Queen of Sheba riddles Solomon about Indian medical knowledge

Queen of Sheba meets King Solomon

The Queen of Sheba journeyed to Jerusalem to test with hard questions King Solomon’s famed wisdom. Usually the king tests the wisdom of visitors to his court. The Queen of Sheba challenged King Solomon’s authority in both ruling and knowing.[1] In subsequent history of southwest Eurasia, the Queen of Sheba’s political-intellectual challenge extended to encompass conflict between Greek and Indian medical knowledge.

While the Queen of Sheba’s hard questions don’t appear in the biblical account of her visit to King Solomon, ancient rabbinic literature told of specific riddles and challenges. The Midrash Mishle (Midrash on Proverbs), probably written sometime from the eight century to the first half of the eleventh century, records two riddles and two challenges:

  1. What are they? Seven depart and nine enter, two give drink but only one partakes.
  2. What does it signify? A woman says to her son, “Your father is my father. Your grandfather is my husband. You are my son and I am your sister.”
  3. {distinguish between clothed male and female children who look alike}
  4. {distinguish between clothed circumcised and uncircumcised males who look alike} [2]

These riddles and challenges concern fundamentals of human life: procreation, family relations, sex, and tribal affiliation. They aren’t politically particular.

The Yeminite Midrash ha-hefez, written about 1430, records the riddles and challenges in Midrash Mishle, plus an additional fifteen riddles. The additional riddles are similar to those in Midrash Mishle. Here are the first three additional riddles:

  1. Who was neither born nor died?
  2. What land has seen the sun but once?
  3. What is the enclosure with ten gates? When one opens, nine are shut. When nine open, one is shut. [3]

Other additional riddles concern specific knowledge of Hebrew scripture. Rabbis might pose such riddles to each other. They don’t indicate contrasting authority in ruling and knowing.

Early thirteen-century Armenian translations of the twelfth-century Chronicle of Syrian Patriarch Michael the Great includes riddles of a rather different sort. The context is the visit of Queen Nessa to King Solomon:

To {King Solomon} came Nessa, the queen of a southern realm, {who was} said to be descended from the line of Noah’s daughter, Aster. {She came} from a place in the south where, to this day, women descended from the patriarch Noah rule. {Solomon}’s reputation for wisdom attracted her and she tested him with enigmatic questions, some of which we have provided here. [4]

Queen Nessa seems to be variant name for the Queen of Sheba.[5] The first three riddles of Queen Nessa have similar themes to the first two additional riddles in the Midrash ha-hefez. But then come two much different riddles:

  1. {Queen Nessa’s question:} Why is it that an Indian woman who eats pomegranate ceases to conceive? {Solomon’s answer:} The nature of the pomegranate is cold and wet and the country of India is hot and dry. The Indian woman is cool and moist. Consequently, when elements of the pomegranate and the woman merge, contrary to the nature of the country, then women no longer can become pregnant.
  2. {Queen Nessa’s question:} Why does an Indian man become sterile after drinking wine? {Solomon’s answer:} The nature of the wine is dry and hot, and it induces sleep. The same may be said for {the nature of} mankind. Thus when a man drinks often, he become impotent. [6]

The reasoning in the first question above, applied to the second question. would make the Indian man potent: he is hot and dry, consistent with the hot and dry country of India. The answers to these riddles are themselves a riddle.

The riddle of Indians’ procreative difficulties seems to be political. The qualitative scheme of cold/hot and wet/dry was used in ancient Greek medicine. Under Caliph Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad late in the eighth century, Yahya ibn Khalid of the Indian Barmakid family became vizier. Yahya had Indian medical works translated into Arabic. One of the translated Indian works was “a book on topics on which India and Rome have differed concerning the hot and the cold.”[7] Proponents of Indian medical knowledge and proponents of Greek medical knowledge competed aggressively within al-Rashid’s court. Syriac Patriarch Michael the Great’s sources are much more likely to be aligned with Greek knowledge than with Indian knowledge. Other of Queen Nessa’s riddles emphasize monotheism and hostility to foreign gods. The two riddles on Indians probably ridiculed ancient Indian medical reasoning about hot and cold. The most obvious evidence for that slant is that both riddles present impotent Indians.

The Queen of Sheba’s encounter with King Solomon wasn’t just a story. Like Marcolf’s encounter with Solomon, the story participates in disputes about knowledge. Story-telling was an aspect of knowledge competition.

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[1] For the biblical account of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, 1 Kings 10:1-13. The Qur’an has an account of the Queen of Sheba in sura 27:22-44. In Arabic literature, the Queen of Sheba is often called Bilqis. Riddles and hard questions occur between persons who are strangers to each other. In Numbers 12:6-8, the Lord says to Moses:

When there are prophets among you,
I the Lord make myself
known to them in visions;
I speak to them in dreams.
Not so with my servant Moses;
he is entrusted with all my house.
With him I speak face to face —
clearly, not in riddles ;
and he beholds the form of the Lord.

Cf. 1 Corinthians 13:12.

