Solomon, Master of the Birds

I’m a birdwatcher, I regularly watch birds at my local nature reserve. And so, naturally, when studying Middle Eastern Literature earlier this year, I was quite charmed by the Islamic stories of King Solomon having control over the birds of the air, alongside demons and the wind, particularly that in Al Thalabi’s Qisas Al Anbiya. But where does this Islamic narrative come from, where did these fantastical stories of King Solomon originate? Could they have origins in the Bible? Let’s find out.

The source of the Solomon stories in Islam is, of course, the Qur’an. Most important to our conversation is Surah 27:16-17, which says,

Solomon inherited from David, and he said, ‘O people! We have been taught the speech of the birds, and we have been given out of everything. This is indeed a clear advantage.’ Solomon’s hosts, comprising jinn, humans and birds, were marched out for him, and they were held in check.

This passage, Gabriel Said Reynolds tells us, has parallels with an earlier Jewish text, the 2nd Targum of Esther, which claims devils, demons, and ferocious beasts, evil spirits and accidents, were delivered into his (Solomon’s) hands. Imps brought him all kinds of fish from the sea, and the fowls of heaven, together with the cattle and wild animals, came of their own accord to his slaughterhouse to be slaughtered for his banquet

This passage mentions birds being subject to Solomon, but only in the context of them coming to be slaughtered, rather than them being a normal part of his host. But the trail doesn’t go cold from there, elsewhere the Targum makes it very clear that the birds, and other animals are a normal part of Solomon’s army, according to Abraham Shemesh,

In this story, in contrast to the previous stories, Solomon frightens the bird, controls it and even maintains a complex conversation with it. Solomon holds a big feast, to which he invites all the sages of the East and West in the vicinity of the Land of Israel, and seats them in his temple. Then he orders that music be played before him using musical instruments and he also orders that the birds of the sky, beasts of the field, insects of the Earth, demons and spirits be brought before him to dance and to prove his greatness to all the kings seated there (David 1898:8-10).

At that time the wild rooster is sought among the birds but cannot be found. The king is angry, and he commands that the bird be brought and punished. The wild rooster explains to the king that for 3 months he has been roaming the world in search of a country or government that did not obey Solomon’s bidding. Thus, he discovered a rich and flourishing country ruled by a woman named the Queen of Sheba. The hoopoe asks the king’s permission to go to that country and bring its rulers to the palace. The king agrees and the king’s scribes are called to the palace and write a letter to the Queen of Sheba, which they tie to the bird’s wings. The hoopoe flies off, accompanied by many birds, to the Queen of Sheba. As related, the hoopoe encounters the Queen of Sheba in the morning, when she comes out to bow to the sun and is surprised to see the sky darkened by the many birds sent by Solomon. The queen sees the letter tied to the hoopoe’s wings and upon reading it she discovers that the king insists that she come to his palace with her servants or else he will send the beasts of the field, the birds of the sky and the spirits and demons to inflict harm on her people. The Queen of Sheba relents and comes to Solomon’s palace in Jerusalem, where she discovers his might and wealth (David 1898:8-10).

This story, concerning the Wild Rooster (the Hoopoe) occurs in the context of Jewish traditions concerning Solomon as an Ornithomancer, as found in certain midrash from late antiquity, which describe Solomon as being proficient in Tayyar, the observation of birds.

Where did these “speculations” on the power of Solomon come from? Shemesh thinks it was seen as a logical extension of the statement in 1 Kings 4:29-33 that Solomon surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, which to the Rabbis included knowledge of Ornithomancy, as well as the general statement in these verses that Solomon knew much of birds, plants and animals. But I think there is another Solomonic passage in the Bible which is even closer to these later traditions. I am speaking of Ecclesiastes 10:20:

Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.

The ‘rich’ (singular), occurs in parallel to the king, so likely refers to the same person. In the context of the Book of Ecclesiastes, attributed to the ‘son of David’, identified in tradition, perhaps not unreasonably, with Solomon, the ‘king’ can only be Solomon himself. In other words, this passage seems to speak of Solomon having some form of communication with the birds. This may not be entirely poetic, for such a reading may undermine the force of the verse. If birds cannot carry your voice to the king, what is the force of mentioning them in the context of them doing exactly that? Why even give such advice?

I’m not dead set yet, but it’s an interesting possibilty, that should be considered, that traditions of Solomon’s powers over the birds may have their origin in the biblical text itself.

Who said theology was boring?

rkb ‘prt, out!

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