What follows on this page is an attempt at elucidation of at least some of these matters. As Montaigne wrote centuries before me, I similarly now "write that I may know what it is that I think."
I think it preferable from the outset to omit from discussion of Samson both the vague word "folklore" and the amorphous concept which it represents, since in my experience they both pose unnecessary quandaries that have no orderly exits. The word "folklore" is very often used, namely, by those who do not know exactly where to locate or how to define the specific texts which they need to examine and to rely upon as authority when they aver that some idea or other, or the traditional phrasing of that idea, is "folklore." Those, on the other hand, who are precisely knowledgeable about the texts pertaining to their subjects, and about the germane loci in the texts, commonly prefer to speak more scrupulously of oral tradition, or about literary borrowing or literary imitation of oral tradition, thus avoiding altogether the imprecision of the idea in the word "folklore."
An obvious historical fact is that the four Samson stories are not epic, ballad, or Märchen. They are patently annalistic, and that much more in the manner of Diodorus Siculus' Bibliotheke Historike, as seen, let us say, in Diodorus' account of the Aloads -- more like that than like anything in Herodotus' Historiae, for example. Whatever traces of oral traditional diction might subsist in them have therefore surely entered the Hebrew text through the agency of a literary retailer rather than by dictation from an oral traditional conteur. I come to this opinion not via narrow stylistic evaluation of the presence or absence of a certain kind of formulary diction in the Hebrew text (which I cannot read), but on quite different and equally valid grounds. There simply are not a sufficient number of impenetrable obscurities in the Samson stories which only other texts of other narratives in the same oral tradition could explain. Such obscurities are a hallmark everywhere of true oral traditional dictated narratives. But the Samson stories as we have them have been systematically cleansed of such obscurities. That is what literary retailers of oral traditional tales have always done, and for obvious reasons. As one goes about ascertaining the matrix of oral narrative tradition from which the biblical reteller(s) of the Samson saga derived the four stories, one may reasonably expect therefore to discover some things in the tradition, and perhaps even in the four stories themselves, which the writer(s) of the texts in Judges 13-16 may not have known or understood.
No collections of certainly oral dictated texts from narrative tradition have been left lying about in the Near East since the Bronze Age to help us discern the exact shape of the oral tradition there before its entrance by literary retelling into the biblical Samson saga. Yet that makes little difference for the present purpose, since the types of the Samson stories are so very common in the later and fuller records of actual oral traditions amongst a great diversity of peoples throughout Eurasia and in the pre-Columbian cultures of North America. These very numerous articles of comparative evidence make it apparent that whatever other wonderfully distinctive things the Hebrew reteller(s) of the biblical Samson stories may have introduced by choice of words or emphasis upon details of episode, nothing in the substance of their narrative about Samson was an Israelite or Canaanite invention; it was all certainly much older than that.
Examining them against the background of comparative evidence, I see four stories in Judges 13-16 arranged symmetrically in two pairs. The first pair (Judges 13 and Judges 14-15) -- one short story and one longer one -- concern Samson's personal origin and his attempt thereafter to exploit persons of an alien ethnicity for the furtherance of his own and his parents' ambition to establish a family (i.e., to originate a lineage). In this cause -- his own and his parents' progenerative cause -- Samson is a spectacular failure.
There follows a second pair of stories (Judges 16:1-3 and Judges 16:4-3l) -- again one short tale followed by a longer one -- concerning Samson's maturity. In this second stage of his life the tables are turned, and aliens try to exploit him for their purposes. But in their cause too, just as he was earlier in his own cause, Samson is again a spectacular failure.
Each of the two short stories anticipates and clarifies (by exemplifying it in another form) what the central principle of Samson's character will be in the more complicated succeeding story.
