The New Femme Fatale: Agency and Victimhood in Judith

In a dichotomy that continues to plague media representations of female sexuality to this day, biblical women have a strong history of falling into one of two unflattering characterizations: victim or villain. Particularly where sexuality is involved, these women often even manage to fulfill both roles, falling victim to the consequences of their own sexual evils. Both the wielders and the victims of their uncurbed sexuality, these women lure men to their demise, often while also meeting their own. Eve, the archetypal fallen woman, on whose shoulders rests the blame for mankind’s earthly suffering, has successors throughout the Old Testament in numerous biblical seductresses, including Bathsheba, Delilah, and of course, the still colloquially infamous Jezebel.

In many ways, the apocryphal Judith surfaces not only as a departure, but perhaps even as a subversion of this problematic trope. Unlike her seductive counterparts, Judith is neither victim nor villain, but, in fact, hero. Throughout her narrative, Judith maintains complete control over her own sexuality, manipulating it in a calculated—and God-sanctioned—attempt to exploit her enemy. Even with this manipulative edge, however, Judith is not presented as a cautionary tale of the dangers of female sexuality. Thus, Judith resists both the victimhood that plagues Bathsheba’s sexuality, as well as the villainous connotation that haunts Delilah. However, although Judith in many ways subverts the problematic victim-villain dichotomy that plagues many of her biblical counterparts, her narrative ultimately remains hindered by a religious context that refuses to allow Judith full agency. Using the Old English poetic reimagining of Judith as basis for the story, my argument traces the ways in which the narrative attempts to portray Judith as an active hero, but ultimately subverts its own goal, inadvertently stripping Judith of her agency via an over-reliance on traditional religious values, particularly sexual purity.

I. The Heroine

At first glance, the story of Judith manifests as a provocative tale praising female sexuality as a source of power. Using her feminine charm, Judith takes advantage of the villainous Holofernes’ lust and indulgent appetites, murdering him in his bed after he passes out in a drunken stupor. In this way, Judith turns a position of subservience—a woman led to his bed for sexual purposes at his demand—into one of power. Beheading Holofernes in his own bed, Judith appears to subvert a narrative that sees women as victims of sexual objectification, instead establishing one in which women use their sexuality for power.

Caryn Tamber-Rosenau also sees Judith, in her original apocryphal incarnation, as something of a rare biblical feminist icon. Taking note, as I have, of Judith’s ability to maintain both innocence and heroism within a narrative that illustrates her as both sexual and ultimately homicidal, Tamber-Rosenau contrasts Judith with two other notable “biblical bathing beauties,” Bathsheba and Susanna. Both Bathsheba and Susanna succumb to the male gaze, becoming the victims of their own sexuality as well as the villainous culprits whose seductive art, however unwitting, is responsible for a male hero’s demise. By contrast, Judith, argues Tamber-Rosenau, “grabs control of the male gaze and doesn’t let go, using this gaze to further her own ends” (71). In this way, Judith becomes an active subject in a way that neither of her counterparts are able to. Judith is not the unwitting victim of her own attractiveness that both Bathsheba and Susanna become in the hands—or eyes—of the voyeurs who desire them. As Tamber-Rosenau notes, Judith is spared the punishment her counterparts receive for their sexuality. “Here,” she argues, “the gazed-upon does not suffer. Instead, the reader skips right to the retribution visited upon the gazer” (70). Judith’s sexuality is not a source of vulnerability. Rather, it is a form of strength, ultimately a weapon over which she maintains, and actively wields, complete control.

What sets Judith apart from her objectified counterparts, ultimately, is that she is not condemned for her actions. The Bible’s other most notoriously sexual women are often victims, along with the men they seduce, of their own sexuality, and face their demise even when they do not knowingly or actively wield this sexual prowess. Meanwhile, those that do, the deliberate temptresses and seductresses like Delilah and Jezebel, are offered as warnings of the dangers of female sexuality. Interestingly, Judith manages to escape both these roles. She is neither the passive victim whose sexuality is preyed upon, nor does her active and deliberate seduction of Holofernes condemn her to an eternity as a villain. Instead, Judith manages to become a hero, despite her overt sexuality and her deliberate use of it for destructive purposes. Throughout the poem, she maintains a number of honorable titles and epithets, “the holy woman” (l. 97), “the noble one” (l. 256), “the courageous woman” (l. 107), and is rewarded by God with “honor and glory in the kingdom of this earth, and also as her reward in heaven” (l. 342-43). In this way, Judith resists being either victimized or vilified by her sexuality, paving the way for a new tradition of literary heroines using their charm to their advantage that would reemerge centuries later in the form of Vanity Fair’s Becky Sharp or Gone With the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara. Like Judith, these women become formidable rather than dangerous. They are powerful and cunning, but remain sympathetic characters, rather than villains presented as a warning.

