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Velus Testamentum X X X V I I , 1 (1987)

T H E LEGENDS OF SAMSON/HERACLES
by
OTHNIEL MARGALITH
Ramat-Gan

In three articles, "Samson's foxes", VT 35 (1985), pp.224-9,


"Samson's riddle and Samson's magic locks", VT 36 (1986), pp.
225-34, and " M o r e Samson legends", VT36 (1986), pp. 397-405,
I have endeavoured to show that the legends of Heracles are
parallels of those of Samson and probably their source. Some further examples in illustration follow.
The hero bewitched by a woman's wiles
M a n y commentators have pointed to the motif of Heracles'
betrayal by Deianeira as a parallel to Samson's betrayal by Delilah.
However, this similarity is superficial and disregards the main
points of both stories. Delilah was a treacherous wanton who afterwards enjoyed her profits, whilst Deianeira was an ignorant dupe
whose loving innocence was exploited and who committed suicide
in remorse. 1 At best, Delilah might be compared to Scylla or Comaetho (see "Samson's riddle", p.232).
The motif of the hero's loss of virility through a woman's wiles
appears in another of Heracles' stories, that of his enslavement by
Omphale's charms. In the story of his dalliance with Delilah Samson "awaked out of his sleep, and went away with the pin of the
beam, and with the w e b " (Judg. xvi 13-14). This picture vividly
depicts the hero tied to the weaving loom which represents woman's
occupation (e.g. Penelope), a concern with which was considered
degrading for men. The hero stalking home with a loom on his
shoulders and his hair entwined in the woof was certainly a
humiliating spectacle and contrary to the commandment
"...neither shall a man put on a woman's garment" (Deut. xxii 5).
The biblical story is not only unrealistic, it is also inconsistent with
1

See the moving scene in Sophocles' Trachiniae 900-31.

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OTHNIEL MARGALITH

itself. Samson dallies three times in a whore's home while


Philistines are concealed in the next room; and twice Delilah has
them bring ropes to bind him which he breaks when they attack
him; and again he dallies with her apparently without being aware
of the concealed enemy. O n e must remember that the houses of the
period (which have been excavated) consisted at best of two or three
rooms of 9 12 feet with an occasional storage room. Samson is
surprised a third time by the Philistines and stalks out carrying the
loom still unaware of what is going on. T h e fourth scene is the
climax: Samson sleeps blissfully, his head on Delilah's knees, while
a Philistine shears his hair (Judg. xvi 19). Compare the last scene
with that of Heracles at Queen Omphale's court: his hair braided in
a woman's veil, he sits with the women holding the threads and
spindle 2 and combs the wool like a slave while Omphale beats him
with a slipper, 3 and as he reclines in female garb on the queen's
knees a slave dresses his locks while another fans the couple. 4 In the
end he awakens from his infatuation and stalks out still wearing the
spindle and shaft. These scenes correspond to the biblical " . . . and
she made him sleep upon her knees, and she called for a man, and
she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his h e a d " (Judg. xvi
19), and " . . . he awaked out of his sleep, and went away with the
pin of the beam, and with the w e b " (v. 14).
The motif of the hero meekly letting himself be fettered by his ig
norant foes, breaking his bonds by flexing his supernaturally strong
muscles, and killing his surprised enemies, appears also in the story
of Samson at the miraculous spring: " . . . a n d they bound him with
two new cords ... and the cords that were upon his arms became as
flax that was burnt with fire and his bands loosed from off his hands
... and he slew a thousand men . . . " (Judg. xv 13-15). Similarly,
Heracles is captured by Pharaoh's slaves and brought in ropes to
the altar to be sacrificed, but he breaks his bonds by flexing his
muscles and slays them all (Apollodorus, II.5.11).
The mighty club
Samson's sole weapon is a club, an ass's jawbone which he picks
up at random on a mountain top (Judg. xv 9-16): " . . . and brought
2

