Written and artistic representations of the Queen of Sheba are as diverse as the theories about her origins. Facts on the Queen of Sheba are challenging to ascertain, especially since historians can't agree as to whether she even existed, but her presence in religious and cultural traditions attests to her continued allure.
Much like other women who appear in the Bible with little to no explanation, the story of the Queen of Sheba includes mythical and magical elements that draw on earlier traditions. Present in Jewish, Muslim, and Christian texts, as well as African and Arabic folktales, the Queen of Sheba is the inspiration behind many film, television, and literary heroines. She is esteemed across many cultures for her legendary wisdom.
The story of the Queen of Sheba is full of mysterious tales that transcend both time and theology.
According to Jewish legend, King Solomon hears about the mysterious Queen of Sheba's goat-like hairy leg. He wants to see it for himself and invites the queen to visit him. She resists at first, but ultimately decides to see Solomon in Jerusalem. When she arrives, she brings a large entourage, gifts, spices, and other luxurious goods.
Solomon, still interested in the hairiness he's heard so much about, tricks the queen into showing him her disfigurement. In one version, the king observes the goat-like leg magically transform into a human leg as she walks across the floor in front of him, but in other tellings, he orders his servants to concoct a depilatory that the queen uses to get rid of the hair. After the queen applies the salve, most likely made of lime and arsenic, the king has relations with her.
In some cultures, hair on a woman is associated with lesbianism or the Devil. At times, it's referenced to lessen the importance and power of a woman. In the Bible, hair often appears in the context of physical and intellectual prowess, although this association usually applies to men.
In the Bible, the Queen of Sheba hears about the wisdom of King Solomon and wants to put it to the test: "She came to test Solomon with hard questions. Arriving at Jerusalem with a very great caravan... she came to Solomon and talked with him about all that she had on her mind. Solomon answered all her questions; nothing was too hard for the king to explain to her."
The queen likes what she hears and is in awe of the king's thriving kingdom. She tells Solomon that he has the Lord's support and approval and gives him "gold, large quantities of spices, and precious stones. Never again were so many spices brought in as those the Queen of Sheba gave to King Solomon." She becomes a follower of Christianity, an action that may explain the historical origins of the faith in Ethiopia.
In the Jewish tradition, there is a collection of homilies on the Book of Esther called the Targum Sheni, or Second Targum. The targum contains the questions the Queen of Sheba supposedly asks King Solomon to test his wisdom.
The first riddle asks, "What is a well of wood, a pail of iron which draws up stones and pours out water?" Solomon replies that it is a tube of makeup.
The second riddle asks, "What is that which comes from the earth as dust, the food of which is dust, which is poured out like water, and which looketh toward the house?" Solomon chooses naphtha, a flammable oil.
The final riddle asks, "What is that which precedeth all, like a general; which crieth loudly and bitterly; the head of which is like a reed; which is the glory of the rich and the shame of the poor, the glory of the [passed] and the shame of the living; the joy of the birds and the sorrow of the fishes?" The answer: flax.
In other versions of the exchange between the Queen of Sheba and Solomon, she states, "Seven depart, nine enter; two pour, one drinks." The king responds, "Seven days of woman's uncleanness, nine months of pregnancy; two breasts of the mother at which the child is nourished."
The Queen of Sheba then posits, "A woman saith unto her son, 'Thy father is my father, thy grandfather my husband; thou art my son; I am thy sister.'" The king's answer: "This mother is one of the daughters of Lot, who were with child by their father."
In every version, Solomon's answers are satisfactory to the queen.
In one Jewish and Arabian myth, the Queen of Sheba is a genie or djinn, a half-human, half-demon creature. As a demonic witch, she is associated with Lilith, Adam's first wife according to The Alphabet of Ben Sira. Lilith, the Queen of the Demons, also has origins in pre-Christian traditions and was vilified throughout the Middle Ages as a dangerous temptress.
Both Lilith and the Queen of Sheba are seductresses in Jewish tradition, but they are also celebrated as feminists. According to lore, Lilith and the Queen of Sheba are self-sufficient women who don't need men to support them, nor do they let men control their destinies.