Samson the strongman

February 13, 2001

Biblical strongman was plagued by mental illness

Samson, the celebrated Biblical strongman, suffered from the earliest recorded case of antisocial personality disorder.

Eric Altschuler from the University of California at San Diego and his colleagues say that Samson showed signs of no fewer than six of the seven behaviours associated with the disorder. Samson routinely got into fights, and once killed 1000 Philistines single-handedly and then gloated over it, showing no remorse. He also showed a reckless disregard for his own safety when he told Delilah, a woman who'd tried to kill him three times before, the secret of his strength.

People with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD) exhibit at least three of seven specific behaviours, such as being impulsive, reckless and habitually getting into fights, according to a standard manual called DSM-IV which doctors use to diagnose all recognised mental illnesses. "It's almost as if the writer of the story has the DSM criteria tacked to the wall, and he is writing a sketch," says Altschuler. "But this was 3000 years before the DSM."

The researchers note that Samson also burned Philistine fields, which showed both his impulsivity and his inability to conform to social norms. He was deceitful-not telling his parents, for instance, that he got honey from the carcass of a lion-and like many people with ASPD, Samson behaved badly as a child: setting things on fire, torturing animals, stealing, and bullying other children.

Altschuler says the diagnosis may even make other parts of the story, found in chapters 13 to 16 of Judges, more understandable. For instance, a whole chapter is devoted to Samson's mother being warned by angels not to drink while she's pregnant, suggesting that recklessness and a disregard for others may have run in the family, says Altschuler.
-end-
Author: Alison Motluk More at: Archives of General Psychiatry (vol 58, p 202)

New Scientist issue: 17th February 2001

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New Scientist

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