Ovid, Heroldes ix 55-118


Lucan, Dialogue of the Gods 15 (13), How to Write History 14 (10)
4
Plutarch, Moraha, "Whether an Old Man Should Engage in Public Affairs",
285E
3

THE LEGENDS OF SAMSON/HERACLES

65

him up from the rock", and the name Plateau of the Jawbone
denotes a summit. As Y. Kaufmann points out (Judges [Hebrew]
[Jerusalem, 1962], p.235) the story stresses the random nature of
the object used as a weapon. Just as Heracles picks up an olive
sapling and turns it into a lethal weapon, so Samson picks up an
ass's jawbone to slay a thousand men. 5 Although the motif of the
' e i g h t y club" appears also in Canaanite mythology, the clubs
with which Baal smites Yam are of an entirely different nature from
those of Samson and Heracles. The latter are essentially natural objects picked up at random in the field and only the superhuman
powers of their wielders confer upon them their mighty effects. O n
the other hand, the clubs of Baal are fashioned by Kothar-andHasis, the god of smiths and artisans, and endowed with divine
magic powers by their maker; it is not the supernatural power with
which Baal wields a natural object that defeats Yam but, on the
contrary, the magic power of the clubs that rescues defeated Baal. 6
There is no similarity between this motif and that of the olive
sapling picked up by Heracles on Helicon 7 (or, according to another version, at Nemea, 8 or cut there 9 or at the Saronic bay 10 )
which became the weapon preferred by him even to his bow and arrows as well as an everyday tool used to uproot a tree from which he
fashioned an oar. 11 Similarly, Samson uses his jawbone-club not
only as a weapon but also to dig a well " . . . he cast away the
jawbone out of his hand and called that place Ramath-lehi ... but
God clave a hollow place that was in the J a w (lehi) and there came
water thereout . . . " (Judg. xv 17-19). Interestingly, a tradition sur5
Archaeological finds have shown that flint knives were fixed in the sockets of
such jawbones, turning them into maces or sickles. We cannot consider here the
case of Shamgar who slew a thousand Philistines with a malmd, because the meaning of this word is not known.
6
G. R. Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends (Edinburgh, 1956), pp. 80-3. Baal
III* A ( = CTA 2.IV) 11-26: smdm is a dual form, and Driver suggests that the
names of the clubs Yagrush and Aymurr are a hendiadys like Kothar-and-Hasis,
Gepen-and-Ugar. A. Jirku, Kanaanische Mythen und Epen aus Ras Schamra-Ugant
(Gtersloh, 1962), pp.24-5, renders smdm "eine Doppelkeule" (a double-club). J.
Obermann, Ugaritic Mythology (New Haven, Conn., 1948), pp.3, 15-17, 93-4,
speaks of a staff (singular). Driver, pp.112-13, Baal III ( = CTA 6) v.2-3,
translates the parallelism bktplbsmd (singular form) = with a sword/a mace.
7
Theocritus, Idyll xxv.207-10.
8
Apollodorus II.5.1.
9
Apollodorus II.4.11.
10
Pausanias 11.31.10.
11
Ovid, Metamorphoses, IX.234; Apollonius Rhodius, 1.1196.

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OTHNIEL MARGALITH

viving in central Europe in the 12th century knows Samson as the


mythical uprooter of trees, appearing in reliefs in the crypt of the
cathedral at Pecs (Hungary), on the gates of the monasteries at
Remagen (Germany) and Alspach (near Kaysersberg in Alsace),
and in wall-paintings in the cathedrals of Limburg (Germany) and
Maienfeld (Switzerland). 12

