Judges, Part III: Samson

There is no easier example of mythic constructs employed in Old Testament writing than in the story of Samson. According to the narrative, Samson, an Israelite chief, faces off against the Philistines numerous times in battle, and even has relations with three different Philistine women, all displaying some form of sexual taboo. The Philistines were known as the Sea Peoples. They immigrated into the Levant from the Aegean Sea, and are traditionally identified with the peoples of Crete. No exact identifications can be had, however, and the Philistines might just as well be from Greece or even as far north as Anatolia, or a mixture of people’s from all three areas and further.

Wherever the origins of the Philistines, one thing is certain, the story of Samson reads like an Aegean story, not an Israelite one. Samson belongs to Greek myth, as he is none other than a Jewish version of the Greek Heracles. The parallels between Samson and Heracles are numerous, but sometimes not always obvious. Here is a brief list of comparisons:

  1. Divine Birth. Heracles is the son of Alcmene and Zeus, half mortal and half god. Samson’s birth is also divine, though couched in  pastoral, Israelite themes. His parents, Manoah and his wife (unnamed) are barren, and require divine intervention for the wife to conceive (compare Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob).
  2. Divine Names. Heracles means “The glory of Hera.” His name may also signify the resplendence or light of Hera, his mother. Samson’s name means “Resplendent Sun,” though may also signify the glory or light of the sun. Samson appears to be a solar hero.
  3. Divine Strength. Both heroes come into the world with uncanny and god-like strength. Heracles strangles two serpents at birth, and displays god-like power while overcoming his Labors. Samson slays 1,000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass.
  4. Untamed. The temerity of both heroes is legendary. Heracles goes through a period of madness during which he kills six of his own children and two of his brother’s. Atoning for these sins is what leads Heracles on his series of Labors. Samson is the most impetuous of Israelite heroes, constantly consorting with Philistine women and constantly divulging his secrets to them. The consequences of his brashness leads to many innocent deaths.
  5. Series of Labors. Both heroes must undertake a series of Labors to prove their right to rule. Heracles has his famous 12 Labors. These tasks are a late accretion, and the original Labors of Heracles may have been fewer, but they always belonged to a cult system rooted in ancient cosmology. Samson’s tasks can also be seen as a series of Labors, which include slaying the lion, tying the fox-tails, slaying an army with a jawbone, drinking water from the jawbone, being blinded and grinding at a mill, and entering the gate of death between two pillars. Like the Labors of Heracles, many of Samson’s tasks are curiously tied to cosmology; for example, the watery jawbone is none other than the celestial jaw in the sky related to rains and waters—the Hyades.
  6. Killing a Lion. The first task of each hero is the famous slaying of the lion with bear hands. This identifies not only a common myth-ritual system, but also identifies both heroes as descending from much older, Near Eastern traditions. 
  7. Military Prowess Both heroes are invincible in battle, and both heroes provide the circumstances for their own deaths.
  8. Ritual Wounds. Both heroes suffer interesting wounds. Heracles has his heel nipped at by a Crab while fighting the Hydra. In later archaeological finds Heracles is also depicted blindfolded whist going through mystery initiation. Initiates in the Greco-Roman mysteries were ritually blinded indicative of their passage through the dark underworld. In the Babylonian Talmud, Samson is identified as one who is lame (his wounded foot). Samson is also blinded. These wounds are common features among cult heroes; Attis, Oedipus, and Orion all suffer from both a wounded foot and blinded eyes.
  9. The Great Pillars. The famous Pillars of Hercules are thought to be the rock promontories at the Straits of Gibraltar. Ancient writers, however, note that the true Pillars of Hercules were temple pillars and were the frame for the gate of the dead. Samson enters death between two pillars. 
  10. Near Eastern Origins. Heracles is a myth construct descending from the ancient Near East. Heracles is a Greek version of the Babylonian Gilgamesh. Gilgamesh inherits kingship only after descending into the underworld, and the most common scenes on Greek thrones are portraiture’s of the Labors of Heracles, showing that these Labors were ritually connected with the right to rule. Samson remains a heroic leader freeing Israel from the threat of the Philistines and re-establishing political dominance in the region.

No one may have any doubt that Samson originates in the mythic constructs of the Near East, but is imported into Israel from the West. The entire story of Samson seems to be a pastiche of myth constructs layered into a literate, Hebrew context. Some scholars have suggested that if Samson is an historical story at all than he no doubt descends from the Aegean and may have been a Philistine himself. While this is speculative, like so many other things in the study of ancient myth and religion, it is certain that Samson the Israelite is no prophet from the line of Abraham, but a brash war chief whose story has collected layers of mythical constructs imbued with cultural prestige.

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