Samson vs. Heracles: The True Inspiration of Antiquity

By: Shimon Liebling  

Many historians and scholars of mythology have compared and contrasted Samson of the Bible with Heracles/Hercules of Greek and Roman Mythology. Some, such as Dr. Gary G. Cohen, purport that the distinction between the two is so great that it precludes any scholarly relationship. After presenting     Dr. Cohen’s argument, it is my hope to detail the limitations and inaccuracies of his assertions and prove that not only is there direct comparison between the two, but the character Heracles is, in fact, derived from Samson.

In his essay “Samson and Hercules: A comparison between the feats of Samson and the labours of Hercules,” Dr. Gary G. Cohen, President Emeritus of Cohen Theological Seminary, argues that one cannot compare the deeds of Samson with the deeds of Hercules:

“… no true comparison exists between Hercules’ labors and Samson’s feats. Neither man is the prototype for the other, nor can any reasonable man hold the contrary view in light of the compelling nature of the evidence.” (141)

In order to prove his theory, Cohen contrasts the twelve labors of Heracles with the feats of Samson both in number and in nature. Cohen explains that the twelve labors of Heracles are a mere fraction of the demi-god’s feats. While there were, in actuality, closer to one hundred great accomplishments of Heracles, the cited twelve represent the most celebrated. The feats of Samson, however, number only ten, arguably eleven. Additionally, these feats would not be considered feats to Herculean standards. The three deeds performed before Delilah, such as escaping from the restraints by which he was bound, would have been considered too insignificant for mention in the accounts of Heracles.

Cohen continues that the acts of Heracles are “completely in the fabulous realm. They are super-human, arbitrary, and fantastic” (138) and all accredited to his own innate ability. The feats of Samson, however, although beyond the capability of the average man, are not beyond the range of human possibility. Moreover, these feats are not accredited to the prowess of Samson, but rather are deemed gifts of God, for what he does is through natural means. The Bible explicitly states four times that His spirit moved Samson.  When thirsty, Samson turns to God and says, “Thou hast given this great deliverance by the hand of Thy servant; and now shall I die for thirst,” attributing his strength to God. Likewise, Samson, himself, tells Delilah, “There hath not come a razor upon my head; for I have been a Nazirite unto God from my mother’s womb; if I be shaven, then my strength will go from me, and I shall become weak, and be like any other man.” Additionally, for his final feat, Samson prays to God for the strength to push down the pillars of Dagon’s temple. Samson admits that he has great strength only because he has been faithful to God and due to his role as a Nazirite.

Because he attributed his accomplishments to his own power, Heracles was an egotistical being of great strength who did not feel the need to act with any aspect of morality: he was not beyond theft, treachery, and murder to accomplish “good” deeds and complete these labors. Samson’s morality, however, is not put into question. As he was one of God’s judges over the Jews, Samson did what was needed to implement the will of God. Thus, the killing of the thousands of Philistines was not wanton murder, but the just execution of God’s sentence upon the enemies of His people.

Because of the presented stark contrasts of quality and intent between the labors of Heracles and the feats of Samson, Cohen argues that it is impossible for a legitimate comparison to be made between the two, let alone assert that the account of one influenced the other.

Although his comparison may show significant differences between the two legendary heroes, Cohen narrowly focuses only on the labors and feats of Heracles and Samson. I would like to argue that because his comparison is both too focused and not sufficiently detailed, Cohen’s assertion that neither hero influenced the other is false. By taking a broader view of the lives of each and, at the same time, looking closely at the fine details of the acts, it becomes clear that the relationship between the characters is closely comparable. Moreover, the heroic life accounting of Samson is a direct inspiration for the creation of the character Heracles.

According to both accounts, each hero was given strength through divine intervention. From birth, Samson was destined for great things, as the angel of God says to the wife of Manoah, “and he shall begin to save Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.” Additionally, as indicated earlier, the Bible states that Samson was imbued with the spirit of God, through which he was given great strength. Although not identified as a direct divine gift, Heracles, too, received heavenly powers by means of his lineage. In the guise of Amphitryon, Zeus seduced Alcmena, who subsequently bore Heracles, called Alcides at birth. Because Zeus, a god, was his father, Heracles inherited his godly strength. Therefore, Cohen’s assertion that Heracles performed his labors through his intrinsic strength is shortsighted in failing to notice that that very strength hails from a supernatural source.

