King Solomon, from the Bible to the Pulps

One Occult Jew deserves separate consideration. In both medieval legend and modern fantasy, the greatest of all Jewish magicians is without question Solomon, the famously wise king of biblical Israel. Son of the charismatic King David, the real-life Solomon ruled the prosperous and powerful Israelite kingdom for four decades at the height of its regional power in the tenth century BCE. The Bible takes note of his monarchy’s extensive cultural and economic traffic with surrounding nations, which often gave him fealty, and with which he formed alliances through marriage (to the daughter of the Egyptian pharaoh, for instance). The Bible highlights, too, his building of the Temple in Jerusalem, and his singular and divinely granted discernment.

When, in response to his devotion, God grants Solomon a boon, Solomon asks for “an understanding heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern between good and bad” (I Kings 3:9). God is so pleased with Solomon and his request that He responds: “lo, I have given thee a wise and an understanding heart; so that there was none like thee before thee, neither after thee shall any arise like unto thee.” A chapter later, this wisdom is elaborated upon even more fully:

And God gave Solomon wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the sea shore. And Solomon’s wisdom excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east country, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was wiser than all men; than Ethan the Ezrahite, and Heman, and Chalcol, and Darda, the sons of Mahol: and his fame was in all nations round about. And he spake three thousand proverbs: and his songs were a thousand and five. And he spake of trees, from the cedar tree that is in Lebanon even unto the hyssop that springeth out of the wall: he spake also of beasts, and of fowl, and of creeping things, and of fishes. And there came of all people to hear the wisdom of Solomon, from all kings of the earth, which had heard of his wisdom. (I Kings: 4:29-34)

Many of the legends about Solomon spring from these verses, including his prolific talent in proverbs and songs. In Jewish tradition, he is held to have been the author of three of the Bible’s books: the Song of Songs, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes, composed in his passionate youth, the insight of maturity, and the detachment of old age, respectively. Here, too, is the germ of his vaunted ability to speak with birds and beasts. And of course his wisdom—charismatic, political, and, in the millennia to come, magical—surpasses that of all other nations, even Egypt. This wisdom draws the admiration of the Queen of Sheba, who arrives with riddles (Solomon answers them all) and gifts of treasure and spice, homage to this unique king.

Simeon Solomon, “King Solomon” (c. 1874). The featured image at top is Edward Poynter, “The Visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon” (1884-90)

Yet, like other biblical heroes, Solomon is also flawed. We learn that his many marriages to foreigners took its moral and cultural toll on the kingdom, which slid into idolatry at the end of his reign. After repeated injunctions that his wisdom and prosperity depend upon adherence to God’s law, Solomon nevertheless follows after the gods of the Sidonians, Ammonites, and Moabites, with the result that God decides to split the Israelite kingdom in two. Nevertheless, at his death he is still recalled for his wisdom, which is said to be chronicled with his deeds in the (evidently lost) “Book of the Words of Solomon.”

With such a grand and complex figure and such suggestive historical material, it is no surprise that rabbinic literature contains a number of stories about Solomon, some harshly critical of the king’s idolatrous tendencies, some imagining his labors in the construction of the Temple, or the magnificence of his jeweled throne, or his conversations with birds and animals.

And some describe his interactions with a fellow monarch: Ashmedai, the king of the demons. Ashmedai helps Solomon procure the fabulous stone-eating worm that enables Solomon to construct the Temple without using metal instruments. The demon does this under duress, as Solomon uses a chain engraved with the name of God to compel Ashmedai to obey him. In the Babylonian Talmud, we read that Solomon once trustingly freed the demon and lent him his royal signet ring. Unconstrained, Ashmedai drop-kicked Solomon into the countryside, where the evidently not-so-wise king had to go around for some time begging for alms while the demon, who now assumed the appearance of Solomon, sat on Israel’s throne.[1]

Solomon’s ability to control demons was a focus of interest in the centuries that followed. The Koran draws on these rabbinic legends, and has Solomon controlling the jinn and the wind, and speaking to birds and ants. The authorship of medieval Europe’s grimoires is often attributed to Solomon when it comes to the subject of demonology, theoretical and applied. In the twentieth century, a classic of American Jewish children’s literature is Deborah Pessin’s 1946 Aleph-Bet Storybook, in which the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alphabet each tell a story drawn from Jewish legends, including a gentler variation on Solomon’s interaction with the king of the demons.

Three Hebrew letters decide what to name this humped creature in Deborah Pessin’s Aleph-Bet Storybook

The rites and symbolism of Freemasonry as it developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries drew on the imagination of Solomon’s Temple, inventing a mystical architect named Hiram Abiff who is associated with one or both of the biblical Hirams. This was also the period during which the Arabian Nights stories made their way into Europe, partly translated from Arabic and partly invented in French and English. In one of these stories, a fisherman frees a genie who had been imprisoned in a bottle by King Solomon. The genie is still terrified of Solomon until he realizes that eighteen centuries have passed and his jailer is long gone. The genie then announces his intention to kill the fisherman—who tricks the genie into going back into the bottle and traps it inside with the stopper that Solomon had engraved with the name of God.[2]

In late Victorian England, the figure of Solomon was bound up with a range of new cultural and political concerns: imperial and archeological fascination with the Middle East, growing uncertainty about the nation’s relation to Christianity and the Bible, a racialized curiosity about the nature of Anglo-Saxons and other peoples, and a frequent bafflement regarding the Jews and how this ancient-modern people fit with the other parts of England’s views on all things semitic.

