Queen of Sheba, Myth of

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Queen of Sheba, Myth of

Otherwise known as the Queen of the South (regina austris), or variously as the Sabaean, Maqeda (Makeda), Belkis (Bilqis), or Nikaule (Nicaula), the Queen of Sheba first appears in the Old Testament. Competing interpretations of the figure since biblical times have cast her alternatively as a figure of wisdom and faith, or as suspect and even demonized (Ginzberg 1982, VI.292.55). Jacob Lassner has devoted an extensive 1993 study to postbiblical Jewish, and then medieval Muslim, texts and traditions in which she is shown as troubling the natural, binary, gender order of male dominance over women, and being brought to heel by Solomon (Lassner, passim, and esp. 80-83). As a wealthy, powerful woman, she attracted negative gendered readings, and she was denounced by some authors for seizing power from a husband she had murdered, while for others she wrested power from an unjust tyrant. Sheba narratives are deeply gendered in a manner disdainful of or hostile to women, stipulating that the queen's desirability must be neutralized by submission to Solomon's powers, which reaffirm the gender order willed by God, against the usurped power of a woman and her wily tricks to blur gender distinctions. Iconography, by stressing the gesture of kneeling before the king, has also made her an image of subjection and subservience.


The biblical tale recounts that she hears of Solomon's wisdom and sets out to meet him, returning to her kingdom as a convert to monotheism (1 Kings 10:1-13, largely repeated in 2 Chronicles 9:1-12). In the later texts of Josephus, her love of learning is emphasized, and she is given the name Nikaule (Antiquities 8.6.2ff), a tradition continued by Giovanni Boccaccio in his De claris mulieribus (c. 1360–1374; On famous women) and Christine de Pizan in her Cité des dames (1405; City of ladies). In the New Testament, the Queen of the South is referred to by Jesus along with the Ninevites as an exemplar, contrasted to the lack of faith of the believers who rejected him (Matthew 12:42 and Luke 11:31). In the Jewish tradition, known in the second Targum (Aramaic translation) to Esther, gender boundaries are stressed. The hoopoe (an Old World bird) informs Solomon that the land of Kitor in the East is ruled by a woman, and that its people do not know how to fight or shoot a bow and arrow. When the queen arrives at Solomon's court, she is tricked by Solomon to lift her skirts while crossing to him over a large glass expanse made to look like a pond: "on her bared feet the king noticed hair, and he said to her 'thy beauty is the beauty of a woman, but thy hair is masculine; hair is an ornament to a man, but it disfigures a woman" (Ginzberg 1982, vol. IV, pp. 142-149). She then put his wisdom to the test with twenty-two riddles. In riddle three, she placed males and females in front of him of the same stature and garb, and told him to distinguish them; Solomon had corn and nuts brought in, and the males seized them with bare hands, while the females took them with gloved hands beneath the garments (Ginzberg 1982, VI, 290-291.46.47).

Historian of religions Alexander Krappe suggested that the warrior queen Semiramis, a masculine woman, coupled with the effeminate Sardanapalus, could be Sheba's alter ego, and that both stories are linked by the motif of donning gender-inverted clothing (Krappe 329).

The medieval Ethiopian Book of the Glory of Kings, the Kebra Nagast, recounts her departure from her kingdom, her arrival at Solomon's court, verbal interactions with him, and sexual concourse resulting in the begetting of a son, the founder of the Ethiopian dynasty. It was indeed in Ethiopia that she gained the highest importance as Makeda, founder of the royal lineage begun by her son Menelik, even though her biblical kingdom has been ascribed by others to present-day Yemen. The legend of her dynastic foundation was maintained in the tradition of Axum at the beginning of the twentieth century (Littmann 1904). The Kebra Nagast, concerned about dynastic history, is sexually specific, and details the trick Solomon plays on her so that she will forgo her virginity and surrender to him. At the same time, it stresses her strength along with her beauty, as the queen first opposes her son's departure to find Solomon, telling him that she is at once "his mother and his father" (Colin 2002).

In an esoteric Christian tradition, transmitted in Jacobus de Voragine's Golden Legend (c. 1260), the queen acquires prophetic powers. Seeking access to Solomon's superior and famed wisdom, because she is herself dedicated to wisdom and philosophy, she is the one who recognizes the wood that will become the True Cross in a makeshift bridge thrown by Solomon's carpenters across a stream. She refuses to walk on it, and instead kneels to worship it. In a slightly different version, she returns to her kingdom and sends word to Solomon that a tree has been found that will bring the end of the kingdom of the Jews: he has it buried in the bowels of the earth, but it surfaces anyway as pond called Probatica (Jacobus de Voragine 1993). This may be the basis for her inclusion in church iconography, such as at the south porch of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Chartres, France, where she can be found among twenty-eight figures of prophets.


