It is a tale as old as time: a wily woman uses her feminine charms to bring down a powerful, valiant man. Despite its religious context, the story of Samson and Delilah is commonplace within popular culture, featuring in art, film, literature and music. In the Bible, and throughout history, powerful women are often feared and seen as a threat to virtue.

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah c.1696

Luca Giordano (1634–1705)

English Heritage, The Wellington Collection, Apsley House

Samson and Delilah is the ultimate cautionary tale – a moral story told to warn against danger, and in this case, dangerous women. But can we deconstruct this harmful narrative to see Delilah in a less misogynistic way? 

The story originates in the Book of Judges, in the Bible's Old Testament. Samson, an Israelite hero, is revered for his superhuman strength. Samson falls in love with Delilah, a woman from the Valley of Sorek, who is a Philistine – an enemy of his people. She is the only named woman in Samson's story – even his wife, who is eventually 'given to one of his companions' is unnamed. It is worth noting that it is never said that Delilah loved Samson, nor that the pair had a sexual relationship.

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah c.1784

John Francis Rigaud (1742–1810)

Royal Academy of Arts

Philistine rulers bribed Delilah with 1,100 pieces of silver to collaborate on Samson's capture, asking her to uncover the secret of his strength. She fails three times: unsuccessfully tying Samson up with bowstrings, ropes (depicted in the John Francis Rigaud image above) and then tying the locks of his hair to a loom. He easily breaks free from each restraint. Eventually, Samson reveals that his hair is the source of his power. Delilah puts him to sleep and calls for someone to shave his head, causing him to weaken. He is then seized by the Philistines.

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah 1642

Pieter Claesz. Soutman (c.1580–1657)

York Museums Trust

On one hand, this story could be read as a warning against giving in to temptation. However, it can be argued that Samson's fate is prefigured before Delilah's 'betrayal'. Firstly, he is forbidden to go down into the Sorek valley, where Delilah is from; Sorek means 'vine' or 'red grape', and the Nazarites vowed to abstain from grapes and wine. Secondly, the Hebrew meaning of Delilah is languishing – to become weak or feeble. This would suggest that Samson's disobedience against God's counsel, and not Delilah's duplicity, is the source of his ruin.

Scholars have suggested that the text acts as a warning against foreigners and cross-cultural love (think Romeo and Juliet), with the fear of assimilation a strong theme in Judges. According to the accounts, Samson lived at a time of active conflict between Israel and Philistia, and his desire for revenge is clear: 'This time I have a right to get even with the Philistines; I will really harm them.' (Judges 15:3).

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah 17th C

Italian School

Wolverhampton Arts and Heritage

In this way, regardless of gender, we can think of Delilah as heroic: she acted for the interests of her people. In the Bible narrative, her tenacity enables her to tease out Samson's secret – not her sexuality. If she was a man, or if the story was told from the viewpoint of the Philistines, would she be revered for her bravery, rather than cast as a wicked temptress?

It is perhaps unsurprising that artists have largely focused on Delilah's sexuality and her role as a seductress. In the seventeenth century, the story of Samson and Delilah was often used as a cautionary tale against succumbing to carnal desires. Rubens' (1577–1640) scene is undoubtedly one of the most recognisable depictions (although recently there have been doubts about the authenticity of this work).

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah about 1609-10

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640)

The National Gallery, London

Samson is sprawled out in slumber on Delilah's lap, in what appears to be a brothel. Rubens imbues their flesh with elasticity and tension to accentuate Samson's strength by way of his muscular back, and Delilah's depravity through her voluptuous, exposed breasts. An old lady (who does not appear in the Bible but often features in artistic depictions) mirrors Delilah's profile and gaze – a forewarning that her beauty will one day be lost. Note the available options for women here: ill-fated beauty or old crone.

Rubens' use of dramatic lighting, achieved by the candle held by the old woman, illuminates the scene and serves to remind the viewer that this is a clandestine operation. 

