Despite the Bible being perhaps the most studied book in history, most editions of it abound in mistranslations, and the Song of Solomon (or Song of Songs, or Canticle) is invariably so poorly rendered as to be incomprehensible. The reason, of course, is that it’s highly erotic, not at all the kind of thing to proclaim from a pulpit. This is a great shame, because it’s also one of the most beautiful pieces of poetry in the Bible, and one of the few that really glorifies pleasure rather than suffering.
Working from the King James version, I’ve gone back to the Masoretic Text and checked and retranslated many parts. Much is revealed. Some of the mistranslations seem to be the fault of the Masoretes who in the early Middle Ages added vowel points to the text that purposely obscured the meanings of certain words: for instance dodai, ‘uncle’ (supposedly with the idiomatic meaning of ‘beloved’), is substituted for dadai, ‘breast’, ‘nipple’, despite it being clear from the context exactly which word was intended.
Most of the poem is now understandable, despite the cultural differences (remember, the Shulamite, Solomon’s lover, is one of a whole flock of wives, concubines and casual hook-ups). Some poetic allusions do not carry over in English: for instance, ayin in Hebrew means ‘eye’ or ‘fountain’ or ‘vulva’, and this ambiguity is made ample use of at the end of chapter four!
The names of people and places are always appropriate to the context in which they are mentioned: the Shulamite is dark as the tents of Kedar (Kedar, a placename, literally meaning ‘Swarthy’); she is described as being as beautiful as Tirzah (‘My Delight’). En Gedi is the ‘Fountain of the Kid’, and Baal-hamon is ‘Possessor of Abundance’. Without further ado, then, here is the Song of Songs, ever-young, stepping out of its demure veil after so many centuries.
The Song of Solomon
1. The Song of Songs, which is Solomon’s:
2. Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine. 3. Because of the fragrance of thy good ointments, thy name is as ointment poured forth; therefore do the maidens love thee.
4. Draw me after you, let us hurry! The king hath brought me into his chambers.
We will exult and rejoice in thee; we will remember thy affections more than wine. The upright love thee.
5. I am dark, and comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem: as the tents of Kedar,1Kedar = ‘Swarthy’. as the curtains of Solomon. 6. Stare not at me because I am dark, because the sun hath looked on me: my mother’s sons were strict with me;2Literally, ‘scorched me’. they made me the keeper of the vineyards, but I had not the keeping of mine own vineyard.
7. Tell me, O thou whom my soul loveth, where dost thou graze? Where dost thou rest at noon? For why should I be as one enveloped by the flocks of thy companions?
8. If thou know not, O thou fairest among women, follow in the footsteps of the flock, and graze thy little kids beside the shepherds’ tents. 9. I have compared thee, O my love, to my mare among Pharaoh’s chariots. 10. Thy cheeks are lovely with rows of jewels, thy neck with threaded beads. 11. We will make thee bead-rows of gold with studs of silver.
12. While the king is in his chamber, my spikenard sendeth forth the fragrance he gave. 13. A bundle of myrrh is my beloved unto me; he lieth all night betwixt my breasts.3The image is of a sachet worn about the neck, warmed by her sleeping body to perfume her. 14. My beloved is unto me as a spray of camphire4Camphire is the fragrant henna bush. In Hebrew it is kopher, meaning also acquisition, reward, satisfaction. blossom in the vineyards of En Gedi.5En Gedi = ‘Fountain of the Kid’.
15. Behold, thou art fair, my shepherdess! Behold, thou art fair! Thou hast doves’ eyes.
16. Behold, thou art fair, my beloved! Yea, pleasant! Yea, our bed is fresh; 17. the beams of our house are cedar, and our rafters are of fir.
1. I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys.
2. As the lily among thorns, so is my shepherdess among the daughters.
3. As the apricot tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. In his shadow I sat with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.
4. He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. 5. Sustain me with raisin cakes,6Raisin cakes in the shape of goddesses were devoted to Asherah, ‘Queen of Heaven’, at her festival of fertility. Under the polytheism of Solomon’s time, Asherah was venerated as the consort of Yahweh. refresh me with apricots: for I am lovesick. 6. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand doth embrace me.
7. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the does of the field, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, till she pleases.
8. The voice of my beloved! behold, it cometh leaping over the mountains, skipping upon the hills. 9. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young hart: behold, he standeth behind our wall, he looketh forth at the windows, shewing himself through the lattice.
10. My beloved spake, and said unto me, Rise up, my shepherdess, my lovely one, and come away.
11. For, lo! the winter, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; 12. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of pruning is come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land; 13. The fig tree putteth forth her green figs, and the blossom of the vines give their scent. Arise, come away, my shepherdess, my lovely, and come away!
14. O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, concealed in the cliff, let me see thy countenance, let me hear thy voice; thy pleasant voice, and thy comely countenance.
15. Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that spoil the vines and the blossom of the vineyards.
