The Head on a Platter
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
Pop Culture's Severed Heads
We know you're the practical joke type. Don't deny it. That means you've probably attempted to pull off the rather ghoulish Halloween ruse of placing a head on a platter. You know what we're talking about: a bloody neck and head alongside garnishes and/or steak. Kind of gross.
The rest of the year, this brutal image appears as a threat: "I'll have your head on a platter!" You may have heard this warning issued by the vengeful Blair in an episode of Gossip Girl or by a partisan politician canvassing for votes against his rival. Or, if you're a super-villain, you may have even used it yourself.
John's Severed Head
Guess what? This ugly image, which breathes such fierce and fiery spite, has become part of our common language in part due to its appearance in the Gospel of Mark. Read it for yourself in 6:17-29. Go ahead, we'll wait.
Recap: during a banquet celebrating the birthday of Herod, who ruled Galilee in Jesus's time, his daughter Herodias takes the stage and dances for his guests. Everyone is so impressed that Herod offers to reward her with whatever her heart desires. The girl privately consults with her mother, who advises her to ask for the head of John the Baptist. Literally—she wants his head. Mom has a score to settle: it was John who argued that her marriage to Herod was a breach of the Jewish law because Herod was her brother-in-law.
Herodias follows her mother's suggestion and requests John's head, but she adds a gruesome and inventive twist of her own. While her mother simply asked for "the head of John the Baptist," Herodias demands "the head of John the Baptist on a platter." Yep. Because he liked to listen to John, Herod doesn't want to do it, but unwilling to renege in front of his guests, he orders the executioner to carry out the girl's wishes.
Cue head on platter, symbolizing the brutality and injustices of the powerful. These people are able to manipulate even each other to achieve their personal vendettas. And no, this isn't daytime TV. John the Baptist is the victim of these machinations and in this way, prefigures the death of Jesus, which is soon to follow.
How to French Kiss a Severed Head
Oscar Wilde's play Salome is one of the many works of literature inspired by this famous story. The dancing daughter, who is here named Salome, is even more vindictive and horrible than her model in Mark's gospel. In Wilde's version, Salome loves John the Baptist and requests his head because he refuses her love.
In the climactic scene, the executioner brings the head on a silver shield. Salome seizes it and begins to fondle and address it: "Well!" she says, "I will kiss it now. I will bite it with my teeth as one bites a ripe fruit. Yes, I will kiss thy mouth." In response to this spectacle Herod remarks to his wife: "She is monstrous, thy daughter, she is altogether monstrous." Yikes.