Saturday, February 27, 2021

StorySpotting: What did King Solomon actually decide? (New Amsterdam)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

New Amsterdam just dropped on Netflix, and since I can't resist a ridiculous, over-the-top-feel-good, I can fall-asleep-and-miss-nothing medical drama, of course I have been binging it. 

Where was the story spotted?

New Amsterdam, season 1, episode 18 (Five Miles West)

What happens?

A young pregnant woman is brought to the hospital, where she has an emergency C-section and delivers a healthy baby boy. However, due to complications she falls into a coma. Turns out she was a surrogate mother, and the baby's biological father is there, ready to take the baby. So are her parents, who also have a claim, because the surrogacy contract is not legal in the state of New York. They go to court, and the judge decides the baby has to go into the foster system. Heartbroken, the father gives up the baby to the grandparents, rather than give him to Social Services. The grandparents, of course, are so touched by his sacrifice that they give the baby back to him. 

What's the story?

By the way, no one in these paintings
is handling babies correctly
Did someone say King Solomon? Ding, ding, ding! The story of the Judgment of King Solomon from the Bible deals with the custody of a baby with a very similar result (First Book of Kings, 3:16-3:28). Two women fight over a baby, and the king suggests they should cut him in half, dividing him equally. The false mother (kidnapper) agrees, but the real mother is ready to give up her child just to save his life. Solomon, wisely, sees who the true parent is. 

(I have a bone to pick here, by the way: a lot of people think "Solomon's judgment" means cutting a baby in half. To be clear: Solomon never wanted to cut the baby in half. He wanted to see which woman loved the baby enough to let him go rather than let him die. So next time you use this story as a metaphor, make sure you leave the baby-cutting out.)

Unsurprisingly, this story is not unique to the Bible. It belongs to a folktale type numbered ATU 926 (aptly named Judgment of Solomon). A very similar story exists in the Jataka tales from India that chronicle the Buddha's previous lives; it is he who makes a similar decision to tell a demoness (yakshini) from a human mother. The same story also appears in the Ummagga Jataka from Sri Lanka. A woman goes to take a bath, and a demoness takes on her form, claiming the baby is her own. The Buddha suggests they should grab the baby and pull - but the real mother is not willing to cause pain to her child. In a Telugu story from India, two widowed mothers have a custody battle over their son, and the one that actually loves him refuses to have him cut in half.

The story exists in many variants all around Europe and Asia, all the way to Japan, and in West and South Africa. It even migrated across the Atlantic, where we can find it among the tales of the Dominican Republic. Here the frantic mother even tries to point out a birthmark, but in the end it is the sword (machete) trick that reveals the truth. 

The story can be found as far as China, where it takes a very Chinese twist. Two women have babies, but one of the infants die, and the bereaved mother kidnaps the other (the story hints at the fact that she wants to get rid of the baby to make the other woman equally miserable). They take their case to a magistrate, who decides that the baby should be taken into his own household and raised to be an official. The real mother agrees to this, hoping for a good life for her child, while the kidnapper wants to keep the baby at all costs. The clever magistrate figures out the truth. 
(This is actually very similar to what happens in New Amsterdam)

(The same source also notes a tale where a woman finds herself facing two identical husbands, one of whom is a shapeshifter. She solves the problem by setting a tiger loose on them, because apparently tigers like to eat shapeshifters.)

A less dramatic judgment is rendered in a Swahili tale where two women give birth in the same bed, and later they can't decide which one of them had a girl and which one a boy (they both want the boy, obviously). A wise man tells them that the one whose breasts are heavier with milk is the mother of the girl. I am thinking something got lost in translation here. Here is yet another version from Africa (in Gothic letters, good luck).

This tale type also shows up in an Early English version of the Gesta Romanorum, in a slightly different way. The wise Roman emperor Polemius' wife reveals to him that out of his three sons only one is his biological child (oops), but refuses to tell which one, the dying emperor leaves a ring to his sons, and the mission to figure out which one is his true heir. The three princes go to the King of Jerusalem (Solomon, is that you?), and the wise king tells them to dig up the corpse of their father. Whoever shoots an arrow into the middle of his heart will be the heir. However, the youngest son refuses to hurt his father, even in death. He is declared the true heir. (There is also a love story version of this, from the Philippines!)
Find out more about this tale here.


Real love does not hurt.
Also, it was a nice twist from New Amsterdam to have a father make the loving decision rather than a mother.
Also, when in doubt, set a tiger loose. 


  1. That was awesome!!!! Thank you for the story!

  2. Wow, I never knew there were so many different versions!

    When you think about it, with all those wives and children, Solomon would have been pretty cluey about how mothers would think...

  3. Love these, and it is always amazing that you know so many of the variants from around the globe. You would make Joseph Campbell proud.

  4. I've always liked the Solomon story, so it's fun to hear so many variants. The only hitch is that I've always felt that there must be a pretty high percentage of people who, even if they'd stolen a child who was not biologically their own, would still not want it cut in half.