Four: Canticles

The Song of Songs (circa 3rd Century BCE)


The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love
is better than wine.
Because of the savour of thy good ointments thy name is
as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins
love thee.
Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me
into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in
thee, we will remember thy love more than wine:
the upright love thee.
I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem, as
the tents of Kedar; as the curtains of Solomon.
Look not upon me, because I am black, because the sun
hath looked upon me: my mother’s children were
angry with me; they made me the keeper of the
vineyards; but mine own vineyard have I not kept.
Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where thou feedest,
where thou makest thy flock to rest at noon: for
why should I be as one that turneth aside by the
flocks of thy companions?
If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, go thy
way forth by the footsteps of the flock, and feed thy
kids beside the shepherds’ tents.
I have compared thee, O my love, to a company of horses
in Pharaoh’s chariots.
Thy cheeks are comely with rows of jewels, thy neck with
chains of gold.
We will make thee borders of gold with studs of silver:
While the king sitteth at his table, my spikenard sendeth
forth the smell thereof.
A bundle of myrrh is my wellbeloved unto me; he shall lie
all night betwixt my breasts.
My beloved is unto me as a cluster of camphire in the
vineyards of En-gedi.
Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou
hast doves’ eyes.
Behold, thou art fair, my beloved, yea, pleasant: also our
bed is green.
The beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters of fir.


Although the Song of Songs is attributed in the Bible to King Solomon, the actual author remains unknown. As with my reading of Psalm 23, I’ve chosen the King James Version of the Bible, not because it is closest to the original, but because it tends to be the most poetic.

What I appreciate about this chapter is that it is blatantly sexual. With the exception of rape and spiritual possession, the Bible is rather short on acknowledging sexual/carnal relations, let alone in a celebratory way. Some read this as religious adoration (love for God) masquerading as erotic love; I don’t necessarily agree with that reading, but I appreciate that the complexity and ambiguity of the poem, and the lack of clear rhyme scheme or structure, allows for multiple interpretations. That’s what makes literary study so much fun.

Reading an ancient piece like this also rekindles my desire to learn languages such as ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, among others (such as Aramaic, which is the language in which this particular text seems to have been originally written). The original texts are rich with indicators, such as gender markers, that have been lost and/or accidentally or intentionally altered over the generations. Alas, my only experience with Ancient Greek is a reading of the first Harry Potter book in that language. (I’ve also read that book in Latin, but I do have a bit more experience with Latin overall). My knowledge of  Aramaic is limited to just a few words.

As for the Song itself, it is another example of the pastoral, this time in the tradition of Theocritus. I also respond to the clear indicators of race, although it should not be surprising that anyone would be darker skinned in these texts, considering the region where they were written (all of these contemporary folks who imagine Jesus was caucasian — I can’t get over it).  Economics is the real factor, here, in that the woman’s skin is dark supposedly because of all the work she’s done in the sun, which would indicate that she was either a poor farmer or a slave. If we are to take the other partner as King Solomon, then, it’s an interesting marrying of two worlds, two spheres.

I also understand that this poem has roots in ancient Sumerian, Hebrew, and Greek religions, but is one that was essentially usurped by and repurposed for use in the Christian tradition. I’m fascinated by Christianity’s great success in assimilating other cultures and religions into its own, thereby rapidly and effectively increasing the popularity and lasting-power of the Christian religion. I find this is a nice contrast to the Psalm that I posted yesterday. The themes, style, structure, mood, tone, and origins of the two couldn’t be more diverse, and yet they are found within the same canonical text. Just another reason why studying the Bible as a literary and historical piece can be such a rich, rewarding, and revealing experience.

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