This week we visit one of the most complex figures ever represented here: Gudit, a Jewish Ethiopian queen, hero to some and villain to others, who took over the country and dramatically ended a millennium-old dynasty dating back to King Solomon. Or… she didn’t. This story zigged and zagged in unexpected directions on me during the research — so let’s go tumble down a rabbit hole together, shall we?
I’ll be honest — this entry got WAY more knotty than I’d initially anticipated. I chose Gudit because… warrior queen! Ethiopian Jews! Stuff I didn’t know anything about! But the story of this entry ended up being a lot about how we decipher history, and how the sausage is made. If that ain’t your jam, join me at the bottom (skip until you see the words “TL;DR”).
Down a Rabbit Hole
So – like me, perhaps you were unaware that there is a long (very long!) tradition of Ethiopian Jews. If you’re up on your Old Testament, you may recall a cameo by a certain Queen of Sheba (Miss Sheba if you’re nasty), where she showed up to King Solomon’s court, was like, “I guess this is pretty alright or whatever,” and then took off. Well, according to the Ethiopian Jews (today called Beta Israelis, although traditionally they’re referred to as Falashah), it didn’t go down like that. There’s a couple variations, but the story I found most was this: while Miss Sheba was crashing at Solomon’s place, Solomon was like, “hey Miss Sheba, you can totally stay here, just don’t steal anything.” Sheba was all like, “uh, okay, whatever. I am a QUEEN, you know that, right?” Except here’s the thing: Solomon fed her super-spicy food for dinner, so she had to get some water during the night. When she went for some, Solomon popped up (apparently he was just creeping outside all night) and was like, “oh no you didn’t just drink my water! That’s straight-up THEFT!” And then somehow this so impressed her that they hooked up and had a kid: Menelik, the first king of Ethiopia.
(to the lady-wooers in the audience: that is not okay. it will impress absolutely fucking nobody. do not do it on a date. that shit will end with you in jail.)
Some time later, some people were converted to Christianity, while others weren’t. The (amazingly well-documented) Christian lineage set up camp at Aksum, and everything was relatively hunky-dory for 600 years or so… until Gudit showed up and wrecked some shit.
So, Gudit. There’s three basic traditions about her, which I’ll summarize, Rashomon-style, before getting into what scholars believe might actually have happened.
1) The Jewish Tradition
Gudit was born to a Beta Israeli king named Gideon, and was a cool gal! But the Aksumites were all, “pay us taxes!” and the Falashahs were like, “I don’t wanna.” The Aksumites sent in an army to get their money. In return, Gudit burnt their shit down and set up a new dynasty, which ruled for a couple generations.
2) The Chronicle of Ethiopia
There once was an Ethiopian princess named Gudit (or Yodit, or Esato, or Ga’wa), who had a totally legit princess lineage. But she burnt down a church, overturned funeral markers, and plugged up water sources, turning parts of Ethiopia into a desert – because reasons. During all this, she ordered her soldiers to each leave a single stone in a pile just to show how big her army was. The stone pile made for a straight-up mountain. Also she ordered all the churches closed because she converted to Judaism and was like, “man, screw other religions!” She ruled for 40 years. When she died, everyone brought out the ark of the covenant (which, surprise, they’d been hiding from her) and were like, “yay we’re Christian again!”
In a masterstroke of bizarro-thought, they said, “the boy’s only 20! He was defenseless against her womanly wiles. We aren’t charging him with anything, but we’re cutting off her right breast and exiling her.”
Once upon a time there was a prostitute named Gudit! She seduced a 20-year-old kid, and asked him to get her some gold shoes. The kid did so by going to the super-secret Treasure Vault of Zion (where they keep the ark of the covenant) and ripping up a gold curtain there. The townsfolk went on a Cinderella-style witch hunt, trying to find whose feet were the same size as the hole in the gold curtain. Once they found Gudit, in a masterstroke of bizarro-thought, they said, “the boy’s only 20! He was defenseless against her womanly wiles. We aren’t charging him with anything, but we’re cutting off her right breast and exiling her.” She then went to Syria, married the king, raised an army, and invaded Ethiopia.
So it’s kind of he-said, she-said, right? At points like these, it’s useful to turn to outside sources, and stuff we can prove. Here’s what’s known for sure:
- A woman did take over Ethiopia around this time (there’s record of it by other countries). Name unknown.
- She had good relationships with Syria and Yemen though! The only surviving outsider point of view on her was that she was pretty cool.
- There’s Ethiopian traditions (which match stories from neighboring areas) that the old king prior to Gudit’s takeover had wandered out with his military on an expansionist war and died in the desert (not a good way to go).
- Church officials in Egypt did get panicky “help us” messages asking to mediate a succession dispute between two brothers, and then a followup saying some woman had taken over the kingdom.
- There’s actual evidence of churches being burnt down. The main one she was said to have attacked (it’s still around!) has fire damage on the roof in some of the rooms. When this happened is up to debate.
- There’s oral traditions around Ethiopia of a queen who had her soldiers pile stones — but in two piles, one on the way to war and one on the way back, so she’d know how many soldiers she’d lost.
- And lastly, there are a TON of women in Ethiopian history that she could be confused with.
Here’s where it goes from confusing to mind-boggling. A list of possible dopplegangers includes:
- An actual, there’s-evidence-for-it Beta Israeli queen named Judith in the 16th century. She and her husband Gideon (!) turned on the Christian king and sided with Muslims in an all-out war. They were not, as you could imagine, well-liked for this turn of events.
- In some traditions, there was a woman named Tirda Gabaz, last of the Aksumite line, who ostensibly killed all other claimants to the throne so her son could rule. Also not well-liked.
- There was a “surprise! I secretly existed all along to continue the proper lineage!” princess named Masoba Warq who ostensibly came after Gudit, and was one of the first rulers of the new dynasty. She has a Moses-esque backstory about being abandoned in a basket in the reeds and then growing up to take back the kingdom. But deconstructing her timeline, she overlaps pretty directly with Gudit’s supposed reign.
I’ll spare you all the malarky involved in deconstructing all this messed-up info and putting it on a single timeline, but the main idea put forth from all this research, best I can tell, was this:
And that, kids, is how the sausage is made.
And that, kids, is how the sausage is made.
- She’s in semi-traditional Ethiopian habeshah dress. The shawl about her shoulders is supposed to look like a Jewish “tallit” (prayer shawl). The rainbow lines are actually true to a specific type of tallit. The twelve stripes I put on are a callback to the twelve tribes of Israel. The one that is separate from the others is, in according to the traditional listing order, the tribe of Dan – the tribe that the Beta Israelis are most closely associated with. That hue is repeated throughout the rest of her outfit.
- I put in a subtle Star of David to the right of Gudit. I hope it’s visible enough! Those brown things are the grave markers (stelae) she was said to have knocked over.
- You can see the piles of rocks to her left and right. Given what I take to be her actual story, one of her rising to the occasion out of necessity, and her care for how many soldiers she’d lost, I thought she’d be sad about it. The rock she’s dropping has a lioness head (as was supposed to be her symbol).
- That’s the actual church she was said to have burnt down in the background. It’s still around! Crazy stuff.
- If you really can’t see the Star of David, click here for an overlay.
Next Time on Rejected Princesses
Bringing light to Damascus with a red crescent, trousers, and, conspicuously, no veil.