Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Judith and Holofernes

Judith by Franz Stuck (1928)

Then, the barons quickly brought her to his bed,
that wise maiden. The stouthearted warriors went
to tell their high lord that the holy lady
was brought to his pavilion. The famous prince
became blissful then; he thought of the bright maid,
to defile with impurity and disgrace.

The Almighty Lord God would not allow that,
and so, the Ruler of Heaven restrained him.
Then that fiercest warrior, wanton and fiendish,
left to go to lie where he would lose his life,
with a crowd of men, where he'd meet his cruel end,
an end as he had always striven after,
that dire prince of men, while he dwelled in this world
’neath roof of clouds. There that ruler fell so drunk
onto his mattress, that he might know nothing.

His warriors, sated with sweet wine, went from there,
out of that tall tent, quickly turning away,
the troop of men, who had led the troth-breaker,
that hostile persecutor, that earthly prince,
to his large bed for the last time. The lady,
the strong servant of the Savior, was mindful
of how she most easily might make attempt
to take old age from that most terrible one,
to deprive him, that dark lord, of a long life,
ere that wicked man awoke.

Then the wise maid, with silken hair,
sought a sharp sword from its sheath
to hew hard blows, and drew it with her right hand.
Then she called on the Creator of Heaven,
Savior of all Earth-dwellers, and said these words:
"I do pray to you, Lord Prince of Creation,
Holy Son of Heaven and Spirit of Hope,
for mercy, Mighty Majesty, in my need.

Truly, I am greatly troubled with sorrows,
my soul is now inflamed and my mind made sad.
Great Guardian of the Heavens, give to me
triumph and true faith, so I might take this sword
and deal death to this dispenser of murder.

Grant to me my welfare, Great Father of Men.
I never have had more need of your mercy.
Avenge me, Almighty Lord, give me anger
in my heart, heat in my mind." Then the High Judge
filled her completely with courage, as he does
for all who look for his loving help with faith.

Her heart was unbound, trust in Holy God reborn.
Then she grabbed that heathen man hard by his hair,
dragged him toward her with her hands, drew him nearer,
took him shamefully, and placed that sinful man
so she easily had control over him.

Then, she struck her enemy with shining sword,
swung that sharp blade straight down upon his stiff neck,
his trusted weapon falling toward his bare throat,
so that she notched halfway through his naked neck;
he lie there in a swoon, still breathing softly,
drunk and sorely wounded. He was not yet dead,
completely lifeless. Then courageous lady
earnestly struck that heathen hound one more time
so that his head rolled forth to the floor below.

The body stayed behind, as his baleful soul
wandered under the wide abyss, wrapped with pain.
The spirit now roamed elsewhere and it survived
and there below was bound tight with base torments,
surrounded by serpents, sought out for tortures,
damned and detained in hell-fire after death.

He need not hope, enveloped in that hot night,
that he might go forth from the burning furnace,
from that serpents’ hall, but he should stay trapped there,
always remain, forever and evermore,
in that dreary homestead, with deepest despair.

Then Judith, wise maid, did win worldwide renown
in battle, as granted by Bountiful God,
the Sovereign of Heaven, who gave her success.
That holy widow put the dead warrior’s head,
so bloody, into the bag in which her maid,
a lady with light skin, well-mannered servant,
had brought thither some baked bread for them both,
tightly wrapped up the trophy inside the pouch;
then, Judith gave it, so gory, to the girl,
back again to the same young, thoughtful servant
to bear it home.

Then both ladies hurried forth,
went directly from that place, bold and daring,
until the triumphant, brave maids traveled
away from the army’s camp, so they clearly
could see Bethulia’s brightly shining walls.
Then, radiant, adorned with rings, they hurried
and continued forth on the familiar course
away from the sleeping Assyrian force
until the rampart gate they joyfully gained.*

Judith with the Head of Holofernes by Cristofano Allori (1613)

*From Mary Savelli's translation of Judith, the Old English poem (with apologies for reformatting).

You can read another translation of Judith here. To read various versions of The Book of Judith, go here.  Another dozen or so depictions of Judith and Holofernes can be found here. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017


As all good con artists know, a compelling lie is a powerful and resilient beast. My great-great grandfather’s obituary noted his “splendid soldier record” in service to the Confederacy, even though he died almost 60 years after the war, in 1924. Forty years after that, when I was a little girl, play Confederate money was still a prize in gumball machines, and I had a grade school teacher who talked of kind slave owners and the cruelty of emancipation. I like to think of myself as a fairly smart and empathetic person, but without some excellent high school and college history teachers, I might still be attached to some vaguely romantic notion of the Lost Cause. I know plenty of people who are. Humans are hungry for myth—we need myth—and once we latch onto a gratifying story, we don't readily let go of it, no matter how empty or false or toxic it may be. It seems like a terrible weakness of the species. And would we survive without our gift for stories that nourish and sustain, stories that reconcile us to life and each other?

by Muriel Rukeyser

Long afterward, Oedipus, old and blinded, walked the Roads.
He smelled a familiar smell.
It was the Sphinx
Oedipus said, "I want to ask one question.
Why didn't I recognize my mother?"
"You gave the wrong answer," said the Sphinx.
"But that was what made everything possible," said Oedipus.
"No," she said. When I asked, what walks on four legs in the morning,
Two at noon and three in the evening, you answered,
You didn't say anything about woman."
"When you say Man," said Oedipus,
"You include women too.
Everyone knows that."
She said, "That's what you think."

*See the poem in its proper form here.

1. Portrait of Pvt. Edwin Francis Jemison, 2nd Louisiana Infantry Regiment. He served in the Peninsula campaign under General J.B. Magruder and was killed in the battle of Malvern Hill, July, 1862. From Wikimedia Commons.

2.  A former slave of U.S. President Andrew Jackson (probably Betty Jackson) and two of her great-grandchildren, 1867. From Wikimedia Commons.