16. My beloved is mine, and I am his: he feedeth among the lilies, 17. Until the breeze of the day, and the shadows flee. Turn, my beloved, and be thou like a gazelle or a young hart upon the cleft mountains.
1. By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not. 2. And now I rise, and go about the city in the streets and in the squares, I seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.
3. The watchmen that go about the city found me: Saw ye him whom my soul loveth? 4. I had barely passed from them, when I found him whom my soul loveth: I held him, and would not let him go, until I had brought him into my mother’s house, and into the chamber of my conception.
5. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles, and by the hinds of the field, lest ye rouse up or awaken my love, until she please.
6. Who is this that cometh up from the wilderness like pillars of smoke, perfumed with myrrh and frankincense, with all powders of the merchant? 7. Behold his litter,7Literally ‘bed’: a bed or palanquin carried in the marriage procession. which is Solomon’s; threescore valiant men are about it, of the valiant of Israel. 8. They all hold swords, experts in war: every man hath his sword at his thigh against fear in the nights. 9. King Solomon himself hath made the palanquin of the wood of Lebanon; 10. The columns thereof of he made of silver, the base of gold, his riding seat purple; the midst overflowing with the love of the daughters of Jerusalem. 11. Come and see, O ye daughters of Zion: King Solomon in the crown with which his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals,8This refers to the garland worn on one’s wedding day. and in the day of his heart’s rejoicing.
1. Look at you, my lovely shepherdess; Behold, thou art fair, my love; behold, thou art fair; thou hast doves’ eyes within thy tresses: thy hair is as a flock of goats descending from mount Gilead.
2. Thy teeth are like a flock of sheep smooth shorn, which came up from the washing; whereof every one bear twins, and none is barren among them. 3. Thy lips are like a cord of scarlet, and thy speech is comely: thy cheeks are like a piece of a pomegranate within thy tresses. 4. Thy neck is like the tower of David builded for an armoury, whereon there hang a thousand bucklers, all shields of mighty men.9An allusion to the coins or ornaments worn as a dowry about the neck. 5. Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies.
6. Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.
7. Thou art all fair, my love; there is no blemish in thee.
8. Come with me from Lebanon, my spouse, with me from Lebanon: look from the top of Amana, from the top of Shenir and Hermon, from the lions’ dens, from the mountains of the leopards.
9. Thou hast ravished my heart, my sister, my bride; thou hast ravished my heart with one glance of thine eyes, with one necklace of thy neck.
10. How beautiful are thy nipples, my sister, my bride! Thy breasts are more beautiful than wine, and the scent of thy perfume surpasseth all spices! 11. Thy lips, O my bride, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue; and the odour of thy garments is like the fragrance of Lebanon.
12. A garden inclosed is my sister, my bride; a spring shut up, a fountain10Hebrew ayin, meaning ‘vulva’ as well as ‘eye’ or ‘fountain’. sealed.
13. Thy bush11Literally ‘sprouts’ or ‘shoots’. is an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits; camphire, with spikenard, 14. Spikenard and saffron; calamus and cinnamon, with all trees of frankincense; myrrh and aloes, with all the chief spices: 15. A fountain enclosed,12Mayan gannim, literally a fountain (or vulva) of enclosures or enclosed/private gardens. a well of living waters, and streams from Lebanon.
16. Awake, O north wind; and come, thou south; blow upon my garden, that the spices thereof may flow out. Let my beloved come into his garden, and eat his pleasant fruits.
1. I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.
2. I sleep, but my heart waketh: it is the voice of my beloved that knocketh, saying, Open to me, my sister, my love, my dove, my undefiled: for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night.
3. I have put off my coat; how could I put it back on? I have washed my feet; how could I dirty them? 4. My beloved put in his hand13‘Hand’ is a common allusion to ‘penis’. by the hole of the door, and my womb was moved for him.14Aside from the obvious sexual metaphor, the viscera or the womb was regarded as the place in the body where pity and empathy reside; hence, ‘I was moved to pity for him’.
5. I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with sweet smelling myrrh, upon the handle of the bolt.
6. I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had withdrawn himself, and was gone: my soul failed when he spake: I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer.
7. The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me, they bruised me; the keepers of the walls took away my veil from me.
8. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, if ye find my beloved, that ye tell him, that I am lovesick.
9. What is thy beloved more than another beloved, O thou fairest among women? What is thy beloved more than another beloved, that thou dost so charge us? 10. My beloved is dazzling and ruddy,15Hebrew adam means both ‘ruddy’ and ‘man’; the implication here is ‘manly’. the chiefest among ten thousand.
11. His head is as the most fine gold, his locks are bushy, and black as a raven. 12. His eyes are as the eyes of doves by the rivers of waters, washed with milk, and well set. 13. His cheeks are as a bed of spices, as sweet flowers: his lips like lilies, dropping sweet smelling myrrh.