II. The Faithful Servant

While Judith’s tale initially reads as an unexpected early feminist triumph lurking in the Apocrypha, the story, particularly its reincarnation in Old English poetry, ultimately still reinforces a less-than-groundbreaking view of female power and sexuality. In fact, the poem’s very attempts to “save” Judith, to spare her any blame or villainization for her actions, ultimately strip her of the authority and agency that made her such an impressive feminist hero in the first place. Through the poem’s insistence on maintaining Judith’s innocence and purity, the heroine becomes less a free agent of her own sexuality, and instead a vehicle of God. The story devolves from a provocative tale of a woman warrior to one of a faithful servant of the Lord.

The poem’s inadvertent subversion of its heroine may owe, in part, to the cultural climate into which the story’s Old English reincarnation was born, one increasingly dominated by Christianity and its rigid sexual mores. The poem is essentially a Christian translation of the Jewish text, featuring anachronistic references to Christ throughout. Judith, in her Christian reincarnation, is referred to as “the Saviour’s handmaiden” and appeals to the “glorious Trinity” (l. 74, 86). This Christian influence also manifests in the poem’s ultimately pejorative treatment of sexuality.

While at first glance, the story of Judith appears to be a rare instance in which a biblical woman is free to use her sexuality as a source of power, it is important to note that, at least in the Old English poem, Judith’s narrative does not actually praise sexuality, either male or female. The poem consistently reinforces Judith’s sexual purity. Though not a virgin, Judith is a chaste widow, a status which grants her such repeated epithets as “the blessed maiden,” “the Lord’s Maiden,” and “the daring maiden” (l. 35, 166, 334.) In fact, Judith’s sexual purity seems to be her main source of praise throughout the poem.

Meanwhile, the poem’s villain, the evil Holofernes, is characterized as such primarily by his sexual appetites. Holofernes is condemned throughout the text as “the licentious one,” whose desire for Judith appears to be the direct result of his corrupt state (l. 256). While the poem traces Judith’s heroism primarily through her sexual chastity, it likewise establishes Holoferenes’ evil through his sexual deviance. Meanwhile, another important feature of the story is that the sexuality Judith wields remains unconsummated. With the help of God, “the holy maiden” escapes her fate of sexual “defilement” at the hands of Holofernes: “He intended to violate the bright woman with defilement and with sin” (l. 59). The repeated praise of Judith’s maidenhood throughout the poem indicates that she would not have been as heartily rewarded by God had her sexual purity been compromised. Ultimately, although Judith’s sexuality grants her a position of power, her heroic status comes with the implicit demand that her sexuality remain unconsummated. Thus, the story ultimately continues the tradition of separating sexuality and heroism. While Judith can toy with the idea of sex and sexuality and tease to her advantage, she must ultimately remain chaste in order to maintain hero status.

Meanwhile, the poem’s almost didactic condemnation of sexuality alongside its obvious promotion of chastity ultimately only serves to strip Judith of her agency and authority. In her analysis, Tamber-Rosenau goes on to argue that Judith not only escapes the fate of her victimized and vilified biblical counterparts, but ultimately manages to “subvert and even reverse it,” by rendering Holofernes, in his highly aroused state, both an object and victim of his own sexuality (Tamber-Rosenau 71). I argue, however, that this intense focus on Holofernes’ sexuality ultimately strips, or at least weakens, Judith’s role in his demise. By painting Holofernes as a victim of his sexual desires, Judith becomes not so much a victor over evil as Holofernes is simply a victim of his own lust. Symbolically, as well, Holofernes seems to be more the victim and perpetrator of his own demise than Judith is an active victor over his evil. As Tamber-Rosenau notes, Holofernes is killed by his own sword (65). Understanding the sword as a phallic symbol, this image reinforces the notion that Holofernes’ death is ultimately the result of his licentious appetites. In emphasizing Judith’s purity alongside Holofernes’ sexual depravity, the narrative weakens Judith’s role in the execution while painting Holofernes as the primary executor of his own demise, ultimately reducing the initially provocative tale of a female warrior into something of a parable of prudence and chastity.

Similarly, Judith’s agency in the story is again reduced by her reliance on God. Throughout the poem, Judith’s actions are relentlessly God-sanctioned. Before beheading Holofernes, Judith first appeals to God in prayer. In answer, God “inspired her immediately with great zeal,” without which, it is implied, Judith would not have had the strength to complete the execution. Once again, Judith’s own actions pale and she becomes an agent not of her own will, but of God’s.

The story of Judith, particularly the version told in the Old English poem, goes to great lengths to protect its heroine, firmly establishing her as a chaste and devoted servant of God. As Tamber-Rosenau admits, Judith’s sexuality is ultimately tempered by its pious aims. Likewise, “She prays so fervently before beginning her mission in part because her actions will be transgressive; she must cloak them in piety and divine approval” (70-71). Ultimately, these attempts within the text to “save” Judith’s character through assertions of her chastity and faithfulness only serve to strip her of her agency, sexual and otherwise, and diminish her budding role as an early feminist icon. While Judith remains in some ways a departure from the traditional villain-victim dichotomy framing female sexuality in biblical texts, her story is ultimately a testament to the constraints on female sexuality within a cultural climate dominated by rigid sexual mores that still reverberate throughout literature and media today.

