Marc Graham explains how he used popular—and differing—myths and archaeological records to find the story of his new novel, Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba.
The Queen of Sheba led a small tribe from her home in northern Arabia. Her land’s great yield of frankincense—a fragrant sap harvested from trees that grow only in the southern part of the peninsula—brought many riches in trade. From this landlocked kingdom, her fleet sailed between Yemen and the Philippines, while her Ethiopian subjects gathered vast quantities of gold, gems, and precious woods.
Known as Bilkis, she ruled in her own name, traveling to distant lands as chief diplomat for her husband, a semi-divine king who could never be seen by mere mortals. Called Makeda by her people, she never married, but gave birth to a single son, gotten on her by Israel’s King Solomon, who raped her after she seduced him.
Also, she never existed.
Confused? Welcome to my literary world.
For writers of historical fiction, there’s no better excuse not to actually be writing than to pore over source material. Ancient myths and sacred texts provide a window into the past. Official records and archaeological reports lend an air of authenticity to the otherwise fantastic. But the further we go back in time, the more contradictory the disparate pieces of data become.
Each statement above, relating to the legendary Queen of Sheba, comes from well-regarded scholarly works or early source material. The myriad of possible realities are enough to make one’s head spin. The contradictions are staggering enough even after weeding out the more fantastic claims, such as riding on magic carpets and being endowed with the legs of a goat.
So, when recreating a popular legend, what is the modern storyteller to do? Let’s take a brief tour of the research I did for my book Song of Songs: A Novel of the Queen of Sheba to see what we can learn.
The obvious starting point was the earliest known story of Sheba’s queen, as recorded in the Bible’s 1 Kings. This legend that has sparked so much fascination and intrigue over the millennia consists of a mere 13 verses in the Hebrew text. Here, the pagan Queen of Sheba (unworthy even of being given a name) brings a caravan laden with riches as tribute to Israel’s King Solomon. In exchange for her great gifts, she simply requests that he share with her his great wisdom. She tests him in many things and, satisfied, returns to her home.
Looking a bit farther south to the Arabian Peninsula, the Quran gives a bit more detail. While there’s still an undercurrent of monotheistic proselytism, much of this tale is fantasy on a par with the 1001 Nights, complete with flying carpets, genii, and shape-shifters. A later commentary on the Arabic text at least gives a name to the queen: Bilkis.
Perhaps the most detailed account comes from the Ethiopian national legend, the Kebra Nagast. This Glory of Kings tells the history of that nation whose emperors claimed descent from the Queen of Sheba—here named Makeda—down until Emperor Haile Selassie, deposed and exiled in 1974, nearly 3,000 years after the time of the legend.
Now we have some details to work with, albeit somewhat contradictory. A little more digging provides additional details in the Biblical chapter Song of Solomon (also called Song of Songs), as well as in the lore of Freemasonry. Each of these provides nuances subtle and distinct enough to have the air of authenticity. Next step: Identify the land of Sheba.
This task was not so simple as it may seem. Local legends among cultures from Nigeria to Indonesia claim the Queen of Sheba as their own. Serious scholars rein this in a bit, limiting the potential field to the Fertile Crescent, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Horn of Africa. And this gives us a further clue. Might it be that the greater detail in the Arabian and Ethiopian legends (however fanciful) is due to older, more local legends, and oral tradition predating the Biblical tale?
By narrowing the search area, one region immediately leaps out: the ancient Kingdom of Saba, located in present-day Yemen. This land derived great wealth from the frankincense trade, the near monopoly of which would have made ancient Saba’s leader quite capable of equipping a treasure-laden trade caravan. A certainty? No, but good enough for fiction.
Though debatable, we now have a Who? (Queen of Sheba/Saba), What? (travels to Jerusalem), and Where? (from present-day Yemen). If we’re going to make this a strong character-based story, we of course need that all-elusive Why? Archaeology to the rescue.
Digs in the area around the principal city of Saba (now Ma’rib, Yemen) revealed ruins of earthwork dams dating well into the second millennium BCE, perhaps even as early as 2,500 BCE. Located in a seasonal waterway between the western mountains and the great Arabian desert, the dams captured floodwaters from annual monsoons to provide irrigation for agriculture. The archaeological record also suggests that the earthwork dams frequently failed and had to be replaced, threatening the success of the crops and the survival of the people.
Around the turn of the first millennium BCE, something changed. A great stone dam was built to replace the fast-eroding earthen dams. The success of this venture can be seen in the descriptions of the dam down through the centuries and in the excellent conditions of surviving ruins (the remainder having been scavenged for home-building by less forward-thinking types).
Might we now have a Why? Might our Queen of Sheba, frustrated by crumbling earthworks, have learned from traders of the great stone monument being built in Jerusalem? Might she have ventured there, not to be man-splained, but to learn the art of masonry in order to secure her people’s survival?
We will, of course, never know for certain. But the exploration of ancient texts, secondary materials, and archaeology—combined with a bit of Muse-whispering—can help fiction writers sift through the fragments of myth and legend to create powerful modern stories populated by fully formed characters in 3D worlds.
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