Aladdin, and genies, djinn, and jinn in folklore and pop culture

(Originally published on IGN)

If you’re hoping to find a magic lamp containing an all-powerful genie, be careful what you wish for.

Despite what Aladdin, I Dream of Jeannie or modern paranormal pop culture promise, tapping into phenomenal cosmic powers – contained in an itty-bitty living space – can lead to a world of hurt. Like the song says, you ain’t never had a friend like a genie, but millennia of folklore suggest you probably will wish you didn’t.

In modern entertainment, such as Disney’s new live-action Aladdin based on the 1992 animated film, genies are powerful beings trapped within a lamp, and relegated to granting wishes to masters. Jafar’s fate in the animated film also suggests a human can be transformed into a genie. But that’s not at all how things started for genies…

The Origin of Genies

What we see in Aladdin doesn’t reflect the pre-Islamic Arabian origins of genies, or “jinn,” and “djinn,” which date back to at least 2400 BCE. Although their precise beginnings are unclear, they are mentioned multiple times in the Quran. The word (meaning “to hide”) may be rooted in an Aramaic label for pagan deities that were downgraded to demon status, but Muhammad’s teachings said the jinn were created of smokeless fire.

As opposed to angels, and existing long before Allah created Adam, the jinn were entirely separate entities.

“The jinn are neither angels nor demons,” said paranormal author and researcher David Weatherly, who writes about jinn in his book Strange Intruders. “According to Middle Eastern lore, they are something in between, a third race of beings created by Allah.”

Within Islam, they are not inherently good nor evil, and can live a life of free will that involves eating for sustenance, getting married, having children, and observing social customs. Though possessing magical abilities, when they die they’ll face judgment for their sins.

However, jinn have also earned their reputation for manipulation, mischief, and malevolence. Despite Allah demanding they show fealty to Adam, a jinni (the singular for jinn) named Iblis viewed himself as superior to the human made of dirt. He defied Allah, and this supreme leader of jinn set about luring humans to the dark side. In some lore, Iblis is also known as Shaitan, which has led to parallels being drawn between jinn, and demons, or Satan. Iblis and his cohorts’ defiance of Allah led to them being banished, but given until Judgment Day to make amends.

Considering jinn can live so long as to be nearly immortal, can assume the form of, and possess, humans and animals – and can even teleport between dimensions – Iblis may have had a point about being a higher lifeform.

Weatherly added, “They have a wide range of powers from shapeshifting and invisibility, to psychic abilities and mind control.”

While jinn could be known to be friendly, or at least reclusive, the beings also have vampiric abilities. In addition to absorbing the essence of food, or eating while in human form, they derive nourishment by sucking energy from living things. That can include draining a human soul.

According to lore, some jinn want to do their own thing, and have no interest in humans. Others get their kicks by hanging around humans. But it can be dicey to be around a jinn considering some want to toy with us, and choose to torment us or exact revenge for being cast out. They are also said to be able to bring about illness and bad luck.

“While some through the ages have tried to bargain with them, to do so is always a dangerous gamble since they are notorious tricksters who, for the most part, do not like humans,” said Weatherly. “They can dwell in abandoned buildings, in the deserts and forests, even in rocks, statues, jewelry and other physical items.

One of the more notable stories involving jinn comes from the Testament of Solomon, which could date back as early as 1st century CE. According to the tale, a demon named Ornias runs afoul of Solomon, who is gifted with a ring bearing the seal of God (a Pentagram). The magical ring allows Solomon to control demons, and he uses it to compel Ornias, Beelzebul, and other demons to build fortresses and monuments. Within the Quran, these demons are instead said to be jinn, and Solomon even commanded some within his large armies.

Arabian Nights

The connection between Solomon and jinn appears again in One Thousand and One Nights, the collection of folk stories also known as Arabian Nights. Compiled between the 8th and 14th centuries, the book of tales included “The Story of the City of Brass” about an archaeological quest to find a lost city, as well as a brass vessel containing a jinni trapped by Solomon.

Djinn from the 14th Century Book of Wonders (Wikipedia)
Here we have the connection between jinn and lamps, or small spots, in fiction. King Solomon was known to have a surplus of jars filled with jinn. Further, in “The Fisherman and the Jinni,” an elderly fisherman is having quite the tough time on the water. When he calls upon God for an assist, his net snags a copper jar, topped with a seal of Solomon. When the fisherman opens it up, smoke pours out and becomes a jinni.

And he is pissed.

The jinni claims to have been trapped by Solomon, and initially thinks the fisherman is the king. When the man convinces the entity he is a mere peasant, the jinni reveals the plan he hatched during his imprisonment: For the first 200 years, he planned to shed wealth on whoever freed him. But no one came. During the third century, he decided to grant his liberator three wishes.

Still no one came, and four hundred years in, he decided he’d just kill who ever found him, but he’d let them choose the form of their death.

The fisherman tricks the jinni back into the bottle using some Superman/Mister Mxyzptlk-level of misdirection. So desperate to be let out again, the jinni tells the fisherman a story and eventually guides him to a pond with excellent fishing – and helps the man marry into the Sultan’s family via his daughters.

But the most famous jinn story in fiction, “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp,” may have less to do with Middle Eastern folklore and more to do with Antoine Galland, the Frenchman who first translated Arabian Nights for Europeans in 1704.