No writer of the time was more popular and popularly associated with these intertwined themes than H. Rider Haggard. Haggard’s first blockbuster, King Solomon’s Mines (1885), is about three white adventurers who discover an exotic kingdom in the African interior and help restore its rightful ruler to the throne. The novel spawned the “lost race” genre of adventure fiction, still influential today in the Wakanda of Marvel Comics’s Black Panther. Haggard was an admirer of the Zulu nation, and Charles Williams would pick up this particular baton of Haggard’s in his novel Shadows of Ecstasy, with its noble Zulu king tragically exploited by an English magus.[3]

1893 edition of King Solomon’s Mines, illustrator Walter Paget

As the title suggests, King Solomon’s Mines identifies its lost African kingdom with the biblical Ophir, a source of King Solomon’s wealth. Traces of the biblical monarch abound there, as in a treasure room containing gold coins stamped with “what looked like Hebrew characters.”[4]

Yet if Solomon was a figure of romance, Haggard was nevertheless generally contemptuous of Jews. On one occasion he expressed support for the Zionist movement, but this clearly appealed to him because it might result in the removal from England of a people he regarded as either money-grubbing financiers or subversive revolutionaries. In 1920 he expressed his doubt that many Jews would move to Palestine: “for in Jerusalem there is little money to be made.”[5] That Haggard’s mother had Jewish ancestry was not something the family talked about.

Haggard’s low opinion of the Jews may be one reason why the Israelite presence in King Solomon’s Mines is noticeably eclipsed by references to other, more acceptably romantic near eastern peoples, especially the newly popular Phoenicians.[6]

One character attributes the king’s wealth to “those old Jewish or Phoenician adventurers”; another holds that the mines were run by “some Phoenician official.” When the three Englishmen discover an extraordinarily engineered stone highway referred to as Solomon’s Road, we are informed that: “it is very well to call this Solomon’s Road, but my humble opinion is that the Egyptians have been here before Solomon’s people ever set a foot on it.” Years later, Haggard would, like a number of archeologists, attribute the 11th-century ruins of Great Zimbabwe—retrospectively associated with the novel though Haggard had not seen the ruins when he wrote it—to builders “of Semitic race, possibly of Phoenician blood.”[7]

Such displacements also reflect the loosening hold of the Bible and normative Christianity on many Victorians. In fact, the religiosity in King Solomon’s Mines is Christian only in the vaguest sense. God is evoked distantly in references to “a higher Power,” but the three English heroes and their princely African comrade are stoics. Their warrior honor and national pride are intertwined with a belief in transience, death, and some possibility of preservation through a general kind of life force. Haggard gravitated toward spiritualism, the popular nineteenth-century belief in the persistence of the dead as spirits with which one could communicate. He once mused: “It seems to me that Christianity is Occultism in a sense—perhaps Spiritualism would be a better term . . . does not Christianity cover Spiritualism at its best?”[8]

Seances, transmigrations of souls, and loves that last beyond bodily death feature in a number of his novels. “Truly the universe is full of ghosts,” says the narrator of King Solomon’s Mines, “not sheeted, churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable and immortal elements of life, which, having once been, can never die, though they blend and change and change again forever.”[9]

But the most modern aspect of King Solomon’s Mines is the novel’s shift from a biblical to a geological conception of time. This post-Darwinian note is sounded early in the book in a comment on the perdurance of that pest, the house fly: “I have seen him enclosed in amber which must, I was told, have been half a million years old, looking exactly like his descendant of today, and I have little doubt that when the last man on the earth lies dying he will be buzzing round […] watching for an opportunity to settle on his nose.”

The most modern aspect of King Solomon’s Mines is the novel’s shift from a biblical to a geological conception of time.

In the mines of the title, the figure of an Egyptian god found carved into the stalagmite of the cave is said to ascend at the rate “of a foot to a thousand years,” a slow-motion apotheosis whose timescale dwarfs any human sense of antiquity.

The most striking image for this obliteration of pre-Darwinian time is found in the royal burial chamber within the mines. There, the dead kings of Kukuana undergo a centuries-long petrifaction in dripping silicate cave-water, turning the corpses into stalagmites. Presiding over the chamber is an enormous statue of a skeleton, holding a spear “as though in the act of striking.” This is the true sovereign of biblical Ophir: not Solomon but Death, who works patiently and implacably on a geological timescale.

