In Marina Warner’s rewriting of the story of the Queen of Sheba, the legend of the Queen’s beauty is appropriately intertwined with an analysis of the power relations that underscored her famous meeting with King Solomon.3 This is signalled right at the start of Warner’s retelling, as the modern-day narrator outlines how Solomon’s letter to Sheba warned her of retribution if she failed to yield to his suzerainty. Warner’s narrator is a female academic, attending a conference in Jerusalem with a group of male colleagues. The tale opens with the narrator hastily hiding the various beauty items she has brought with her so that she can take her turn in hosting a drink in her hotel bedroom. Despite her precautions, she quickly finds herself revealing details of women’s beauty procedures in an uncomfortable endeavour to join in the men’s sexist banter. Her desire to be approved of prompts her to display her legs, an action that explicitly recalls the trick Solomon played on Sheba in order to glimpse what lay beneath her skirts. After her colleagues have left, Warner’s narrator upbraids herself for forgetting her feminism in her attempt to curry favour, and ponders the complicated causality that leads women to betray their sex. In her own case, she remembers her mother’s ruthless ‘assassination’ of other women’s bodies in her discussions with her friends and the impact their implied ideal had on her own emerging sense of herself as female.4 This more subtle power nexus, identified by the narrator in the light of her contemporary experience, is then shown to operate in the legend of Sheba alongside the discernible dynamic of the relative inferiority of Sheba’s country. In Warner’s version, Solomon’s freezing of the river into an ice mirror over which Sheba must walk is interpreted in terms of the irregularity of Sheba’s position as a beautiful, wise, comparatively wealthy, single woman: she must be a sorcerer’s illusion, the djinns whisper to Solomon, with diabolic hooves and hairy legs.
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