When I first encountered it as a schoolgirl, The Song of Solomon seemed the most exciting and erotic poem I had ever read, and the figure of Sheba intrigued me far more than the king. It was years before I realised that the legend of their meeting is one of the first examples of a female challenge to traditional definitions of gender and the relationship of the sexes. My new collection of poems, Burning Wire, published this autumn, contains a long sequence inspired by the legend.
News of a powerful queen who reigned over a rich country far to the south had been brought to Solomon by his favourite hoopoe, and his invitation to her was carried back by the same bird. Sheba, who had been the sole ruler since she killed her husband on their wedding night, ignored the advice of her ministers and set out from her country (probably the Yemen in the Semitic and Christian versions, Abyssinia in the Ethiopian) with a caravan of gifts, to determine if what she had heard about Solomon was true.
As well as being the richest and most powerful man alive, obeyed by all the birds of the air, beasts of the desert and field, and every demon and djinn, King Solomon was also reputed to be the wisest. The number and exact wording of the riddles Sheba put to him vary in different traditions, but they seem to have been connected to identity and gender confusions and definitions. Solomon passed every test, each time confirming his wisdom and mastery over the natural world.
The prime symbol of the challenge Sheba presented, and the sense of fear, mystery and repugnance it produced, is her hairy legs. To establish the truth of rumours that her mother had been a demon (because no fully human woman could possibly be so self-sufficient, and demons always have hairy legs), Solomon received the queen in a court where his djinns had magicked the floor to seem a pool of water. Deceived, Sheba raised the hem of her skirt to stop it getting wet. Solomon's reaction to the sight was intensely erotic; and yet as though he must suppress any flicker of homosexual arousal, he ordered his demons to concoct the first recorded depilatory ointment to make Sheba feminine enough for his attentions. A hairy woman is a threat not only sexually but also politically, and his need to seduce her was as much an attempt to neutralise the power of a rival as to dominate her as a man.
Sheba's challenge to the natural order even threatened the continuity of the human species. If women were allowed to question their natural role and functions, the Divine Presence …