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Mythical Symbols in Marko Marulić’s “Judita”

In his magnum opus Judita, Marulić opted for an epic retelling of the story of Judith, an Old Testament widow who exhibits exceptional bravery by saving her people from a superior adversary. Judith is part of the Deuterocanonical Books of the Old Testament and was composed in the 3rd or 2nd century BC to inspire the Jewish people in their resistance against Hellenistic influence. The name “Judith” in Hebrew means “Jewess” (Campbell). Therefore, the character of Judith embodies the struggles and fortitude of the Jewish people, who had to confront numerous foes to preserve their freedom. By portraying Judith as a weak and vulnerable member of society who overcomes a mighty enemy through her immense courage and feminine wiles, Marulić addresses the need for a saviour figure in times of peril. The story of Judith has been explored from multiple angles, yet one area that has received relatively scant attention is its mythical aspects. The present article aims to explore the mythical dimensions of Judita.

Marko Marulić (1450-1524) is a figure whose life remains shrouded in relative obscurity. However, his written works provide some insight into the enigmatic author. Marulić’s literary contributions have garnered numerous accolades, including being hailed as the “father of Croatian literature” by the Croatian historian, politician and writer Sakcinski in 1869 and the first classic of Croatian literature by the professor of Croatian literature Pšihistal on the occasion of the unveiling Marulić’s bust in Osijek in 2007.

Figure 1: Portrait of Marko Marulić (1450-1524), Croatian poet and humanist (1903)

Marulić’s literary output can be divided into three distinct categories or corpora. The first and most extensive corpus comprises works written in Latin, the language of communication amongst humanist scholars of the time and the medium in which most of their literary productions were composed. It was these works that brought Marulić international renown during his lifetime. The second corpus, smaller in size but no less significant, encompasses works composed in the Croatian language, with the biblical-Virgilian epic Judita being, perhaps, the most famous among them. Lastly, the third corpus consists of a few works written in Italian, including three letters, two sonnets, and Marulić’s will, predominantly penned in Italian (Pšihistal, 2008a). Before delving into the central theme of Marulić’s work, it is pertinent to provide context regarding the temporal and environmental factors that shaped his creative output.

Marulić lived during the period of humanism, a movement that spanned approximately two and a half centuries from the mid-14th to the late-16th century, which initially emerged in Italy and gradually permeated throughout Europe. The central tenet of humanism was the elevation of human experience and the earthly realm, as opposed to the medieval focus on the divine and the spiritual. This emphasis on the human experience manifested in various fields, including literature, science, architecture, technology, philosophy, and other areas of human endeavour.

The humanist movement aimed to rekindle interest in ancient models and traditions, with a renewed focus on ancient literature as a critical humanistic feature. Marulić’s work is a testament to this renewed interest in classical literature, as evidenced by his extensive corpus of Latin writings, written in the language of the learned humanists of his time. His literary contributions demonstrate the profound influence of humanism on his creative output, as well as his status as a pivotal figure in the Croatian literary tradition (Tomasović & Novaković, 1994).

Figure 2: Adoration of the Magi (Masaccio, 1425-28)

The genre of epic poetry was highly esteemed and widely read, especially because it addressed topics of crucial importance to a nation’s existence. In Croatian literature, the epic genre emerged only during the humanist period, in the second half of the 15th century, and it continued to thrive throughout the 16th century. Croatian epic poetry developed under the influence of ancient Greek and Roman literature, Latinism, and humanist trends, mainly transmitted through Italy. According to Fališevac, a Croatian literary historian, the following subtypes of epic poetry took shape in Croatian literature during the humanist and Renaissance periods: mythological epic, biblical-religious epic, allegorical epic, and historical epic. The biblical-religious epic, which conforms to the poetic conventions of the Virgilian epic but is infused with a Christian religious spirit, is identified as the dominant subtype. This is precisely the genre of Judita, the first classical epic in the Croatian language, which, given the social and political context of the time, attained the status of a national epic (Fališevac, 1997).

Myths are narratives used to account for obscure events from humanity’s remote and inscrutable past. Generally, myths contrast with historical facts, transcending the limits of possibility and explaining historical gaps. When we allude to myths and mythology, our initial thought is typical of the Greek Olympus, often equated with paganism, considered the antithesis of the Christian religion (Smith et al., 1999). Allusions and motifs from classical mythology serve as an essential component of Marulić’s expression and perspective. The return to archaic models does not preclude the production of religious-educational literature that draws inspiration from the Bible. Marulić demonstrates his talent for embellishing his religious-educational works with humanistic elements, effectively rendering them more accessible to a broad audience.

