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.
Betty Blythe as the Queen of Sheba, 1921
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.
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.