgress the ambiguous and sometimes static depiction of a character in the Bible.

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References

Primary Sources

All biblical quotes are taken from the New Jerusalem Bible.

Moreau, Gustave. L’Apparition. 1876, oil on canvas, the Louvre, Paris.

“Whatever I Am, You Made Me.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by David Petrarca, HBO, 2012.

“Somebody That I Used To Know.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Mark Hudis, directed by Stephen Moyer, HBO, 2012.

“Everybody Wants To Rule The World.” True Blood: The Complete Fifth Season, written by Raelle Tucker, directed by Dan Attias, HBO, 2012.

Secondary Sources

Cooke, Peter. “‘It isn’t a Dance’: Gustave Moreau’s Salome and The Apparition.Dance Research, Vol. 29 Issue 2, 2012. pp. 214-232

Clanton, Dan. “Trollops to Temptresses.” Daring, Disreputable and Devout : Interpreting the Hebrew Bible’s Women in the Arts and Music. T & T Clark International, 2009.  Print.

Dierkes-Thrun, Petra. Salome’s Modernity: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetics of Transgression. University of Michigan Press, 2011. Print.

Girard, Rene. “Scandal and the Dance: Salome in the Gospel of Mark”. New Literary History. Vol. 15, Issue 2, 1984. pp. 311-324

Huysman, Joris Karl. À Rebours. London, UK; Penguin Books, 2003. Print.

Josephus, Flavius. The Antiquities of the Jewish. Accessed on http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html

Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York, US; Pantheon Books. 1

Advent offering 13 December: Delilah 2

As promised yesterday, today’s Advent offering stays with that most fascinating biblical character – Delilah from Judges 16 – turning to look at one of her most iconic afterlives in popular culture, played by Austrian actor Hedy Lamarr in Cecil B. DeMille’s classic movie Samson and Delilah (Paramount, 1949).

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Danger and desire: there is a sizzling passion between Samson and Delilah, but what is Delilah holding behind her back?

Lamarr, an actor already ‘notorious for being notorious’ (Llewellyn-Jones 2005) due to her somewhat risqué film career to date, seems to have been the perfect choice for playing the part of DeMille’s captivatingly gorgeous Delilah. Wanting to make sure she looked the part, he instructed Hollywood costume designer Edith Head to make sure Lamarr’s Delilah embodied ‘biblical glamour’ (two words you don’t usually see in the same sentence).

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Costume sketch by Edith Head for one of Lamarr’s Delilah costumes – see the finished product below.
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Another sketch by Edith Head for Samson and Delilah (1949)

And certainly, Head appears to have risen magnificently to DeMille’s challenge. Lamarr’s costumes are a triumph of exotic glamour, with their rich fabrics, jewel tones, and swirling drapes that reveal the maximum of flesh, while (barely) keeping within the strict Hollywood Production Code rules of the day. Like the plethora of femmes fatales who were appearing in the films noir of this period, Lamarr offers us a Delilah who is beautiful, beguiling, sensual, irresistible, and therefore utterly lethal. Her dangerousness lies in her seductive power, the way she captivates Samson, leaving this Hebrew strongman powerless to resist her sexual charms. And, while Lamarr alone is enough to make anyone swoon, her gorgeous costumes throughout this movie only accentuate her ravishing allure, guaranteeing that both Samson and her audience will gaze upon her with an unsettling and stomach-churning sense of danger and desire.

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Lamarr on the set of Samson and Delilah (1949) – this is her ‘haircutting’ outfit, where she first drugs Samson’s wine before cutting his hair while he sleeps (see original sketch above). Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Exotic and erotic biblical glamour: Lamarr in another of Head’s designs. I seriously love these shoes (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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The famous peacock dress, worn by Delilah to the temple of Dagon, where, according to DeMille, she and Samson die together. In Judges 16, Delilah’s fate is never mentioned (photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images).
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Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This final image is a favourite of mine.  Just look at Lamarr’s sumptuous surroundings, her extravagant gold dress and jewels, the flashes of red in her accessories (and lips!) that alert us to her sexual lethality. Deliciously decadent, dangerous, and desirable, she really is that quintessence of the 1940s Hollywood femme fatale.

For more details on Edith Head’s ‘fashioning’ of Delilah, see this fascinating chapter:

Llewellyn-Jones, Lloyd. ‘The fashioning of Delilah: Costume design, historicism and fantasy in Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1940)’. In The Clothed Body in the Ancient World, ed. M. Harlow &. L. Llewellyn-Jones L Cleland. Oxford, 2005. p. 14-29.