Judges, Part IV: Samson’s Labors

Samson is the Israelite Heracles. Like our Greek hero, Samson must perform a series of impossible labors, which include slaying a lion, tying burning fox tails together, slaying 1000 men with the jawbone of an ass, drinking water from the jawbone, grinding at a mill, and entering the gate of death. Whether these labors constitute a unified, ritualistic scheme is unknown. We are forced to wonder if these labors were somehow associated with the Israelite temple cult, or perhaps a series of ritualistic military tropes performed before battle, or simply and probably a hodgepodge of tasks collated by later scribes who themselves may have not understood their origins?

  1.  The Lion.
    In Near Eastern and Mediterranean myth and religion several hero-kings must perform a series of tasks, all of which begin with a lion. Gilgamesh descends into the underworld after killing a pair of lions which guard its gate. He wears their skins as he travels through the netherworld. This motif is remarkably homologous to the Egyptian king who, in funerary texts, cannot descend through the netherworld until he passes the guardian lion (Aker) and puts on a special ritual token, the Nemes Crown. This crown is only worn in a funerary context, and is always worn when pharaoh is depicted as a leonine sphinx. This suggests that the crown itself was a representation of the lion’s mane. While the mummy wrappings are themselves represented by a lion goddess.

    Heracles must descend through the underworld by first slaying the Nemean lion. He skins the lion and wears its mane for the rest of his labors. Heracles is most often depicted wearing his lion garment or “crown” in Greek art. The lion was a symbol of the celestial world. Ancient kings in Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Greece always sat upon the lion throne indicative of their celestial mandate. One can see a presentation on the Lion symbol in ancient myth and religion here.Samson’s first task is to slay a lion. This puts Samson squarely within the realm of NE and Mediterranean myth linked to ritual kingship as well as a ritual journey through the netherworld. According to current scholarship the Israelites did not believe in an afterlife until centuries later, and the rest of Samson’s labors do not seem to correspond to any underworld station as can be tracked in the cycles of Gilgamesh and Heracles.

  2. Fox Tails.
    The tying of 300 fox tails together and letting them loose in the fields is a very  unusual motif that ultimately cannot be explained. There are a few suggestions that can be made. The first of which is for military usage, as some generals in antiquity employed this strategy during military campaigns. Hannibal launched oxen with fire brands tied to their horns through the fields against the Romans in 217 BCE. In another fight between the Mongols and Arabs in 1262 CE the former set loose foxes and dogs with torches tied to their tails through the enemy fields. This incident is remarkably similar to the 300 torch bearers accompanying Gideon in a previous story in the book of Judges. If the 300 fire brands were part of a real military strategy than the source of the strategy still might have ritual and cosmological underpinnings, for in the oral world of the Judges, all formal action required analogical recourse to celestial archetypes. 

    Another interpretation of the fox tails comes from the Roman poet Ovid, who recounts that during the annual Festival of Ceres (the Greek Demeter) it was customary to tie torches to foxes and send them burning through the fields. Ovid’s accounting of the origin of this Festival is unique:

    “In yonder plain,” said he, and he pointed it out, “a thrifty countrywoman had a small croft, she and her sturdy spouse. . . . She had a son, in childhood frolicsome, who now had seen twice five years and two more. He in a valley at the end of a willow copse caught a vixen fox which had carried off many farmyard fowls. The captive brute he wrapped in straw and hay, and set a light to her; she escaped the hands that would have burned her. Where she fled, she set fire to the crops that clothed the fields, and a breeze fanned the devouring flames. The incident is forgotten, but a memorial of it survives; for to this day a certain law of Carseoli forbids to name a fox; and to punish the species a fox is burned at the festival of Ceres, thus perishing itself in the way it destroyed the crops.” (679)

  3. The Jawbone.
    Ovid’s description of the origin of the rites provides no real clues for interpretation. We know only that a ritual was performed during the Festival of Ceres where the old crop remnants were burned by fox tails in preparation for a new sewing. This lustration by fire would have cleansed the fields and fertilized the ground, and so would have been advantageous for another crop cycle.

    Of further interest on this point however is afterwards Samson kills 1000 Philistines with the jawbone of an ass. Now it is curious that the Festival of Ceres occurred in the Spring month when the  star cluster known as the Hyades set on the horizon. The Hyades were the daughters of Atlas and the sisters to the Pleiades. They are mentioned as being the nurse maids to Dionysus. More importantly, their name means “the rainy ones” and like the Pleiades, they are a star group in the sky; specifically, they are the jawbone of Taurus the bull. The biblical text speaks of the jawbone of an ass which slays the thousand Philistines, but the connection to the Hyades is also present in the text, where, after Samson slaughters his enemies, a hollow in the jawbone opens up and water pours out of it to quench Samson’s thirst (15.19). This “rainy” jawbone is the Hyades (the rainy ones) and is connected to foxes in both Ovid’s narrative and the biblical story.

    It is also tempting to read this story as pure solar myth. Indeed, during the days of the Festival of Ceres, not to mention the writing of the story of Samson, the Hyades set with the sun on the horizon during the rainy months, while, in fact, by the next morning, Ursa Major would be seen rising with the sun parallel to the horizon, and would do so throughout the summer months. There is a star known as “the fox,” Alcor, who is the bride of the seven stars of Ursa Major; she sparkles right above Mizar in the handle of the Big Dipper. Thus, at sunrise, the fox would be seen running across the fields during the hot summer months after the setting of the Hyades.