Samson rends a lion with his bare hands


In a few short sentences the narrator tells of a feat of Samson's
which is unique in the Bible (Judg. xiv 5-6). Though David "slew
the lion" (1 Sam. xvii 36) and Benaiah ben Jehoiada "slew a lion in
the midst of a p i t " (2 Sam. xxiii 20/1 Chr. xi 22), from the word
" s l e w " it is clear that they used a weapon since the verb nkh implies
the use of an implement, 13 especially in the case of the latter who
was one of David's hoplites 14 and commander of the Cretan
mercenary royal guard. Because of the many pictures from Assyria
and Egypt depicting gods (like Gilgamesh) or kings killing lions
(see, for example, Kaufmann p.244), it has been maintained that
the stories about Samson and Heracles are no more than ordinary
folk-tales of a kind prevalent at the time throughout the ancient
world. However, this misses the main point: all these pictures and
stories tell of the killing of a lion by armed hunters, while the two
focal points of the Samson and Heracles stories are the
barehandedness of the heroes and the fact that this was part of their
courtship and marriage. Neither the Bible nor Canaanite or
Mesopotamian mythology has a similar instance of killing a lion in
such manner and circumstances, whereas in Greek mythology:

12
A. Scheiber, "Samson Uprooting a T r e e " , JQR N . S . 50 (1959/60),
pp. 176-80; " F u r t h e r Parallels to the Figure of Samson the Tree-Uprooter", JQR
N . S . 52 (1961/62), pp.35-40.
13
David smote (wayyak) Goliath with a slingshot (1 Sam. xvii 49-50), and the
Israelite army smote Kir-hareseth by slingshots (wayyakkha) (2 Kgs iii 25); Saul intended to smite {^akkeh) David with his spear (1 Sam. xviii 11), and Abishai wanted
to smite Saul with the spear (^akkennu) (1 Sam. xxvi 8); Abner smote (wayyakkh)
Asahel with his spear (2 Sam. ii 23). As for the sword, the idiom "smite with the
edge of the sword" is too numerous to enumerate here.
14
For the meaning of salsm = heavily armoured, see my " A n d all Egypt's
chariots and slsym over t h e m " (Hebrew), Beth Mikra 72 (23rd year, 1977-8),
pp.68-73.

THE LEGENDS OF SAMSON/HERACLES

67

Admetus subdued a lion unarmed to obtain the hand of


15
Alcestis;
Orion had to subdue man-eating beasts to obtain the hand of
16
Aero;
17
Pilius had to strangle a lion to obtain the favours of Cycnus.
Sometimes the stories were exaggerated to the greater glory of the
heroes, and the lions became monsters:
Oedipus had to vanquish the lion-bodied sphinx by words only,
18
in order to wed the queen;
Bellerophon had to slay the lion-headed Chimera before he could
19
marry Philanoe;
Heracles had to strangle the lion at Cytheiron bare-handed to
20
gain the favours of the fifty daughters of Thespius in one night
21
(though according to another version there were only twelve);
Another version has this lion slain by Alcatus in order that he
may marry Megara, daughter of King Megareaus. 2 2
Finally, Heracles strangled the Nemean lion " w i t h nothing in his
h a n d s ' ' ; 2 3 compare J u d g . xiv 6: " . . . and he had nothing in his
hands".
T h e biblical story too is full of internal contradictions and neither
can be nor pretends to be historical. 2 4 According to J u d g . xiv 5-6
" . . . T h e n went Samson down, and his father and his mother ... a
young lion roared against him, ... but he told not his father or his
mother what he had d o n e " , i.e. he was alone when he met and slew
15

Hyginus, Fabula 50.


Parthenius, Love Romances 20.
17
Ovid, Metamorphoses vii. 371 ff. (The homosexual note of this story does not
affect the main theme.)
18
Apollodorus III.5.8; Pausanias IX.26.4; Sophocles, Oedipus The King, 396 ff.
19
Homer, Iliad vi 181-95; Apollodorus II.3.1-2.
20
Apollodorus II.4.10; Pausanias IX.27.6-7.
21
Hyginus, Fabula 162.
22
Pausanias 1.41.3 says = overcame by force, i.e.
unarmed.
23
Apollodorus II.5.1: embraced and strangled; Bacchylides XIII 46-53: refused
to use the sword and strangled him; Diodorus Siculus I V . l l : embraced and
strangled; Hesiod, Theogony 326: overcame, i.e. unarmed; Theocritus, Idyll X X V
265-7: strangled from behind; Euripides, Madness of Heracles, 153-4.
24
This has already been commented upon by W. Nowack, Richter, Ruth (Gttingen, 1900), pp. 122-3; O. Eissfeldt, Die Quellen des Richterbuches (Leipzig, 1925),
p.84; C. F. Burney, The Book of Judges (London, 1918), p.357; K. Budde, Das Buch
der Richter (Freiburg i.., 1897), pp.97-8. An extensive bibliography may be
found in these books.
16

