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A Tale of Two Herods

This story appears in the November/December 2016 issue of National Geographic History magazine.
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It’s inescapable: Every holiday season, merry music dominates the airwaves. But nestled among upbeat tunes like “Sleigh Ride” and “Joy to the World,” there are some melancholy chestnuts, like “The Coventry Carol.”

Originating in a 16th-century English mystery play, this mournful lullaby tells of the Massacre of the Innocents, in which Herod I tries to kill the newborn Jesus by ordering all the male infants in Bethlehem executed. “Herod the king in his raging, Charged he hath this day, His men of might in his own sight, All children young to slay.” It’s a dark song for a light season.

The seeds of Herod’s villainous reputation are found in the Gospel of Matthew, the only place in the Bible that mentions the slaughter. Through the songs, illuminated manuscripts, and artworks created during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they take root and grow stronger with time. Historians know that this king built great cities and strong fortresses, the ruins of which still stand today, yet all his accomplishments seem hidden, overgrown by the gentle Christmas carol sung to new generations about the murderous king of Judaea.