These days, you can’t spit in fantasy art without hitting some variant of a beautiful, barely clad female lounging on a throne, pasties on her nipples, a pout on her pretty face. The strong suggestion is she rules by whim and her power is absolute, a thing which, I’m sure, many of the male artists and male viewers can relate to in their romantic histories.
But where did she come from?
Before the 20th century, Savage Queens existed only in myth or as characters from the Bible, that repository of culture-sanctioned myth in the Western world. As such, they appeared in oil paintings for the wealthy.
This painting makes no effort to depict Queen Semiramis of Assyria in anything resembling Middle Eastern garb or period dress of the 8th century BC. Instead, she’s dressed like an Italian noblewoman of the mid-17th century, which may be exotic to us now, but certainly not to the viewers of the time. It would take the Enlightenment, with its curiosity about ancient cultures, for more authentic garb to appear. Yet she is a Savage Queen — lounging about (on a fancy chair if not a throne) as a servant fixes her hair, she is interrupted by a messenger bearing news of a revolt, so she rises, uncoifed, to go to war. The 17th century being what it was, I’m sure the painting was an allegory intended for some noble.
Once the Enlightenment was underway, we start seeing more patently exotic garb. This painting of Juno, Queen of the Greek gods and wife of Zeus, shows her in toga-like drapes, on a throne, while petting a peacock. But the face and hairdo is that of Françoise Marie de Bourbon, an illegitimate daughter of Louis XIV, whom the depiction was designed to flatter. I’ll guess the portrait was created at the start of the Neoclassic Age, as the side table her arm is resting on has that ancient Grecian look. Europeans had started poking around in Mediterranean ruins at the time, unearthing many wonders.
Czech artist Alphonse Mucha is widely known today for his much-imitated style and JOB cigarette papers girl, a popular poster in the late 1960s. But his artwork was shockingly revolutionary when it first came out. This lithograph depicts Salammbo, a high priestess of Carthage, from the novel of the same name written by Gustave Flaubert — he of Madame Bovary fame. Though Salammbo stands tall and dignified in Mucha’s depiction, she is clearly a sensual heathen by her bared breasts, elaborate jewelry, and peacock feather crown. And she’s not entirely nice, going by how her lyre-playing slave is shrinking from her.
Orientalism, an art movement popularized by another Gustave, Gustave Moreau, clearly had a hand in this depiction. Orientalism was a wide, European-based art movement that began in the 18th century and had its roots in earlier ages of exploration and colonization. It had a fascination with all things non-European (Japanese block prints, Grecian columns, Polynesian carvings, etc.) using those design motifs and subject matter for the titillation of European minds. One of the most popular in fine art was the idea of the Harem… naked and/or exotically dressed women lolling about amongst pillows and draperies. Another was a fascination with the Near East and the more savage Biblical stories, such as the one of Salome, who has become a potent symbol of female danger and seduction. As a Savage Queen, she is petulant, beautiful, savage, and cruel.
By the late 1800s ethnic jewelry and costumes were beginning to find their way into European markets for artists to find inspiration from, hence her garb. Alternately, costume items could have been sketched at their source by painters doing their Grand Tour of the Levant. Notice how peacock feathers appear in Salome’s costume, as they have in Mucha’s and de Troy’s paintings.
A burlesque dancer from the early 20th century dressed in a Salome-inspired costume holds up her hands in a “pagan” pose.
Like Salome, Mata Hari too became the epitome of the man-eating femme fatale in her “Oriental” costume (this one standing in for Malaysia) even though the truth of her life was far different.
Cleopatra’s first appearance in film was, for the time, shockingly sexually forward. Silent movie actress Theda Bara designed many of the costumes herself, which while not authentic, are interesting for their mishmash of Arabic, Indian, and Central Asian sources. Bara might seem too plump and homely for today’s taste in Savage Queens (compare her to the Joe Jusko version below) but at the time she created a sensation. Her depiction of a Savage Queen was also one of the first to reach a mass audience. (The discovery of King Tut’s tomb in 1922 led to more accurate costume depictions.)
But it took the pulps for Savage Queens to really make a mark.
Pulp literature had its heyday in the early decades of the 20th century and was named for the cheap paper the magazines were printed on; later “pulp” also referred to the subject matter, which was lurid, exploitive, sensational, and imaginative… perfect for science fiction and fantasy. This mass-market fluff regularly featured stories of heroic adventurers in exotic lands, the fertile ground Steven Spielberg paid homage to with Indiana Jones. Writers didn’t have to look far for inspiration, as tombs were being found and lost cities discovered at a high rate. H. Rider Haggard’s She was perhaps the first Savage Queen in print, in part inspired by the apex years of the British Empire when Africa was undergoing colonization.
Ayesha in many ways set the template for a Savage Queen: she ruled a lost, barbaric kingdom in the jungle, was incomparably beautiful and powerful, and, most importantly for pulp fiction, harbored an attraction towards the male adventurer of the story.
When the British Empire began to crumble, the Americans took up the reins. Among them was a young writer named Edgar Rice Burroughs who created not one but several pulp series featuring lost worlds and fantastic adventures. Tarzan of the Apes is Burrough’s best-known hero, and he had run-ins of his own with a Savage Queen named La, ruler of the lost city of Opar.
Queen La made several appearances throughout the series. She ruled over Opar as its high priestess and became attracted to Tarzan because the males of Opar were, unfortunately, ugly and deformed. True to form, her dangerous nature emerges (she attempts to sacrifice him, and then Jane, with a knife) and later weeps with frustration when Tarzan rejects her. It’s interesting to trace her depiction over the years.
An early book cover. A rosy-cheeked Queen La stands in a typical flapper pose. Tarzan looks very young here, maybe nineteen, and his legs are impressively muscled. The artist was not afraid to depict nipples.
A later illustration. Both Tarzan and Queen La have curly, movie-star hair; Tarzan resembles Buster Crabbe, and Queen La, Myrna Loy. As per the movie code of the time, she shows no cleavage or nipples and her navel is hidden. Tarzan has lost the wiry savagery of the earlier depiction, appearing more like an office worker who occasionally plays golf.
From a 1960s comic. Tarzan has certainly met his match! Queen La’s headdress of linked disks seems inspired from the fashions of Paco Rabanne.
From a 1970s comic. Queen La wears what is basically a bikini. Her headdress has increased in size to showgirl proportions.
Joe Jusko’s version. More muscles, more undress, and… pasties! One with a dangly thing. Tarzan is freshly oiled as if from a posing session at Gold’s Gym. His physique is truly excessive for an ape-man that makes his bread and butter swinging through the trees. No vine could hold the weight of those massive pecs and thighs.
Humor here from cartoonist Gary Larson, showing how far the trope has penetrated.
By the ending decades of the 20th century, Savage Queens were well established and featured regularly like this cheesecake, but very worthy, depiction by Chris Achilleos. This Queen is a ballbuster and will clearly take no quarter from an undeserving man.
I’ll leave this photo essay with one of the many modern depictions. Note the recurring elements of throne, peacock feathers, and exotic headdress.