Samson and Delilah by Peter Paul Rubens, 1610 (73×81”) – National Gallery in London
Jane and Kimberly, caught up in the ageless luscious beauty of Rubens’ depiction of Samson and Delilah, find new beginnings in one of the most famous love stories of all times.
The story – The story of Samson and Delilah is more than a biblical story. It’s a popular culture story and a cautionary tale to men. It casts love for a woman as an Achilles heel, a vulnerability that will make a man weak and unable to defend himself against his enemies. Its focus – like Rubens’ painting – is on Delilah betraying Samson, taking advantage of his love for her and turning him into his enemies. It’s often a fear men carry into relationships when they fall in love. You may have a personal association with your own life. I remember when an ex-husband accused me of being a Delilah when I answered the door and talked to a man who asked questions about a project he was working on. I didn’t know it was a secret project in which he was investigating police abuse. Somehow the deliberateness of Delilah invaded our minds and infused my innocence with a sense of betrayal. It was not a fair assessment but we had to deal with it.
That’s why we’re looking inward for a new meaning to an old story. It is because powerful stories from the past invade the present with meaning from times when women took their identity from men. It’s imperative that we, we as 21st-century women, look inward for new meaning. Looking closely at old Rubens masterpiece depicting love as dangerous for men who depend on secret power that cannot be shared with women they love invites new interpretations. If men falling in love means losing their power to wage war against the enemy, there’s only one kind of testosterone-driven agenda left, the kind that separates men and women.
What the film Phantom Thread explored was a man’s inability to experience intimacy if his entire life was consumed with material achievement. The war that Ai Wei Wei wages against abuses of power comes from his heart, not his hair. If Samson’s strength to counter the abuses of Philistine power is modernized – like the creature who falls in love with the Sally Hawkin’s character, Elisa, in the film The Shape of Water – who would Delilah be? She might rightfully challenge him to reveal the source of his power but what would they discover together?
What 1610 Rubens, with his ability to turn a time-bound story into a timeless painting, does – at the very least – is put his admirers on notice that the story will rouse diverse perspectives as men and women change. Rubens brings forth a deep beauty in the Samson and Delilah story that begs us to answer an inner call from our deepest contemporary beings, male and female alike.
We’d like to propose you approach Rubens’ Samson and Delilah masterpiece like a dream of your own. Use the technique of speaking from the voice of “I am” for each character in the painting to find primal emotional associations to bring greater understanding of oneself and one’s love relations in today’s world.
Here’s the old story:
Samson, in love with Delilah, gives her the secret of his superior strength after she repeatedly accuses him of not trusting her. Delilah has been bribed by the Philistines to gain the secret. In most stories, she goes further than revealing his secret to the Philistines. She cuts his hair, which he’s revealed as the source of his true power. This renders him weak and susceptible to capture by the Philistines. In the end, Samson regains his strength and destroys the temple of the Philistines causing many deaths as well as his own death. What happened to Delilah is not told.
Here’s a brief explanation of the painting:
Ruben’s allegorical painting from the biblical story of Samson and Delilah depicts the moment when Delilah’s servant cuts the hair of Samson while asleep in his lover’s lap. The painting also includes a mysterious old woman who perhaps symbolizes the future and Philistine soldiers waiting outside the room.
Here’s the organizing principle:
If we think of Ruben’s masterpiece as containing a hidden spiritual meaning that transcends the literal sense of a sacred text and apply the “I am” dream technique, we can draw forth contemporary meaning from this compelling mythologized moment. I look upon myself easily as the old woman in the painting as I suggest applying this dream technique to bring the past into the present. But I once was Delilah, once Samson, once the servant who obeyed my mistress and cut Samson’s hair, once the warriors at the door who felt threatened by Samson and bribed Delilah. I can feel my inner story swirling even as I talk about taking the path inward toward the unconscious. The dream interpretation technique, “I am” opens a door. Discovery of what lies beneath the surface sets off the interplay of opposites and releases what C.G. Jung called, the royal road to the unconscious – active imagination. Entering the classic Rubens painting as a personal dream is a great way to break away from a culture-bound myth and revision new meaning for our selves and our times.
I love the idea that we can look into great works of art that posit the myths of our times in one glimpse. What is compelled for me as I step into the painting’s roles may be different from anyone else’s envisions. The thoughts that are conjured bring up important information about where we are in our lives as we connect to classic narratives. For me, this information can help us jostle the status quo, recognize where we fall into traps of identity stereotype, and help conjure shifts in the nature of our collective consciousness.
Here is my exercise in stepping into this painting:
I am Delilah, my very name meaning “faithless one.” Where did I lose my faith? Many moons before meeting Samson, perhaps from the very moment I grew breasts and uncovered the true nature of man. My voluptuousness has contributed to my treachery, has eased me into a profession of capitalizing on the weakness of men. My life is based on survival, not love, and when Samson professed his to me, I regarded it with a skeptical eye. I know his reputation for enjoying prostitutes has always kept me from fully trusting his professing of love to me. You see I’ve had too much experience to fall so easily. Yet, here he’s lain upon my lap, with all the innocence of a young boy, and his softness is overwhelming, its promise so fleeting and untrustworthy. Yet I can savor this moment for what it is, knowing I had a plan, in the end, to save me from hurt. I had to hurt him before he could hurt me.