Samson's mother, wife of the obscure man Manoah, poor woman, is not able to conceive a child in the modestly discrete way women everywhere generally prefer to manage that particular business of life, namely by a secluded act of sex pudently concealed against observation (not to mention actual intrusion) of any third parties within the private shelter of a husband's and a wife's own dwelling. Instead this woman, Samson's mercifully nameless mother-to-be, has to go out-doors and meet another male who is not her husband in an open field under the full, unobstructed gaze of heaven not once but repeatedly in order to achieve her desired pregnancy. A proper wife still, she yet finds a way to draw her wedded husband into the matter (by inducing him too to go outdoors), if only as her future son's adoptive, cultural father. But no lineage of biological descent is obtained for Manoah through his adoption of a child who is so irregularly vouchsafed to his wife by a messenger from heaven, and accordingly no male offspring of his in later generations will ever hark back to either Samson or Manoah as agnatic ancestor in a society where the principle of agnation was certainly the paramount expression of meaningful kinship, and hence of inherited personal identity and worth. Samson is a social cul de sac, a thing to be used, and completely used up, entirely within his own lifetime. A character located rigidly out-of-doors from his very inception, he remains lifelong a strictly extra-genealogical person too. The traditional connection between "house" and "lineage" was profound.
Within his brief lifespan (which is but a fleeting moment in the annals of the people to whom he is born), Samson's reason-for-being is to push a flourishing nation of alien occupiers -- the Philistines -- out of a land that ought to be domesticated entirely for the use of his own people. Originating in an open field, he is throughout his youth an habitué of the ground and of outdoor haunts. His first, still juvenile movements (one is tempted to call them vernal)1 are the tremors as of feet stamping on the earth (numerous light chthonic tremors in anticipation surely of the more violent single concussion at the end of his life). Then, having reached breeding age, Samson goes about handling and manhandling all manner of earth's outdoor excrescences: wild bees and their honey, vineyards, lions, foxes, olive trees, sheaves and standing grain, even the carcasses of a rapt raptor and an abandoned beast of burden that have been left to rot away on the earth's surface; and not least, those other growths nourished by the same ground, the Philistines, whom he destroys together with all the other earthy things on it. Thus Samson extirpates the Philistines of agrarian habits.
The manner of his destructiveness is significant. He tears apart joint from joint with his bare hands both living animals (the lion at Timnah) and carrion (the dead lion and the dead donkey); or else by the same crude means he binds live wild animals together (the fire-foxes). He tears apart his own hair out of Delilah's weaving. He smites (with the jawbone of the ass); he bursts asunder (the bonds put upon him at the Rock of Etam and again by Delilah); he ignites (the ripe fields and orchards of the Philistines, and thereby as consequence also the Philistine family of the ripe woman at Timnah); he strips (honey from inside the dead lion and clothes from off the corpses of the thirty men whom he kills, surely by bludgeoning or fatal diastrophy, at Ashkelon); he uproots (the gates of Gaza); and he pushes and pulls irresistibly (the pillars in the building of the Philistines).
In all of this his powers of ravagement are coextensive with the terrifying primal destructive techniques of great nature itself; indeed there is only a single imaginable method of devastation that he does not employ, which indeed he never even attempts, and which we should therefore probably judge to be beyond him. It is, moreover, the sole variety of damage that can diminish Samson himself: he cannot hew, cut, or sever, nor can he bear to be hewn, cut, or severed. And uniquely amidst the litany of methods for destroying and dismembering things in the Samson saga, only this one technique -- hewing and cutting -- is a strictly human accomplishment, a power due exclusively to the culture of cutting tools and weapons, and a power unavailable therefore to any so elemental, uncultured form of life as Samson, the "man" of open fields and the great outdoors.
Thus Samson seems not really a man at all -- I have no difficulty imagining him as a quadruped (how does he run down three hundred foxes if he isn't a kind of centaur?) -- or at most an exceedingly deficient man who cannot hew, cut, and continue his line by the usual means of sexual reproduction indoors. For that is the second thing which poor Samson, like his pitiable mother, can never do. He can never simply go indoors, enter a wife, and there conjure up a male heir to continue his own kind in an adaptable new form. Men who cannot hew and bear hewing are of course not fit for that. To be sure, he tries to do this unattainable thing time and again, but the Timnite woman's bedroom remains by cultural barriers impenetrably closed to him, and the best this miserable fellow can do, who began his own existence on an open field under no roof but heaven itself, is to go to ground again in a cave at the Rock of Etam like seed sown in the earth from which no truly neoteric, newly educable and culturally malleable being but only more of himself can ever emerge. Like the processes of cutting and hewing, buildings and houses too (i.e., the culturally devised artifacts and products of cutting and hewing) remain together with the very concept of indoors foreign and inimical to Samson all his life, but especially so throughout the first pair of stories about his youth, the pair of stories that tell of his origin and of his own failed attempt in turn to originate progeny by marriage.
