'American Gods' Bilquis Is Based On A Biblical Figure

This Sunday, Starz will bring to life the mythological universe of Neil Gaiman's American Gods, a mind-bending fantasy about an ex-con caught amidst a brewing war between old and new world deities. Fans of the book it's based on should know to expect a show teeming with surrealist imagery: vikings, leprechauns, a fiery-eyed buffalo. Behind one of its wildest moments is Bilquis, an ancient goddess of love played by Yetide Badaki. But before you watch her most eye-popping scene unfold, you may be wondering: What god is Bilquis based on in American Gods, anyway?

Though Greek love goddess Aphrodite would seem like the most obvious touchstone, Bilquis actually draws inspiration from the Queen of Sheba, a biblical figure who contributed to the founding myths for the modern states of Israel and Ethiopia. According to PBS, she appears in religious texts sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims. In them, she's described as a seeker of truth and wisdom who traveled to Jerusalem to meet King Solomon and test his knowledge.

PBS explained that after their exchange, the queen agreed to stay as a guest of Solomon's on the condition that he refrain from touching her. In return, he asked that she not take anything of his, but she later got a glass of water after waking up thirsty in the middle of the night. He then confronted her, saying that by breaking their agreement, she had released him from his promise. The two spent the night together, and she returned home from his kingdom pregnant with his son. Eventually, their child grew up and went to Israel to meet his father. When he came back, he brought with him the Ark of the Covenant, a divine container that held the Ten Commandments.

Little else is known about the queen, but the BBC's Michael Wood refers to her as an exotic and mysterious woman of power. "No other popular heroine is so celebrated but so puzzling," he wrote.

Gaiman's story is, of course, much different. In his world, she's a sex worker suspected of being half-demon, and she makes only a brief appearance in the narrative. But while Bilquis has only a minor role in the original novel, American Gods showrunner Bryan Fuller has said that she’ll take on a much bigger part in the TV series, so perhaps they'll keep a closer eye to her fabled roots. "[She's] a major player in this world,” he told Den of Geek back in 2014.

And as for that notorious sequence in which she demonstrates her, ahem, talent, they won't be holding anything back. “That came up in the Starz meeting,” Fuller said. “They were like, ‘How are you going to do that moment?’ and we said, ‘We’re going to do it exactly as written.’”

See how Bilquis' character takes shape when American Gods premieres April 30.