John the Baptist is a well-known figure from the Gospels, heralding the coming of a messiah and even baptising the young Jesus in the River Jordan. He wore a camel-skin robe and wandered the Holy Lands sharing the Good News that the Christ child was to be born. According to the Gospel of Mark, he met his death at the hands of Herod II, son to the more famous Herod (the Great) who intercepted the Three Magi. But it was not Herod II who was potentially the first witch in history but Herodias, his wife.
Herodias had an unfortunate start. She was the daughter of Aristobulus, Herod the Great’s son, who evidently did something to offend the great king as he was executed in 7 BC. This left Herodias an orphan and, in an attempt to make up for killing her family, Herod the Great engaged her to marry his other son, also called Herod.
The marriage went well until Herod II dropped from his father’s favour and Herodias, in a move that scandalised society, divorced her husband and married a more favoured son of Herod the Great, called Herod Antipas. One of those condemning the new marriage was John the Baptist, who had rolled up at the palace to reveal the new messiah. Herodias was not the sort of woman to be dictated to by a scruffy little prophet in a camel suit; she had outmanoeuvred kings to get her will. John was a marked man.
Now Herodias had a grown daughter from her marriage with Herod II, whose name is confused but comes down to us as Salome. According to the bible, she was the archetypal seductress and snared John the Baptist after dancing the Dance of the Seven Veils in his presence. The fact she was at youngest 17 and at oldest 22 may suggest her wiles were a little more innocent than the bible allows; after all, history is full of older men whose good sense leaves them in the presence of a young woman.
After dancing her dance, it was not only John who was smitten with Salome but also her step-father (and half-uncle) Herod Antipas. In fact, so besotted was Herod that he offered Salome anything she wished for. Following the whispered instructions of her mother, Herodias – who saw this her chance of revenge on John the Baptist – Salome asked for the prophet’s head on a plate. Reluctantly, as he rather liked being preached to, Herod obliged. So much for the biblical tale.
In later medieval legend, a strange new twist was added to the Gospel accounts. Nevardus, in his 12th century tome, Ysengrimus, tells that Herodias (subsuming her identity with Salome) asked to see John’s head as it lay on the plate. As she took in the sight, the head repelled her with its breath. So strong was this ghostly wind that Herodias was carried high into the air and then blown through a hole in the roof. The wrath of John the Baptist followed and Herodias was condemned to what Spanish medieval texts call “la dance aéra” or the aerial dance.
Since she had engineered the execution of a key figure in early Christianity, Herodias was already recognised as being an anti-Christian, but her reputation got darker still as people began referring to her as a witch. Her aerial dance became a night-time phenomenon and Herodias ushered in the belief that witches fly. Not only that, but she could draw out others to join her dance.
Writing in the 13th century, Jean de Meung in his Roman de la Rose (Romance of the Rose), explains that up to a third of the population rode out with Herodias (now confusingly called Dame Abonde) for three nights every week. Interestingly, de Meung implies that only people’s souls rode out with Herodias, commenting that their bodies remain in bed. Adding a note of scepticism, he adds that their senses deceive them and they only believe they are witches wandering the night.
It seems that, whereas the spirit of Herodias was suitably mythological to allow its reality, other people entered into the night-time revels through allowing their souls to take flight in a kind of shamanic journey. There may also be a connection with psychotropic substances and to the unguent that witches traditionally use to affect flight. Apparently, Herodias returned everyone at the morning’s cockcrow as the sound of a cock sent spirits fleeing back to their own realm. According to a witch trial held in 1497 in Italy (of one Zuanne Giovanni della Piatte) Herodias, when she was not out riding, lived in the Mountain of Venus where she feasted with both invited and abducted guests.
Some medieval writers, notably John of Salisbury in his 12th century Polycraticus, tell of Herodias as the witch-ruler who sits in judgement over her devotees. Some are rewarded, others punished. John of Salisbury also records that Herodias and her troop, in a familiar theme of condemnation, devour babies. He concludes by calling these denizens of the night demons and muses that that only women and simpleminded men would follow Herodias. The demonization of the witch and the persecution it led to had begun.
In more recent times, American folklorist Charles Godfrey Leland’s 1899 work Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches details the life of the Italian witch Aradia, reputedly, the first-born witch. Leland equates Aradia with Herodias. Indeed, Herodias is mentioned as a Witch Goddess in many Italian witch trial transcripts, such as that of della Piatte.
Despite her medieval notoriety, Herodias seems almost a lost figure in Pagan circles today. She might survive in the veneration of Leyland’s Aradia in some Wiccan traditions (although his work has recently received criticism over its authenticity) but, as far as I can tell, Herodias herself has all but disappeared. The only contemporary references I found were to Herodias as the name of an outcast devil in the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game, and as the name of an American funeral-doom-metal band. I wonder what the daughter of Herod the Great and arguably the first witch in history would make of that. Off-with-their-heads is a distinct possibility.