The original version of Aladdin didn’t have much to do with a blue wise-cracking genie, and there was no monkey sidekick. In this, the poor boy from China was recruited by a sorcerer to retrieve a lamp from a magic cave with traps. To do so, the wizard gives him an enchanted ring of protection (but also double crosses the kid and traps him in the cave). Al rubs his hands together out of anxiety, and a jinni pops out, and proceeds to teleport the boy with magic lamp back home. While home, Aladdin’s mom cleans the lamp, and a second jinni arrives on the scene. He becomes rich with an assist by jinni #2, marries the Sultan’s daughter, and gets a palace. But the sorcerer returns and gets the lamp and its jinni back – until Aladdin summons jinni #1 from the ring and takes on the bad guy… and then his more evil wizard brother. Jinni #2 warns Al of impending danger from the brother, and the good guys win the day.

Except this story wasn’t included in the original text. Galland claimed he acquired the story from a Syrian storyteller and adapted it himself. Along with “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” is referred to as one of the orphan tales from Arabian Nights, and both are probably the most well-known amongst Westerners. Galland also receives credit for introducing the word “genie” after translating jinni into gĂ©nie. The word means genius in French, and there’s a connection with the Latin word genii -- plural for genius -- which is a genial guardian spirit that shapes a man’s character.

The Modern Genie

Galland’s Westernized version of the genie stuck, and the influence could be felt more than two centuries later in films such as 1940’s adventure The Thief of Bagdad (which inspired multiple elements in Disney’s Aladdin), 1958’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, 1979’s Arabian Adventure, and the 1978 Clive Donner-directed The Thief of Baghdad (which is not a remake of the 1940 film).

The comedic element of genies as (somewhat bumbling) helpers was shown in the 1900 novel The Brass Bottle, which referred to the entities as djinn. It spawned a Broadway play, two silent pictures, and a 1964 movie starring Burl Ives as the genie, plus Tony Randall and Barbara Eden – which then influenced the 1964-70 television series I Dream of Jeannie, also starring Eden, but now as the magical wish granter.

Interestingly, I Dream of Jeannie featured a running gag that the female jinn couldn’t leave her bottle if it was corked, harkening back to the ancient trope of Solomon’s seal imprisoning the beings. Also, in the first episode of the show that aired in color (“Happy Anniversary,” Season 2, episode one), an evil “Blue Djinn” arrives to wreak havoc. And Jeannie as an attractive, scantily clad being is rooted in folklore that associated jinn with demonic succubi that could form pleasing forms and have sex with men to draw out their energy.

In Western culture, genies largely remained relegated to comedies, such as early Looney Tunes animated shorts like “Buddy of the Legion” (1935) and “A-Lad-In His Lamp” (1948), or the live-action Bowery to Bagdad (1955). Even after Robin Williams voiced Genie in the Disney feature, there was the modern tale Kazaam starring Shaquille O’Neal as a boombox-dwelling genie-turned-djinn (not to be confused with the nonexistent genie movie Shazaam starring Sinbad).

Rather than focusing on the powers of jinn themselves, most Western pop culture with genies appears more interested in the three-wish bargain.

(“Wish? Did someone say wish?” Sorry, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention John Paragon’s Jambi the Genie from Pee Wee’s Playhouse.)

In episodes “The Man in the Bottle” or “I Dream of Genie,” The Twilight Zone encapsulated the at-times devious nature of genies, known for exercising devastating loopholes. This reflects the idea that jinn are manipulative. From The X-Files to Charmed, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and even kids fare like Wizards of Waverly Place and The Fairly OddParents, genies are often portrayed as tricksters.

Although ifrit and marid are considered some of the nastiest types of jinn in lore, the jinni in Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel American Gods has a benevolent nature. He says he doesn’t grant wishes, but offers a new life to Salim. And within the Starz series adapted from the book, the Jinn loves and protects Salim – while answering to the powerful Mr. Wednesday.

Video, roleplaying and card games have done a better job incorporating jinn into their mythologies. Magic: The Gathering, and Dungeons & Dragons utilize jinn quite a bit, while franchises Final Fantasy and Prince of Persia had jinns that could serve as an enemy or ally. Even Nathan Drake hallucinated Fire Djinn in Uncharted 3, and Geralt faced off against them in The Witcher 3.

Within the horror genre, there have been attempts in Western cinema to make jinn scary. But most flicks fail to deliver the frights, and they haven’t caught on as a paranormal pop culture subgenre. The most notable entry was the Wishmaster franchise, but those films received a critical drubbing. As did The Outing (1987), Long Time Dead (2002), Red Sands (2009), Jinn (2014) and Tobe Hooper’s final feature, Djinn (2013), produced by the Emirati production company Image Nation. Within the film industries in other cultures, such as Turkey, jinn have often been supernatural threats.

It isn’t surprising that jinn carry more weight in other parts of the world where Islam is the dominant religion. After all, the jinn is as real for observant Muslims as angels. And in a 2012 Pew Research Study, more than half of Muslims in 13 of the 23 countries where the question was asked said they believed in the existence of jinn. Plus, even speaking about the beings might invite unwanted attention from them – and that’s a pretty scary thought.

“One of the tenants of Islam is that followers are to believe all that is written in the Quran, and since the jinn are mentioned in the holy books of the faith, followers are directed to accept their existence,” said Weatherly. “Whether you personally believe in the jinn or not, there are currently almost two billion Muslims in the world who do believe.”

However, at the moment, Western pop culture appears to prefer the blue, wish-granting genie as opposed to the more nuanced jinn. But as multiculturalism continues to improve our understanding of beliefs around the world, we may yet see folklore-accurate jinn emerge from their reclusive hiding space to receive attention in the mainstream.

But if millennia of folklore is to be believed, think twice before searching for a jinn, or trying to get wishes out of any supernatural being trapped in a lamp. Whether you call them jinn, djinn, or genie, as Weatherly warns, you may end up with a friend who prefers to torment rather than sing and dance.