BILQUIS, THE DJINN, AND THE QUEEN OF SHEBA: an Exploration of the demonization of women in the monotheistic culture, scripture, and cinema
Abstract: Herein will be discussed the place of Queen of Sheba/Bilquis and King Solomon/Suleiman in the Qua’ran. In starkly contrasting the portrayal of the Queen’s visitation/encounter with Suleiman in the Qua’ran with the event as depicted in the Hebrew Bible and the Ethiopian Kebra Nagast, I would like to explore how the nuances of the Islamic portrayal of the encounter speaks volumes about Islamic culture and Middle Eastern sociological perspectives concerning women. In addition, considering Western Europeanized depictions of these figures and this encounter through cinematic adaptations, the analysis is further enriched by the layers of interpretation shaped through Europeanized lenses, and what that means in terms of how the West chooses to portray Middle Eastern culture, religious figures, and relationships based in love, power, and politics.
Throughout history, women who have come to positions of power and absolute authority have been villainized. In the culture of the Middle East, the religious texts of Muslims, Jews, and Christians all make mention of King Solomon/Seleiman and an encounter he is recorded as having had with the Queen of Sheba of the Biblical 1 Kings 10 and the Quaran Surah 27 (significantly, she is also referred to in Luke 11 as coming to judge the wicked of the world in the Last Days). A Queen whose wisdom certainly equaled if not rivaled the wisdom attributed to Solomon, her magnificent riches and substantial land acquisition was truly unprecedented, especially in a time famed for its incredibly ambitious tyrants and prodigious male rulers. The Queen of Sheba was responsible for a land coveted for its advantageous position on the African and Middle Eastern trade routes and for its abundant, prized spices—a land whose location is disputed to this day, with some believing Sheba (or Saba) is in modern day Yemen and some attributing the Hebraic rendition of S’aba as Ethiopia. Male rulers, particularly in Egypt, sought to control her lands for the incredible profits inevitable from the lucrative trade of her spices and the possession of her gold.
In the Judeo-Christian Bible, the story of the Queen of Sheba’s meeting with King Solomon seems to be a chaste inquiry, perhaps a business transaction. Ultimately the Bible shapes their exchange of minds and goods as a meeting of equal, but independent sovereigns.
And when the queen of She’ba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of YHWH, she came to prove him with hard questions.
And she came to Jerusalem with a very great train, with camels that bare spices, and very much gold, and precious stones: and when she was come to Solomon, she communed with him of all that was in her heart.
And Solomon told her all her questions: there was not any thing hid from the king, which he told her not.
….Howbeit I believed not the words, until I came…and, behold, the half was not told to me: thy wisdom and prosperity exceedeth the fame which I heard.
….and she gave the king an hundred and twenty talents of gold, and of spices very great store, and precious stones: there came no more such abundance of spices as these which the queen of She’ba gave to King Solomon.
….And king Solomon gave unto the queen of She’ba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty. So she turned and went to her own country…
(1 Kings 10:1-3, 7, 10, 13; The Holy Bible, King James Version, italicised emphasis mine)
In the Hebrew rendition of their meeting, in fact, there is no hint of romance in the account, save for the ambiguity found in the line in which Solomon is said to have given her “all her desire.” Neither, for that matter, is much romance found in the version of their interaction found in the Qua’ran. In the Quar’an the story is more a tale of conversion; Suleiman is given a report by a hoopoe bird of the Kingdom of Sheba wherein the Queen and her people all worship the sun instead of Allah.
“Behold, I found [in Sheba] a woman ruling over them; and she has been given abundance of all good things, and hers is a mighty throne. And I found her and her people adoring the sun instead of Allah; and HaSatan has made these doings of theirs seem goodly to them, and thus has barred them from the path of Allah, so that they cannot find the right way….” (An-Naml/The Ants, Surah 27:23-24; The Qua’ran)
He entreats her in a letter to visit his kingdom and see why she should surrender to his Almighty. She consults her advisors who tell her, essentially, the choice is hers to answer the invitation. She sends a gift of her riches to Suleiman who, unlike in the Bible, does not receive it graciously but with mocking, proclaiming his wealth granted by Allah is better than hers, a patriarchal and belittling dismissal of her grandiose gift and her esteem in a tactic to further humble her to submit to his Allah. Before her arrival, Suleiman conjures one of the invisible spirit beings over which he has been granted magickal command to teleport her magnificent throne to his palace in order to beguile her. When she arrives to Suleiman’s palace and instantly recognizes her own throne, he marvels:
“She has arrived at the truth without any help from us, although it is we who have been given divine knowledge before her, and have long ago surrendered ourselves unto Allah! And she has recognized the truth although that which she has been wont to worship in stead of Allah had kept her away from the right path: for, behold, she is descended of people who deny the truth!”
(An-Naml/The Ants, Surah 27:42-43; The Qua’ran)
Finally, Suleiman gets the Queen Bilquis to submit to Allah (and to him, to an extent) by tricking her into thinking his palace floor was “a fathomless expanse of water (Surah 27:44),” and, after she raised her skirts to bare her legs, thus shaming herself in her exposure, she repents: “I have been sinning against myself by worshipping aught but Thee: but now I have surrendered myself, with Suleiman, unto the Sustainer of all the worlds! (Surah 27: 44)”
King Solomon’s portrayal as a trickster (a role he does not embody in the Biblical accounts) is commented upon by scholars (Miller, 2011), and expanded further in the Ethiopian Kebra Nagast. In this account, which makes explicit their romance and unequivocal their sexual affair and conception of a son, the Kebra Nagast weaves a spellbinding tale of Solomon’s deceit in order to sexually force her submission to him, pointedly after her submission to YHWH! In the Kebra Nagast, Queen Makeda has already been impressed by Solomon’s wisdom and his poetic reasoning with her persuades her that, indeed, it is the ultimate wisdom to surrender to YHWH’s worship instead of sun, moon, and stars she and her people worshipped prior. Satisfied in her own conversion to the Truth, she gets ready to leave back to her kingdom and her people, but Solomon, for his own selfish pleasures, asks her to stay:
“Will you go away without seeing the Kingdom and without dining with me?” And the Queen replied, “From being a fool I have become wise listening to your wisdom. Therefore, I shall stay according to your desire.” (Hausman, 1997, pg 92)
Taking her on a tour of his palace and his realm, he permits her access to specially reserved chambers where he lavishes upon her his best foods, and, in particular, ladens her with spicy entrées and drinks mingled with vinegar, without leaving her any water. He then comes to her chambers and bids her stay for the night.
And she said to him, “Swear to the God of Israel that you will not take me by force.” And Solomon answered, “I swear that I will not, but you must swear to me that you will not take, by force, any of my possessions.” The Queen laughed at hearing this, and replied, I have no need of your things, for as you know I am also very wealthy. Nonetheless I swear that I will not take any of your possessions.” And he swore to her and made her swear to him. The King went up on his bed on one side of the chamber. (Hausman, 1997, pg 92)
After the Queen falls asleep, Solomon has his servants place right between their two beds a pitcher of cool water. Feigning sleep, he lies silently until the Queen awakens with great thirst. As she goes to pour herself of the water, he rises from his bed and accuses her of breaking her oath:
“Why have you already broken your oath that you would not take, by force, anything in my house?”
“is the oath broken by my drinking water?”
“is there anything under heaven richer than water?”
“Then I have sinned against myself, and you are free of your oath,” she told him.
“I am free from the oath which you made me swear?”
“Yes, but please let me drink your water.”
So Solomon permitted her to drink and after she had drunk her fill, they made love and then slept together.
(Hausman, 1997, pg 93)
In the hypersensitivity of this post-#MeToo era, the scene reads more like forceful sexual coercion, the epitome of rape culture filtered through a Western context of understanding. Some, however, may read this as sensual and romantic, depending upon culture, era of history, and a plethora of other variables. One thing is clear: if you can’t beat them, join them, seems to be the motto by which men of great acclaim and pride gain satisfaction over independent, powerful women. Solomon, a man of tragic hubris whose lust for countless women is clearly exposed in the Biblical accounts, meets his downfall when his foreign, pagan concubines and wives turn his heart away from worshipping the One True God, the Most High YHWH of Israel. Thus, it is no surprise with his arrogance, charisma, and seduction, he seeks to possess the Queen of Sheba herself sexually, if he cannot get her to renounce (or share her throne) for him to possess Sheba itself, economically and politically.
…it is the Queen of Sheba’s political power that makes her dangerous enough to Solomon for him to find it necessary to subdue her. However, it is significant that the perversity of this power – wielded by a woman – is symbolised by the Queen’s hairy legs, by a blot on her beauty. Clearly, if she is so powerful than she cannot really be a woman. Beauty, therefore, is a manifestation of weakness and of femininity, two attributes which are irrevocably connected; in the Jewish Stories of Ben Sira, Solomon is able to sexually possess the Queen once her hairy legs have been made smooth, in an echo of Samson and Delilah – a story which offers a clear example of hair as a signifier for masculine strength, inappropriate for a woman. However, beauty tends to be described as a power, and the Queen’s seductive power is one of the factors that make her so dangerous. But it is perhaps a secondary power, ineffable in contrast to the actual physical strength of men, and once a woman’s beauty is sexually possessed it loses its influence and its threat. The revealing of the Queen’s hairy legs at the moment when she is fooled by the glass floor also connects her hairiness – the imperfection of her beauty – to the fallibility of her wisdom. Both her vaunted beauty and intellect are undermined in a single motion, suggesting a link between the two which is not often proposed. (Hart)
The Queen Makeda/Bilquis threatens Solomon as a woman precisely because she, like her land of Sheba/S’aba is unconquered(Hart). Men have since times immemorial referred to land, Earth itself, in the feminine. Just as the flag planted on the Moon, men have always penetrated the grounds they’ve conquered with the phallic points of flags of victory, just as they penetrate the womb of Earth with their tools to plant seeds as well as to dig graves. The womb of wom(b)an is often seen as the vessel of life, receiving man’s seed to bring forth mankind from the chamber of birth—indeed, the first palace. Indeed, too, the womb is also, according to Freudian analysis, also a tomb(Braun, Wilkinson, 2001)—the subconscious fear of the vagina dentata is a primal fear of men (Vachani, 2009) that, by defining it through Psychoanalytical theory, does little to assuage them of the ambivalence of disappearing (literally) into a woman during coitus. As the only territory that hadn’t been forced to surrender to Solomon and Israel, it is fitting that, according to legend, before meeting Solomon, Queen Makeda/Bilquis was, too, commonly regarded as a virgin whose loyalty had been solely to her duty to her people for whom she’d never wavered for the love of a man. It is intriguing that, in honor of her prestigious, pristine Holy lineage, Ethiopia to this day has never been invaded or colonized as the rest of Africa has been.
Her power and the expanse of her land was formidable and, to the fragile male ego, quite frightening. Without a King or even a male consort, she was a Mystery to male rulers and men in general, a force to be reckoned with, a confidence sought to be cut down, an autonomy abhorrent just as “The Virgin Queen” Elizabeth I of England must have been centuries later. This is referenced in a quite tongue-in-cheek manner in the television show American Gods, based on the literature of Neil Gaiman, in which Bilquis is portrayed as a succubus-like demoness who revels in consuming men—and killing them—with[in] her vagina. This Queen was such a threat that both Hebrew and Islamic sources and commentaries outside of the Bible and Qua’ran question with incredulity whether she is truly even a human woman. Both Midrashic and Talmudic Rabbis and historical Islamic scholars and interpreters of the hadiths have asserted that Queen [Bilquis] of Sheba is the daughter of a King and a djinn or demon. The portrayal of the Queen as a half-djinn demigoddess type of entity seems to be a sad aggrandizement used to not only demonize her, but save face in a sense, that Solomon was not outdone or rejected by a woman immensely powerful in her own right. Insufficient to leave well enough alone and let a woman be rightfully credited for her own brilliance, military strategy, trade and market acumen, and spiritual/intuitive genius, it seems men of the Middle East saw fit to comfort themselves in the faulty logic that, of course, she must have been something other than simply a glorious woman.
In the whitewashed cinematic adaptations of her tale, they perpetuate the need to preface her arrival on the screen with lurid tales of her inhumane origins and give her a ferocious countenance. In 1952’s Italian treatment “Queen of Sheba/Raina d’Saba,” the son of Solomon is speaking with two prisoners from Sheba, veritably feverish over fantasies about this fabled Queen while Solomon stands aloof, eavesdropping. In this version, her father is still on the throne and she is yet a young girl, but the men rave about her beauty—hair black as raven, skin perfumed with jasmine—yet also wonder at the rumors that “she handles the bow and spear like the god of war and when she rides her stallion, she even rivals the wind,” as well as the myths that “her mother left her in the desert and she was suckled by a lioness!” In the well-known and acclaimed 1959 American epic Solomon and Sheba, starring Yul Brenner and Gina Lollobrigida, the Queen of Sheba is portrayed as a femme fatale-like Temptress. In this sumptuous Technicolor version she is played (wondrously, I may add, despite the obviously racist ethnic inaccuracy) as a sensual witch, as seductive as she is cruel. In fact, during her first onscreen appearance, gorgeous as she is, she scowls like a tigress and lashes Solomon’s brother Adonijah with her whip several times, smiting his face and striking him to the dust. Of course a woman can not be powerful without violence, intelligent without cruelty, in patriarchal minds (the screenwriters and film directors, as much as those who twisted her story in Islamic and Talmudic accounts) of the same ilk that crafted bloody lies to demonize Olympias, mother of Alexander the Great. 1959’s framing of the Queen’s intrigue with Solomon is concerned with presenting their encounter as one tense with hidden motives: the Queen is initially seducing and bewitching Solomon to discover his weakness in order that his enemies in Egypt may overtake them, promising the Queen, for her assistance, more territory along the Nile. Eventually, however, she genuinely finds herself in love with him, pregnant with his child, and converts to his God, The Most High YHWH of the Israelites (called “Jehovah” in this film).
In 1952’s Queen of Sheba, her virginity is explained in a scene depicting a somber ritual of her consecration and installation on the throne, following her father’s death. In the scene, a priest invokes Chemosh, a god mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, and Bilquis placed inside a talismanic star surrounded by female servants and companions. As the Crown is placed on her head, she is adorned in her Royal robes and her waist girded with the braided belt, the yoke of her vow to honor her position as sole Queen sovereign. During this rite of installation, the priest prays to Chemosh over Bilquis in words eerily similar to wedding vows: “What therefore I have joined together, let no hand of man untie.” He goes on declaring that Bilquis, as Queen, is now “sanctuary of the Mysteries, instrument of [Chemosh’s] celestial potency” and warns she shall have no other husband, now wed to him. She is instructed “never shall the lips of man touch yours, never shall the caress of man profane your body…” Her commitment is as Bride only to her god, her only obligation not to a King, but to her Kingdom.
In 1995’s Solomon and Sheba, starring Jimmy Smits and Halle Berry in the titular roles, the film thankfully displays more authenticity aesthetically and stylistically, with the caramel brown skinned Halle Berry as the Queen of Sheba—her name called Nicaulne in his version—in a casting decision that at least reflects a complexion akin to that of the actual Ethiopians. In this version, Berry dons authentic Ethiopian garbs, not the ridiculously Westernized—albeit highly glamorous—costumes of the 1950s’ whitewashed versions. In this version, Nicaulne becomes Queen when she murders a traitor in her father’s army that has staged a coup, killing her father, and seeks to forcibly make her his wife. Seeking Solomon not to seduce but to shrewdly and sensibly strengthen her trade alliances, here she is a Virgin because she has no desire for man, dedicating herself, swooning, in poetic prayers to the Moon with offerings of incense. Later, when Jimmy Smits’ Solomon seduces her, reciting lines from the Biblical Song of Songs (said to be written by Solomon to a “Shulamite/Shunnamite maiden”), she trembles before him in a beautiful, sensitive portrayal of nervous surrender and inexperienced uncertainty. In this adaptation, Nicaulne as played by Berry introduces herself in brilliant subterfuge dressing up as a male servant, disguising herself to enter Solomon’s court to observe his judgements. Solomon soon displays his wisdom to discover her identity, instructing her to wash her hands and finds, as he suspected, she does not know how to wash “as a man.” Helping Solomon find the “gold of Ophir” (despite him already having gained possession of such gold and the lands of Ophir before even meeting the Queen in 1 Kings 9:28), after this excursion, her loyalty is tested and won while, inevitably, the two fall in a gentle, but passionate, love.
In 1997, another television adaptation of the story was produced under the name Solomon, starring Vivica A. Fox as the Queen of Sheba to Ben Cross’s King Solomon. Lavishly produced, Fox’s casting as the Queen of Sheba—this time named Makeda—is perhaps her finest, yet most overlooked and underrated film role of her career. Radiantly beautiful, arrayed in stunning costumes that are yet not too gaudy, her soft spoken rendition of Queen Makeda is utterly, refreshingly feminine, effortlessly charming.
This version is perhaps the most faithful to the Hebrew Bible and Ethiopic Kebra Nagast. Portraying Fox’s Queen Makeda as genuinely interested in experiencing Solomon’s wisdom without ulterior motives, the unravelling of their love is not a seduction on either side but a mutual, warm attraction, based on equally reciprocated respect for each other’s wisdom. A love that is written and acted as sincerely based in mutual admiration and honor, she neither seduces Solomon (as Gina Lollobrigida’s Queen, with delicious ruthlessness and ritualistic determination, did), nor does he seduce her (as Nicaulne was entrapped by the heavy-lidded, smoldering glances of Jimmy Smits’ Solomon). Seeming to truly, ecstatically love one another, they are torn apart when Solomon’s priests forbid him to name Makeda’s son as his heir because she is a foreign wife and convert, not of the tribes of Israel born under the Law of YHWH. Despite being disappointed her son by Solomon would not be granted the title of heir, Queen Makeda retains her dignity and is quite clear she never intended to give up her throne or her country to share Solomon’s throne as Queen of Israel. With elegant restraint, she returns home with Solomon’s son.
Admirably, this 1997 film version leaves an opening for viewers to make the connections with Ethiopia’s Kebra Nagast. This rendition also lends credence and representation to the Ethiopian tradition of the Solomonic Dynasty claimed by the Ethiopian Jews. This Ethiopian lineage is most significant as well for the Jamaican Rastafarians who worship Emperor Haile Selassie as their alternative to Yahoshua the Messiah (Christ), regarding Selassie as their Messiah, born of the lineage of David through Solomon and Queen Makeda of Sheba.
Conclusively, in exploring the various representations of the famed Queen of Sheba through Scriptural, literary, cinematic, and televised adaptations of her life and mythos, we inherently confront not only a woman, but a woman as a sociological phenomena. As a shapeshifter—Queen, Seductress, Succubus, Spy, and Submissive—she is as much shaped by the shifting ideologies of the passage of time and the changing of religions, rulership and culture. The Queen of Sheba is an embodiment of the ways patriarchal paradigms necessitate the villainising and discrediting of awe-inspiring female sovereigns and astute businesswomen. The Queen of Sheba, like many archetypes of commanding women, is sexualised and demonised by male interpreters of her story in ways that make them feel more comfortable, seeking to control her by rewriting her, and seeking to divide her Estate and Empire and belittle her Legacy by emphasising her ultimate submission—whether to King Solomon or an Almighty Masculine God.
Braun, V., & Wilkinson, S. (2001). Socio-cultural representations of the vagina. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 19(1), 17-32.
Elias, J. J. (2009). Prophecy, Power and Propriety: The Encounter of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. Journal of Qur’anic Studies, 11(1), 57-74.
Hart, Carina. “The Queen of Sheba’s Hairy Legs.” March 2, 2014. Beautiful In Theory https://beautifulintheory.com/2014/03/02/the-queen-of-shebas-hairy-legs/
Hausmann, G. (1997). The Kebra Nagast: The Lost Bible of Rastafarian Wisdom and Faith from Ethiopia and Jamaica.
Miller, R. D. (2011). Solomon the trickster. Biblical Interpretation, 19, 496-504.
Vachhani, S. (2009). Vagina dentata and the demonological body: explorations of the feminine demon in organisation. Bits of organization, 24, 163.
 In the Antiquities of Josephus, a collection of writings of 13th century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, her name is alleged to have been “Nicaulnis”