A Man Fighting a Lion: A Christian 'Theme' in Yiddish Epics
Karel Appel, 'Femmes, enfants, animaux,' 1951: oil on jute, 170 x 280 cm © Cobra Museum voor Moderne Kunst Amstelveen


Jewish-Christian Relations
Epic poetry
Biblia pauperum

How to Cite

Roman, O. (2018). A Man Fighting a Lion: A Christian ’Theme’ in Yiddish Epics. Interfaces: A Journal of Medieval European Literatures, (5), 90–110. https://doi.org/10.13130/interfaces-05-08


During the medieval and early modern periods, lions served as a common motif in Ashkenazic Jewish culture, bearing diverse symbolism. Also in literature written in Yiddish, the vernacular language of Ashkenazic Jews, lions were often mentioned. In this article, three songs about a man fighting a lion – Samson, David, and Benaiah – found within early modern Yiddish epics, are presented. An analysis of these songs' similar content and form suggests that they are short epic songs which have been initially orally transmitted, and later incorporated into the written long epics in Yiddish which have come down to us. In two of the songs the hero holds the lion's mouth with both hands, shortly before subduing him, an image common in Jewish art but lacking any basis in Jewish texts. This study identifies a Christian background to this image, namely that Samson's battle with the lion foreshadows the Harrowing of Hell and Jesus' releasing mankind’s souls from eternal damnation. The study points to the close cultural ties between Jews and Christians in the medieval and early modern eras, which were possible in the sphere of vernacular Yiddish literature. This closeness brought about influences which do not seem to exist in Hebrew literature.

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