Sheba, Queen of (fl. 10th c. BCE)

views updated

Sheba, Queen of (fl. 10th c. bce)

Queen of Axum in Ethiopia and Sheba in southern Arabia who is known in the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions as peer and lover of Solomon, king of Israel, and maternal ancestor of Ethiopia's royal dynasty. Name variations: Balkama; Balkis, Bilkas, or Bilkis; Balqis or Bilqis; Makeda; Nicaula; Panther in the Blossom; Queen of the South (Eteye of Azeb); Saba, Sabbe, or Seba; Sibyl or Sibylla.

The earliest mention of the queen comes from the Old Testament where she undertakes a diplomatic trading mission to King Solomon in Israel from the territories she ruled in modern-day Ethiopia and Yemen. From the Biblical source, legends of the queen developed in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic literature. She was said to have been the lover of Solomon, and Ethiopians claim her as the ancestor of their royal line.In the West, she is associated with the legend of the True Cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

The enigmatic queen of an uncertain land called Sheba is mentioned only twice in the Old Testament. According to I Kings 10 and 2 Chronicles 9, rumors of the wealth and wisdom of Solomon, king of the ancient Hebrews, had reached the distant land of Sheba, and so the queen traveled to Jerusalem to meet him. She arrived in the magnificent capital with "a large retinue of camels laden with spices, gold in great quantities, and precious stones." But interested in more than Solomon's riches, the queen of Sheba was drawn to the king because of his reputation for wisdom. She tested Solomon by posing subtle and puzzling questions; "not one of them was too abstruse for the king to answer." The queen was overawed, "there was no more spirit left in her." She said to Solomon, "Your wisdom and your prosperity go far beyond the report which I had of them. Happy are your wives, happy these courtiers of yours who wait on you every day and hear your wisdom! Blessed be the Lord your God who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel." The two monarchs then exchanged gifts. The queen gave Solomon gold, jewels, spices, and a precious wood called almug. In exchange, "King Solomon gave the queen of Sheba all she desired, whatever she asked, in addition to all that he gave her of his royal bounty." She then departed and returned to her native land.

Although the queen of Sheba disappears from the Biblical narrative at this point, it is by no means the last history hears of her. Legends of this elusive queen developed and flourished in the Jewish, Islamic, and Christian traditions and in the national histories of Africa and Arabia. Yet the historical identity of the queen is a puzzle, and the location of Sheba mentioned in I Kings and 2 Chronicles is uncertain. Sheba, Seba, Saba, and the Sabeans or Sebeans are mentioned in a variety of contexts in the Old Testament which uses variant spellings for what appears to be the same location. The terms are all associated with great wealth and a faraway land; however, the precise location of this territory is not evident from Biblical sources.

There are several men named Sheba mentioned in the Bible who may have been the eponym for the home of the famous queen. Genesis identifies Sheba as a descendant of Noah's son Ham (Gn 10.7), and again in a later verse as the offspring, not of Ham, but of his brother Shem (Gn 10.28). Abraham and his wife Keturah also had a grandson named Sheba who was the forefather of a tribe in northern Arabia (Gn 25.3). Another later Sheba, who was a near contemporary of Solomon, led the northern tribes of Israel in rebellion, challenging the suzerainty of David, king of Israel and Solomon's predecessor (I Sm 19–20; 1 Kgs 12).

