Re-Imagining Delilah’s Afterlives as a Femme Fatale
The biblical narrative is riddled with gaps and ambiguities around Delilah’s character – we are told nothing about her social status or ethnicity, her personality, the nature of her relationship (emotional, sexual, or otherwise) with Samson, or even her motives for betraying him. This ambiguity in turn provides readers and creators of her cultural afterlives with a ‘multi-layered system of realized and unrealized potentialities’ that they can engage with imaginatively to construct their own afterlives for this intriguing persona…
See Also: Reimagining Delilah’s Afterlives as Femme Fatale: The Lost Seduction (T&T Clark, 2017).
By Caroline Blyth
Senior Lecturer in Religious Studies
University of Auckland
Delilah. What images does the name evoke in your mind? A sleek and sensuous body, perhaps, draped in jewel-toned satins; an exotic, beautiful face, painted with glistening ruby-red lips and dark predatory eyes; smooth, slender arms wrapped around a lover, one hand cradling a sharp and shiny blade. For many readers, the name Delilah conjures up a stomach-churning mélange of danger and desire, pleasure and pain, beauty and betrayal. This biblical figure from Judges 16 is most commonly recalled as the woman who destroyed the Hebrew strongman Samson – God-chosen Nazirite and judge over Israel – coolly manipulating his affections in order to deceive and destroy him. She is therefore typically associated in our minds with the iconic figure of the femme fatale – the ‘fatal woman’ whose erotic allure is so terrifyingly powerful that it can bring even the strongest, most heroic of men to his knees.
This common evaluation of the biblical Delilah as treacherous temptress is perhaps not surprising, given its ubiquity within her countless cultural afterlives found across the centuries in music, theatre, literature, and visual culture. From Baroque art and poetry to Hollywood’s silver screen, Delilah is typically fashioned as a shameless seductress, who uses her intoxicating sexuality to deceive and destroy the haplessly smitten Samson.
Yet, if we turn to Judges 16, we quickly discover that these common cultural portrayals of Delilah are not explicitly rendered therein. The biblical narrative is riddled with gaps and ambiguities around Delilah’s character – we are told nothing about her social status or ethnicity, her personality, the nature of her relationship (emotional, sexual, or otherwise) with Samson, or even her motives for betraying him. This ambiguity in turn provides readers and creators of her cultural afterlives with a ‘multi-layered system of realized and unrealized potentialities’ that they can engage with imaginatively to construct their own afterlives for this intriguing persona (Fishelov 2008–9, 28). And, more often than not, they choose to fashion these afterlives in the form of a dangerously seductive femme fatale (Clanton 2009, 65).
Yet why should this be? What is it about Delilah’s characterization within this narrative that encourages creators of her cultural afterlives to render her so consistently as a fatal woman? As I have argued in my recent monograph (Blyth 2017), artists, poets, composers, and filmmakers are perhaps influenced as much by the socially-constructed discourses of gender and sexuality prevalent within their own cultural milieus as they are by the Judges 16 text. Within these discourses, the femme fatale stands as an emblem of women’s dangerous and undesirable social presence and the threat they are perceived to pose to the fragile edifices of patriarchal power (Žižek 2000). As a sexually and socially independent woman, she breaches gender boundaries and subverts accepted gender norms, thereby representing a terrifying threat to hegemonic masculinity (Finley 2007). Creators of Delilah’s cultural afterlives draw upon this familiar femme fatale trope to make sense of Delilah’s sketchy figure in Judges 16, colouring it in with the vivid, Technicolor hues of women’s dangerous potential (Clanton 2009, 65−6). The result is a menagerie of Delilahs that, though certainly eye-catching and entertaining, bear little or no resemblance to their namesake in the biblical text.
Let me offer a few examples of Delilah’s afterlives, which demonstrate this process at work, focusing on portrayals of Delilah in art. I also intend to complicate these afterlives with my own ‘viewer-response’ approach to the paintings (see Exum 2012, 226), suggesting that we can interpret them a little differently through the lens of our own gendered discourses. That is, I will use these paintings to present alternative gap-fillings for Delilah’s ambiguous textual presence, which offer equally valid, yet less condemnatory, evaluations of her literary and cultural persona.