I am Samson and have had a heavy burden to bear in my life, a source of inimitable strength. I am expected to be the heroic man always, my power building my persona into one that sits high on a pedestal above all mere mortals. I have always felt a source of comfort with the women of the night, who expect nothing from me. They are like a pillow to fall upon and momentarily breathe. I fell in love with Delilah, though, and at this moment as I lay upon her lap, I have the unsettling feeling that I have betrayed my own heroism and I am resigned. She has cut off all my hair, the sole source of my strength, and in this one moment, I am trapped in the oblivion of her soft curves, even as I can hear the Philistines knocking at the door.
I am Delilah, and how could I ever have believed Samson loved me when he wouldn’t truly let me in, wouldn’t let me know the source of his power until I begged and pleaded and attempted many times to get his secret from him. I utilized my body’s wiles, I teased him endlessly, and I tied him up and even wrapped his hair around a loom to imprison him so that he might share with me. Why is it so hard for men to crack open? If only he had given himself to me fully in the beginning, maybe I would not have had to betray him?
I am a Philistine soldier, one with a goal to maintain order over my fellow human beings whose gross misuse of relationships and sexuality will certainly cause the downfall of us all. I have found it is the simplest thing in the world to grasp authority over these people when women are continually taught to be both honeycomb and poison while men consistently give in to that ridiculously ordained myth. I have no regards to where we went wrong in perpetuating this dance between the sexes because I continue to profit from this treasure trove of human error. I have Samson’s secret now, which is all that matters, and with that the knowledge that woman and man will continue this insane cycle.
I am Samson, and I will rise from the ashes and regrow my hair, and reclaim my power. I hope in the future I will be able to not lie this vulnerable ever again. Yet for now, I am frozen here, caught in the trap of my most primal and inbred conflicts.
I am an old woman in the corner who has seen this story many times before. It is a fruitless tale really, one lent over and over to the young, of whom the old cliché rings true that life is wasted upon. Yet, at my age, with the acquired wisdom born of experience, I can see clearly that the only road forward is to stop this ridiculous dance, break down these doors between the sexes, so that men and women learn to trust each other from the start as co-humans navigating an intensely complex journey together, one in which they need not wait till a ripe old age when the body is lost and the looks have faded to recognize their common spark of mutual humanity in each other. Retrospect must not be the only resolution to this perpetual mistake of division.
And here is my identification:
I am Samson, now flung across the lap of my lover, Delilah, in full thrall of her beauty and exhausted from making love. I have the power of ten men and oppose, with all my strength, the materialistic society in which I live. I have been warned against loving Delilah. But I am a man in love and want to risk trusting her. I know she is swayed by the promises of the Philistines to give her what she cannot get on her own. She may betray me. But I cannot live in fear. I want to live in love. My whole life is dedicated to preserving the brightness and inventiveness of the human mind. Damn the Philistines.
I am Delilah, a woman with little other than my beauty to sustain me in a society that promises me little. Samson, a man of great power has fallen in love with me but he keeps secrets like all the rest. Many would like to know his secret and they are willing to pay dearly. It’s a once in a lifetime chance for a woman kept down like me. Samson eludes me as I try to pry his secret from him. His dedication to his war against the regime comes first. But then I am successful. I test his trust for me and he yields. His secret lies in his glorious locks of hair. As he lies exhausted in my lap, I seize my opportunity and call my servant woman – who also stands to benefit – to cut his hair.
I am the Philistines. I wait at the door. It will only take patience for this woman to give us what we want. She knows no other world but one in which she has no power. She has already taken our offer to obtain the means to a good life. We are on the verge of ridding ourselves of this menace, Samson, who opposes our greedy goals and wishes to protect the intelligence and imagination of the populace.
I am an old woman who has seen it all before and know the Philistine victory is limited. Its agenda has many enemies. I see beyond Delilah’s dilemma to when her beauty will be but one asset for a woman. I see beyond Samson who depends far too heavily on his brute strength. Muscles will be the least of a good man’s arsenal in the future. He is a man ahead of his times but, even in these times, he will go back into battle and prevail. Hair grows back.
Lastly, I am the servant woman with the shears in my hand snipping the sacred locks of secret strength. Little do they know I slip them into my pocket. My day will come.
KN: Readers, we would love for you to share your own “I am” experience with this painting. If you write one, and send it to me at Kimberly@double-mirror.com, I will add your story to this piece.
From reader Regina O’Melveny:
What happened to Delilah is not told. I am Delilah after the battle, mourning Samson’s death. Can you believe me when I say I betrayed myself when I accepted the bribe that doomed him? That I craved his power for my own and then lost it, because I could not trust him or myself? That the 1,100 pieces of silver I was given was meant to secure my independence and yet. I loved his hair, the rich waves of fierce beauty that would always grow back, grow on even beyond his death. What if we had each given a lock of hair to each other, emblem of intimacy kept near the heart, reminder that we always carry the other with us, man within woman, woman within man? What if we were truly courageous enough to love one another, Philistine woman and Nazirite man, sensual woman and strong man together whose only war was the shared struggle of opening to the mysteries of relationship that often demand a sacrifice? The sacrifice of a lock of hair, the fateful illusion of one’s invulnerability. I am Delilah and my name comes from dallah, Hebrew for bundle of hair or warp threads in a loom. I am part of the weave of fate.