Solomon: Wise Man, Mystic and Magician

When Solomon, whose name means peace, was raised to the throne of Israel and Judah, he was asked by God what he desired, and Solomon answered, ‘Give thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that I may discern between good and bad’. God was pleased that Solomon had asked for understanding and not for riches nor for a long life, and he answered him saying, ‘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. And I have also given thee that which thou has not asked, both riches and honour: so that there shall not be any among the kings like unto thee all thy days’ (1 Kings 3:5–14). Indeed, according to the Bible, Solomon’s reign was marked by prosperity and prestige,and his wisdom was said to excel even all the wisdom of Egypt (1 Kings 4:30), and he has come down to us as the wise man par excellence.

In Islam Solomon is also the paragon of wisdom; he is the author of the saying that ‘the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God’, and he is also accounted wise for his knowledge of the unseen. As Suleiman and as a Muslim he is portrayed in the Koran as being in communion with the natural world and speaks ‘the language of the birds’ (Koran 27:17). God has also given him dominion over the spirit world: ‘We subjected the wind to him, so that it blew softly at his bidding wherever he directed it; and the devils, too, among whom were builders and divers and others bound with chains’ (Koran 38:35–36). Among those builders were the jinn, or spirits, whom Solomon commanded to build the Temple for him.

Solomon is also the epitome of the mystical love of women as in the Songs of Solomon in the Old Testament. In Islam this mystical love is expressed in the story of Belkis, the Queen of Sheba, who was converted from paganism by Solomon. He taught her the difference betweenillusion and the One Reality as expressed in the shahadah, ‘there is no God but God’, and thus became his consort. The Queen of Sheba was the expression of cosmic infinitude complementing Solomon who was the expression of wisdom or self.

In both Jewish and the Islamic traditons, Solomon is associated with stories of the marvellous. He became the subject of rabbinic and kabbalistic lore in which he is portrayed as a fabulous figure, a master magician possessing occult powers. In one kabbalistic legend Solomon orders a demon to convey Hiram, the King of Tyre, down to the seven compartments of hell so that on his return he can reveal to Solomon all he has seen in the underworld. Solomon also appears inThe Thousand and One Nights, where in theTale of the Fisherman and the Jinn he has used his seal-ring to imprison an evil spirit in a jar for 1800 years.

The Seal of Solomon, the device adorning his seal-ring, is said to have come down to Solomon from heaven. The design consisted of two interlaced or intersecting triangles, one pointing up, the other down, and these were placed within two concentric circles between which was engraved the words ‘the most greatest name of God’. In alchemy the upward-and downward-pointing triangles represent fire and water, and they symbolise the combination of opposites and hence transmutation. There are some who see a sexual symbolism in these triangles, and indeed in Egyptian hieroglyphs the V-shape does seem to be taken from the shape of the female pubis, while if the upward-pointing triangle is taken to be a phallus, then the fusion of the two can symbolise harmony in the universe and between the sexes. Be that as it may, the device has been a frequent motif used on coins in the Islamic world and as a decoration. Also known as the Star of David, it is the six-pointed star on the flag of the modern state of Israel.

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