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OTHNIEL MARGALITH

the lion, and it is not stated when he separated from his parents and
when they met again. Similarly, in xiv 1-3 " . . . Samson went down
to Timnath and saw a woman in Timnath ... and told his father
and his mother and said have seen a woman in T i m n a t h ... get
her for me to wife ... get her for me for she pleases me well'... ' ' ; but
in .7 after his encounter with the lion " h e went down and talked
with the woman and she pleased Samson well", and it appears that
he had not met her before. Furthermore, xiv 3 begins " T h e n his
father and his mother said", using wayyo^mer the masculine singular
form, " . . . among all my people" using the singular " m y " : the
mother has disappeared from the scene, and the continuation,
" a n d Samson said to his father", emphasizes this. The story con
tinues in v. 7: " . . . he went down and talked with the w o m a n " ; and
in v. 10 " s o his father went down unto the woman, and Samson
made there a feast". Since Samson had met her before (v. 7) and he
made the feast, the role of the father is altogether unclear and
redundant. Some commentators, like Radak, endeavour to recon
cile these contradictions by saying that his parents separated from
him in the vineyard (though this is not mentioned in the Scriptures'
and leaves some questions unanswered), and others by saying that
the story is a patchwork (which merely states the fact but does not
explain it). However, neither the biblical narrators, writers, redac
tors, etc., nor their hearers and readers were bothered by these
discrepancies, for they simply felt that they were dealing with a
legend and not with factual history. Their concern was with the im
age of the heroic bridegroom who on his way to his nuptials tradi
tionally slays a wild beast with " n o t h i n g in his h a n d " . The phrase
" a n d nothing in his h a n d " (xiv 6), although superfluous after " a n d
he rent him as he would have rent a k i d " , is added in order to em
phasize the affinity with the other bridegrooms who emptyhandedly slew lions on their bridal quests and the distinction from
David and the other lion-hunters.
The gate and the pillars
O n e of the strangest stories about Samson is the one depicting
him carrying the doors of the city-gate with their posts on his
shoulders up to the top of a hill " t h a t is before H e b r o n " (Judg. xvi
3). This story cannot refer to a real city-gate, as archaeological facts
prove. The city-gates of the period that have been excavated con-