14. His hands are as gold rings set with the beryl: his belly is as bright ivory overlaid with sapphires. 15. His legs are as pillars of marble, set upon sockets of fine gold: his countenance is as Lebanon, excellent as the cedars.
16. His mouth is most sweet: yea, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem.
1. Whither is thy beloved gone, O thou fairest among women? whither hast thy beloved turned aside? that we may seek him with thee.
2. My beloved is gone down into his garden, to the beds of spices, to feed in the gardens, and to gather lilies.
3. I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine: he feedeth among the lilies.
4. Thou art beautiful, O my love, as Tirzah,16Tirzah literally means ‘My Delight’: She was a woman who petitioned Moses for women’s right of inheritance in Numbers 27:1. comely as Jerusalem, terrible as an army with banners.
5. Turn away thine eyes from me, for they have overcome me: thy hair is as a flock of goats that appear from Gilead. 6. Thy teeth are as a flock of sheep which go up from the washing, whereof every one beareth twins, and there is not one barren among them. 7. As a piece of a pomegranate are thy cheeks within thy tresses.
8. There are threescore queens, and fourscore concubines, and virgins without number. 9. My dove, my undefiled is but one; she is the only one of her mother, she is the darling of her that bore her. The daughters saw her, and blessed her; yea, the queens and the concubines, and they praised her: 10. Who is she that gazeth down like the morning, fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners?
11. I went down into the garden of nuts to see the fruits of the valley, and to see whether the vine flourished and the pomegranates budded. 12. Before I was even aware, my soul commanded me like the chariots of my nobles: 13. Return, return, O Shulamite; return, return, that we may look upon thee. What will ye see in the Shulamite? As it were, the dance of battling armies.
1. How beautiful are thy feet in sandals, O prince’s daughter! The curves of thy thighs are like jewels, the handiwork of a master craftsman. 2. Thy navel is a rounded goblet, which wanteth not liquor: thy belly is a heap of wheat grains17Wheat grains indicate both the colour of her skin, and the fecundity of her belly. set about with lilies. 3. Thy two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. 4. Thy neck is as a tower of ivory; thine eyes like the fishpools in Heshbon, by the gate of Bath Rabbim.18“Daughter of multitudes”, a name for the city Heshbon or its gate. Thy nose is as the tower of Lebanon which looketh toward Damascus. 5. Thine head crowns thee like Mount Carmel, and the hair of thine head like royal purple bound in tresses.
6. How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, in deliciousness! 7. This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters [of dates].
8. I said, I will climb the palm tree, I will take hold of its boughs. Let now thy breasts be as clusters of the vine, the fragrance of thy breath like apples, 9. And the taste of you like the best wine that goeth [down] sweetly, causing the lips of the slumbering to murmur.
10. I am my beloved’s, and his desire is toward me.
11. Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages. 12. Let us go up early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine flourish, whether the tender grape appear, and the pomegranates bud forth: there will I give thee my affections.
13. The mandrakes give a fragrance, and at our gates are all manner of pleasant fruits, new and stored up, which I have laid up for thee, O my beloved.
1. O that thou wert as my brother, that nursed at the breasts of my mother! When I should meet thee in the street, I would kiss thee; yea, I should not be rebuffed.
2. I would lead thee, and bring thee into my mother’s house, who would instruct me: I would cause thee to drink of spiced wine of the juice of my pomegranate.
3. His left hand should be under my head, and his right hand should
4. I charge you, O daughters of Jerusalem, that ye stir not up, nor awake my love, until he please.
5. Who is this that cometh up from the pasture, leaning upon her beloved? I raised thee up under the apple tree: there thy mother brought thee forth: there she brought thee forth, she that bore thee.
6. Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is as strong as death; jealousy as cruel as the grave: the coals thereof are coals of fire, which hath a most vehement flame.
7. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it: if a man would give all the wealth of his house for love, it would be utterly scorned.
8. We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts: what shall we do for our sister in the day when she shall be spoken for? 9. If she be a wall, we will build upon her a palace of silver: and if she be a door, we will inclose her with boards of cedar.19The sister is not yet of marriageable age; if she is impervious to advances they will add to her praises (and the silver dowry about her neck); if she invites advances they will fend them off.
10. I am a wall, and my breasts like towers: thus did I find favour in his eyes.
11. Solomon had a vineyard at Baal-hamon;20Baal-hamon = ‘Possessor of Abundance’. he appointed the vineyard unto keepers; each of whom for the fruit thereof was to bring in a thousand pieces of silver. 12. My vineyard, which is mine, is before me: thou, O Solomon, must have a thousand, and of those who keep the fruit thereof, two hundred.
13. Thou that dwellest in the gardens, the companions hearken to thy voice: cause me to hear it.
14. Make haste, my beloved, and be thou like to a roe or to a young hart upon the mountains of spices.