It is natural to question what relevance this has for Marulić, celebrated as a Christian moralist, and for his literary production, which constitutes a biblical adaptation. However, by examining the story of Judith, focusing on the antiquity and mythology aspects, Marulić gracefully and effectively incorporates ancient traditions and mythology into his work, and in so doing, successfully amalgamates the humanist creator with Christian moraliser within his character (Tomasović, 1999).

Figure 3: The Assembly of Gods around Jupiter’s Throne (Romano, 1532-34)

Marulić initially introduces his epic poem Judita with a humble description as a “small poem,” but he later abandons this modesty and compares himself to the great Italian poet Dante. In his own words, the author regards his poem as a masterful piece of poetry that deserves recognition, asserting that those who experience it will recognise it as the Slavic equivalent of Dante’s works. As the Croatian literary historian Tomasović explains, while it is true that Judita cannot be compared to the Divine Comedy, Marulić correctly asserts that it represented an essential work in Croatian literature, akin to Dante’s epic in Italian. Tomasović continues by adding that Marulić’s desire to reach readers in their vernacular language aligns with his ambition to immortalise the Croatian language, much like Dante did with Italian (Tomasović, 2001).

As mentioned by the professor of Croatian literature Plejić, Marko Marulić’s Judita is a biblical-Virgilian epic poem that draws inspiration from the Old Testament story of the widow Judith, who saves her hometown of Bethulia by killing the enemy general Holofernes. Marulić translated approximately three hundred biblical lines into 2126 verses, thus creating the first epic poem in the Croatian language. Croatian This work was written during the Lent season in the spring of 1501 but had to wait for twenty years for its first edition. Three smaller texts or paratexts precede the epic poem. The first is a dedication to Don Dujmo, which functions as a small literary work. The dedication can serve two purposes: as a text that announces, complements, and interprets the epic itself or as an independent literary work. The dedication’s form is skilfully elaborated, with Marulić explaining to his godfather Dujmo when and how he came up with the idea of writing Judita (Plejić, 1998).

Figure 4: Woodcut for “Die Bibel in Bildern” (Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1851-60)

In his work, Marulić employs various literary devices to convey his poetics, such as food metaphors to describe his work, comparing himself to a chef and his writing process to baking, and adding various spices that enhance its flavour. Marulić aims to entice his readers just as a chef would entice the taste buds of someone trying their food. Through the dedication, Marulić adds a personal touch to Judita, emphasising the importance of the work to him. Additionally, he provides a shorter prose paratext before the epic itself, briefly summarising the content of the work and the biblical story that inspired it. In a departure from the usual epic convention, Marulić summarises the content of each of the six libri before the epic itself instead of each song. As mentioned above, Marulić’s Judita comprises 2126 verses divided into six libri, with approximately three hundred biblical lines translated into Croatian. The epic is written in a solemn and richly versified double rhyming couplet, and is replete with poetic notes and developed metaphors, of which there are seventeen in total (Tomasović, 1999).

Professor of Croatian literature Pšihistal (2002) and Croatian literary historian Fališevac (1997) argue that Marulić may have drawn parallels between the plight of Betulija and the siege of Split by the Turks during the time of his writing. They suggest that Betulija is an allegory for Split and all contemporary territories besieged by worldly forces, underscoring the timelessness of Marulić’s epic. Marulić’s choice of the biblical story of Judith as the basis for his epic poem reinforces the importance of faith and human strength in overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges. While the historical context of Split’s struggle against the Turkish invasion provides a potential parallel, Marulić avoided explicit identification between Betulija and Split. Despite this comparison, the themes of the work and its enduring popularity demonstrate its ability to inspire readers across time and place. Judita’s invocation and language, written in the Croatian Chakavian dialect, are characteristic of the classical epic genre, with Marulić invoking God for help rather than the Muses. Through his vivid descriptions, Marulić creates an intimate connection between the reader and the characters, enabling a deeper understanding of the conflict between good and evil, and the moral impact of the work (Fališevac, 1997; Pšihistal, 2002).

Figure 5: Cover of the first edition of the central Croatian oeuvre ”Judita” (Marulić, 1521)

The present article focuses on the rhetorical analysis of the mythical inventory of Judita. Specifically, the use of catalogues and similes will be examined based on Pšihistal assertion that these are not only characteristic of the epic genre, as seen in the works of Homer and Virgil, but also of biblical parables found in the Gospels. Catalogues serve to enumerate various objects or persons, while similes draw comparisons between seemingly disparate things, often using vivid imagery to enhance the reader’s understanding. By analysing the catalogues and similes in Judita, insight into Marulić’s use of these literary devices and their effectiveness in conveying the epic themes of the triumph of good over evil and the importance of faith in God can be retrieved (Pšihistal, 2008b).

