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Our Lady of Weirdness: The Queen of Sheba

"Where are the kings? A thousand kings have sunk into the dust and now rest under the ground in vaults and in tombs.
Their monuments all through the land still tell of their deeds, and their fame is spread like the wafting fragrance of
Or where indeed is Bilqis, she of the mighty throne, she of the tower, higher than all towers?"
-- Nashwan bin Said al-Himyari (d. 1178)

Where indeed? Most likely, she is buried somewhere under the sands of Yemen. Or Ethiopia. Or somewhere else
entirely. Or perhaps she still lives, in scripture and in darker legendry, waiting for those wise enough -- or foolish
enough -- to pay her court. Let's not keep her waiting.

"And when the queen of Sheba heard of the fame of Solomon concerning the name of the Lord, 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. And when the
queen of Sheba had seen all Solomon's wisdom, and the house that he had built . . . and his ascent by which he went up
unto the house of the Lord; there was no more spirit in her. And she said to the king, It was a true report that I heard
in mine own land of thy acts and of thy wisdom. . . . 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 Sheba gave to king Solomon. . . . And king Solomon gave unto the queen of Sheba 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, she and
her servants."
-- I Kings 10:1-13

The Queen of Sheba bursts on the scene in the first Book of Kings (and, for those playing at home, again in First
Chronicles) as if we were supposed to know who she was. True, the Bible sneaks "Sheba" (which could come from a
word meaning "plenty," or in a less likely reading, "seven" or "oath") into the list of Genesis 10 nations, albeit in such
a fashion that it could refer to about three different places, and they have a rep in the various prophets for wealth and
misbehavior, like most Biblical foreigners. But about the Queen herself, we have just a dozen verses to play with. In
Sura 27, "the Ant," the Koran adds another two dozen to the story. In this version, Solomon's servitor, the hoopoe bird,
brings him the news of a rich queen in Sheba who worships the sun instead of Allah; when she bribes him to go away,
Solomon threatens her with destruction unless she converts. She travels to Jerusalem; while on the way, Solomon's
djinn carry her throne to his palace, where she recognizes it. When entering Solomon's chambers, she mistakes a
crystal floor for a pool of water, and hikes up her dress to cross it, exposing her legs. Solomon reveals the illusion, and
she converts to the worship of Allah immediately.

But even gossiping hoopoes and glass floors can only take us so far -- we must leave the comfort of divine revelation
for the mists of legend. Both Islamic and Jewish traditions embroidered the story of the Queen of Sheba, giving her a
name (Bilqis, or Balkis, which seemingly defies etymology but may be vaguely related to blm, meaning "incense"), a
back story (she murdered an evil king and conned his advisers into making her queen), and hairy legs (which the glass
floor reveals to Solomon). In this version, her conversion follows Solomon's invention of a depilatory, which restores
her to full, smooth beauty. Similarly embroidered tradition (if not scholarship) identifies the anonymous "Shulamite
woman" of the erotic Song of Solomon with the Queen of Sheba, which begins to hint that there was more going on
between her and Solomon than spices and riddle games.

"A few years ago, the existence of [the Queen of] Sheba's Ma'rib (and Sirwah in her era) was equally in question. Yes,
there was a Sabean civilization and yes, it was grand, but it was of no consequence before 600 or 700 B.C. This
appraisal was widely agreed on -- and, as is now known, totally in error."
-- Nicholas Clapp, Sheba (2001)

In fact, the Ethiopian Kebra Nagast names the Queen Makeda ("the fiery one"), and explicitly states that not only did
she and Solomon get it on, she bore a son, Menelik, from their union who became the first emperor of Ethiopia.

