Spices and Sleep: A Look Inside “Kebra Nagast”

Hi, everyone! For the next installment of my “Food and Sexuality” series, I’m going to remain on the African continent and travel over to Ethiopia so we can discuss Kebra Nagast, or “Glory of the Kings.” This literary text full of myth, history, allegory, and apocalyptic storytelling is thousands of years old and details the Solomonic line of Ethiopian kings from around 400 to 1200. The stories begin with Menelik, who was believed to be the son of King Solomon and Queen Makeda.

If you’re unfamiliar with Judeo-Abrahamic religions, King Solomon is a very big figure in the Bible. He was said to have been the wisest man in the world and penned three books: ProverbsEcclesiastes, and Song of Songs. But we’re not going to talk about wisdom, right? We’re going to get to the heart of the essay: spicy foods and sex. According to Kebra Nagast, upon hearing of Solomon’s wisdom from a merchant, Queen Makeda of Ethiopia travels to Jerusalem. Makeda was a Sabaean, an ancient Arabian group of people who lived in present-day Yemen. The Sabaeans were known to worship the heavens whereas King Solomon of Judaea worshipped the God of Israel. Soon upon her arrival, Queen Makeda becomes besotted by King Solomon and converts to Judaism as a result.

This proof of her devotion, however, is not enough for Solomon. He begins to crave Makeda in more intimate ways: “And Solomon loved women passionately, and it came to pass that, when her visits to him multiplied, he longed for her greatly and entreated her to yield herself to him. But she would not surrender herself to him, and she said unto him, ‘I came to thee a maiden, a virgin; shall I go back despoiled of my virginity, and suffer disgrace in my kingdom?’ And Solomon said unto her, ‘I will only take thee to myself in lawful marriage—I am the King, and thou shalt be the Queen.’ And she answered him never a word. And he said unto her, ‘Strike a covenant with me that I am only to take thee to wife of thine own free will—this shall be the condition between us: when thou shalt come to me by night as I am lying on the cushions of my bed, thou shalt become my wife by the Law of Kings.’ And behold she struck this covenant with him…”

Credit: Kelly Galbraith Blog
Credit: Kelly Galbraith Blog

This bargain seems pretty easy, doesn’t it? All Queen Makeda had to do was not visit the King by his bedside and she would remain unbetrothed. But King Solomon had a plan to up the ante: “Solomon summoned the cooks and commanded them to prepare and cook food … for himself and for the Queen, dainty and highly seasoned dishes, and he gave them pungent and aromatic and strong-smelling herbs and spices for this purpose, and the cooks did even as he had commanded them. Now when the Queen had eaten of these meats that were filled with spice and pepper and pungent herbs, she craved for cold water which she drank in large quantities by day and by night, but this did not help her to [quench her thirst]. And when the third night had come Solomon secretly gave the order to all those who were about the palace, both those who were inside it and those who were outside it, that none of them was to leave with the afore-mentioned Queen the smallest quantity of water to drink, and [he swore] that any one of them who showed her where water was or gave her any of the water which was his own should be put to death forthwith and without trial. And he commanded that, if any of them were to be asked for water by her during the night, they were to say unto her, ‘Thou wilt find no water except by the couch of the king.'”

Unfortunately, the text never specifically states which “pungent and aromatic” herbs and spices were used; nevertheless, their influences on sex drive are well known. According to a study by University of Grenoble scientists, men who consumed spicy pepper sauce had a rise in testosterone levels, which leads to better sexual performance. By contrast, low testosterone levels lead to lethargy, depression, and a lack of a sexual appetite. Since Queen Makeda visited King Solomon in Israel, we can make some educated guesses for which herbs and spices may have been present. Saffron could be one. King Solomon actually references saffron in Song of Songs. Not only does saffron add spice to rice dishes, it also stimulates the libido. Thyme is another ingredient familiar to people in the Bible, and it is often said thyme was one of the first spices cultivated during Israel’s First Temple Period. Because thyme contains chromium, it is believed to increase sperm count in men and increase sex drive in both sexes.

Kebra Nagast never mentions whether Queen Makeda was turned on when she visited the king, though of course her “thirst” may have been a double entendre. Ultimately, she could only stand being dehydrated for so long. The story goes that she crept into King Solomon’s bedchamber as he slept, but he managed to wake just before she strolled out with a glass of water. In the end, they ended up marrying.

See where a little bit of spice gets you?

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