The epic poem Judita contains three catalogues, with two focusing on the protagonist Judith and the third on Holofernes. The first catalogue describes Judith’s beauty by comparing her to biblical and ancient mythological beauties, using poetic language similar to that of a Petrarchan poet. However, the narrator concludes by emphasising that her beauty was not a product of fornication, preserving her saintly image. The catalogues serve as a rhetorical device, adding depth and richness to the characters and their surroundings, a common feature of epic poetry. Furthermore, Marulić emphasises Judith’s natural beauty, reflecting his worldview that physical beauty should serve a higher purpose. Marulić’s adherence to classical epic structures, evident in his use of epic instruments and rhetorical figures, demonstrates his profound knowledge of ancient literary heritage. His mastery of the genre is cemented by his adaptation of these elements to the Croatian literary tradition (Fališevac, 1997).

Figure 6: Judith (Riedel, 1840)

The fifth canto of Marulić’s Judita contains the second catalogue, which focuses on Holofernes, the main antagonist of the epic. In this catalogue, the narrator employs a wide range of biblical, mythological, and historical figures known for their drunkenness, such as Noah, Alexander, and Mark Antony. Marulić’s skilful incorporation of rhetorical figures inherited from antiquity further enriches this catalogue. The depiction of Holofernes as a grotesque caricature is highlighted through animal metaphors, which effectively convey his condition to the reader. Marulić’s use of catalogues is a notable rhetorical device, which allows him to present a detailed and vivid portrayal of his characters and their surroundings. In doing so, he reinforces the epic structure of the poem (Fališevac, 1997).

The final catalogue in Marulić’s Judita is a detailed praise of Judith’s courage, which includes a list of biblical and mythical heroines. This catalogue further develops Judith’s character and highlights her heroic qualities. The narrator’s exceptional scholarship is evident in the inclusion of a wide range of heroines, both biblical and mythical. Marulić’s use of catalogues is consistent with the tradition of epic poetry, where catalogues serve to add depth and richness to the characters and their surroundings. Additionally, Marulić’s inclusion of mythical elements in marginal notes provides further context for the verse text. These elements are carefully selected and closely related to the narrative, allowing for a deeper interpretation of the text, both in terms of content and marginal notes. By skillfully incorporating rhetorical figures and ancient mythology, Marulić establishes himself as a master of the epic genre and solidifies the importance of classical heritage in Croatian literature (Plejić, 1998).

Figure 7: Judith beheading Holofernes (Caravaggio, 1598-99)

In Judita, Croatian literary historian Lučin (1996) observes Marulić’s adherence to the humanist tradition, as he incorporates ancient mythical heritage into his work. Even though these elements appear with a negative connotation, they still serve as one of the defining features that position Marulić as a European humanist. In the marginal notes, Marulić offers a brief collection of mythological stories that provide additional depth to the verse text. His familiarity with ancient literature is evident from the outset, as he refers to ancient writers as “old poets”. Despite rejecting the Muses as the source of his inspiration and seeking inspiration from God, Marulić acknowledges the nine Muses of ancient mythology and their leader, Apollo. Unlike the specialised Muses, Apollo was a multifaceted god, embodying male beauty, medicine, prophecy, archery, music, and the sun in Greek mythology (Lučin, 1996).

In the fourth canto of his epic poem, Judita, Marulić employs several mythological motifs, primarily drawing from figures in Greek mythology. These mythological women are catalogued alongside biblical women and serve as comparisons for Judith’s beauty. Marulić first compares Judith to Daphne, the nymph whom Apollo fell in love with after being struck by Cupid’s love arrow. Syringa, another nymph who was pursued by the god Pan, is also included in this catalogue, along with Diana, the Roman goddess of the hunt and twin sister of Apollo. Marulić’s descriptions of Judith’s beauty are highly embellished and filled with Petrarchan enthusiasm. The verse text itself does not provide much detail about the characteristics of these mythical women, including their beauty, but Marulić’s notes provide epithets that adorn them with fame and beauty. Marulić's comparisons suggest that Judith’s beauty is powerful and unattainable, as evidenced by her hypnotic effect on Holofernes (Lučin, 1996).

Figure 8: Apollo and the Muses on Parnassus (Appiani, 1811)

In the literary work, Marulić compares Holofernes with Polydectes, the mythical king of Serif, who was turned into stone by his stepson Perseus with the help of Medusa’s head. This comparison is used to personify Holofernes as Polydectes and liken Judith’s impact on him to that of Medusa’s effect on Polydectes. It is noteworthy that Medusa, known for her terrifying nature, portrays Judith negatively. The fifth canto of the work describes Holofernes’ excessive indulgence in food and drink. Marulić provides a catalogue of biblical, mythical, and historical drunkards, including the killing of Centaurs, Alexander’s drunken murder of Clitus, and famous philosophers who were said to have drunkenly “jumped” into Karon’s ship, which transported them to the world of the dead. These examples aim to shock the reader and serve as an educational tool. Marulić also criticises Syrian king Antiochus III, who met his death in a drunken state due to his own greed, and Mark Antony, who left his wife and married Cleopatra while under the influence of wine. Similarly, Holofernes’ fate is sealed when Judith cuts off his head while he is asleep, drunk. Overall, Marulić uses the portrayal of drunkenness in his work to highlight the fatal consequences of excessive indulgence and to warn readers against such behaviour (Lučin, 1996).

The extensive catalogue in Judita focuses on Judith’s immense courage, which the narrator humbly admits to being inadequately described. The catalogue lists numerous examples of courageous biblical women and women from ancient history and mythology. However, the narrator contends that none of these women compares to Judith’s bravery. He asserts that Judith is bolder than the goddesses Pallas and Diana, as well as the mortal Hecuba. Even the Amazonian warriors Hippolyta and Pantasilea, who fought like men, and the mythical warrior Atalanta, who killed beasts, cannot match Judith’s valour. Marulić provides marginal notes on each woman mentioned, highlighting their beauty and heroic deeds. The narrator attributes Judith’s greatness to her unwavering trust in God and her ability to maintain her faith in the face of adversity without imposing conditions on God (Lučin, 1996).

Figure 9: The fight between the Lapiths and the Centaurs (Di Cosimo, 1500-15)

In the text, it is stated that Judith lived to the age of one hundred and five years before her death was decreed by Suđenice, the three sisters who are believed to be the goddesses of fate and courage. Their control over the threads of life and destiny is said to be so absolute that not even Zeus can contest it. Marulić’s use of this element from ancient mythology is a bold literary device.

It is evident that Marulić initially employs the mythical inventory cautiously and restrainedly, citing classical writers as justification. However, this restraint becomes increasingly diminished throughout the course of the epic, as Marulić ceases to reference ancient models when employing the mythical inventory. The use of the mythical inventory becomes more pronounced in the marginal notes, where Marulić provides detailed explanations of terms from mythology that appear in the text itself. Ultimately, it is apparent that Marulić employs a greater amount of mythical material in Judita than one may initially anticipate from a biblical epic. This material is not evenly distributed throughout the work but is primarily concentrated in three catalogues and their accompanying marginal notes (Lučin, 1996).

In conclusion, Marulić’s Judita is a complex and multi-layered work that combines elements of both the biblical and Virgilian epics, while also incorporating the stylistic, excellent, and rhetorical elements required by classical epic poetry. Marulić’s familiarity with all areas of the ancient world renewed by humanism is evident in the skilful use of the mythical inventory, particularly in the three catalogues and related marginal notes. By bridging the gap between the biblical and mythical worlds, Marulić proves himself to be an excellent connoisseur of both. His ability to modify and adapt these elements to his Christian worldview is a testament to his literary talent and mastery. Overall, Judita remains a remarkable example of Croatian literature and an enduring masterpiece of epic poetry.

Bibliographical References

Campbell, M. (n.d.). Meaning, origin and history of the name Judith. Behind the Name. Retrieved on April 3, 2023, from:

Fališevac D. (1997). Kaliopin vrt. Split: Književni krug.

Lučin B. (1996). O marginalnim bilješkama u Juditi. Colloquia Maruliana V. Split Literary Circle – Marulianum.

Plejić L. (1998). Posveta Judite. Colloquia Maruliana VII. Split Literary Circle – Marulianum.

Pšihistal, R. (2002). Treba li Marulićeva Judita alegorijsko tumačenje. Colloquia Maruliana XI. Split Literary Circle – Marulianum.

Pšihistal, R. (2008a). Marko Marulić, prvi klasik hrvatske književnosti i europski humanist. Colloquia Maruliana XVII. Split Literary Circle – Marulianum. (p.301-313)

Pšihistal, R. (2008b). Razvijene usporedbe u Juditi: o Marulićevim prilikama. Colloquia Maruliana XVII. Split Literary Circle – Marulianum. (p. 157-188.)

Smith, J. Z., Bolle, K. W., & Buxton, R. G. (1999, July 26). Myth | Definition, History, Examples, & Facts. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved on April 3, 2023, from:

Tomasović M., & Novaković D. (1994). Marko Marulić, Hrvatski latinisti. Školska knjiga.

Tomasović M. (1999). Marko Marulić Marul. Eramus naklada.

Tomasović M. (2001). Marulić i Dante. Colloquia Maruliana X. Split Literary Circle – Marulianum.

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Deborah Zaccai

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