King Solomon’s Horses


(notes edited by Philip Holberton,  drawing on the researches of Andrew Rutherford and Thomas Pinney)


This poem was published in the Calcutta Review for July 1886, signed Rudyard Kipling and with the heading:

When the horses, standing on three feet and touching the ground with the edge of the fourth foot, swift in the course, were set in parade before him, King Solomon in the evening said: – ‘Verily, I have loved the love of earthly good above the remembrance of my Lord; and I have spent the time in viewing these horses till the sun is hidden by the veil of night. Bring the horses back to me.’ And when they were brought back, he began to cut off their heads and their necks—Al Koran.

The poem was not collected by Kipling, but is to be found in Rutherford (p. 328) and Pinney (p. 1814). The Calcutta Review was a successful quarterly, founded in May 1844, and owned in Kipling’s day by Thacker Spink & Company.

The Poem

The story is taken from Sura 38 of the Koran, the sacred book of Islam. Kipling’s heading doesn’t quite make clear why Solomon began the slaughter; the Koran explains that while viewing the horses till the sun is hidden by the veil of night he had not performed the afternoon prayers. So he killed them as a sacrifice and an atonement. Later in the poem, pride becomes a motive: the story will get about that he is so rich that he can afford to kill a thousand horses, while Hiram, a fellow-King, could only ‘slay his score of starveling goats.’

The “wisdom of Solomon” is proverbial. In the last two verses, the King is praised for this. But he reflects that the sacrifice didn’t do God much good; he will never get another horse as fine as the grey stallion he killed; and all he has gained is his own bitter scorn. ‘Oh! Most wise King!’ We can only speculate about whether he intended the poem to have any contemporary resonance.

Kipling’s Solomon

King Solomon appears again in “The Butterfly that Stamped” in Just-So Stories. Here, at ease in the garden with his most wise Queen Balkis, he is treated with great respect, and given his full name of Suleiman-bin-Daoud (Solomon, the son of David). But here too he has been in trouble through pride:

‘Once he tried to feed all the animals in the world in one day, but when the food was ready an Animal came out of the deep sea and ate it up in three mouthfuls’.

In the aftermath he gives a mighty demonstration of his powers, to great effect, but only to help a little butterfly who is having trouble with his wife.

Notes on the Text

Hiram The King of Tyre, who supplied all the cedar-wood for Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 5. 6-10).

Ashtaroth: The Pagan goddess of fertility.

my knowledge of brute speech Jewish legend attributed to Solomon the power of understanding the speech of all birds and beasts, as he shows in “The Butterfly that Stamped”


©Philip Holberton 2020 All rights reserved