Samson is not alone in his inefficacy. The Philistine policy towards him in the first pair of tales is equally a ruinous failure for them. They try hard and ingeniously to keep him out: out of the Timnite woman's bedroom, and out of his cave in the Rock of Etam. It seems, after all, a logical policy, given Samson's own so decidedly exoteric nature. But the Philistines gain no respite from his ferocious energies by that means. And so, like good men of culture everywhere -- i.e., like good folktale tricksters --they exactly reverse their failed former policy and try instead a new plan, a plan no longer of exclusion, but rather of close containment in the second pair of Samson tales, when Samson has matured. Well acculturated men who are used to hewing and to containment are thus also able to learn something new and to change their ways when there is need; feral creatures like Samson cannot.
Whores contain and tame the ravaging powers of an unbridled outdoor nature repeatedly in ancient Near Eastern traditions; so for example the whore who urbanizes the dangerous wild thing Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh. (This correspondence is real, though it does not mean that Samson is just a Jewish Enkidu.) But the woman in the first of the second pair of Samson stories is no longer an object of Samson's acquisitive ambition or his hope of progenerative profit as the Timnite woman was. This second woman is only bait in the Philistine stratagem to acquire Samson and to profit from containing him. The bait works, and in the little preliminary tale of Judges 16:1-3 Samson goes of his own accord into an alien containment in Gaza. Whereas formerly the Philistine men worked to keep Samson out of their women, now they knowingly let him into one suitable for their purpose. They plan to hew and cut Samson fatally at daybreak, but they do not cut him in time. At midnight, before being cut, he bursts out of the containment, rips up its central symbol, the city gates of Gaza (which are of course the once wild and living but now tame, ur- banized, and inanimate products of the Philistines' previous cutting and hewing), and then he carries them away to a distant hilltop like a flood, a stormwind, or other such elemental outdoor power.
Thus the first Philistine attempt to implement their new policy of containment is too crude. It needs refinement in both the containing and the cutting; but the two central principles of the Philistine policy and Samson's response to it-to pull their container down -- will persist as the ideational framework in the second, longer story of the second pair, the story of Delilah.
To tame and urbanize a bull, and to make it useful for cultural work, one must not only pen but also cut it. If the cultural purpose of the containment and the cutting is only to stop its rampant destructiveness, one may of course cut it to death, but that is very wasteful. If, however, one cuts it only a little in just the right place and in the right way, but not fatally, then the skillfully curtailed beast may well be kept, harmlessly contained thereafter for fun and profit. So, too, a vine in a vineyard, or a fruit tree planted in the containment of an orchard and pruned to bear; or a sheaf of grain, which is of no use until it is reaped and tied, or threshed and hampered. Samson is like all these things that are grown outdoors, needing to be cut, tied, and penned, but not to a lethal degree, since much benefit may yet be had from him by wise tricksters, both for their amusement (as a strongman-clown on their holidays) and for easing the labor of their living as a beast of burden (turning the mill to grind the grain for the nourishment of Philistine bellies on workdays). Thus, in his maturity Samson becomes a ripe and harvested article, penned and trimmed for Philistine consumption.
Their only mistake in an otherwise admirable cultural procedure is to overlook a necessary periodic renewal of the trimming. Not having been cut to death, but only pruned for the purpose of cultural exploitation, Samson still has in him a living residue of capacity for further growth, and if the growth proceeds too far unchecked, he has a potential also to run wild again and do more feral harm. Untended by a watchful Philistine eye and a timely intervening Philistine hand wielding the sharp, delimiting edge of a cutting instrument, Samson grows unkempt and untame again, and so brings down disaster on everyone in the great final quaking of the earth when Samson extirpates the Philistines of urban habits.
Having once taken up the sharp blade of civilization, one may never put it down again; the urban Philistines perish in their thousands because they have not understood this, just as earlier the agrarian Philistines (who were less numerous but more widely dispersed than the urban ones) perished by the thousand because they did not understand that when beasts of burden die, one must not leave their carcasses lying about as carrion to attract or be used by dangerous feral predators such as dwell in caves in the wilderness.