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(Menelik then stole the Ark of the Covenant from his dad, since Ethiopia was now the Holy Land.) And indeed, there
are Jewish elements to Ethiopian ritual, and even Ethiopian Jewish communities, that provably predate 600 B.C. (or
even a century earlier). The Queen, if she did in fact meet Solomon, would have lived around 950 B.C., give or take a
decade. At that time, as it happened, Ethiopian culture was beginning to feel the infusion of writing, worship, and trade
from Yemen across the Red Sea -- from the land known to historians as Saba. Which is to say, Sheba. Well-watered
by a massive dam and sophisticated irrigation systems (a land of "plenty"), Saba was a center of the trade in
frankincense, and seemingly convenient to the "gold of Ophir" elsewhere in Arabia; other "spices" and the "precious
stones" likely came from India on the monsoon trade. The "Mahram Bilqis," a temple of the moon, rises from the sand
at Ma'rib, Saba's ancient capital. No regnant queen has appeared in the Sabean inscriptions, but Strabo observed that
the kings of "Arabia Felix" ("Arabia the Happy") in that region a few centuries later were restricted by taboo from
leaving their palaces. Perhaps the Sabean mukarrib Yakrubmalik, nervous about the Phoenecian navies nosing around
his spice trade but unable to lose face by leaving his city, sent his beautiful (and hard-nosed) queen to negotiate with
the Phoenecians' hill-country muscle, and made history, or at least scripture.

"The first thing I noticed was the fact that below our feet was only dry dirt. No vegetation grew in the expanse that had
been demarcated with concrete pillars. We approached a roped-off area and were told that this was the gravesite of
Birikisu Sungbo, the Queen of Sheba. According to our nonagenarian guide, no plant had ever grown on this ground
since they had placed her body beneath it. The roped-off area was around 18 feet long, a length which we were
informed Birikisu's body covered completely, for the queen was a giant."
-- Zachariah Cherian Mampilly, "The Queen of Sheba's African Roots"

Unless, of course, we've got Sheba in the wrong place. The Bible, after all, also puts "Sheba" rather closer to Solomon
(and to Arabian gold mines) in Midian, across the sea from the Sinai Peninsula, and unlike Saba, Midian has a series -
- a dynasty, in fact -- of historically attested queens going back at least to the 8th century B.C. A different Arabic
legend places the Queen of Sheba's tomb at Palmyra, another desert trading town with a history of active queens.
Addled classical historians put Balkis in Baalbek, but if her majesty's name comes from "Baal" and not from blm, then
a Syrian or Mesopotamian Sheba may be in order -- and better fit other Biblical descriptions of Sheba as "in the east."
There are the confusingly-named Sabians of Harran in southeastern Turkey, named in the Koran, from whence the
Three Magi may have come -- the Sabians are famous astrologers, and of course the Magi have long been linked to the
Queen, that earlier royal figure who also traveled to Jerusalem with gold and frankincense. Josephus identifies her as
Nikaulis, "Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia," from whence Velikovsky decides that Hatshepsut is the Queen of Sheba
(rather overplaying the similarities between "shepsu" and "Sheba") and her voyage to "Punt" was a trip to see Solomon
only a few dozen miles away and 540 years downstream. And once we're back in Africa and unmoored from
archaeology, it's only a hop, skip, and a jump to the Eredo ruins in Nigeria, massive earthworks where the locals point
to the tomb of "Birikisu Sungbo," the Queen of Sheba.

"Lead of the philosophers in which is the shining white dove, which is called the salt of metals, and in which consists
the teaching of the work. This is that chaste, wise, and rich Queen of Sheba clothed in a white veil."
-- Guillaume Mennens, Aurei Velleris (1604)

Nigerian, Ethiopian, or even Yemeni, the legend remains glorious, if obscure. In the words of the Song of Solomon,
she is "black but comely," or as the alchemists put it, a veiled Queen, or a "shining dove" concealed in lead. In short,
she is, as her Ma'rib temple proclaims, the new moon -- the month of Shebat in the Hebrew calendar. (The Aramaeans
apparently had a moon goddess named Shayba, to boot.) In her union with Solomon, we see the Alchemical Marriage
of sun and moon, of Red King and Black Queen. The alchemist Abufalah of Syracuse said that she brought the
Philosopher's Stone to Solomon; others say she brought him the green glass Grail now preserved in Genoa. (Perhaps
this is why St. Bernard of Clairvaux, patron of the Templars, wrote 280 sermons on the Song of Solomon.) Alchemists
knew her as the "South Wind," and as the aurora consurgens, the rising dawn. Which may be why the former
alchemist Aquinas' final meditation, the Aurora, is dedicated to the Song of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, who he
quotes as saying: "Reigning I will reign, and my kingdom shall have no end for all them that find me and subtly and
ingeniously and constantly seek me out."