Of these several choices, the most likely namesake of the queen of Sheba's homeland is the grandson of Noah (through either Ham or Shem) whose descendants, called Sabeans, established themselves as traders in southern Arabia and on the eastern coast of Ethiopia. The Jewish historian Josephus (b. 37/8 ce), although vague on the location of Sheba, confirms its location by placing it roughly in Egypt or Ethiopia. Archaeological research indicates that the Sabeans may have been associated with northern and southern tribes of the Arabian peninsula, occupying the portion of southwest Arabia which is today known as Yemen with a sphere of influence extending to the far north. The Old Testament records several accounts of the Israelites obtaining gold, frankincense, sweet cane, spices, gems, and other precious goods from the Sabeans who acted as middlemen for commercial exchanges between Israel and Africa, India, and lands farther east. The archaeological record supports this view, indicating that the Sabeans excelled in moving trade in precious goods between India, Africa, and the Fertile Crescent. There is other evidence that in the first millennium bce the Sabeans colonized the adjacent Ethiopian coasts, especially the areas around Eritrea and Tigre which once comprised the kingdom of Axum. For example: (1) Geez, the ancient language of Axum, is related to Semitic languages spoken in Arabia, (2) Judaism flourished in both Ethiopia and southern Arabia in the 10th century bce, and (3) the Habasha tribe after which Abyssinia (an earlier name for Ethiopia) was named, originated in Yemen. In many respects, then, this area in southern Arabia matches the Biblical description of Sheba, but there are some discrepancies between the archaeological evidence and the written sources. For instance, although the land occupied by the Sabeans was certainly rich enough to satisfy the Biblical description of the land of the queen, it did not attain its wealth until several centuries after Solomon and the queen were reputed to have lived (c. 992–952 bce).

This queen, who remains mysterious and unnamed in the Bible, is better known from other sources. In southern Arabia and Africa, she is called Bilkis. In the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia, the queen of Sheba is Eteye of Azeb, or Queen of the South. The Yemenites call her Balkama, and the Quran refers to her as Balkis. Josephus called her Nicaula after Herodotus' reference to the queen widows of Egypt by that name. Throughout Ethiopia, the queen of Sheba is Makeda the Beautiful, Panther in the Blossom.

It is largely the tantalizing suggestion made in the cryptic phrase, "King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba all she desired," that has given rise to the lore of the queen of Sheba. What was it that the wealthy queen could have wanted from Solomon besides the gifts he had already bestowed? One tradition answers: his love. Snatches of the story of how the queen obtained that love are preserved in textual fragments from Syria, Armenia, Palestine, Egypt, Arabia Felix, and Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian constitution, ratified in 1955, contains an article which enshrines the ancient claim that Makeda is the maternal ancestor of the royal line and that the kings are descendants of Solomon and the queen of Sheba. The Ethiopian tradition alleges that while the queen was in Jerusalem she and Solomon produced an heir, and that the Ethiopian kings up through Haile Selassie descended from Solomon. In the late 13th century (ce), a scribe named Yishak claimed that he and six of his companions had translated into Geez, the ancestral language of Ethiopia, an ancient Arabic text originally written in Coptic (Egyptian). They called the work Kebre Negast, or The Glory of the Kings (1270). It is a pastiche of local and regional legends and oral traditions inspired by the Old and New Testaments, various apocryphal works, and Jewish and Islamic sources. The intent of the Kebre Negast was to set apart the Ethiopians as a chosen people, a new Israel, and to defend the ascendancy of the emperor Yekuno Amlak of the Shoan dynasty who claimed legitimacy because of his Solomonic ancestry. Yekuno Amlak argued successfully that in him the rightful kings, progeny of the queen of Sheba and Solomon, and scions of the root of Jesse, were restored to the Ethiopian throne (1270).

According to the Kebre Negast, in the 10th century bce a powerful queen named Makeda ruled over the prosperous kingdoms of Axum in Ethiopia and Sheba in southern Arabia. (Some versions of the story claim that Sheba or Saba was not in Arabia at all but on the African side of the Red Sea near Axum.) According to the time-honored law of this land, the royal sovereign had to be both female and virgin. Makeda was such a sovereign. She lived in Axum of the Blue Hills and ruled her territory in peace and prosperity. She was young, loved, rich, learned, wise, and beautiful, but not happy. The reason for her discontent was that she had a "hideous deformity." Because her mother saw a prancing goat while pregnant with the queen, Makeda's right foot was hoofed and hairy. The young Makeda chose to remain virgin and to accept the throne rather than marry, thinking that because of her strange foot she would never attract a suitable partner.

Hope of reversing the malformation came to Makeda, however, when her fleet-master returned from a trading voyage and brought her word of the magnificent King Solomon whose wealth was surpassed only by his wisdom. Rumor had it that when Solomon was young his God, Yahweh, agreed to give him what he most desired, and he asked for knowledge. Not only was Solomon learned, but he was skilled in the magic arts and reputed to know the language of birds and animals and to have skill in exorcising evil spirits. The queen of Sheba thought that a man with these talents would be able to transform her abnormal limb to its healthy state. She determined to travel to Jerusalem to test all aspects of her fleet-master's story. She concocted several riddles for Solomon to solve, collected a quantity of precious, marvelous goods she hoped would rival the riches of Solomon, and resolved to seek his aid with her very private problem of the foot. Some versions of the story omit reference to Makeda's strange foot and claim that she, young and inexperienced in ruling, went to Jerusalem expressly to learn the art of statecraft from the king of Israel.

Makeda set out for Jerusalem, stopping on the way at Sheba, the secondary capital of her domain. When she reached Solomon's kingdom, she was greeted with singular honor, partially because of her beauty and wealth, partially because, according to Jewish legend, Moses had ruled over Axum for 40 years after he and his people fled Egypt, and partially because Solomon was fascinated by the stories of her peculiar foot and longed to see it for himself. For this reason, he devised a plan to trick Makeda. He had one of his artisans lay a floor of glass over the marble pavement in the reception room of the palace and ordered that water be pumped in between the marble and the glass accompanied by colored, free-swimming fish so as to create the illusion that the hard surface was a pool of water. When Solomon first granted audience to Makeda, he sat at the far end of his reception room and bade her approach him. To do this, she would have to take off her sandals and walk across what appeared to be the pool of water;

and although the queen was hesitant to remove her shoes and reveal her hoofed foot, she hoped that it would be submerged in the water and hidden from sight. She lifted her skirts to keep them dry, stepped out onto the glassed surface, and instinctively, thinking she was stepping into water, leapt onto a piece of timber laying nearby. Just as Makeda was about to cry out in shame because she had unthinkingly exposed her misshapen limb, her right foot was transformed on contact with the wood and became as straight and beautiful as the left. The potent, healing timber upon which she had leapt was a portion of the Tree of Knowledge from which Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Some versions of the story omit the reference to the miraculous wood and claim that Solomon concocted a salve made of lime and arsenic which cured the queen's malady.

The two monarchs found much to admire in each other. Both were young, beautiful, and rich, but more significantly, they suited each other in their cunning. They spent many hours together, each posing riddles for the other. Solomon asked Makeda which is the best, first love or last. The queen correctly answered that the best love is that which is both first and last. She, in turn, tested the king by presenting him with several children all dressed alike and asking him to distinguish the boys from the girls. Solomon threw balls in the air; the boys caught them, the girls stooped to collect the balls from the ground. Solomon had his answer as, according to the king, "Kneeling identifies the female sex." Makeda accompanied Solomon as he adjudicated legal cases in court and marveled at his insight. He educated her on the history of his people and their God. She told him of her land of Axum, founded by the Ethiops in the time of Abraham.

King Solomon gave the Queen of Sheba all she desired, whatever she asked, in addition to all that he gave her of his royal bounty.

—1 Kings 10.13

The friendship grew into passion. One night Solomon came to Makeda's quarters, serenaded her, then asked for her love. The queen, despite her desires, replied that the law of Axum and Sheba required that she remain a virgin. Solomon, wily as ever, agreed that he would not press her unless she came willingly into the sleeping chamber which adjoined her own quarters where he would spend the night. Makeda agreed, not knowing that Solomon had instructed his stewards to lace her food with thirst-inducing spices and to empty the jug of water that rested beside her bed. The queen awoke in the night, needing water. Seeing that her jug was empty, she crept into the chamber where Solomon was sleeping in order to drink from the jug by his bed. The king, of course, was not asleep, and when Makeda entered the chamber he arose and held the queen to her promise.

Another version of the story reveals Solomon as even more devious. The king compelled the queen of Sheba to promise that in exchange for her virginity she would vow to take nothing from Jerusalem that belonged to him. Makeda agreed. On the night of the seduction, Solomon fed the queen paprika, onion seed, and garlic so that she would awake in the night parched. While she slept, the king's stewards wrote the words "Property of Solomon" on Makeda's water jug. She woke late at night and gulped down the water by her bed, only to find out too late that she had taken something that belonged to Solomon, and so she was compelled to repay him with the gift of her body.

