Today’s essay is a piece from student Zoe O’Neill about the biblical figure Delilah, and some of her more interesting appearances throughout history. Zoe is doing a conjoint degree in Law and Arts (LLB/BA), and hopes to work in the areas of international law and intellectual property law. She also has a love of art and art history (as you can tell from her essay!)
Enjoy the read!
Delilah’s Greatest Hits throughout the ages
You gave her a throne, so she could cut your hair
Samson and Delilah are but one of many symbolic pairings that spring to life from the pages of the Old Testament in modern day reimaginings, but are arguably the most embellished in contemporary interpretations. Beyond Delilah’s origin in Judges 16, her story has been extrapolated to be that of a seductive temptress who ensnares her male victim. Such themes are evident in the works of Rubens and in the more modern film of Cecil B DeMille. Comparatively these show that, irrespective of the time of production, Delilah has repeatedly been reimagined to reinforce socially significant views of women and has thus influenced both the lives of women beyond of the text, and the image of women within the text.
Both Cecil B DeMille’s film Samson and Delilah and Rubens’s 1609 work by the same name add to the original biblical tale to rewrite a story of scandal and mystique. The origin of Delilah’s story is within the Judges 16 sequence that details Samson’s life. Little can be gleaned of Delilah’s person other than that her origin is in Sorek, she was paid by the Philistine powers to find the source of the warrior’s strength and was responsible for his hair being cut (Judges 16). As such, the depiction of Delilah as a sexualized harlot or femme fatale is an extension of artistic license by both DeMille and Rubens. The origin of her characterization may be attributed to the earliest biblical scholars such as Flavius Josephus, who identifies a “harlot among Philistines” (Antiquities). The depth to which they are perpetuated, however, is rooted in Delilah being deployed as an envoy of other social regimes of each artist’s era. Both Rubens and DeMille demonstrate an artist influenced not only by religion but by a subtle agenda of warning against the liberation of women through their personifications of the deceitful Delilah.
Ruben’s depictions of Delilah emphasise her sexuality, whether it be passive or vengeful, and play into Baroque social expectations of female physical beauty (Sweet 2014). The “harlot among Philistines” image of Delilah, based on fabrications of her characteristics and occupation, is encapsulated in Rubens’ Samson and Delilah, 1609-1610. Here, artistic license draws sumptuous crimson swathes around the reclining Delilah’s body, and the stark white of her breasts glow in the warmly lit interior. Sensuality pervades the candlelit space as Samson lies splayed across her lap. The slumped figure of the great warrior upon tousled sheets and beneath the gaze of Venus and Cupid in an alcove does more than enough to suggest unsavory acts prior to this scene. Such an overt show of sexuality is particularly interesting when it is considered that earlier in Samson’s tale, “he saw a prostitute and went in with her” (Judges 16). Here, it is evident that Samson is seeking pleasure, but a similar relationship is imposed upon his with Delilah even though “he fell in love” with her (Judges 16). That their relationship is simply assumed to be only sexual, or that of a service, is the product of Ruben’s own expectations due to a moralistic Dutch background. She is painted to be a victim of her own desires that has coerced a hero into the same, and both of their ultimate undoing’s will be the sexuality she so proudly professes. Ruben’s Delilah feeds a cultural anxiety for the persuasive power of a woman able to emasculate and disarm a strong man with nothing more than her sexuality (Blyth 2011).
Rubens was followed in his fascination with Delilah by his student, Anthony Van Dyck, most notably in Gefangennahme Simsons, 1628-30. This work is focused on the ambiguity of emotion between the two protagonists of the Judges 16 tale, and in doing so highlights the power of love over Samson. With his outreached arms, the warrior clings to the affection he feels for Delilah perched upon the strewn bedsheets. Even as the Philistine soldiers, wielding whips and bludgeons, tackle him en masse, his instinct for self-preservation appears to be overwhelmed by the temptation of Delilah’s embrace and promise. The raw physicality of their battle, with exposed breast and neck opposed by taught brawn and musculature, makes the overt sexuality of the situation difficult to overlook. Such a powerful pull further illustrates the sexuality and femininity imposed on Delilah so that she might be a desirable woman.
Historically, religious works of art such as Ruben’s can be viewed as representing the popular philosophical tradition of gendered ‘matter’ and capacities (Witt & Shapiro, 2017). It is said that maleness of reason is symbolic and metaphorical rather than cultural or psychological (Witt & Shapiro, 2017). Here, the symbolically masculine perception of reason takes root in the subsequent idea that a lack of reason, such as a saturation of emotion, might be female. In Ruben’s work, emotional response to the situation are rampant through the supposed prostitute’s intimate caress of the muscular torso of Samson, and her isolated gaze despite the crowded figures. She appears distant and fulfilling an obligation (Georgievska-Shine, 2007), but also maternally, intimately responsive to the man in her lap. This is shown in her lilted gaze upon Samson’s back, which may also be read as ‘sleepy affection’ (Blyth, 2011), suggestive of an emotional confusion for the temptress. Delilah, in Ruben’s scene, has done her duty to the Philistine soldiers at the door, but this is contradicted by her own quiet love for the man. And so, Delilah’s preoccupation with the sentimental echoes philosophical traditions of the time; humanism and its rationalistic approach to the world is biased toward the masculine energy her entire being refutes. Since the origins of rationalism in Aristotle, reason has been associated with maleness (Witt & Shapiro, 2017). As such, the notion that Delilah was simply a passionate, mischievous pawn in the Philistine’s political scheme, as rendered by Rubens, is a reflection of the periods philosophical emphasis on gendered nature.
