“Who does she think she is, the Queen of Sheba?” Well yes, actually, she does.
Bilquis stars in one of the most memorable scenes in American Gods, when (series one, episode one spoilers!) she demands worship through sex and consumes a man with her vagina as he orgasms. It’s quite an eye-popping interlude in episode one, to say the least.
Yetide Badaki plays this Old God who thrives on sexual worship. But what corner of the Earth and which ancient mythology did novelist Neil Gaiman borrow Bilquis from?
Meet the real Bilquis, Queen of Sheba
Bilquis identifies herself as the Queen of Sheba, an ancient Ethiopian monarch and a forgotten goddess now in reduced circumstances.
As Michael Wood writes for the BBC, the Queen of Sheba appears as a powerful and mysterious ruler in the Hebrew Bible and in the Muslim Koran, as well as in early Turkish and Persian paintings and medieval Christian works. Her actual existence is debated and nobody is quite sure where “Sheba” was located, but for the past 3,000 years her legend has been told across the world – especially in Ethiopia.
Naturally, different religions and cultures tell different stories of the Queen of Sheba. In the Old Testament there is a story of her visit to King Solomon in Jerusalem: “King Solomon gave unto the Queen of Sheba all her desire, whatsoever she asked, beside that which Solomon gave her of his royal bounty.” Is this a simple statement or a hint at something more?
The name Bilquis (or Bilqis) comes from Islamic tradition. The ancient kingdom of Saba is thought to have been located in present-day Yemen, Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia, and Bilqis was the name given to the Queen of Saba in later stories.
The Koran builds on the story of Solomon, though in this version, when the rich Queen visits him she is tricked into revealing her super-hairy goat-like legs. Later versions of the tale also give her a single goat’s cloven hoof. Freaky.
And so we come to the Ethiopian tradition and the Kebra Nagast, considered a holy book. Here the story goes even further: when the Queen returns to her capital (this time identified as Aksum in Ethiopia) she gives birth to Solomon’s son. This son goes to Jerusalem and steals the Ark of the Covenant from his father so he can bring it back to Ethiopia.
But what about the horrifying sex bit?
One Jewish and Arab myth casts the Queen as a jinn – that is, half-human and half-demon. Ashkenazi folklore depicts her as a seductive dancer, a child-snatcher, a demonic witch. It doesn’t seem to have been a difficult leap of logic for many ancient cultures to associate a powerful woman with evil forces.
But the whole thing about absorbing her partners as they climax appears to have been Gaiman’s creation. Perhaps he was inspired by tales of other sex goddesses across the world who often tie in legend with witchcraft, such as the Norse goddess Freyja.
How different is her character from the Bilquis in the novel?
In the novel, she’s a hooker: “A tall woman dressed cartoonishly in too-tight silk shorts, her breasts pulled up and pushed forward by the yellow blouse tied beneath them. Her black hair is piled high and knotted on top of her head.” In the TV series, she meets her victim through internet dating, and we also see snatches of her other conquests – male and female.
Other than that, the iconic scene from the book is faithfully (and explicitly) performed exactly as written. We will say no more.
What is different is the nature of Bilqius’ role in the rest of the story. She is a very minor character in the novel, but showrunner Bryan Fuller has told Den of Geek: “One of the exciting things for us in adapting this is that we get to expand characters, so Bilquis, who is only in a chapter of the book, then you don’t see her again, is a major player in this world.”
American Gods is available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, with new episodes available every week. Episodes air on US channel Starz on Sunday nights
This article was originally published on 30 May 2017