Galleys for a 1950s edition of King Solomon’s Mines, illustrator Will Nickless

A few decades later, Robert E. Howard developed these trends in his stories about another Solomon. Like Howard’s more famous character Conan the Barbarian, Solomon Kane is a wanderer, grim and martial. But he lives in a pulp adventure analogue to our own world circa 1700 and is designated an English “Puritan,” albeit one who travels the world fighting against “Cruelty and tyranny to the weak.” In these stories, Solomon Kane is like a vagabond Batman who “considered himself a fulfiller of God’s judgment, a vessel of wrath to be emptied upon the souls of the unrighteous.”[10]

Published in Weird Tales in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the arc of Kane’s adventures takes him to Africa where, as in Haggard’s books, he encounters lost civilizations. Racial preoccupations are abundant in the sequence, with plenty of “bestial” Africans and elaborate prehistories marked by the invasions of superior Aryan races. Yet alongside the racist portrayals, we have Kane’s compassion for black victims of cruelty as well as white, and his close friendship with an African shaman who gives him a very significant ju-ju staff.

The August 1928 issue of Weird Tales included the first Solomon Kane story, which brought Kane to Africa.

The staff is revealed to be the one used by King Solomon when he “prisoned the efreets and the evil genii.” Kane learns this when he is captured by Arab slavers. He had been stalking them in order to free their slaves. (He reflects on the Arabs’ brutal efficiency and confidence as a manifestation of “militant Islam.”)

While a prisoner, Kane discovers a strange mausoleum with “ancient Hebraic characters carved” on the locked door. Thinking there is treasure within, the slavers smash open the doors, releasing a demonic creature that is only destroyed when Kane takes up the staff. “Aye, the same staff, Kane knew, that in the hands of a mighty king and magician had ages ago driven the monster into that strange prison, to bide until ignorant hands loosed it again upon the world. . . . He knew nothing of magic, yet he had slain where that other Solomon had but imprisoned.” Howard’s Solomon does his biblical namesake one better.

Illustration by Hugh “Doak” Rankin of one of the Solomon Kane stories

Just as Haggard does, Howard’s narrative radically alters the context for the biblical king by expanding the scale of time beyond the biblical, and beyond even the human. This is a perspective taken to its rhetorical extreme in the stories of Howard’s friend H. P. Lovecraft but recognizable here.

An elderly Arab is the first to recognize the staff Kane possesses and explains that it is the staff with which Solomon controlled demons, and with which Moses before him had parted the sea. But it predates Moses, too, having been used by Egyptian priests in the rites of Bast. It is in fact “older than the world and has known the terrible hands of strange, dark pre-Adamite priests in the silent cities beneath the seas, and has drawn from an Elder World mystery and magic unguessed by humankind.”

The idea that the staff of Moses is primordial (created, in fact, at the very end of the sixth day of the world’s creation) and was used by Adam is also found in rabbinic literature, though of course still placed within a biblical context.[11]

By contrast, Kane’s encounter with Solomon’s prison “built with strange arts so long ago,” leads him to understand that biblical antiquity is meaningless in the context of cosmic time. He experiences a Lovecraftian epiphany:

that human life was but one of a myriad forms of existence, that worlds existed within worlds, and that there was more than one plane of existence. The planet men call the earth spun on through the untold ages, Kane realized, and as it spun it spawned Life, and living things which wriggled about it as maggots are spawned in rot and corruption. Man was the dominant maggot now–why should he in his pride suppose that he and his adjuncts were the first maggots–or the last to rule a planet quick with unguessed life?

Coming up: Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series

Sources:

Haggard, H. Rider. King Solomon’s Mines. e-book, n.d.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Howard, Robert E. The Savage Tales of Solomon Kane. e-book, Random House, 1998.

Monod, Paul Kléber. Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013.

Pocock, Tom. Rider Haggard and the Lost Empire: A Biography. e-book, n.p., 2013.

Quinn, Josephine. In Search of the Phoenicians. e-book, Princeton University Press, 2019.

Tuchman, Barbara W. Bible and Sword: England and Palestine from the Bronze Age to Balfour. New York: Random House, 2014.

Warner, Marina. Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2012.


[1] B. Talmud Gittin 68a-b.

[2] On Solomon and Freemasonry see Hanegraaff 2012, 207-218 and Monod 2013, chapter 5. On Solomon and the Arabian Nights see Warner 2012, 33-58.

[3] By contrast, Haggard was often contemptuous of the Boers—he was a veteran of the Boer Wars—whom he compared with distaste to the biblical Israelites, “always ready with a scriptural precedent for slaughter and robbery” (qtd. Pocock 2013).

[4] All quotations from King Solomon’s Mines are from the e-book (Haggard n.d).

[5] Qtd. Pocock.

[6] For discussion of the Phoenicians in the imagination of modern British writers see Tuchman 2014, 7-10 and Quinn 2019, chapter 9.

[7] Qtd. Pocock.

[8] Qtd. Pocock.

[9] Haggard lost a 10-year-old son to measles, and also maintained a lifelong devotion to a fiancee who broke off their engagement; he thus shared the personal incentives of many spiritualists who hope that our physical lives are not the total of our existence and that otherworldly reunions are in store.

[10] All quotations from the Solomon Kane stories are from Howard 1998.

[11] See, for instance, Pirqei de-Rabbi Eliezer 40: 2-3.

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