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) worked as Rubens' studio assistant, and his master's influence is clear to see in this portrait. Both depict Delilah as partly undressed, swathed in richly coloured fabrics, suggesting that she is a prostitute.

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah c.1618–1620

Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641)

Dulwich Picture Gallery

However, here the action takes place in the open air, and Van Dyck creates a sense of dramatic tension through the figures' varied actions and expressions. Whereas Rubens' Delilah is serene and almost detached, here Delilah appears ruthless and in control, as she gestures for silence as the other women look on in consternation.

An interpretation by Andrea Mantegna (c.1431–1506) is even more damning. Deviating from the scriptures, Delilah acts alone to cut Samson's hair, and her treachery is emphasised by the Latin inscription carved into the tree: 'woman is three times worse than the devil himself.'

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah about 1500

Andrea Mantegna (c.1431–1506)

The National Gallery, London

It is likely that Mantegna was inspired by Der Ritter von Turm, a fourteenth-century German moral text for young women, which associates Delilah with Judas, the disciple who betrayed Christ. The artist stresses the timelessness of the story's message by painting the pair to look like stone reliefs.

Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1654) often painted 'dangerous' women from the Bible (Judith, Jael, Susanna) and imbued them with great strength. In her portrayal, Delilah is front and centre, and our attention is drawn to the tangible connection with her collaborator, as the pair lock eyes and join hands in solidarity. She rests her elbow lightly on the sleeping Samson, almost as an afterthought.

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah

c.1630–1638, oil on canvas by Artemisia Gentileschi (1593–1653)

This more intimate depiction raises questions about why, rather than how: why might Delilah be doing this? What is her motivation?

More recent history has not been kind to Delilah. In H. G. Wells' 1897 novel The Invisible Man, her name becomes synonymous with treachery and betrayal. The tagline for Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah (the highest-grossing film of 1950) was: 'HISTORY'S MOST BEAUTIFUL AND TREACHEROUS WOMAN!'

Original theatrical release poster for the Cecil B. DeMille film 'Samson and Delilah' (1949)

Original theatrical release poster for the Cecil B. DeMille film 'Samson and Delilah' (1949)

In Tom Jones' 1968 song 'Delilah', a man discovers his girlfriend has been unfaithful and stabs her to death. Despite its overt violence, it became the (unofficial) Welsh Rugby anthem and was only banned in 2023.

In a more sympathetic portrayal, Regina Spektor's 2002 song 'Samson' focuses on the romantic love between the pair, from the female viewpoint: 'You are my sweetest downfall. I loved you first.' Spektor's Samson willingly gives up his power to be with his love: 'I cut his hair myself one night (…) And he told me that I'd done alright.'

The song poignantly notes that vulnerability is not memorialised in the way that heroism is: 'And the history books forgot about us, and the Bible didn't mention us, not even once.'

The Embracers (Samson and Delilah)

The Embracers (Samson and Delilah) 1913–1914

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891–1915) (posthumous cast)

National Galleries of Scotland

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska's (1891–1915) tender bronze cast, which is tellingly titled The Embracers (1913–1914), similarly focuses on the love – and not lust – between Samson and Delilah. The diagonal perspective together with the pair's heavily compressed spatial relationship make the sculpture appear more like a two-dimensional relief, a possible ode to the story's established pictorial tradition. The top-heavy figures balance on a small angular base, reminding us that no great love comes without risk.

Delilah's story reminds us of the difficult actions that women take in order to survive in oppressive, patriarchal societies. During the American Civil War, formerly enslaved Harriet Tubman risked her life to lead an armed assault, subsequently rescuing over 700 slaves. In the early twentieth century, the Suffragettes used militancy and violence to further their campaign in securing the vote for women.

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In many cases, women act on behalf of causes far bigger than themselves, and often, for society's most vulnerable. Writer and activist Audre Lorde famously said: 'Women are powerful and dangerous.' In a world where women have to fight to survive, perhaps we cannot have one without the other.

Melissa Baksh, art historian, freelance writer, and Gallery and Exhibitions Officer at Morley College London

This content was funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation