Helen Watanabe-O’Kelly


On her book Beauty or Beast? The Woman Warrior in the German Imagination from the Renaissance to the Present

Cover Interview of December 21, 2010

A close-up

There is one woman warrior of ancient provenance who kills the general of the foreign army who is threatening her people, helps to raise a siege and bring about a signal victory against vastly superior odds, and who exceptionally does not die.  This woman is the Old Testament figure of Judith.

Judith bravely leaves the besieged city of Bethulia when the men are too cowardly to do so.  She uses her beauty to ensnare the enemy general Holofernes, and then decapitates him, bringing his head back as a trophy. She lives on to a ripe old age, a chaste widow.

This story already exercised great fascination in the Middle Ages, but takes on new life with the Reformation.  From that point up to today Judith is constantly present to the German imagination, presenting the problem of what to do with a female member of society who has killed a man.  From the 16th to the 18th century, Judith was thought of as God’s instrument.  The idea was that, in a crisis, God can and will use even such a weak instrument as a woman to carry out his plan and save his chosen people.

But how did Holofernes fall into such a deep sleep that he never noticed Judith taking his sword off the bedpost?  What happened between them in the tent?

The Bible and the early modern dramatists gloss over this point.  The 19th century, however, was convinced that the pair had had sex before she killed him.  A favourite fantasy of the 19th century was that the widow Judith had remained a virgin: she beheads and castrates Holofernes because he has raped her.  According to the playwright Friedrich Hebbel the heroine of his play Judith (1840) desired the rape and is probably pregnant as a result.