The other day a student inquired about the meaning and origin of the phrase "deadlier than the male." First off, I noted that the original expression is "more deadly than the male," and that the author of the quote is one of my favorites, Rudyard Kipling. And, librarian that I am, I proceeded to note that good old Rudyard lived from 1865 to 1936 and spent a good portion of his childhood and young adult years in India, parts of which are now Pakistan, including Lahore, where he did some of his earliest writing. The lad looked at me quizzically: "You mean they sent bombs in the mail back then? Until someone came up with one that was even worse than the mail?"
After I picked myself up off the floor, I recited the entire quote to the little fellow: "The female of the species is more deadly than the male." But then I was a bit flummoxed as to how to explain what Kipling had in mind. So I turned to the example of black widow and other spiders, praying mantises and scorpions and how fierce female animals can be in protecting their young -- ah, the savagery of Nature -- and, of course, steered him with a book for further information on the specifics. I have yet to hear from angry parents that I provided the dreaded TMI, so I assume all is copacetic.
courtesy of spiders.org
Then, of course, I got to thinking about Kipling's real meaning and the whole issue of female revenge and how literature and film are just rampant with women who serve it up hot or cold.
The queen of women scorned, Medea, boasted: "A woman's weak and timid in most matters; the noise of war, the look of steel make her a coward. But touch her right in marriage, and there's no bloodier spirit." And we all know how she exacted her revenge on Jason's desertion.
Then there is Judith, heroine and namesake of one of the apocryphal books of the Bible. The Assyrian general Holofernes laid siege to the city of Bethulia, and soon the residents began to see no hope but surrender. Judith, a rich and beautiful widow (and clever to boot), devised a plan. Entering the army camp outside the city, she pretended to provide the general with information about the weakest point of entry. He was quite taken by her charm; invited her to feast with him before the assault of the city; overindulged in cheap wine and subsequently passed out in his tent, alone with the widow. Judith prayed for strength, took up the general's own sword, and struck his head clean off. She stuck it in a sack, toted it back to Bethulia, revealed her grotesque trophy and instructed the men to mount an attack on the Assyrians. When the now-beseiged beseigers tried to rouse their leader, they were aghast to find him headless, and speedily decamped back to Assyria. The Israelites seized the plunder that the fleeing soldiers left behind and gave the spoiliest of the spoils to Judith, now their blessed Lady of Decapitation. Or as Cary Grant never actually said, "Judy, Judy, Judy!"
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