Originating in the Bible, the Queen of Sheba is a figure featured in the stories of many cultures and religious groups. Although her exact homeland has not been agreed upon, she is known as a queen from the Red Sea region, and plays a role in legendary tales that have been retold numerous times through literature, film, television, and music. Most tales revolve around her meeting with the biblical King of Israel, Solomon, with variations on what occurred during that visit. In some tales she is tricked into sleeping with him, ultimately leading her to bear him a son. In other versions, she is tricked into revealing her hairy legs, which repulses Solomon. In other variations, she simply delivers spices to Solomon, uses riddles to test his wisdom, and then returns home.
The Queen of Sheba is well-known as a Biblical figure. Relatively little is written within the Bible about her origins. Her story focuses on her travels to Jerusalem. She is said to have arrived in Jerusalem with a camel bearing spices to give to Solomon. She arrived "with a very great retinue, with camels bearing spices, and very much gold, and precious stones" (I Kings 10:2). "Never again came such an abundance of spices" (10:10; II Chron. 9:1–9). She presented several riddles to Solomon, which he answered to her satisfaction. In the tale, Solomon taught Sheba about his god, Yahweh, and then they exchanged gifts. After that, the Queen returned to her home land. Some Ethiopians believe that this is how Christianity was originally brought to their area.
There is agreement among scholars that Sheba refers to the South Arabian kingdom of Saba, which is located in present-day Yemen. The Queen’s visit to Jerusalem may have been a trade visit, as it was common to trade spices by camel around the 9th and 10th centuries B.C.
In Jewish legend, the Queen of Sheba was the Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia. She was credited with bringing the first balsam tree to Israel. In one Jewish account, King Solomon was informed that Sheba was the only Kingdom that was not subject to him. This did not make him happy. He sent a letter to Sheba commanding that the Queen of Sheba come to him as one of his subjects. The Queen of Sheba agreed to visit Jerusalem, and sent many ships filled with gifts prior to her arrival. She also agreed to arrive within three years, although the trip typically took seven years. When she did arrive, she mistook Solomon’s glass floor for water, and lifted her dress, revealing her hairy legs, for which King Solomon reprimanded her. She asked him three questions to test his wisdom, and returned home.
The Queen of Sheba meeting with Solomon (note: this is unlikely to be an accurate depiction of how she really looked, from a racial perspective). Public Domain
Muslims do not refer to the Queen of Sheba, but to the “queen of the south.” The story in the Quran is essentially the same as that followed by Christians and Jews, with some supplementations derived from the Jewish Midrash. The queen is named Bilkis. The tale says the demons of Solomon’s court were worried that Solomon might marry Bilkis. To prevent this, they started a rumor that Bilkis had hairy legs, leading Solomon to construct the glass floor for the sole purpose of tricking her into revealing her legs. However, in this version the Queen and Solomon did not have relations, as they did in the other versions.
The Queen of Sheba, also known as Bilkis. Public Domain
In the Ethiopian Kebra Nagast (Glory of the Kings), the Queen is referred to as Makeda. While this version of her story included the trip to visit Solomon, and the son who they conceived together and she raised, it omitted the stories of the glass floor and her hairy legs. In this version of the legend, the Queen warned Solomon that he was not to touch her, because she was an unmarried woman. He agreed, so long as she agreed not to take anything of his while she stayed as his guest. She agreed. However, Solomon tricked her by ordering an extremely spicy meal to be served for dinner, and that a glass of water be placed near her bed as she slept. In the middle of the night she took the glass of water, and Solomon declared that she had broken her end of the agreement, and as such, he could break his end as well. They slept together, and after returning to her homeland, the Queen discovered she was pregnant. She gave birth to Solomon’s son, and named him Menelik. As he aged, Menelik expressed that he wished to see his father. He traveled to Israel to visit King Solomon, supposedly returning with the Ark of the Covenant, and the sacred container that contained the Ten Commandments.
A figure rides upon horseback, thought to be the Queen of Sheba. Originally a wall painting in a church in Lalibela, Ethiopia, now in National Museum. Wikimedia, CC
With its many variations, the tales of the Queen of Sheba are frequently told to this day. In Ethiopia, it is believed that the son of the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, is from whom Ethiopian dynasty claims descent to this day. The tales are often used in modern-day literature, theater, film, and music. In these stories, she takes on many appearances, representing the different ways she is viewed by different societies. While many legends have the same basis, and there are many components of the Queen of Sheba’s story that are agreed-upon, there has been no physical evidence of her identity uncovered to date. Both Ethiopia and Yemen claim to be the homeland of the Queen of Sheba, but there is no archaeological evidence to support either stance. For now, she remains a legendary figure in the Bible, Quran, Jewish Aggadah, and Kebra Nagast. Regardless of the different versions of the stories that are told, the Queen of Sheba remains a figure that captivates people of different backgrounds, and from all different religions. As long as her story remains intriguing it will be retold, with newly arising variations on the legendary themes, and will serve as both inspiration and entertainment for many years to come.
Actress Betty Blythe as the queen in The Queen of Sheba (1921) Public Domain
Featured image: Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, painting by Giovanni Demin (1789-1859). Public Domain
- The Queen of Sheba – CBS. Available from: http://www.pbs.org/mythsandheroes/myths_four_sheba.html
- Queen of Sheba – Wikipedia. Available from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Queen_of_Sheba
- The Queen of Sheba – BBC. Available from: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ancient/cultures/sheba_01.shtml
- Who was the Queen of Sheba? – About Education. Available from: http://womenshistory.about.com/od/bible/a/Queen-Of-Sheba.htm
By M R Reese