The queen soon prepared to return to Africa. With her, she took a great deal from the land of Israel. She was pregnant with Solomon's child and laden with riches beyond imagination given to her by the king. Among the treasures was a ring which, according to the Talmud (a Jewish holy book), God originally gave to Adam in Eden. When the first humans were expelled from the Garden, the jewel studded-ring flew from Adam's finger and lodged under one of the pillars of Yahweh's throne until God sent it to Solomon through the Archangel Gabriel. Most significant of all, Makeda had adopted a new deity, Yahweh, the God of Israel. She was determined to supplant the pagan deities of her own territories with the worship of the one God of Israel. The queen of Sheba also promised Solomon that, although their son would not rule Israel after him, he would be the king of Axum and Sheba. She intended to reverse the ancient tradition of her kingdom. It would no longer be governed by virgin-queens, but by kings.

Sheba called her son Menelik (also spelled Menelek, Menilek, or Menyelek), meaning "Other-Self." His state name was Walda-Tabbib (Son of the Wise Man). The boy was not only adored by his mother, but he was accepted by his people. They agreed to alter the time-honored law and be ruled by kings. As for Makeda's other innovations, the people of Axum and Sheba were not so receptive. They did not accept their queen's new God of Israel, and she wisely did not force them, but worshipped Yahweh privately and raised her son to do so.

When Menelik grew to adolescence, his mother decided to send him to Jerusalem to become acquainted with his father and his father's kingdom on the firm condition that he would return to Axum and not be persuaded to remain in Jerusalem and accept the crown of Israel. So that Solomon would recognize his son, Makeda gave him the ring Solomon had given her when she departed Jerusalem. Menelik had heard his father's praises sung by Makeda his entire life, but when he reached Jerusalem the boy found the king of Israel much changed. The energy and keen intellect which had once been his most precious assets had become his bane. After Makeda left Jerusalem, Solomon became bored with his wives, so added hundreds more from pagan lands. In frenetic and meaningless activity, he moved from one building plan to another, consuming his people's taxes to increase the magnificence of his palaces and the magnitude of his foreign conquests. The king had become dissipated and cruel; he neglected those duties in the law courts which once brought him such fame and pleasure, but most shocking of all, Solomon was no longer diligent in his worship of Yahweh. He slept through morning sacrifice because he was too sodden with wine from the previous night's indulgence. Nevertheless, despite his decline, Solomon was still a remarkable man, and he and his young son spent many pleasurable hours and days together.

After several months, but too soon for his father's liking, Menelik decided it was time to return to his own land. Solomon prepared an elaborate ceremony to publicly proclaim his son king of the Ethiops. The boy was anointed with holy oil and admonished that, as king, he and his people must worship none but Yahweh. When he vowed to obey the God of Israel, however, Menelik had no idea of the turn that promise would take.

Azariah, son of the high priest of Jerusalem, watched the young Ethiopian king with interest. He and the other temple priests had become discouraged and then disgusted with Solomon's indifference toward, and neglect of, his religious obligations. Azariah saw in Menelik a chance to rejuvenate the ancient faith and a king who could honor Yahweh in a manner befitting His glory. He resolved to steal the Ark of the Covenant which contained the stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments that Yahweh had delivered to his people through the patriarch, Moses. The priest's reasoning was that the ark could not be moved unless God gave his blessing to the theft. Azariah would make the effort to remove the ark, and if Yahweh disapproved, He would strike the young priest down; Azariah decided it was worth the risk. He had his artisans fashion a duplicate ark, and the evening before Menelik's departure from Jerusalem, Azariah, during the process of performing sacrifices, had the duplicate ark brought into the Temple and placed where the Ark of the Covenant was kept. "Lady Zion," the genuine ark containing the Ten Commandments, was smuggled out of the Temple and placed with the goods that Menelik was taking with him back to Axum. An Arabic variant of the story claims that it was not the high priest but Menelik himself who stole the ark. In any case, "Lady Zion" and the power of Yahweh left Jerusalem with the young king of the Ethiops, escorted by an entourage of Hebrew priests. Accompanied by the power of the Lord, Menelik and his party traversed the desert at an unprecedented speed and reached Sheba within a few days. They crossed over the Red Sea to Africa, levitated through the air by the power of the ark.

