This morning during breakfast, my son Al asked me, “Where did the idea of genies come from?” I have no idea what brought the question on, as I don’t remember they’re having been part of our conversation up to that point. I was tempted to answer that the origins of legends are almost by definition unknown, and that at most we can say what part of the world they come from. But I don’t think he meant the “where” geographically.
I could also have given an abstract answer about how people have come up with fanciful stories to explain things they don’t understand. But that wouldn’t really answer his question either. He wanted to know where the idea of the genie, specifically, came from.
So I decided to see what I could find out to answer his question. Just how did people come up with the idea of powerful beings with no more substance than smoke, who were kept in lamps and granted wishes when they were released? I’ve read a fair amount of mythology, but mostly that of European origins. Genies, as any kid who has watched Disney’s Aladdin can tell you, come from Arabia.
The word genie is the English equivalent of the Arabic jinn (or djinn). According to wikipedia, it came by way of the French translation of Arabian Nights, where the French word génie (from the Latin word genius for a guardian spirit assigned to each person at birth) was considered a particularly apt transliteration of the Arabic. Most of our ideas about genies came from the stories in Arabian Nights (and modern stories building on those literary foundations), especially the story of Aladdin. Oddly enough, this story was not in the Arabic version, and was added by the French translator, who had heard it from an Arab Syrian storyteller from Aleppo.
I read my father’s copy of Arabian Nights when I was growing up, but I had long ago forgotten most of it when Disney’s Aladdin came out. I knew that of course Disney had made up a good deal of it, but I couldn’t tell which elements they had kept from the original story other than the poor boy finding the lamp and the genie. From poking around on the web, I see other features of the original story that were preserved in the animated movie:
- A sorcerer recruits Aladdin to retrieve a wonderful lamp from a booby-trapped magic cave.
- After the sorcerer attempts to double-cross him, Aladdin finds himself trapped in the cave.
- The sorcerer is later able to get his hands on the lamp by trickery (in the original, he tricks Aladdin’s wife).
In the original, there are actually two genies, one in a magic ring and a more powerful one in the lamp. Disney left out the ring and gave Aladdin a magic carpet to fulfill some of the lesser genie’s functions in the story (remaining with him after a sorcerer gets the lamp away from him, and getting him out of some difficult situations). Neither genie helps Aladdin out of friendship and goodwill, as Disney’s Genie does. Jinn (which is the plural form of the word in Arabic) are generally not at all kindly disposed to humans, and serve them only when they must.
Several years ago I picked up an entertaining anthology of stories about genies (Aladdin: Master of the Lamp). Truer to tradition, these genies fulfill the letter of the requests that are made but nearly always manage to do so in some tricky way that makes the person worse off. Jafar’s treatment of Abis Mal (who finds his lamp and asks for a legendary treasure, only to find himself, with the treasure, at the bottom of the sea) in Disney’s The Return of Jafar is a good example of this.
I was surprised to discover that jinn are discussed in the Koran, and are considered a creation of God, somewhat similar to mankind. Man was created from dirt [note: see comments below regarding this]; jinn were created from “a smokeless flame of fire.” (And angels were created from light.) One of them, Iblis, disobeyed God by refusing to prostrate himself to Adam, because Adam had been made from mud. Iblis and other disobedient jinn became known as shayateen (satans).
According to Islam, jinn eat and drink, and procreate. They live in some kind of organized society, and are generally hidden from humans although they can see humans. We see them only when they take a material form, which is usually in an unpleasant or ugly form such as a snake or a black dog, as opposed to angels who take pleasant and handsome forms. They have free will, and can choose good or evil. They can even choose to be Muslims, or to be unbelievers. Like men, after death they will go to Paradise or to Hell. They whisper deceit to men and mislead them.
[Side note: I found it strange to read a FAQ page where people’s questions about jinn, such as whether a human can marry one, what they eat, and whether they have pets, are answered based on verses in the Koran. In some places the expert giving the answers acknowledges that scholars differ on the matter, and I was reminded of Random Name’s comment on WorldMagBlog recently in the midst of some theological disagreement:
Once a person accepts things that can’t be proven are the foundation of truth, they can argue about the details for the rest of their life, always claiming that they have “proved” their case.
Having scholars debate the details of the lives of jinn may seem absurd to us (considering that they are not arguing about it as literature but as an aspect of our reality). But the arguments that Christians have over the meaning of the Trinity or the nature of heaven no doubt seems just as absurd to non-Christians.]
I was further intrigued to read an opinion regarding evidence of jinn influence in our world today. Occult activity is attributed to them (whereas conservative Christians would attribute it to demons, and skeptics to trickery or pure imagination). So are religious visions of Christ or the Virgin Mary, and even visions of Mohammed or Allah (presumably Allah does not grant such visions). And so are the illusions performed by magicians, who are thought to have sold their souls to the jinn in exchange for their cooperation in tricks such as making objects disappear and reappear (which the jinn can do easily by traveling long distances almost instantaneously).
What I still haven’t found is how these jinn entered folktales as granters of wishes. I found an interesting article discussing characteristics of Arabic folklore, showing how the stories reflect the culture they grew out of. But while it mentions jinn (as one of the evil forces that control human beings), it makes no mention of lamps or wishes. As people everywhere do wish for things they do not have, however, it is not surprising that the folklore of cultures around the world include stories of wishes granted by magical beings.
In a culture where the most common supernatural beings are jinn, and they have powers that could grant some (though certainly not all) of people’s wishes, it is natural that stories would develop where jinn grant wishes. Since they have no desire to be servants to humans, however, the human would have to be provided some kind of power over the jinn in order to compel them to grant the wishes. Possessing a container which could be used to imprison the jinn would provide such a degree of compulsion.
As for why the wishes are granted by jinn who try to trick the humans and give them technically what they asked for but not what they really want, I suppose it reflects the wisdom of the community storytellers (typically a very respected position in a pre-literate society). Observation of human behavior over time will show that people very often wish for things that are not what is best for them, and often regret it later when they have what the wished for and realize it’s not what they really want. (And this applies perfectly well to non-magical wishing.)
Lately Al likes to ask me a question such as “What would you like to invent?” or present a scenario such as “Your teacher comes in holding a strange bag… What happens next?” Apparently these are exercises he has been given in school to develop creative writing abilities. Yesterday it was “If you had three wishes, what would you wish for?” Assuming that “more wishes” was probably not allowed as an answer, I came up with the relatively unimaginative “A million dollars” for my first wish.
A million dollars really wouldn’t go all that far, once I paid off all our debt, saved some for taxes (even money delivered by a genie would come under some taxable category or other), provided for our sons’ college education, given a good chunk to charity, saved for retirement, and fixed numerous problems with the house. So I don’t think that I would be ruined by sudden wealth, as I have heard that many lottery winners are. But I suppose I would lose the opportunity to trust in God to provide for our needs, so I will have to reluctantly conclude that it’s just as well that genies only show up in fiction.