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The Old English Judith: Can a Woman be a Hero?

Kelly Guenther

The Old English Judith is unique among the other poems in the extant Old English poetic corpus in depicting a woman as the hero at the center of the poem. A hero, as portrayed in Old English poetry, is one who performs acts of valor in a life-threa tening situation, out of loyalty to a lord, gaining a glorious reputation a s a result. Thus, while Elene and Juliana also feature women as their central characters, they are not necessarily portrayed as heroic. Elene embarks on a quest to retrieve the True Cross, but there is no sense that she is performing an act of bravery. She endures no hardship, and there is no threat to her own safety or that of her people.  She is at the head of a troop of armed men, but she does not lead them into battle, unlike her son Constantine at the beginning of the poem. Juliana does verbally battle with the devil and withstands physical tortures in her determination to remain true to her faith, but this seems to be more a depiction of a saint imitating Christ in a hagiographical vein than a Germanic heroic ideal. Judith, conversely, kills the mortal enemy of her people, returns victorious to her city, and her people proc eed to win a battle against their foes. She operates in a quintessentially heroic setting. The Old English Judith, then, gives us a chance to witness the efforts of a poet to fit a female into a setting that was almost exclusively the province of men.

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