Back in Jerusalem, on the eve of Menelik's departure, Solomon was troubled in his sleep by a dream that the glory of Israel had departed to another land. The vision was confirmed when those temple priests who were not privy to the theft soon discovered the ruse. Solomon assembled his troops and pursued Menelik's party, but was unable to overtake it.

The ark arrived safely in Axum. Makeda was at first scandalized that her son had acquiesced to robbing his father of the God of Israel, but when Menelik explained to her that Solomon had married foreign wives and dabbled in the worship of the pagan gods Bel, Moloch, Sobku and Hathor, the queen of Sheba accepted the ark and resolved that her son would be as a second David and that her land would be as a second Israel, strong and prosperous, righteous in the Lord God of the Hebrews.

A wholly different tradition about the queen of Sheba is recorded in the Islamic holy book, the Quran. According to this story, the queen (Balkis) did not travel to Solomon for a medical cure, riches, or answers to riddles; she was summoned. Solomon, the mighty king of Israel, had the ability to commune with birds and beasts (according to Jewish chronicles this power came to Solomon through his magical ring in which was embedded a mandrake root). The king called before him all those over whom Allah had given him dominion: "jinn [a type of demon] and men and birds" but the king was angry because he saw that the hoopoe bird was absent. The hoopoe soon made his appearance and explained that he had been flying over the width and breadth of the land doing the work of God by seeking to know if there were nations which prospered although they did not worship Allah. He found such a place called Sheba: "I found a woman ruling … and she has a mighty throne. I have found her and her people doing obeisance to the sun rather than to Allah. Satan has made their works seem fair to them and has turned them aside from the way and they are not rightly guided."

Solomon immediately sent the hoopoe to Sheba with a letter demanding that the queen surrender herself and her lands to him and to the service of Allah. Hoping to avoid conflict, she sent a gift to Solomon, but the king replied to her messenger, "Will ye add riches to me, though what Allah has given me is better than what he has given you?" He threatened to invade Sheba if the queen herself did not come to him. Balkis obeyed; she prepared to travel to Jerusalem, but Solomon wanted more still. Once again, he gathered his assembled functionaries, asking, "Ye chiefs, which of you can bring me her throne before [she] comes to me in submission?" In this passage, the throne, which is silver and 30 cubits high, symbolizes material wealth and ephemeral, earthly dominion which contrasts adversely to the riches and power possible to those who submit to Allah. Ifrit, an aggressive and crafty jinn, offered to bring the throne of Queen Balkis to Solomon by force, but the wise king favored the plan of one of his scholars who agreed to transfer the throne mystically from Axum to Israel by tapping the spiritual power inherent in the holy book. "Within the twinkling of an eye," it was done.

Balkis traveled to Jerusalem, and on her arrival Solomon asked her to look at the throne which had been lifted from her own land to his in order to see if she would recognize it, although it had been magically transformed. Balkis recognized the throne and understood that Solomon was not only richer than she but surpassed her in wisdom and strength due to the power of his God; because of this she tentatively agreed to convert to Islam. As recorded in the Kebre Negast, Balkis was asked to approach the king in the reception room of his palace. She entered, saw the floor which she thought was a lake, lifted her skirts to keep them dry, thus exposing her legs. When Solomon explained that the floor was not water but "smooth with slabs of glass" the queen was ashamed that she had behaved in so undignified a manner and exposed what a lady should keep hidden. Once more Solomon, backed by the power of Allah, had gotten the better of the mighty Balkis who had spent a lifetime devoted to pagan gods. Now her conversion was complete; the queen of Sheba agreed whole-heartedly to "submit, with Solomon, to the Lord of the Worlds."

The legend of the queen of Sheba has also had a long and full life in the Christian tradition. Jesus named her as one of the just who will rise up to condemn unbelievers at the end of time, implicitly identifying himself with Solomon and the Queen of the South with the Church, his beloved spouse: "The Queen of the South will appear at the Judgment when this generation is on trial and ensure its condemnation, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon" (Mt 12.42 and Lk 11.31). Like in the Quran, the queen willingly submitted to Solomon and his God, and so she is worthy to judge those who do not readily yield to Christ—the new Solomon.