On the other hand -- or hoof -- there remains the darkness over the light. The Queen of Sheba's "hairy legs" are,
traditionally, the mark of Lilith, the vampiric first wife of Adam and queen of the demons. According to the alchemist

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Commenius, the Queen of Sheba's veil was a spider web (remember Biluku, the Andaman spider goddess?) and her
bloated body stank of asafoetida. The German scholar Erich Zehren maintains that the Queen of Sheba was actually the
dark goddess Astarte, whom Solomon worships in 1 Kings 11:15. Other traditions make it even more explicit; Bilqis
was the daughter of a djinn, and had the legs (or feet) of a goat, or of an ass. In this version, Solomon sees her legs
when she walks into a pond -- which she must do because the only bridge will eventually become the True Cross. She
is, in short, a demon -- Flaubert makes her the incarnation of Lust, in the Temptation of St. Anthony, betrayed by her
malformed foot. In the Ethiopian legend, her foot is scarred by being dipped in the blood of a dragon -- which may be
where she learns to talk with Solomon's hoopoe. In medieval European imagery, she somehow gets the feet of a goose,
and is known as La Reine Pédauque, the "goose footed queen." (This might be Green Language for La Reine du Pays
d'Oc, "queen of Languedoc," or queen of the Cathars; or it might be a scribal misprint of anserinus "goose" for asinus
"ass.") In this guise, she links with goose-footed Bertha of the Big Foot (a sasquatch, also, has hairy legs), the
Merovingian mother of Charlemagne -- and avatar of Berchta, the Queen of the Dead.

"The Queen of the South, such as I saw her in my dreams . . . crowned with stars . . . her face is olive-tinted . . . one
foot is on a bridge, the other on a wheel . . . one hand rests on the highest rock of the mountains in the Yemen, the
other stretched out to the heavens . . . On the peak of the highest mountain of the Yemen, a wonderful bird is singing in
a cage . . . it is the talisman of the new age . . . Leviathan with black wings . . . Beyond the sea there rises another peak
. . . ."
-- Gerard de Nerval, Aurélia (1853)

On this Merovingian tack, the Prieuré poet Gerard de Nerval was driven mad by the Black Queen, who he called
Aurélia, and hanged himself with the manuscript to her eponymous novella in his pocket. Golden Dawn poet William
Butler Yeats remained fascinated with the Queen of Sheba his whole life. Perhaps the Black Queen is also the Dark
Lady of Shakespeare's sonnets, who may have inspired his Cleopatra, another "Queen of Egypt and Ethiopia." From
Dark Lady to "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" of Keats, sucking his blood out through tuberculosis. The vampiric hairy-
legged Lilith, as Isaiah 34 explains, dwells in a waste land, a "habitation for dragons and a court for owls" (neatly
tying in our whole bird-dragon thing again). Perhaps she dwells in Sheba, laid waste after the bursting of the dam at
Ma'rib (which happened during the life of Mohammed -- perhaps Gabriel took care of some unfinished business while
dictating the Koran). Prieuré agent André Malraux claimed to have flown over the Queen's city in 1934, seeing "twenty
towers" on the edge of the Rub' al-Khali. Perhaps the Queen of Sheba is the Queen of Irem as well? Jesus prophesied
her apocalyptic return in Matthew 12:42: "The Queen of the South will rise up at the Judgement when this generation
is on trial." Bilqis, Lilith, Astarte, Cybele . . . when Irem rises from the sand, and the sphinxes walk, will the Black
Queen of Frankincense with the goatlike hair return in terrible power? Iä! Iä! Sheba-Niggurath!

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