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In Robert E. Howard’s story “A Witch Shall Be Born,” Taramis, the beloved queen of Khauran, is kidnapped one night by an identical twin sister she thought was dead, who imprisons and tortures her, and steals her identity, ruling in her name as a cruel tyrant. This evil sister is Salome, a name familiar from the New Testament story of John the Baptist’s beheading, and Oscar Wilde’s play, which depicts her as a perverse fin de siecle sensualist.
Within Howard’s tale, the name Salome is given a supernatural resonance. Throughout the centuries, it has been given to all the girls in Taramis’ family who were born with a birthmark, a “blood-red crescent” which is “the mark of the witch” (Howard 257, 259), which is the sign of their evil nature. “Each was named Salome,” she says. “It was always Salome, the witch. It will always be Salome … to walk the earth, to trap men’s hearts by their sorcery, to dance before the kings of the world, and see the heads of the wise men fall at their pleasure!” (259)
This passage stresses the importance of Salome as not just a character, but as an archetype who has, in some form, appeared many times throughout history, both within this fictional universe, and without, since the part about heads falling is obviously meant to evoke the fate of John the Baptist.
The Salome of legend is popularly associated with the Babylonian goddess Ishtar to the Babylonians, known as Inanna to the Sumerians, who appears as a goddess, by name, within Howard’s story (see pages 261, 265, 280, for example), bringing her and her associated mythology into the reader’s consciousness. The “Dance of the Seven Veils,” which does not appear in the account of the biblical Salome, is believed by many people to have been derived from the myths of Ishtar.
One of the sources of this equation is Toni Bentley, who wrote that “Ishtar, the great goddess of Babylon, performed the first documented striptease when she descended to the underworld to retrieve her lover-son-husband, the mortal Tammuz. In this death and resurrection myth, Ishtar must relinquish her jewels and robes at each of the seven gates to the underworld until she stands naked in the ‘land of no return’“(Bentley 19).
Possibly the most famous parts of the Ishtar mythology is her “Descent.” In a clear parallel to the plot of “A Witch Shall Be Born,” she visits the Underworld, and ends up imprisoned and suffering at the hands of her sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld. The two are often seen as foils, representing life and death, light and dark.
In the myth, Ishtar goes to the underworld boldly: “If you do not open your gate for me to come in,/I shall smash the door and shatter the bolt … I shall raise up the dead and they shall eat the living:/The dead shall outnumber the living!” (Myths from Mesopotamia 155). Her demand makes her sister’s face turn “livid as cut tamarisk” (ibid).
Before she can enter, the gatekeeper leads Ishtar through seven gates, removing an item of clothing at each gate, until she is naked. He takes away Ishtar’s “great crown,” her earrings, her necklace of beads, “the toggle-pins at her breast,” “the girdle of birth-stones around her waist,” her wrist and ankle bracelets, and finally, “the proud garment of her body” (Myths 156, 157). It is this seven-part disrobing that has become associated with the “Dance of the Seven Veils.”
Once she has Ishtar is in her power, Ereshkigal keeps her in the Underworld, and infects her with various diseases. In the Sumerian version, translated by scholar Diane Wolkstein, Inanna also removes seven items of clothing (a crown, necklace, a “double strand of beads,” her breastplate, a bracelet, a “lapis measuring rod and line” form her hand, and finally, her “royal robe”), one for each gate of the underworld (57 – 59). “Then Ereshkigal fastened on Inanna the eye of death./She spoke against her the word of wrath./She uttered against her the cry of guilt./She struck her.” (60) Then, vividly, “Inanna was turned into a corpse,/A piece of rotting meat,/And was hung from a hook on the wall.” (60)
In both versions, Ishtar is eventually brought back to life, and the items that were taken from her are restored at each gate, so that she leaves completely clothed again.
According to Wolkstein, Ereshkigal “is the other, neglected side of Inanna … she is enraged, for Inanna’s light, glory, and perpetual movement have, to some extent, been achieved at her expense.” (Inanna 158) She resents all the good things her twin sister possesses, and wants to strip them from her, much like Howard’s Salome, who said she had “returned to take that to which I have as much right as you” (260).