Works Cited

“Judith.” Old and Middle English: An Anthology, edited by Elaine Treharne, Blackwell, 2000, pp. 197-211.

Tamber-Rosenau, Caryn. “Biblical Bathing Beauties and the Manipulation of the Male Gaze: What Judith Can Tell Us about Bathsheba and Susanna.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, vol. 33, no. 2, 2017, pp. 55-72. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.

A Providential View of Judith

Throughout the Old English poem Judith, the poet goes to great lengths to paint a clear and decided picture of providential history. A providential view of history leaves no doubt that God is involved and that He clearly favors one side over the other. In Judith, it is exceedingly evident that God has taken an interest in the conflict at hand, and that He is personally invested in Judith’s cause: granting her the wisdom to craft a successful plan by lending her the strength to carry it out, and by bestowing His blessing on her people during battle.

The poem, as it exists today, opens praising God as the “renowned Ruler,” who has “bestowed an astounding gift” upon Judith who was in dire need of His divine intervention (4,6). The wicked Holofernes orders that Judith be brought to his tent in the middle of the night. Knowing that Holofernes planned to “ravish” her, “the brilliant lady” anticipated his seduction and planned to capitalize on his weakened state by decapitating him. The poet explains that Judith’s actions are not simply sanctioned by the Lord, but he suggests that she is doing the Lord’s bidding, acting as “the Savior’s handmaiden” and as “Heaven’s Defender” (75, 81). By bestowing these seraphic titles upon Judith, the poet surrounds the “bright maiden” with language that depicts her as innocent and justified in her actions (44). Beheading Holofernes is not merely a necessary act during a time of war, but, rather, the divine will of the almighty God being carried out by a willing and able vessel: Judith. Prior to the actual beheading, Judith is filled “with strength and zeal” that she receives directly from God (96). This borrowed vigor allows Judith to “wield control of the wicked” Holofernes, and ultimately to end his life (102). This portion of the poem is thematically important, not only because it offers an example of God’s active engagement in the struggle, but also because it disports language that vividly describes Holofernes and the dichotomy between the characters. As Holofernes is being decapitated, he is described as having a “hateful neck” and as resembling a “heathen hound” (105,110). Holofernes’ wretched appearance serves to distance him from the noble Judith, who is committing what would normally be labeled a brutal act; in fact, the poet goes so far as to dehumanize him, which causes the reader both to relate to Judith and distance themselves from Holofernes.

Even as this adversary’s head is rolling on the floor, the poet takes no time to lament, proclaiming that Holofernes will be “torment tied” and “torture bound” in hell for all of eternity (114). God granted Judith “glory at war,” while He condemned the soul of Holofernes to writhe in hell. These results differ drastically and leave no room for interpretation; the outcome was decidedly providential and greatly in favor of Judith. God’s favor was not limited solely to the endeavors of Judith, but it extended to include those of the Hebrews. Inspired by the actions of Judith, the Hebrew army prepared for war. The army planned to attack as the sun is rising, believing that God is sending “His shining light” from east to west (190). This language insinuates that the sun will act as a beacon to the Hebrew army, urging them forward and leading them to their foes. As the battle unfolds, a clear picture is painted: one side is shown as fearsomely ready to do battle, the Hebrews, while the other, the Assyrian army, is patently unfit and unprepared for the “deadly swordplay” at hand (245). The opposing army is comprised of troops who are “death-fated” (246). This diction is powerful as it illustrates that the outcome of the battle is predetermined and inevitable. The opposing army has no chance at victory; their destiny is death, and it is a non-negotiable aspect of the tale.

By leaving no doubt regarding the victors of the battle, the poem can focus on the actors rather than the action. The actual battle serves dually to construct a legend of fame and glory for Judith’s people and to create one of shame and dishonor for Holofernes and his army. The opposing army shows “no virtue,” and succumbs to their fear, thus surrendering all “honor / glory and valor” as the troops retreat from battle (270-272). The retreat of the Assyrians highlights both their cowardice and stupidity. This decision of Holofernes’s army to flee allows the Hebrew forces to triumph easily as they slay their enemies from behind. This outcome is a direct result of providential will. God is described as the Hebrews’ “almighty Friend” (299). It is exceedingly apparent that the Lord “gave his full support” to Judith and her people, ensuring that they would attain victory over their enemies who were not only evil, but also damned (299). Almost every event in the poem occurs not simply because God allowed it to happen, but, rather, because He intended it to happen: Judith’s ability to behead Holofernes with relative ease and the decidedly one-sided battle between the Hebrews and the Assyrians. This version of the Lord as a “supreme Justice” depicts the Almighty as an active and zealous judge presiding over a case, reaching a verdict, and personally delivering His sentence (95).

Providentially determined history can occur only with a proactive God who clearly favors one group over its rivals. The Hebrews and Assyrians, for example, perfectly encapsulate this concept of a providential account of history. God’s continued show of favor toward the Hebrews, coupled with His apparent disapproval of Holofernes and his troops, leaves no doubt that Judith and her people serve as the quill of God, penning history in bloody ink according to His divine will.