Not only was the source of their enormous strength analogous, but also the feats themselves. With this strength, Samson and Heracles performed similar acts which emphasize this divine attribute. Samson rent the lion at Timnah with his bare hands “as one would have rent a kid.” Similarly, Heracles killed both the lion that was feeding on the cattle of Amphitryon at Mount Cithaeron and the Nemean lion with his bare hands. By killing the lions, the most feared of all beasts, in such a manner, the great strength of Samson and Heracles is emphasized. Furthermore, the inspiration for their acts has common origin. Othniel Margalith, in his essay “The Legends of Samson/Heracles,” writes that both Samson and Heracles did these deeds as part of their courtship and marriage – Samson to his first Philistine wife and Heracles to the fifty daughters of Thespius.

To better emphasize their strength, each hero used seemingly random, ineffective objects as a lethal weapon, a point which Cohen does not include in his argument. Samson used the jaw-bone of an ass, and Heracles fashioned his club from the New Year olive-sapling on Helicon. Moreover, both heroes show their might in battle. After breaking free from the new ropes which bound him, Samson killed 1,000 Philistines with the aforementioned jaw-bone. Similarly, Heracles, himself, led Thebes into battle against the Minyans of Orchomenus.

Both Samson and Heracles are known for their “gatekeeping.” Samson carried the two posts of the gate on his shoulders up the mountain before Hebron and buried the Philistines under the massive structure by ripping loose the posts that supported it. Heracles was made Keeper of the Gates of Olympus and held the doors open for the late-coming gods.

Samson and Heracles were mutually shamed by women – Samson by Delilah and Heracles by Queen Omphale. Delilah bound Samson’s wrists with rope and, on a separate occasion, his hair with the pin of a spindle, while Omphale gave Heracles the labor of a woman, viewed as degrading, situating him by the spindle with the women and dressing him in women’s garb and hairstyle. The death of both heroes was also caused by women. Delilah helped the Philistines capture Samson by intoxicating him and cutting his hair, ultimately leading to his demise. After DeÏanira gave the robe that she had dipped in the blood of Nessus to him, Heracles wore it at his thanksgiving sacrifice to Zeus. At the sacrifice, this robe caught on fire, and Heracles was consumed by the flames. With a wider comparison of the lives of Samson and Heracles, unlike the view of Cohen, it is very likely that one was influenced by the other. I argue that it was the accounts of Heracles that was influenced by the account of Samson.

In order to truly determine which hero influenced the other, a timeline of authorship has to be made. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Basra 14b, Samuel was the true author of the book of Judges. Samuel, living only a short time after the account of Samson took place, wrote the book of Judges around 1100 BCE. The earliest accounts of Heracles, however, can be found in the writings of Pindar (c. 518-438 BCE), Sophocles (c. 497-406 BCE), Aristophanes (450-385 BCE), and Apollodorus (180-120 BCE), who all lived well after the accounts of Heracles allegedly took place. Clear similarities between the two heroes demonstrate an influential relationship. Because the accounting of Samson significantly predates that of Heracles, it is likely that the many Greek and Roman poets, tragedians, and historians were inspired by Samuel’s account in Judges.

Works Cited

Judges, 13:1 – 16:31.

G. G. Cohen, “Samson and Hercules: A Comparison Between the Feats of Samson and the Labours of Hercules,” EQ 42 (1970), 131-141.

Apollodorus III.5.8; Pausanias ix.

Margalith, Othniel. “The Legends of Samson/Heracles.” Vetus Testamentum 37.1 (1987): 63-70.

Theocritus, Idyll xxv.

Challimachus, Hymn to Artemis.

Ovid, Heroides ix.

Plutarch, Moralia.

Sophacles, Trachiniae.

Babylonian Talmud, Bava Basra i. 14b.

 

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