One of the more well-known afterlives created for Delilah on canvas is Samson and Delilah (c.1609–1610) by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). This painting captures the scene in Judg. 16:19, where Samson’s long hair is cut off, following his revelation to Delilah that it is the source of his strength. Looking closely, we can see that Rubens has filled some of the gaps surrounding Delilah’s character within the biblical narrative. Both she and Samson occupy the forefront of the painting, Delilah sitting on a divan while Samson sprawls asleep across her lap. He appears to be naked, his buttocks covered only by the folds of an animal pelt. Delilah, meanwhile is bare-breasted, her clothes as dishevelled as the satin bedsheets upon which she sits. She looks at Samson with an expression of tenderness, and her left hand rests gently on his bare back, as a young man leans over her, snipping off Samson’s locks. Clearly Rubens has filled the textual gap around Samson and Delilah’s relationship with the presumption that it was sexual, not to mention lethal. As Aneta Georgievska-Shine observes, Ruben’s Delilah is ‘a woman whose surrender to the senses is as palpably conveyed in her reclining pose as it is in the virile body of her victim’ (2007, 461). Her bared breasts and sex-blushed skin betray her dangerous sexuality, which has lured Samson into this current predicament. She therefore offers a visual reminder to Rubens’s audience that women’s sexual power can denude a man of his energy, his vocation, even his life force.
Rubens makes a number of other interpretive decisions about Judges 16 that affirm his portrayal of Delilah as a fatal woman. The scene is set at night – a detail not noted in the biblical text – and the chiaroscuro contrast of deep shadows and warm candle light conjure up a noiresque mis en scène of dangerous sensuality (Kahr 1972, 294). The gold satin bed cover accentuates Delilah’s crimson dress – a colour often associated with female sexual immorality. Her dubious sexual status is confirmed by the elderly woman standing behind her. In seventeenth-century Dutch paintings, this figure commonly represented a brothel-keeper (Kahr 1972, 296); her presence therefore fills in the biblical narrative gap about Delilah’s social status, Rubens suggesting here that she earned a living as a prostitute. This is further affirmed by other visual clues in the painting, including the glass jars and folded towel placed on the shelves by the door, and the statue of Venus and Cupid in an alcove on the wall; these details hint that the scene is set in a brothel where Delilah plies her trade (Kahr 1972, 292). The Philistine soldiers standing at the door similarly remind us that Delilah is being paid for a sexual performance steeped in deception and betrayal. Oblivious to the activities humming quietly around him, the sleeping Samson is about to be captured, tortured, and imprisoned because of this woman. The (male) viewer is thus warned of the dangers of sensuous female flesh, and the hazards faced by men who succumb to ‘venality and lasciviousness’ (ibid.).
Yet, as I mentioned above, there is more than one way to interpret a painting, and if we take a look at Rubens’s portrayal of Delilah from a slightly different perspective, we might see her less as a dangerous femme fatale than a woman whose social and sexual status leaves her horribly vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Rubens presents her as a prostitute who has, moments earlier, been having sex with this muscular giant; this portrayal raises questions about her sexual self-determination and consent. Did she want to sleep with Samson, or was she compelled to do so as part of her arrangement with the Philistines? Did the brothel-keeper orchestrate this event, whether Delilah wished to be included or not (Exum 2012, 232)?
Moreover, Delilah is trapped within this painting, a sexualized female body exposed to her viewer’s objectifying gaze. She is in a state of what feminist film critic Laura Mulvey (1975) describes as to-be-looked-at-ness – styled and fetishized as a source of pleasure for the heterosexual male gaze. Her breasts are bared, not for her own pleasure (or Samson’s, who is asleep), but for the delight of those spectators who look at her and own her through this act of looking. Surrounded by others, she cannot escape this look: Samson’s heavy frame pins her to the divan, his outstretched arm blocking her escape toward the viewer; the brothel-keeper stands oppressively behind her; and to her left, the barber likewise hems her in, as he snips his sharp shears dangerously close to her arm. Moreover, the Philistine troops blocking the door remind us that, willing or not, she is entangled in a dangerous political game from which there is no easy escape. Interpreted in this alternative light, Reubens’ painting conjures up an afterlife for Delilah that may highlight her powerlessness and hint at her compromised sexual autonomy. Rather than condemning her as a dangerous femme fatale, we might instead identify her here as a victim trapped by circumstance, who had no choice but to use her only source of power – her sexuality – in order to fulfil her mission and escape the various forces that imprisoned her.