Wolkstein further describes Ereshkigal as having a “compulsive” and “insatiable” sexuality (158), again, like Salome, who is one of the few Howard characters explicitly shown to be sexually perverse, indulging in orgies, forcing other women to take part in the “debauchery of her court” (273), and even handing her sister over to be raped: “Tame the scornful hussy as you wish”(263). The sexual element of the ancient myth is made plain when Ishtar’s release happens mainly because the god Ea sends a good-looking emissary to seduce Ereshkigal: “When she is relaxed, her mood will lighten” (Myths 158).
Also, as Howard’s version of Salome was abandoned and left for dead as an infant, the Sumerian queen of the Underworld is shown having “no protective or caring mother, father, or brother” and her childhood is called “lost,” leaving her “unloving, unloved, abandoned, instinctual, and full of rage, greed, and desperate loneliness” (158).
This is an apt picture of Salome’s situation in life, and one that is more sympathetic than we find in Howard’s story. Although it’s a matter of record there that Salome does have legitimate grievances, and it’s possible that her cruel nature is the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy, her response to the injustice is so brutal, and equally unjust, that the prophecy that caused her to be outcast can just as easily be seen as a correct prediction of her essential evil qualities.
In “A Witch Shall Be Born,” Taramis is “famed for her virtue, justice and tranquility” (Howard 273), representing the good in human nature, where Salome is depicted as a “fiend of darkness” (259). Shifting the name Salome from the Ishtar-like figure to the Ereshkigal-like one makes some logical sense. Salome, from the story of John the Baptist’s martyrdom, is associated more as a symbol of death and destructive female sexuality than the life-affirming figure Ishtar is more commonly depicted as, although, to be fair, Ishtar is more complex than some goddess figures, with some moral ambiguity.
It’s probably only a coincidence that Taramis, the name of the innocent, victimized sister in Howard’s tale, is used as the name of the evil queen in the film Conan the Destroyer. This character, continually dressed in glamorous black, schemes to betray and sacrifice her virginal niece — more subtly than Salome did the story’s original Taramis, but nonetheless, she and Salome have a family resemblance, both seeking to usurp the power of a female relative, and both highly sexualized, especially compared to their counterparts.
In her analysis, Wolkstein interprets the myth psychologically, with the two supernatural sisters representing different aspects of the same archetypal woman, and Inanna’s famous “descent” an experience that allows her “to face what she has neglected and feared: the instinctual, wounded, frightened parts of herself” (160). This is what will allow the goddess to become truly great: “It is the Great Below, and the knowledge of death and rebirth, life and stasis, that will make of Inanna an ‘Honored Counselor’ and a guide to the land,” (156) thus deepening her character and making her a more compassionate ruler.
Extending this idea, Ishtar/Inanna’s descent into the Underworld is frequently used as a metaphor for initiation and personal growth, especially in connecting with one’s “shadow” or darker self. An early example, the Jungian-influenced Descent to the Goddess, by Sylvia Brinton Perera, views the story as a “controlled therapeutic regression,” in which the “demonic return of the repressed power shadow” (78) can lead to personal transformation. A work like Jane Meredith’s Journey to the Dark Goddess: How to Return to Your Soul is even more typical of modern views, especially within neo-paganism and “New Age” circles. It offers rituals and visualizations, leading women through meditations to put themselves in Inanna’s place, in order to experience an imaginative descent and rebirth.
“A Witch Shall Be Born” shows us a more literal depiction of what a descent into the Underworld would be like if it weren’t merely a psychological visualization, but a horrific reality.
Howard’s story doesn’t slavishly follow the mythological tales of the Ishtar from world history, but uses various elements and mixes them up in new ways. Still, the idea of the “light sister” being dragged down to a “dark” place, by a symbolic counterpart – even, here, an overt doppelganger – who is jealous of what she has – is very much in alignment with the actual Mesopotamian lore. And while Howard had no known access to any of the Jungian-influenced interpretations often found today, Salome and Taramis can be seen as similarly symbolic counterparts. Although they are so alike that they “might have been looking into a mirror” (Howard 257), each has “the opposite of every characteristic” of the other (258), making them mirror images who represent a human being’s split potential for darkness and light.
Bentley, Toni. Sisters of Salome. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
Howard, Robert E. The Bloody Crown of Conan. New York: Ballantine Books, 2003.
Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Translated by Stephanie Dalley. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 1989.
Perera, Sylvia Brinton. Descent to the Goddess: A Way of Initiation for Women. Toronto, Inner City Books: 1981.
Wolkstein, Diane, and Samuel Noah Kramer. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth. Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. London: Rider, 1983.