Samson's fatal flaws are more complicated. He cannot cut, nor bear cutting, and Yahweh turns away from him when, inevitably, he comes within the influence of men who can and do. Pity poor Samson, taking the blame from Yahweh for a deficiency of character which no one but Yahweh himself has created in him. How like that dreadful god Yahweh it is always to be disappointed, blaming and abandoning his own imperfect creatures for failures inherent in Yahweh's own mistakes of creative design. But we must wait for Job to come to grips with that problem; Samson is too early for it, and too much by far a stock character of international folktale tradition.
Folktale heroes trying to find suitable spouses and productive marriages conventionally accomplish four things and experience three different kinds of relationship with nubile women on the way to marital contentment. Because he is generally well known -- better on the whole than any other single character of oral narrative tradition -- I use Homer's Odysseus for example.
A successful folktale husband meets four tests to prove himself fit for marriage. He demonstrates a mastery of wood, as Odysseus did in his naval carpentry (raft-building) on the island of Ogygie (Od. 5:234-61), in his almost occult construction of the olivewood bedstead in his house on Ithake (Od. 23:177-204 -- the means of sustaining a genealogical lineage being once again firmly secluded indoors), and in his unique knowledge of the trees in Laertes' orchard (Od. 24:336-44). He is also be a master of water, as Odysseus showed himself to be in prevailing over Poseidaon's angry seas (Od.4:282-381). He is furthermore a master of animals, as Odysseus was both in his hunting (from the boar-hunt with Autolykos onward -- Od. 19:435-54; 10:156-77, et passim) and in cattle-lifting during his Wanderings (Od. 9:464-70, et passim), as well as in the multitudinous livestock which he owned on Ithake (Od. 14:96-104). Finally, the successful folktale husband-to-be extracts his bride-to-be from some form of sequestration, as Odysseus did Penelope (Od. 23).
Besides many true multiforms expressing this same consistent pattern of story in a virtually infinite variety of motifs, oral traditions everywhere entertain equal numbers of deliberate devagations from this narrative pattern which are themselves also standard patterns. That is to say, traditional storytellers intentionally replicate characters with common backgrounds and common courses of incident, but with deliberate deflections of the common pattern so as to produce markedly divergent destinies from closely similar beginnings. Samson provides an excellent case in point. He masters wood magnificently in his portage of the gates of Gaza to the hill at Hebron. Water springs up for him on demand out of the dry rock in the hollow of Lehi. He is only too obviously a master of animal life with respect to both lion and foxes. So he successfully passes three of the would-be husband's qualifying trials, but he fails the fourth one: extracting the Timnite woman from her Philistine enmeshment is beyond him.
The oral traditional story pattern underlying the Samson saga shrewdly integrates that error with another deliberate truncation of another traditional requirement too. Again like Homer's Odysseus, successful husbands customarily meet and deal in conventionally prescribed ways with three different kinds of nubile woman. Two of them are, like Odysseus' Kirke and Kalypso, very interesting females. A right-thinking man may well get into bed with them, but then he must leave them and move on. Samson correspondingly has his nameless whore in Gaza and his Delilah. There is also another woman, undeniably attractive and eligible, who must however imperatively be left untouched by a successful hero: Odysseus' Nausikaa and Samson's Timnite woman. From her, Odysseus (and a thousand others like him in as many other ethnic traditions) wisely passes on to his Penelope, a woman who will be steadfastly his right wife so long as he lives. But here again Samson's destiny falls short, not by accident but by traditional design. He does not leave Delilah when he obviously should, after she has so blatantly and dangerously tried to trick him, and he does not proceed from her to any other woman with whom he could abide permanently beyond the transiently interesting Delilah. Thus he has during his lifetime two whores and a marriageable woman (the Timnite) whom he ought to leave alone both for his own family's good and for the good of the Philistines; but he never has a wife at all.