[2] Midrash Mishle, from Hebrew trans. Lassner (1993) p. 162. The answers are:

  1. “seven are the days of the menstrual cycle, nine are the months of pregnancy, two {refers} to the breasts that succor and one to the child born {who drinks form them}”
  2. “the daughters of Lot”
  3. “Solomon signaled to his attendants and they brought him nuts and grains which he began to spread before the youngsters. The males, who were not embarrassed, gathered them and placed them in their garments. The females, who were modest, placed them in their headdresses.”
  4. “Solomon immediately signaled to the High Priest who opened the Ark of the Covenant. The circumcised bowed down to half their height and at once their faces were lit with God’s radiance. The uncircumcised among the group fell fully prostrate.”


[3] Midrash ha-Hefez, trans. id. pp. 163-5. Schechter (1890), which transliterates the text as Midrash Hachephez, provides the Hebrew text and a similar English translation (with the answers). The riddles probably came from written rabbinic sources from long before 1430. Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Tha’labi, an eleventh-century Islamic scholar, recorded in his work Lives of the Prophets that the Queen of Sheba (Bilqis) presented this riddle to Solomon: “I wish to ask you about {drinking} water which is neither in the ground nor in the skies.” Solomon’s sensational answer, “the sweat of horses.” The Queen of Sheba pronounced that answer correct. Trans. Lassner (1993) p. 200.

[4] Chronicle of Michael the Great, Armenian version, trans. Bedrosian (2013) p. 28. Neither this text nor the riddles are in the sole surviving Syriac manuscript of Michael’s Chronicle.

[5] The surviving Syriac manuscript of the Chronicle includes information about the kingdom of Saba (Sheba):

a certain Egyptian named Sanos waged war against the Cushites. He was surnamed Athanophos that is, the Cushite. He became the third leader and ruled for 60 years. He allied himself to the Libyans, waged war against Saba, and killed him. His daughter, called Saba after her father’s name, succeeded him. She ruled for 40 years. Aristocholos mentioned that she engaged in many wars and triumphed. Therefore, women became accustomed to rule and lead armies into war there.

From Syriac trans Moosa (2014) p. 41. The Armenian version doesn’t include that history. It seems meant to explain the existence of the Queen of Sheba. The pre-Islamic Arabic texts Kitab al-Magall and the Cave of Treasures similarly note a dynasty of women rulers in Saba. In the Syriac version of the Cave of Treasures, see Budge (1927) p. 136 (the fourth thousand years).

[6] Chronicle of Michael the Great, Armenian version, trans. Bedrosian (2013) p. 28.

[7] HP p. 601, from Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah entry for Sanjahal, who was “among the finest Indian medical experts and astrologers.” HP p. 600. Al-Razi drew upon this work. Another Indian medical work translated into Arabic was “a book on the treatment of pregnant women in India.” Id.

[image] Meeting of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (detail, color enhanced), Apollonio di Giovanni, Italian, Florence, c. 1440-1450, Tempera on panel. Yale University Art Gallery, object 1871.36. For discussion of visual art representing the meeting of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, Ostoia & Kajitani (1972).


Budge, E.A. Wallis, trans. 1927. The Book of the Cave of Treasures. London: The Religous Tract Society.

Bedrosian, Robert. 2013. The Chronicle of Michael the Great, Patriarch of the Syrians. Long Branch, NJ: Sources of the Armenian Tradition, online at rbedrosian.com

HP: Ibn Abi Usaybi’ah, Ahmad ibn al-Qasim. English translation of History of Physicians (4 v.) Translated by Lothar Kopf. 1971. Located in: Modern Manuscripts Collection, History of Medicine Division, National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, MD; MS C 294. Online transcription.

Lassner, Jacob. 1993. Demonizing the Queen of Sheba: boundaries of gender and culture in postbiblical Judaism and medieval Islam. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Moosa, Matti, trans. 2014. The Syriac Chronicle of Michael Rabo (the Great): a universal history from the creation. Teaneck, N.J.: Beth Antioch Press.

Ostoia, Vera K. and Nobulo Kajitani. 1972. “Two riddles of the Queen of Sheba.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 6: 73-103.

Schechter, Solomon. 1890. “The Riddles of Solomon in Rabbinic Literature.” Folklore 1(3): 348-58.

10 thoughts on “Queen of Sheba riddles Solomon about Indian medical knowledge”

  1. I Couldn’t Believe A Enuch Like Cake Eating By Many Homoeretus From Different Ground Can Be Find Inside My Pocket…Thanks So Much

  2. Surely King Solomon had many wives and concubines totaling to about 1000. these were from different nations (tribes) what was his main talks? to get information from those women. so he gathered riddles and proverbs and they were attributed to him. He was the wisest because we who are on net cannot even collect and interpreted at least 100. Thank you.

  3. Es curioso que la tercera palabra mas usada en este post sea INDIO.

    Sheba es un nombre sobretodo utilizado en India.
    Busca en Google: Sheba India y lo veras.
    La reina de Saba , es el unico nombre de mujer que se menciona en los tres libros: judios, cristianos e islam.

    Puedes ver la similitud entre Shiva y Sheba.
    Y era de India , la madre de todas la ideas llamadas religiosas despues.

    Pero este concepto no esta mencionado aqui.
    Lo siento: es parcialidad.

  4. Please mention all questions n riddles asked by the queen of Sheba to king Solomon , to enhance my biblical knowledge.

    1. The Hebrew Bible says only that Solomon answered all of the Queen of Sheba’s questions. 1 Kings 10:3. Various non-biblical sources report various riddles of Solomon. The sources and significances of all these reported riddles isn’t clear. Even just compiling a list of them wouldn’t be easy.

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