Holofernes was unstoppable. Dispatched by the Assyrian god-king Nebuchadnezzar, the general decimated country after country on his march west from Babylon. In the custom of ancient Mesopotamia, Holofernes’s victories were total. Temples and holy places were destroyed, and statues of gods were carried back to Assyria so there was no one left to worship but the almighty Nebuchadnezzar.
The city of Bethulia was supposed to be just another stop on Holofernes’s tour, but Bethulia was where Judith lived. Judith was a rich widow, piously devoted to the Hebrew god and chaste following the death of her husband. But under her mourning sackcloth, Judith was beautiful, and terribly smart.
Holofernes was camped outside Bethulia, preparing for its siege, when a patrol returned to camp with a beautiful local woman in tow. The woman carried a skin of wine and one of oil, and when presented before the general said “I am a daughter of the Hebrews, but I am fleeing from them, for they are about to be handed over to you to be devoured.” Judith stayed in the Assyrian camp for three days, giving advice to Holofernes on strategies to ensure his victory against the Hebrews. On the third night, Holofernes, determined to seduce the widow, invited her to a grand banquet. By the time the pair retired to his tent, Holofernes was blackout drunk.
That night, when Judith and her handmaiden left the camp for their evening prayers, they carried out the head of the Assyrian general in their food basket.
The story of Judith and Holofernes has been retold through art history over, and over and over again. Today, it’s a viscerally satisfying tale of a woman literally beheading toxic masculinity. But the story’s flavor has evolved significantly through the centuries. In her excellent editorial, Angelica Frey describes Judith’s appeal as a seesaw between femme forte, the strong, virtuous woman, and the femme fatale—the deadly sex symbol.
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Reed Enger, "Judith and Holophernes, Therapeutic beheading," in Obelisk Art History, Published January 27, 2016; last modified October 11, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/subjects/people/judith-and-holophernes/.