T H E LEGENDS OF SAMSON/HERACLES

69

sisted of two " p o s t s " , huge monoliths dovetailed into the threshold
and the lintel which were also huge monoliths, and the whole upper
part of the wall rested on them. The doors of the gate turned on
bosses protruding top and bottom which fitted into sockets in the
threshold and lintel. Thus, in order to remove the two doors intact
" b a r and all" (xiv 3) one had to lift off the lintel with the whole upper city-wall (usually including a tower) resting on it, and when the
posts were removed the whole wall would collapse. Such unrealistic
stories are usually aetiological, trying to explain the origin of
names of heroes or places, like the story of "En-hakkore which is in
L e h i " (xv 19) or rather in " R a m a t h L e h i " (v. 17), which means
" t h e spring of the supplicant in the Plateau of the J a w b o n e " . Such
stories usually end with the phrase " a n d they called it/him . . . " or
" a n d they called it ... to this d a y " . The story of the city gates of
Gaza does not have this ending nor is there a place named " t h e Hill
that is Before H e b r o n " , and so it does not appear to have an
aetiological purpose. The story gives no hint of Samson's object in
carrying the gates some twenty miles to the summit of the nearest
hill from which Hebron could be seen, nor of what he did with them
there. Since he also took the posts one must assume that he set them
up on the hilltop, and therefore the image of the hero setting up the
doorposts of a city-gate on a hilltop while the two doors rested on his
shoulders must itself be the central motif of the legend. This image
is well known in Greek mythology: it is Heracles, the gate-keeper of
the gods' abode on top of Olympus. The legend tells 25 that Heracles
was deified by Zeus on his death (see " M o r e Samson legends",
p.404) and appointed Keeper of the Gates of Olympus, in which
capacity he holds the doors open for the gods who are late coming
home, especially the huntress Artemis.
However, the image most widely known connecting pillars with
both Samson and Heracles is that of the hero embracing two
pillars: 26 Samson in the temple of Dagon (xvi 29) and Heracles setting up " h i s " pillars. The story of Samson tells that he was in a
temple and stood between " t w o middle pillars upon which the
house stood and on which it was borne u p " (xvi 29) " a n d there
were upon the roof about three thousand men and w o m e n " (v. 27).
25

Callimachus, Hymn to Artemis, 145-57.


Judg. xvi 29 has wayyilpt, which means "twist, grasp" (B.D.B. s.v. lpat,
p.542) with the implication of twisting himself around the object. The translation
"took hold" does not do justice to the meaning of the word.
26

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OTHNIEL MARGALITH

Palestinian archaeology has so far not discovered any temple


buildings large enough to support such a number of spectators, cer
tainly not buildings resting on two central pillars,. T h e houses and
temples of that period were roofed with wooden beams and even the
cedars of Lebanon could not provide beams for halls larger than 30
60 feet; 27 and since the walls of these halls supported the roof
there could not have been " t w o central pillars upon which the
house stood". H a d there been such pillars supporting the temple
from beneath with Samson standing between them, he would not
have been visible to the crowds in the hall and even less so to those
on the roof. T h e biblical description is reminiscent rather of the
famous frescoes of the palace of Knossos, 2 8 where the motif of the
twin pillars forming a chapel or sanctuary appears repeatedly,
depicting a crowd of " t h o u s a n d s " of men and women seated on
roofs and watching the sacred games. What these frescoes do not
show is that the " r o o f s " were actually terraces of the palace. From
this milieu comes also the picture of Heracles with a mighty pillar in
each a r m . 2 9
Conclusion
The Israelites became familiar through their contacts with their
Philistine neighbours with these and other pictures and legends of
Heracles, which were echoes of their original Sitz im Leben in the
Aegean world. T h e extensive import of decorated Mycenean pot
tery and its locally produced copies, as attested by archaeological
finds of the last decade, would have been one vehicle of transmis
sion of such legends for which local stories would have had to be
provided.
27

S. Yeivin, "Temples in the Near East", Encyclopaedia Biblica ("Hebrew) 5


(Jerusalem, 1968), cols 304-22; M. Haran, "Temples in Israel", ibid., cols 322-7;
A. Parrot, Le temple de Jrusalem (Neuchtel and Paris, 1954), pp. 16-28 = E. tr. The
Temple ofJerusalem (New York, 1955; London, 1957), pp.25-40.
28
A. Evans, The Palace of Minos (reprinted New York, 1964) III, pp. 33, 47-49,
plates X V I , XVII; and also I, pp.527, 443, 340; II, pp.566, 597, 807.
29
The pillars of Heracles have been variously identified: at Gibraltar
Apollodorus II.5.10; Diodorus Siculus HI.55.4; IV. 18.4; Pomponius Mela 1.5.3
(27); II.6.6 (95); near Cadiz Diodorus Siculus IV.18.2; Pliny, Natural History
III.8; Strabo III.5.5; in North Germany or at the Black Sea Tacitus, Germania
34; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid XI.262; Strabo III.5.6.

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