Delilah remained a popular subject for artists throughout the Baroque and Romantic periods, where she was portrayed (to various degrees) as a sexualized figure of feminine menace. And, as the nineteenth century progressed, her portrayals grew more frequent, particularly during the decades of the fin de siècle, when the femme fatale became an iconic presence in European art and literature. This was an era saturated with ennui and apocalyptic anxieties over the perceived decline of European society (West 1993). Within this fraught context, the femme fatale was typically presented by artists, musicians, and literati as a malignant yet irresistible presence, who drained men of their idealized masculinity (Bade 1979; Showalter 1992). Erotic, and often exotic, she exemplified the degeneration of the age – a figure of fascination and fear upon whose body was projected social and colonial anxieties about moral decline, depravity, and the foreign feminine ‘Other’.
During this period, the biblical story of Judges 16 functioned as an ‘excellent exemplum’ for artists seeking to expose women’s perfidy (Dijkstra 1986, 375). Time and again, they filled the textual gaps of this narrative with contemporary images of the fin de siècle femme fatale, portraying Delilah as a quintessential seductress who, like Rubens’s Delilah, warned (male) spectators against the dangers of women’s allure.
One such nineteenth-century artist was José Echenagusía Errazquin (1844–1912), whose sumptuous painting, Samson and Delilah (1887), captures the moment when Samson reveals to Delilah the secret of his strength (Judg. 16:17). The painting draws upon fin de siècle iconography of the femme fatale, presenting Delilah as the epitome of Oriental glamour and deceitful allure. Her beautifully-draped, embroidered frock leaves her arms, shoulders, and décolletage exposed (once again) to the male gaze. She is adorned with opulent jewellery, including a bird-shaped headdress, whose pearl and gold feathers spread across her ebony hair. Kohl-lined eyes drink Samson up with the intensity of their gaze, while her slick lips are slightly parted, hinting at sexual promise. Echenagusía has thus imbued Delilah with the flavours of exoticism and animality, which rendered the fin de siècle femme fatale so fascinating and dangerous.
The room in which Echenagusía has placed Samson and Delilah emphasizes the decadent Orientalism of the scene. Persian rugs, the hieroglyphs decorating the wall, and the feathery plumes and bejewelled couch with its golden bird motif all exude a heady scent of Eastern excess. Even the rug under Delilah’s feet may warn the viewer of her exotic, animalistic allure. Crafted (we presume) from the lion slaughtered by Samson (Judg. 14:5-6), the fact that Delilah’s feet rest upon it reminds us that she poses a far greater threat to Samson than any wild beast.
As Samson tells Delilah the secret of his strength, he leans towards her, touching his luxuriant locks. The way he lounges on the couch moulds his muscular body into soft curvaceous contours and positions him lower in the frame than Delilah, who is, quite literally, ‘looking down’ at him from a (typically masculine) position of authority and control. With his slouched posture, Samson appears less like a heroic warrior than a lotus-eater; moreover, his colourful shorts and the decorative silver cuff around his left calf (reminiscent of a slave’s shackle, perhaps) convey hints of femininity and a lack (or loss) of masculine power even before his hair is cut. Echenagusía’s Delilah is delicious to look at and exudes an intoxicating scent of Eastern promise, all the while reminding us that this femme fatale poses a deadly threat to her prey.
And yet, like Rubens’s paintings, we can re-view Echenagusía’s portrayal of Delilah and deconstruct its fatal woman iconography. Although Delilah is positioned higher than Samson, her body is nevertheless terribly slim and small compared to his muscular form. And, if we look closely at her face, she appears to be very young – a teenager at most; suddenly, her exotic costume and excess of jewellery carry perturbing connotations. She looks like a child who has been dressed up in grown-up clothes to satisfy the peccadillos of an adult admirer. Is this outrageously ornate room another brothel, where young girls like Delilah are compelled to sell their sex? Have the Philistine elders ‘bought’ her services and dressed her up in a manner they suspect will appeal to their Hebrew nemesis? Samson certainly seems smitten; he presses against her, his hand circling her tiny wrist, his eyes fixed on her face. And she, in turn, leans back ever so slightly, as though to keep a little distance between them. Her kohl-rimmed eyes look at him imploringly, willing him, perhaps, to tell her what she needs to know before he realizes she is working for the Philistines. Perhaps this elaborate act is the only way she can rid herself of this unwelcome suitor, earning enough money to escape a life of prostitution. There is something sinister about this image, something that, again, makes me more afraid for Delilah than for Samson. This girl is less a lethally alluring femme fatale than a young victim of political power struggles within which she has (willingly or unwillingly) been enlisted. Even the lion rug takes on more disturbing nuances when viewed in this light; lying on the floor under Delilah’s feet, it reminds us of Samson’s violent strength, thus serving as a grim warning of what he will do to any creature he perceives as a threat.
