memoirs, art and fragments by Thomas Milner

Archive for July 22, 2011

St. John of the Wood

St. John the Baptist came to rather a macabre end.

He was a desert preacher and an outspoken radical activist who taught Abramic Law but with a non-orthodox twist – that a Messiah or King was on the way who would sort out the rot and lead his people back onto straight and narrow path of righteousness. (And he famously baptized Jesus of Nazareth in the waters of the river Jordan).

News of his doings reached the court of the Tetrarch of Jerusalem, Herod Aggripa, who had succeeded his brother Philip Aggripa on his death and also Philip’s widow, Herodias, a member of the same Romano-Judeo dynasty; Herodias and Philip had had a daughter named Salomé; (thus the girl was Herod’s niece as well as step-daughter).

Herodias, alluring and manipulative, was very much the power behind the throne, (not unlike  Madame de Maintenon at the court of Versailles seventeen centuries later). When the preacher John seemed to implicitly challenge the King’s authority, she had him imprisoned.


She soon perceived that Herod was besotted with her 16 year-old daughter, Salomé, and accordingly she coached the young girl in all the subtle Eastern arts: never actually give him anything, daughter, but promise him everything with your eyes …

Thus it is, that on a state occasion in front of the whole court, Salomé demurely begins to dance; she slowly sways her hips and shivers her body; she glides up to Herod and then retreats like a wave on the pebbled beach; she writhes and pirouettes and claps her hands and snaps her fingers; in the Eastern manner she artfully flourishes a number of veils both to conceal and accentuate her the curves of her slim body …

(how many veils? Well actually it was about five and half but hey, let’s just call it seven shall we, just as Rome was built on seven hills, just as there are seven deadly sins and seven cardinal virtues, just as there are the seven wonders of the world and the seven pillars of wisdom – if you want to get anywhere in posterity with lists just stick seven in front of it; Lisbon, the city founded by Ulysses, is built on guess how many hills?)

Back to Salomé’s dance which is nearing a crescendo and is of such erotic power that the Bible blushes to recount it.

Anyway the upshot was that the hypnotized Herod promised anything in the world to the gorgeous girl and she (after a quick consult with Mum) asked the king for the head of John the Baptist.

The last words of this sorry tale belong to J. Alfred Prufrock  (T. S. Eliot)

But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,

Though I have seen my head (grown slightly bald) bought in upon a platter,

I am no prophet – and here’s no great matter;

I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,

And I have the seen the eternal Footman hold my coat and snicker,

And in short, I was afraid.

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