The queen of Sheba became an early form of the Western gendered exotic, and even exoticism itself. It has thus been argued that the Sheba narrative fits neatly into Western early colonial projects, in England, and, by conflation with the figure of the Bride in the Song of Songs, into an ideological construction of foreign and dark women as dangerous and disturbing temptresses who lead powerful, exemplary male figures astray (Hall 1995). She could indeed be portrayed as black, and was represented as a black woman in Renaissance art (Hall 2000). Her exotic appropriations are most obvious in two Orientalist operas, where she is shown engaged in trysts with a man attached to Solomon's court, and as plotting against the king with her lover who betrays Solomon for her (Gounod 1862; Goldmark 1875). In Karl Goldmark's opera, the wily, seductive queen is clearly counterposited to figures of Jewish identity and religious piety, not only in the plot but through the music as well.

Her stature in Africa stretched beyond Christian Ethiopia. Nigerian folk tradition, perhaps under Muslim influence, conflated Bilqis, lover of Solomon, with the figure of Bilikisu Sungbo, a powerful, childless widow who wanted a funerary monument in her name and was buried at the Eredo of the ancient kingdom of Ijebu-Ode. The Eredo is a boundary site consisting of a thousand-year-old, hundred-mile-long rampart ditch, in places seventy feet deep. There is an annual pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of Christians and Muslims alike, visiting Bilikisu Sungbo's grave, a magical shrine in a grove of tall trees (Dosumu 1955, Pearce 1999, African Legacy). Yet this worship of the queen remains based on a normative script as the lover of Solomon and mother to a son.

A different positive gendered reading of the Sheba figure was offered in the twentieth century by Afrocentrist critics, who, basing themselves on the narrative itself and on common associations of female figures with wisdom, have interpreted her as an allegory of wisdom and the Afrocentrist heuristic process, harbinger of a distinct, non-Western form of knowledge (Monges 2002).

see also Legends and Myths; Queens; Sex, Race and Power: An Intersectional Study.


African Legacy. "Sungbo's Eredo: Africa's Largest Single Monument." Bournemouth University, School of Conservation Sciences. Available from http://csweb.bournemouth.ac.uk/africanlegacy/sungbo_eredo.htm.

Colin, Gérard, ed. and trans. 2002. La gloire des rois (Kebra Nagast): Epopée nationale de l'Ethiopie; Traduction française intégrale. Geneva: Patrick Cramer.

Dosumu, Gbadebo. 1955. "Queen of Shebba": "Balkis," "Eteye," "Makeda," "Sungbo" Wife of King Solomon; A Native of Oke Eri Ijebu Province, Western Nigeria (W.A). Ibadan, Nigeria: Dosumu Brothers Press.

Ginzberg, Louis. 1982 (1911). Legends of the Jews, trans. Paul Radin. 8 vols. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America.

Goldmark, Karl. 1875. Die Königin von Saba. Opera in four acts. Libretto by Salomon Hermann Mosenthal.

Gounod, Charles-François. 1862. La Reine de Saba. Opera in five acts. Libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré after Gérard de Nerval.

Hall, Kim F. 1995. Things of Darkness: Economies of Race and Gender in Early Modern England. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Hall, Kim F. 2000. "Object into Object? Some Thoughts on the Presence of Black Women in Early Modern Culture." In Early Modern Visual Culture: Representation, Race, Empire in Renaissance England, ed. Peter Erickson and Clark Hulse. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Jacobus de Voragine. 1993. "The Finding of the Holy Cross." In The Golden Legend. Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan. 2 vols. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lassner, Jacob. 1993. Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Littmann, Enno, ed. 1904. The Legend of the Queen of Sheba in the Tradition of Axum. Princeton, NJ: The University Library.

Monges, Miriam Ma'at-Ka-Re. 2002. "The Queen of Sheba and Solomon: Exploring the Shebanization of Knowledge." Journal of Black Studies 33(2): 235-246.

Pearce, Fred. 1999. "The African Queen." New Scientist 163(2203): 38-41.

                                 Francesca Canadé Sautman