Samson's very name, with its strange form and still undeciphered meaning, is another enduring obstacle to a ready understanding of him. It is, however, an intriguing coincidence, and possibly even a fact of some interpretative value, that in ancient Greek mythology too the entire category of wild "men" called Kentauroi (Centaurs) typically had personal names either as obscure and (for men) as unusual in form as "Samson" was in Hebrew, or else names that marked them as outdoor beings implicitly unfit for civilized life in houses.2
Nestor in the first book of the Iliad seems to mean this same race of sub-human beings when he speaks of Φηροὶ ὀρεσκῷοι (1:268), "wild (ones) who reside/are situated in the mountains." The meaning of the generic name "Kentauros," which occurs in the Odyssey (21:295), is quite as uncertain as the meaning of "Samson," and so is the personal name of the first Centaur mentioned as such in the Greek tradition, Eurytion. This Eurytion also made trouble over a nubile woman whom he was too wild to wed (Od. 21:295-304), as did the Centaur Nessos (meaning?) again in the later narrative told by Apollodorus (Bibliotheca II, 151-52, 7, 5-6), and Homados ("din-maker") yet again in the tale retold in Diodorus Siculus (Bibliotheca Historica IV. 12.7), all imitating (or anticipating) Samson's misconduct over the woman at Timnah. The noisy Homados had a name only a little less specific as to the nature of his unfitness for indoor living than did that other Centaur Doupon ("thudder, he-of-the-reverberating-footfalls"), whose heavy-footedness brings to mind once more Samson's first movements in the camp of Dan between Zorah and Eshtaol (Judges 13:25). As though in confirmation of such a traditional linkage of meaning between these two Centaurs' names, Homer even made a regular line-ending formula terminating with a three-syllable verb: ὅμαδος καὶ δοῦπος ὀρώρει/ἔγειρεν (Il. 9.569, 23.234), "...din and thump (of battle)..."
Other Centaurs' significant names marked them too as unsuited for indoor habitation, and could never be mistaken for the personal names of real humans. So, for example, Petraios (Stone-, Boulderperson); Oreios (Mountainperson); Peukeidai (Pinesons); Arktos (Bear); Dryalos (Treeman). The most famous of all the Centaurs, Cheiron, dwelt in a cave on Mount Pelion in Thessaly all his life; and he undoubtedly would have had no difficulty duplicating Samson's capture of foxes by the hundreds, for his name says unambiguously that he is Seizer, Catcher, Taker-of-Game.
Those of the Thessalian tribe of Centaurs whom Peirithoös and Theseus with the Lapiths and their wedding guests did not slay in the famous War of the Lapiths and Centaurs were, with few exceptions, killed afterward by Herakles (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca II, 83-86 [5,4]; Diodorus Siculus, IV.12.3-8). That there was a certain likeness between Samson and Herakles was recognized before the end of classical antiquity. What has not been recognized is that the Centaurs share in many details of that likeness quite as much as Herakles and Samson do; Herakles was thus indistinguishable in some respects from the very Centaurs whom he slew in enmity or by accident.
Like Samson at Gaza, at Ashkelon, and at the Rock of Etam, and like the Centaurs at the wedding of Peirithoös (Pseudo-Hesiod, Aspis, vv. 178-90), in the attack on Alkyone by Homados (Diodorus Siculus, IV.12.7), or in the attack on Deianeira by Nessos,3 Herakles also suffered episodes of unbridled excitement, frenzied energy, or plain madness, as in his burning of his children by Megara (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca II, 72 [4, 12]; Diodorus Siculus, IV.11.1-2; Hyginus, Fabulae 32), the killing of Oineus' wine steward (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca II, 150 [7, 62-631), and the slaying of Oichalian Iphitos (Odyssey 21:22-30; Apollodorus, Bibliotheca II, 127-30 [6,1-21).