For medieval Christians, the queen of Sheba became a symbol of prudent submission and a bridge between the dispensation of the Jews and the "more perfect" epoch of Christianity. The 6th century bishop Gregory of Tours wrote a biography of St. Monegunde in which he praised her by comparing the holy woman to "the wise queen who came to hear the wisdom of Solomon." In the 7th century, Isidore of Seville cast the queen of Shebaas a metaphor of the church of the Gentiles seeking Christ. In high medieval romance literature, Makeda takes her place beside two other queens, Helena (c. 255–329), mother of Constantine the Great, and Bertha (d. 783), mother of the great Frankish Christian emperor, Charlemagne. This trio of women all assisted powerful men in extending Christianity to the "heathen." Incidentally, popular legend imputed to Bertha a webbed foot. The 14th-century Mirror of Human Salvation portrays the queen of Sheba as the pagan potentate who bowed to the superior power of the God of Abraham—a metaphor of conversion to Christianity.

Christian tradition has made much of the incident of the queen and the magical log which, in the African story, cured Makeda's limb, but, in the West, Makeda had a webbed rather than a hoofed foot. According to the Legenda Aurea (Golden Legend), a widely known collection of miracle stories recorded by Jacobus de Voragine in the mid-13th century, the cross upon which Jesus was crucified was made from the same wood upon which the queen of Sheba leapt in the court of Solomon. According to the myth, Adam's son, Seth, plucked a branch of Eden's Tree of Knowledge and planted it in the mouth of his dead father. This branch grew out of the "Old Adam" and awaited the arrival of the "New Adam": Jesus, who would give the human race a second chance, a second beginning. (Jewish legend holds that the Ten Commandments were carved with a sliver from that same wood.) Solomon cut down the famous tree to use it in the construction of his palace, the Domus Saltus. However, when the workers tried to fit the log in place, it became too long or too short, even when it had been cut to specifications. The wood clearly did not wish to become a beam in the Domus Saltus, and so Solomon had it placed over a brook called Kedron (or Kidron) to serve as a bridge.

When the queen paid her visit to Solomon, she refused to tread upon the bridge because, through the power of grace, she sensed it was sacred. Instead, the humble and wise monarch lifted her skirts and waded across the stream. As she did so, the waters transformed her webbed foot into a perfect human limb. The queen then made a prophecy about the wooden bridge saying, "The Savior of all the world will be hanged thereon, by whom the realm of the Jews shall be defaced and cease." Solomon, terrified by Makeda's prediction, had the bridge destroyed and threw the wood into a pond which instantly began to exhibit miraculous powers of healing. When the time came for Jesus' crucifixion, the enlivened beam rose from the bottom of the pool and floated to Jerusalem. Syrian and Arabic sources do not speak of a bridge, but rather they indicate that the wood was set in an inner room of the temple and that Makeda placed a silver ring upon it in gratitude for her cure. Each successive king of Israel imitated Makeda's donation, and it was these silver rings which the high priests used to pay Judas Iscariot for his betrayal of Jesus.

Dozens of versions of the story of the bridge exist in a variety of vernacular languages and artistic representations. Piero della Francesca's fresco (1452–66) in Arezzo, Italy, portraying Makeda at the bridge is one of the most famous treatments of this subject. The queen is modest and reserved, yet regal and confident in her prophecy of the future. The legend of the bridge links Makeda to the aforementioned Helena, who miraculously discovered the True Cross of Christ in the early 4th century. From medieval clerics such as Petrus Comestor (d. 1178), to secular Renaissance figures such as Thomas Malory in Le Morte d'Arthur (1470), Christian writers highlighted the queen's role in the history of the cross.

Because Makeda instinctively recognized that the log bridge had played and would continue to play a central role in salvation history, medieval authors fashioned her as one of the Sibyls (pagan prophets with foreknowledge of Jesus and his mission); hence, medieval literature refers to her as Sibyl or Sibylla. In the 16th century, the queen was brought to the service of a variety of anti-Semitic and apocalyptic texts in which she is "The Thirteenth Sibyl" because she foresaw the Crucifixion and the end of the "evils" of the unbelieving heathens and Jews. One 15th-century collection of woodcuts called The Book of the Rood, which was inspired by Thomas Malory's work, has Solomon torturing Queen Sibyl because her prophecy was so unflattering to the Jews. She is tied to a stake with her deformed foot well forward and very much in view.