Another afterlife of Delilah from the fin de siècle period is by French artist Alexandre Cabanel (1823–89), whose painting Samson and Delilah (1878) depicts the nerve-wracking moment just prior to Samson’s haircut. Here, Samson sleeps on Delilah’s lap, his dark hair falling over her skirt in thick plaits. The top of his head rests against her partially-covered breasts; her gauzy blouse slips off one shoulder, exposing most of her back and décolletage. Given the intimacy of their pose and Delilah’s state of partial undress, Cabanel seems to suggest, like Rubens, that this biblical couple shared a sexual relationship, which has lulled Samson into a deep, post-coital slumber. Once again, fin de siècle anxieties about women’s potent and dangerous sexuality are given vivid expression.
Cabanel focuses in this painting on Delilah – dominating the canvas, her beauty radiates against a dark background. A light source to our right illuminates her translucent skin, picking out the sensuous curve of her bare shoulder and back. Her face betrays an androgynous beauty, with smoky eyes and deep red lips framed by long dark hair. And, while her costume is relatively plain, her elaborate headdress of green chiffon studded with red jewels adds a dash of exoticism to her portrayal, reminding the viewer of her dangerous otherness.
Cabanel has captured Delilah as she stretches out her left hand to grasp something just beyond the frame – presumably the shears to cut Samson’s hair. Her movements appear hesitant and cautious, as though she is anxious not to rouse Samson from his slumber. She looks across to her left, perhaps to reassure herself that the Philistine troops are nearby, ready to accost Samson when he awakens. Cabanel may have intended these gestures to accentuate her duplicity, and her willingness to deceive the man who lies so trustingly in her lap.
Moreover, Delilah’s right hand, which she holds up towards her face, appears abnormally wide in proportion to her face and neck. Combined with her androgynous facial features, this paw-like hand may evoke fin de siècle anxieties about women’s encroachment into male territories of power, violence, and strength. Cabanel’s Delilah may be beautiful and exotic, but she is powerful too, embodying the femme fatale’s potent blend of masculinity and femininity that can prove lethal for even the toughest of Hebrew warriors.
Yet, looking at Cabanel’s portrayal of Delilah again, we might see that it complicates her reputation as a treacherous fatal woman. She is waiting for that moment when Samson’s hair will be cut and his strength depleted. Until then, she is surely in terrible danger, alone with a man who can singlehandedly kill scores of Philistine warriors (e.g. Judg. 14:19; 15:15). What if he wakes up? How will he react if he sees these scissors in her hand and realises her intentions? Strength for strength, Delilah is no match for Samson, and there is no guarantee, given his volatile temper, that he would not retaliate against her. While Judg. 16:19 offers no insights into Delilah’s inner world as Samson lies sleeping on her lap, she would surely have been anxious about her own safety here. Perhaps she was thinking about Samson’s Timnite bride who, after revealing another of Samson’s secrets, was burned to death (Judg. 15.6). Although Samson did not kill her himself, his hot-headed reaction to her betrayal ultimately resulted in her murder. Did Delilah worry that she would share this woman’s fate, killed by either Samson or the Philistine elders, should her plan fail? How much heart-thumping anxiety did she experience here? At this crucial moment in the narrative, Samson is literally and metaphorically pinning her down with the weight of his divine strength; the Philistines, meanwhile, are lurking in the neighbourhood, waiting to hear if she has succeeded (or failed) in her mission. Her life may literally hang in the balance here, yet this is a detail rarely contemplated by readers of this narrative.
Nevertheless, Cabanel’s portrait of Delilah lets us bring this detail into sharper focus, as the artist captures the moment from Delilah’s perspective. Her face is etched with unease, her body tense. Samson’s head lies like a huge dead weight on her lap, and his heavily-shadowed face looks ill-tempered and slightly sinister; I fear for Delilah’s safety should he wake up and see her reaching for the shears. In my mind, these shears are no longer a weapon used by a heartless femme fatale against a helpless Samson; rather, they become the only means Delilah has to defend herself against this Hebrew’s fickle and violent temper. Cabanel has placed these shears just out of reach; Delilah has to stretch across to grasp them, frantic, perhaps, to feel their comforting weight in her hand. I wish I could pick them up and hand them to her, reassuring myself that she has some means of self-protection. For, when I look at this painting, and also the other two paintings I have discussed above, I do not see a femme fatale’s cold-hearted treachery, but rather a desperate woman scrabbling for her own survival. Whom do you see?
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