Again like Samson and the Centaurs (Cheiron in particular), Herakles was an extraordinary seizer- or catcher-of-wild-beasts, (the Nemean lion, Erymanthian boar, Cretan bull, Lernaean Hydra),4 which he overcame either by bludgeoning them with his famous attribute, the club from Nemea (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca II, 71 [4, 11, 81), or more often by grappling with his bare hands. Thus, like Samson and the Centaurs, Herakles too did not go about his tasks cutting or hewing; and in dispersing the Stymphalian birds he employed means that were the very essence of the Centaurs' names Homados and Doupon.5
None of the three -- Samson, Centaurs, or Herakles -- ever solved the problem of sustaining an agnatic lineage,6 and all were ruined in the end by women's wiles worked upon them while they were enthralled by an amorous infatuation. The irresistible allure of Hippodamia for the Centaurs at the wedding of Peirithoös (Ovid, Metamorphoses 12:210-41), of Alkyone for Homados (Diodorus Siculus 4.33.1), of Hippolyte for Eurytion, or Delilah for Samson, and of Iole for Herakles,7 caused the deaths of all of them. Delilah's witchery with Samson's magic hair and Deianeira's with the potion of Nessos in Herakles' fatal shirt-of-fire (Hyginus, Fabulae 34) are all of a piece. So women's magic finally does to death both Samson and Herakles, whose very identities and physical might were intended from the beginning to serve as instruments in a sky god's plan for clearing the earth of alien persons and other obstacles to its colonization by a chosen people. Once they have accomplished their designated superhuman tasks, they are persons of such violent and overbearing natures that there can be no place either for them personally or for any descendants of theirs who might be like them in the peacefully domesticated world which they were sent by heaven to inaugurate.
Correspondingly, the same mortal women who would help civilized men people the land fail in their attempts to cooperate with such rude, physically superhuman but culturally subhuman brutes in perpetuating their kind. Instead of the mutual, life-long help customarily tendered to each other by properly acculturated husbands and wives, we find only a mutual destructiveness between the type of Samson and Herakles and their females. Each allies himself with one woman whom he cannot keep (Samson with the Timnite and Herakles with Megara of Thebes); each of these women then passes out of his hands into the keeping of other men, who however fail to protect her as good husbands should, so that both women are subsequentl murdered.8 Thereafter Samson and Herakles both ally themselves again with other women, who, however, now magically destroy them: Delilah Samson, and Deianeira Herakles.
Some cognoscenti have supposed that a number of earlier myths were subsumed and the names formerly associated with them were driven out of ancient Greek mythic tradition by the extraordinary popularity of the Herakles saga in the classical age. However that may be, the story of Orion,9 whom Homer knew (Odyssey 5:121-24), also conforms in its surviving part to the intentionally defective narrative pattern of a would-be husband's failure.
No differently than Samson or Herakles, Orion too was a strong man, and in his case not only his inception but indeed the whole of his unusually long, ten-month gestation had to be accomplished out-of-doors and in the ground (as though nativity for him were simultaneously both plant and animal). Like Manoah, Orion's nominal (i.e., his cultural or adoptive) father was also as childless as a dead stick, although here the reason seems to have been the man Hyrieus' (his name means "pisser") failure to understand the reproductive possibilities of his membrum virile beyond its more mundane (and more frequent) utility for passing water. One may reasonably wonder whether in the original oral traditional telling there wasn't something rather like that wrong with Manoah, too. The gods kindly demonstrated to Hyrieus how to use his member reproductively, so that the latter was eventually able to beget other, more survivable children than Orion proved to be (Apollodorus, Bibliotheca III, 111 [10.1]). Yahweh seems not to have been so kind to Manoah; or if he was, no text reports it.
Like Samson and Herakles, Orion also lived long enough to bed a pair of transiently interesting women with whom he could not finally abide, and then foolishly forced his attentions on yet a third female whom he ought rather to have left alone. In Orion's story, these three were Side, Merope, and Artemis. Side was murdered (by Hera); Orion ruined Merope and her father, who subdued him by cutting him in a way it took him a long time and much trouble to mend; but then Artemis destroyed him as the result of his too familiar companionship with her, a companionship that should never have arisen in the first place. Like Samson, Herakles, and the Centaurs, Orion was thoroughly feral.
Folktale, epic, and balladry in ethnopoetic traditions everywhere in the world abound in such-like "wild men" tales, and a good book further explaining the Samson saga against the full panoply of that rich background awaits an author. Indeed, the single most peculiar thing about the Samson saga when it is viewed against that background is that there are so few (any?) multiforms or variants of it -- no (other) Centaurs or Orion to accompany the Herakles -- in the attested Hebrew tradition.
1984 Odyssea. Ed. P. Von der Muehll. Homeri
1967 Geschichte der Griechischen Religion, 3rd ed. Handbuch der
Altertumwissenschaft 5/5. München: Beck.
v. 2 Revision, extension, and hypertext markup, August, 2004.