Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Palace of Bird Beaks

When the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon’s kingdom she brought gifts and riddles. She tested Solomon’s wisdom with her riddles and was pleased. Solomon was pleased with the gifts of the queen and told her that she could ask for anything she pleased. “Build me a palace of bird beaks,” asked the Queen. “It will be done,” said the king. And Solomon, who knew the language of all the animals, sent forth a command that all birds come to his palace and prepare to give their beaks to this great task. The birds flocked to the palace, the eagle, the hummingbird, the wren, and the mockingbird. All the birds of the world filled the sky and then settled slowly looking at Solomon. The king seemed pleased. But as he looked over the mass of birds he frowned and then said, “where is the hoopoe?” The birds looked about and one small bird said that he had seen the hoopoe flying away. Solomon was displeased and ordered that the hoopoe be brought to him that it might be punished. When the hoopoe finally arrived, Solomon spoke angrily: “Where have you been? Why did you not respond to my command immediately?” 

“My king, please do not be angry with me. When I learned of your command, I flew over the world to see what marvels there were. I flew over oceans and deserts, forests and fields and gardens, homes and farms and cities. I have seen the earth teeming with life. And I have learned much. Now I know that you like riddles and that your Queen, who has asked for a palace made of bird beaks, is a master of riddles. Would you grant me asking you three riddles? And should you be unable to answer even one, might you spare my life?” The hoopoe looked past Solomon to see the queen standing and listening.

The birds gasped to hear the hoopoe dare to bargain with the king. But Solomon admired the hoopoe’s boldness and said, “ask your riddles.”

The hoopoe said loudly for all to hear, “Who is it, my king, who was never born and never will die?”

Solomon smiled and said instantly, “ Why the Lord of all creation, blessed be he.” And then Solomon remembered quietly that it was the Lord that had created all creatures to be free and who had also given him the power to speak the language of all animals. Aloud Solomon asked, “What is your second riddle?”

The hoopoe took a breath and asked, “What water is it that does not rise from the ground nor fall from the sky?”

Solomon looked over the assembled multitude to see each and every one listening with fearful anticipation. A strange feeling came over him and he said, “A tear. It does not rise from the ground nor fall from the sky but from an eye overcome with sadness.” And Solomon could see much sadness in front of him as the birds awaited the sacrifice of their beaks. A tear from Solomon’s eye splashed on his hand. “Ask your third riddle, Hoopoe.”

The small bird trembled and said, “What is it that is gentle enough to feed a child but strong enough to pierce the hardest wood?”

Solomon, looking out over the multitude of birds, said quietly, “A bird’s beak, of course.”

Many birds dropped their heads. And the hoopoe bowed its head and said, “You have answered all three of my riddles. Punish me as you see fit. I am at your mercy.”

When nothing happened, the hoopoe looked up to see Solomon smiling. “Dear hoopoe, my wisdom is known throughout the world and yet you have shown me that even one as wise as I can yet be foolish. There will be no palace of bird beaks. Rather…” said Solomon as he summoned his advisers and charged them with fashioning a crown like his own for the hoopoe. To this day the hoopoe bears this gift as a reminder of his courage and wisdom that saved the birds.

The hoopoe bowed to the king. He then bowed to the queen who bowed in return and smiled.

Image: Hoopoe from

I've told this story many times for many years having first heard it in the early nineties from a Toronto storyteller though I can't recall exactly who. I've since come across several versions in print and have read every story of Solomon I could find in the works of Ginzburg (Legends of the Jews), Nathan Ausubel (A Treasury of Jewish Folklore), Howard Schwartz (The Diamond Tree: Jewish Tales from Around the World) and others. I've told this story each year of my son's primary schooling and each time, upon mentioning the queen's request, the young listeners gasped with horror. Indeed, the thoughtless cruelty of that request always gave me pause in deciding to share it. But the cruelty aside, there was something about the queen's request that puzzled me. In another story of Solomon and the hoopoe, the hoopoe returns from his travels to report that he has seen a kingdom where the streets are paved in gold and the people live peacefully. This enlightened place is the land of Kittor ruled over by the Queen of Sheba. Solomon sends an invitation for her to visit his kingdom. In still other stories, the Queen of Sheba tests Solomon's vaunted wisdom with riddles. Not surprisingly there is no small amount of sexism and misogyny in some of these ancient tales though there are clues to women's agency if we look hard. Solomon answers all of Sheba's riddles and she praises his wondrous wisdom (though some of the riddles are rather simplistic - something could well be lost in translation, of course). Nonetheless, Solomon triumphs. But, given that Sheba is obviously extremely smart (possibly as wise as Solomon) and given her penchant for riddling, might not her horrifying request for a palace of bird beaks be another such test? One that Solomon would have failed but for the courage and wisdom of a small bird?

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