Cecil B DeMille’s depiction of Delilah is the product of its post-war conservative social context. American films at this time reflected dominant social discourses, including that traditional nuclear family structures are imperative to success and community (McEuen, 2016). As the emancipated woman of the Second World War was again relegated to the domestic sphere, independent and mysterious women – traits indigenous to the femme fatale – posed a threat to social prescriptions. Thus, it can be said that the femme fatale character of post-war Hollywood was not necessarily born of a textual tradition, but rather as ‘a metaphor of discursive unease’ (Hanson & O’Rawe, 2010). Implications of this context in the film itself are implicit in the helpless pleas of Samson, victim to the manipulation of the all-too-powerful woman before him; even as she betrays him he cries “Vengeance is yours, O Lord. Strike her, destroy her, for I cannot” (DeMille, 1949). This quote echoes perhaps the core fear of post-war America – that wild, powerful women would hold so much power over the wartime hero, that he would no longer be a hero at all.
Further to DeMille’s cautionary aims are strategic cinematic devices that further emphasise Delilah’s destructive potential; the casting of Hedy Lamarr and use of Miriam as a foil for her demonstrative ways. The familiarity of Miriam, the intervener in Delilah’s trapping of Samson, to the conservative American woman accentuates the curiosity Lamarr’s character is built on. Miriam is a steadfast objector to Samson’s devotion to Delilah and is characterized by her plain appearance, diligent nature and moral aptitude. Indeed, her glowing sexuality pervades the tapestried love nest within which she confronts Samson, but never more so than when she is seen alongside Miriam.
Hedy Lamarr was herself an exotic and promiscuous figure of the early 20th century, known for both her divorces and provocative films (Hedy Lamarr, 2017). In her earlier years, Lamarr was seen in the film Ecstasy (dir. Gustav Machaty, 1933) in the first fully nude role in cinematic history (Blyth, 2011). With her husky Austrian accent and exotic, midriff baring costumes, she was a classic type of Hollywood’s obsession with ethnic female stardom that played upon fantasies of domesticity and femininity with a foreign allure (Negra, 2001). In the biblical story of Delilah, her nationality is not determined (Judges 16). But due to her betrayal of the Israelites she is presumed to be ‘other’ – that is Philistine. Hedy Lamarr’s rich accent in a time of post-war conservatism fed this undertow of feminized racism. The other side to Lamarr’s Delilah coin is her justification of Samson’s desires through perfect embodiment of 1940s beauty standards. Her curvaceous figure, luscious lips and glossy curls made her the ‘late 40s vision of perfect womanhood’ (Llewellyn-Jones, quoted in Blyth, 2011), and surreptitiously excused Samson’s failure to resist. It would appear that, at least in DeMille’s telling of history, Samson was not to blame for succumbing to Delilah, as no man could. To this end, DeMille himself described his Delilah as “quite the bitch” (Kozlovic, 2010; 12), evidence of the world behind the text, that is post-war America, and it’s male superiority complex. All in all, such techniques paint Delilah as an ‘all time femme fatale’ (Head and Ardmore, quoted in Blyth 2011) and speak to a war-time America that sought to warn of the tribulations of such exotic, sexualized activities, and inspire instead a safe, domestic way of being.
To say Delilah is the figment of many an imagination is a truer statement than many; her characteristics are largely the product of liberal contemporary supplementation, far more so than her biblical outline. The result of this process is a recurring scapegoat role for Delilah, whereby she is cloaked with the social and political agendas of whatever period she is being reproduced for. Though post-war America and pre-modern Northern Europe are vastly different in many ways, they shared a fear of female independence and emancipation that resulted in a highly sexualized, ultra-feminine image of Delilah the harlot. Both Ruben’s and DeMille’s Delilah is ultimately a tool for reinforcing preexisting social anxieties, transforming a biblical passerby into an icon of uncontrollable, irresistible sexuality.
Biblical references are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
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Charles, S. (2017). Peter Paul Rubens | Flemish artist. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 17 October 2017, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Peter-Paul- Rubens#toc6288
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Exum, J. (1996). Plotted, Shot, and Painted: Cultural Representations of Biblical Women (Gender, Culture, Theory) Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.
Georgievska-Shine, A. (2007). Rubens and the tropes of deceit in Samson and Delilah. Word & Image, 23(4), 460-473. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02666286.2007.10435799
Hanson, H., & O’Rawe, C. (2010). The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts. Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan.
Hedy Lamarr. (2017). Biography.com. Retrieved 9 October 2017, from https://www.biography.com/people/hedy-lamarr-9542252
Josephus, F. (1768). The whole works of Flavius Josephus (pp. 5.8). Aberdeen: Printed and sold by J. Bruce and J. Boyle.
Kozlovic, A. (2010). The Construction of Samson’s Three Lovers in Cecil B DeMilles Techinolor Testament. Women In Judaism: A Multidisciplinary Journal, 1(7), 8-13.
Negra, D. (2001). Off-white Hollywood. London: Routledge.
Sweet, L. (2014). Fantasy Bodies, Imagined Pasts: A Critical Analysis of the “Rubenesque” Fat Body in Contemporary Culture. Fat Studies, 3(2), 130-142. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/21604851.2014.889504
Witt, C., & Shapiro, L. (2017). Feminist History of Philosophy. In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition).
McEuen, M. (2016). Women, Gender, and World War II. In Oxford Research Encyclopaedias. Oxford University Press.