Along with the motif of the bridge, the queen of Sheba's webbed foot has, over the centuries, piqued a great deal of interest—inspiring artists, writers and folklorists. For most commentators, the deformed foot is a symbol of the queen's imperfection before her conversion. A mosaic in the cathedral of Otranto, produced by a monk called Pantaleone in 1165, represents the web-footed Makeda as a siren juxtaposed to a mermaid: both classical figures of dangerous seduction and eroticism. The theme is repeated in a myriad of Western representations from a 12th-century sculpture in Dijon, France, to 15th-century Bohemian woodcuts. There is a tradition in Western culture which associates bird-footedness with lust. The Jerusalem Bible argues that feet are often metaphors for sexual organs. The deformed foot (which is by no means restricted to the queen of Sheba in Western lore—it echoes in the story of Cinderella) represents fearful secrets, hidden under women's dresses, that are foul and disgusting, but still irresistible. Fulgentius (d. 533) wrote that bird-bodied sirens of classical myth have "hen like feet" because "lust scatters all that it possesses." Before her conversion, Makeda was dangerous, not just because she was pagan, but also because she was alluring, powerful, and autonomous: the virgin queen. By the time Makeda left Jerusalem, she had changed; she had been tamed—no longer web-footed, no longer pagan, no longer virgin, no longer queen. She had abdicated her throne to Solomon's child whom she carried in her womb.

In medieval romance, web-footedness is a sign of deviancy. Mythological harpies and she-monsters have misshapen limbs, especially hoofed, cloven, or bird feet. Satan and his minions are traditionally portrayed with hoofed or bird-like, clawed feet. Reformation writers Edmund Spenser, Martin Luther, and Philip Melanchthon caricatured the Catholic Church as a creature with misshapen limbs. Spenser says of the personified Church, "And eke her feet most monstrous were in sight." In several ways, then, misshapen bird feet are temptations to sin. They are metonyms of lust, paganism, and heresy.

In addition to parenting the line of Ethiopian kings, the queen of Sheba's love affair with Solomon has fertilized centuries of Western and Eastern art, music, and literature. Ethiopian, Jewish, and European Christian sources all consider Solomon's love poetry, recorded in the Song of Songs, to have been composed for Makeda. For this reason, she is often black-skinned in artistic representations because in the Song of Solomon the beloved says, "I am black, and comely" (Song 1.5). Medieval artists frequently pictured the queen as a Moor. This is true, for example, of an enamel plaque on the altar of Nicholas of Verdun (1181) and a stained-glass window in the church of St. Thomas at Strasbourg (c. 1280). By the Renaissance, however, the queen was no longer portrayed with what was at the time considered an unflattering black skin; rather, artists subtly alluded to her exotic, African origins. For instance, illustrations in the 15th-century Hours ofCatherine of Cleves pictures a Moorish lady-in-waiting beside the queen, and in Piero della Francesca's fresco one of the queen's maids is African, identifiable more by her headdress than her color. Representations of the queen meeting Solomon have been a favorite design for bridal trousseau chests. The modern poets W.B. Yeats and Robert Browning capitalized on the brief and romantic encounter between the two magnificent, exotic monarchs. In Solomon to Sheba, Yeats plays off the tradition that Solomon composed his songs for Makeda: "Sang Solomon to Sheba,/ And kissed her dusky face…. Sang Solomon to Sheba,/ And kissed her Arab eyes."

The variety of aspects of the queen of Sheba's tale which has provided grist for artistic representation is astonishing. She is paralleled with Balaam's ass in several medieval texts and in the portal sculptures at Chartres Cathedral (1230). In the Old Testament, Balaam's she-donkey was able to perceive the presence of the angel of the Lord when her master, Balaam, was not (Nm 22.22–35). In the same way, Sheba recognized that the wooden bridge would become Christ's cross when Solomon considered the log a worthless piece of unusable timber. This pairing of the lowly ass and the hoof-footed woman makes sense when we consider that in each story there is a reversal of roles. The ass, foolish and humble, proves to be clairvoyant, and the submissive queen, who cannot outwit Solomon, is superior to him in spiritual wisdom.