  4. The Wounds.
    Samson is finally defeated when he discloses the nature of his power to the harlot Delilah. He tells her that if his hair is cut he will lose his strength. Like the harlot Ishtar who plots against Gilgamesh, Delilah “made him sleep upon her knees; and she called for a man, and she caused him to shave off the seven locks of his head; and she began to afflict him, and his strength went from him” (16.19). It is not Samson’s hair that holds his strength, but specifically his seven locks of hair; a curious detail with no internal clues for interpretation. Yet, Gilgamesh only defeats the cosmic giant Humbaba by cutting off his seven glories, one at a time, until he is reduced to mortal clay and is slain. So likewise does Inanna deliver up her seven tokens at the gates of the underworld where she too is reduced from divine glory into a hanging corpse. Samson’s seven locks hale from the old cosmology of ritual and cult; the seven glories, tokens, or hairs being the seven heavens one descends through to find the secrets of immortality in the kingdom of the dead.

    Samson is captured and blinded. The blinding motif also occurs with other mythic heroes performing their labors. Neither Gilgamesh nor Pharaoh are physically blinded, but both descend into an underworld that is specifically described as pitch black, where no one can see. Gilgamesh enters the underworld where it is so dark that he is forced to race against the midnight sun “twelve double hours” before it sets and which Gilgamesh cannot see. Pharaoh’s entrance into the netherworld is so terrifyingly dark that he calls out in anguish to Ra for aid, knowing only the God of light can save the soul blinded by the darkness of death. The introduction into the underworld is always blinding, and this is why in two archaeological finds Heracles is shown blindfolded while being initiated into the Mysteries. An initiate into the mystery religions ritually descended into the underworld (the word initiate is Latin and means to “descend underground.”) where they were all blinded with darkness, and in many cases this meant they were literally blindfolded to imitate the darkness that existed through the veil of death. The only way to penetrate the darkness of the netherworld was through the inner sight of proper initiation.

    According to the Babylonian Talmud Samson is also lame; another curious detail with no internal clues for interpretation. But the edifice of wounds piles up with uncanny synchronicity with the Greek hero Orion. Orion is lame and blinded and is sent through the astral world to find healing and rebirth from his father Helios; not unlike Pharaoh who suffers the same fate and pleads to Ra; or Gilgamesh who travels to the end of the impassable sea to find the secrets of life from Utnapishtim. Of course, the stars that make up the constellation of Orion were also known to be the stars that represented Osiris (and the Pharaoh) and even Gilgamesh.  Whatever the late accretion of myth fragments found in our Samson story, their origin lies in stellar cosmography and theology.

  5. The Mill.
    Having been wounded Samson faces another terrible ordeal, “But the Philistines took him, and put out his eyes, and brought him down to Gaza, and bound him with fetters of brass; and he did grind in the prison house” (16.21). This grinding in the prison house is actually turning at the mill, or grindstone. None of our other heroes are put to a mill, however, and this seems unique to the story of Samson. But a few checks shows that the grinding mill is also part of a mythic complex of images.

    Perhaps our greatest clue lies in Germanic myth, where the great Amlodhi (also known as Hamlet) owns a great mill. Amlodhi’s father is none other than Orvendel, whose name signifies an “arrow” and who is also identified with the constellation of Orion. In one version of the myth King Frodhi owns the great mill and imprisons two giant maidens to grind at it. Whilst they grind they foretell Frodhi’s doom, but do so in the night while everyone is asleep. This imagery is a rather remarkable parallel to Odysseus’s return to Ithica in Homer’s Odyssey, where in the middle of the night he meets a woman grinding at a mill and who foretell’s not the death of Odysseus, but the death of all the royal suitors.

    In both cases the mill grinds out a prophecy foretelling the change of royal status and the death of those who are currently in charge. The decay of the old and the birth of the new seems to be the mill’s purpose, whose grinding transforms the ripened wheat into flour and bread. In another inexplicable parallel, the Babylonian Tammuz was the son of a god destined for death and rebirth. During the great Festival of Tammuz (surely another agrarian holiday) our hero is put to a great mill, though this time it is the mill itself which grinds the hero’s bones and sends his soul to the underworld.

    This great mill is cosmic, and is known to be the turning of the heavens, whose daily, monthly, and yearly “grinds” foretell the changing fate of land and kingdoms; borrowing from Tennyson, “grind out the old, grind in the new.” This is no idle fancy, as in at least a few early planispheres the stars known as the Little Dipper were imagined as a mill stone.

  6. The Gate of Death.
    The eventual fate of all our mythic kings and heroes is to land in the realm of the dead. Odysseus can only return home, after all, by descending to the underworld to gain directions. As for Gilgamesh, Pharaoh, and Heracles, the kingdom of the dead turns out to be their goal destination. Samson finds himself between two pillars in a stadium of party-goers some 3000 strong. Samson calls upon God and is given his strength and pushes the pillars over causing the entire building to collapse and kill everyone inside. It turns out his grinding at the mill was a necessary precursor to the death of kings and suitors.  In other myth systems the purpose of the hero-quest is to find the secrets of life and kingship in the astral underworld. In the story of Samson, our hero is slain with his enemies, but our narrator cannot end the story without stating that Samson reigned for twenty years and that in his death he slew more of Israel’s enemies than in his life.

The story is over and we are left with many fragments that find exact parallels in other myth systems tied to ritual and cosmology. Why is this story included in the Hebrew Bible? No one can really say. As every culture in the region had such a hero that stood at the basis for kingship, perhaps the Israelite priesthood adopted the story into their own cultic repertoire? In any case, the story of Samson is the story of the foolish hero who conquers all, even to the gates of death.

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