The Queen of Sheba’s Hairy Legs

There is a consensus that the Queen of Sheba did exist, but it is some of the myths surrounding her that have really endured. The tale goes that she was a powerful Queen ruling one of the only lands not yet conquered by the great King Solomon. In some versions she hears of his unsurpassed wisdom and goes with gifts and riddles to test him; in others, he hears of her wisdom and demands that she submit to his rule and religion. Either way, in her visit to the King she demonstrates wit and intellect but is bested by Solomon, who easily answers all her riddles, and she submits to him.

The story of the Queen of Sheba has diverged into three primary strands: the Ethiopian, the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Islamic tradition. There is historical evidence to suggest that the Queen of Sheba came from what is now Ethiopia, and her legend has long been a central part of the national identity. The Jewish and Christian tradition arises from the fairly brief account of the meeting of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon in the Bible (1 Kings 10:1-2), and scholars in this tradition hold that the land of Sheba was nation enriched by the incense trade (the Queen gives frankincense and myrrh to Solomon) located in present-day Yemen. However, the Jewish story of the Queen later enriched iteself by adopting parts from the racier Islamic tradition.

It is the Islamic tradition that developed the endlessly intriguing myth of the Queen of Sheba’s hairy legs.

1921-betty-blythe-as-the-queen-of-sheba-in-the-retronaut-1363306888_b

Betty Blythe as the Queen of Sheba, 1921
(http://www.pictify.com)

In 1993 this image was reworked in a short story by Marina Warner (in The Mermaids in the Basement), and it continues to be a provocative metaphor for the deceptive and dangerous nature of beauty (and often by extension women).

In the Qur’an the Queen’s legs do appear, but we only hear that on entering Solomon’s palace she sees that the floor appears to be a a long glistening pool of water. She hitches up her skirts to wade through, finding to her surprise that it is merely polished glass. As Barbara Freyer Stowasser points out, merely having shown her legs is enough for the Queen to exclaim, “I have committed an outrage against myself. Now I submit [in Islam] together with Solomon to God” (64, passage from the Qur’an, Sura 27:43).

In later Islamic versions of the story the glass floor is specifically intended to trick the Queen into showing her legs, so that Solomon can ascertain the truth of the rumours that the beautiful Queen of Sheba hides the hairy legs of a devil under her sumptuous skirts. In the Targum Sheni Solomon exclaims on seeing the Queen’s legs:

“You are a beautiful woman but hairiness is for men”
(in Lassner 16-17).

In Jacob Lassner’s analysis 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. In this case Lassner’s emphasis on power as the Queen’s central attribute enables the interpretation that:

the Queen’s beauty and wisdom are, in this story, ciphers for her political power, which is really the only thing under discussion.

She presents a threat to the all-powerful Solomon, by ruling the last kingdom not under his dominion – that she is a woman adds to the insult. Her unrivalled beauty and intelligence express the superlative power which is so alarming to Solomon, but the metaphorical conflation of these three, beauty/wisdom/power, means that if one of these is undermined then the whole edifice will collapse. All of the riddles she poses to Solomon, which test his ability to see through disguised appearances, are analogies of the larger deception which she embodies. The sight of her hairy legs destroys the illusion of her perfect beauty, which has been metaphorically bound up with her unsurpassed wisdom – also compromised by her own deception by the glass floor – and her daunting political power which is predicated on these attributes falls in tatters at Solomon’s feet.

The implication of this argument is that beauty is only powerful in a metaphorical sense.

So it has no direct influence of its own but represents, and functions in collusion with, financial, social or political power. This may offer an explanation to the question agonised over by philosophers of aesthetics, as to the ineffability and mystery of beauty – provoking such powerful feeling and yet so impossible to comprehend as an actual thing, so difficult to categorise or explain. If beauty is encountered in connection to various forms of power, as a visual manifestation of them and a way of aestheticising their workings – in the process assimilating the trappings of power to itself – does that mean that our analysis of beauty must always study it in context, taking into account the various factors that give it its power, and in relation to which beauty finds temporary form and significance? I think the idea that beauty is always affixed to other attributes is both enticing (as a way to study beauty beyond the philosophical abstract) and requiring further interrogation, but to always analyse beauty in its specific context seems like a very sensible thing to do. After all, it is clear that the Queen of Sheba’s hairy legs are more than just an advertisement for Venus razors.

Sources:
Lassner, Jacob. Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: Boundaries of Gender and Culture in Postbiblical Judaism and Medieval Islam. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Stowasser, Barbara Freyer. Women in the Qur’an, Traditions, and Interpretation. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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7 responses to “The Queen of Sheba’s Hairy Legs

  • Vivienne

    This very interesting blog post made me think of two points immediately. The first is the semi-legendary status of the Queen of Sheba. As you point out, she is set up to be a testing rival to Solomon. Smart enough to put him onto the back foot; beautiful enough to get him hot under the collar. Nonetheless, he prevails, and then she submits to him. There seems nothing here other than a simple trope: nobody is cool enough to flummox Solomon, who can make any woman swoon.

    There seem to be some grains of truth in the legends, but one wonders, if they really did meet, whether there actually was a rivalry, rather than just some boring exchange of regal platitudes. And if there were a battle of wits, whether the contest was all as one-sided as the embellishments would suggest.

    The second point concerns the beauty of legendary women in the past (Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, the Queen of Sheba). How would they measure up today if we could see them in their prime? I suspect most modern ideals of beauty are very culture-specific, i.e. the body shapes, hairstyles and other attributes which we value as beautiful, might provoke a much less powerful reaction in other cultures.

    I suspect that many of the poets and artists who have gone into rapture over the beauty of these women never so much as clapped eyes on them. And it is likely that their physical beauty was only part of the whole package; the rest being their status and power and refinement and privilege.

    Our modern values of beauty are so different that I believe that if we were to see Helen of Troy or Cleopatra today, we might be pushed to see what all the fuss was about. We happen to value hairless bodies in women now (which is why the story about the Queen of Sheba having hairy legs is funny; though as you allude above, it was probably intended to represent a demonic side to her character rather than the absence of a recent leg waxing). A lot of women are actually quite hairy normally, and I have read that deliberate shaving of legs only became common when stockings became scarce during WW2.

    Therefore the Queen of Sheba probably DID have hairy legs, and hairy pits as well. And as for what her bikini line looked like, I can’t possibly imagine.

    Vivienne.

  • carinaintheory

    I believe the history of hair removal is a very interesting one (!) – as you say, leg/pit shaving for women did only arise in the mid-20th century, but I read that it was largely a ‘trend’ invented by Gillette, whose sales were struggling, who then managed to turn it into a ‘requirement’. I’m not sure how much proof there is, or could be, for that argument though.

    Going further back, I’ve also read that the ancient Greeks used hot stones to singe off their pubic hair (ouch!), so there was hair removal, but I don’t think it was all that common. I agree that if the Queen of Sheba did exist, she probably had hairy legs! What is weird is the incredibly long-lasting beauty ideal of the hairless woman, even if it hasn’t always been so prevalent.

    Another thing I’ve read (I know, I have no knowledge of my own), was that Cleopatra was quite likely to have been a redhead, since she descended from fair-complexioned Greeks. Not at all how we imagine her now! Beauty, like history, seems to contain far more fiction than we like to admit…

    Thanks for the insightful comment! I have been enjoying your blog too.

    • Vivienne

      Hi Carina,

      I am delighted that you are enjoying my blog. Please do comment on anything which interests you.

      Interesting that Cleopatra may have been a redhead; always my favourite hair colour! (I wonder if she had a temper on her?)

      I was thinking more about this issue, and my next question is: why (or when) did long hair for women become feminine? In the Lord of the Rings films, all the races have long hair (elves, dwarves, men) except hobbits who tend to have shorter, curly hair. Elves and hobbits are beardless. Dwarves have rich luxuriant beards (including the women, according to Gimli) and the men (such as Aragorn, Boromir, and Théoden) have light beards. Aragorn is not in the least feminine, despite his flowing locks and piercing blue eyes.

      I can see how in human society (as with nails) long hair is impractical when doing a lot of physical work, or fighting, where it might get in the way. Women and aristocrats might sport long hair (and nails) as an illustration of their status: look at me, I don’t have to work with my hands, so I can grow my nails long. Likewise, I pay people to do my fighting for me, so I can grow my hair long safely.

      Relics of this persist in the legal profession in the UK, where high-ranking lawyers still wear elaborate legal wigs (which look ridiculous, IMHO), (leading to the term “bigwig” perhaps?). One can tell the status of a lawyer by the length of his or her legal wig.

      The only race I have any historical knowledge of in this regard is the Romans, whose men were clean shaven with short hair. For them, this was a sign of civilisation, and probably had some practical value in terms of being easy to keep clean and neat.

      Have you got any light to shed on this question?

      Vivienne.

  • carinaintheory

    Hi Vivienne, that is an excellent question. Would you mind if I use the idea for a blogpost? Do say no if you want to write about it yourself! I will look into it, and see if wealth and status are the primary drivers in valuing long hair, or if there are other influences. I have read about hair being a symbol of fertility, so will revisit that. Watch this space, and thanks for the idea!

  • Cleopatra was a Redhead: A History of Hair | Beautiful in Theory

    […] to a conversation with fellow blogger Vivienne of Bluestocking Blue (on this post), I have been doing some research. Vivienne asked about the beauty politics of hair: what is it […]

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