The queen is also represented, in a variety of contexts, exchanging riddles with Solomon. A 17th-century Dutch theme park called Old Labyrinth featured automata of Solomon and Sheba quizzing each other. Myriad riddle books, written from the middle ages on, contain riddles ascribed to Solomon and Sheba.

The image of the mighty queen in submission to an even mightier king and the possibilities for creating elaborate court spectacle particularly appealed to Renaissance artists. Hans Holbein represented Henry VIII as a Solomon accepting obedience from the queen of Sheba, who was meant to symbolize the pope. Tintoretto and Veronese both portrayed Makeda as the grateful supplicant of a mighty king. Veronese's The Queen of Sheba Before Solomon depicts a regal, mildly disdaining Solomon, strikingly like the youthful Charles Emanuel to whom the painting was dedicated on his accession to the dukedom of Savoy in 1580. It was not unusual for the Renaissance artist to flatter his patron by featuring him as a type of Solomon, accepting the resigned adoration of the queen—young and beautiful, but clearly less potent than he. The Flemish painter Lucas de Here produced a similar version of the subject in which the Solomon is a portrait of Philip II of Spain. The queen of Sheba is also memorialized in music. Handel and Goldmark both wrote operas and minuets about her adventurers.

The exotic, beautiful, clairvoyant Queen of the South, tantalizingly obscure in the first source to mention her, has cast her shadow over 2,000 years of history and all seven continents. Each time her story is told, it takes on the coloring of the culture which tells it. In the Jewish holy books, the queen is Jewish. In the Quran, she becomes Muslim. In the Christian legends, she is a Christian at heart a thousand years before Christ. For Ethiopians, Makeda is the mother of the royal line. The present-day religious movement of Rastafarians counts Sheba among its most important saints. The queen of Sheba has attracted such diverse devotees because she presents so many possibilities. She combines qualities that are glorious and praiseworthy, though dangerous in combination. She is the exemplary woman, but she also has properties of the ideal man: power, cunning, and autonomy. Yet, in every version of the queen's story, her perfection is somehow blemished. In the Quran and Old Testament, the queen is physically flawless, but ultimately she cannot match the great Solomon: "There was no more spirit left in her." In the Ethiopian and Christian legends, Makeda bests King Solomon, but her perfection is marred because she has the foot of an animal. Under the veneer of flawlessness lies a lust that even this model woman cannot control. Perhaps this larger-than-life Queen of the South has been a favorite of legend weavers because she was not quite ideal.


Bernard, Carlo, and Pierluig De Vex. L'opera complete del Tintoretto. Milan: Russell Editor, 1970.

Coke, Richard. Veronese. London: Jupiter Books, 1980.

Lightbown, Ronald. Piero della Francesca. NY: Abbeville Press, 1992.

Marcus, Harold G. A History of Ethiopia. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994.

Pankhurst, E.S., and R.K.P. Pankhurst. "Special Issue on the Queen of Sheba," in Ethiopian Observer. Vol. I, no. 6, 1957, pp. 178–204.

Warner, Marina. From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994.

Wheeler, Post. The Golden Legend of Ethiopia: The Love-Story of Makeda Virgin Queen of Axum and Sheba and Solomon the Great King. NY: D. Appleton-Century, 1936.

suggested reading:

Budge, E.A. Wallis. The Queen of Sheba and Her Only Son Menyelek. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1892.

Clapp, Nicholas. Sheba: Through the Desert in Search of the Legendary Queen. NY: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Devisse, Jean. The Image of the Black in Western Art, II from the Early Christian Era to the "Age of Discovery." Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

Hess, Robert T. The Modernization of Autocracy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970.

Serrano, Miguel. The Visits of the Queen of Sheba. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

Talmud. Steinsaltz Edition. NY: Random House, 1989.

Martha Rampton , Assistant Professor of History, Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon