A Brief Account of Life with Djinn
Updated: Jan 1
From world peace, to immortality, or even a brand-new Mercedes, most people have tried to come up with what they would spend their wishes on if they were lucky enough to find a Genie’s lamp, at least once in their lifetime. It seems a pretty simple concept – you find a lamp, or perhaps a ring, in a creepy cave, or a rickety old antiques shop, and lo and behold, when you rub it an all powerful spirit emerges ready to grant your each and every wish with absolutely no consequences, save the occasional limit to the number of wishes. It is the ultimate win-win situation. In truth, however, the myths of Djinn are not quite so simple, and extend far further back in history than most people would imagine.
The Djinn are among some of our oldest prevailing mythical creatures, thought to have links to ancient Mesopotamia, and largely unchanging throughout time. Unlike other well-know mythical races, such as the Greek Gods, or the British Fair Folk, a genuine belief in Djinn remains prevalent to this day. According to a 2012 census, 77% of people in Southern Asia believe that Djinn exist, with 69% across Africa and a still significant 30 % across Europe.
The origin of the word ‘Djinn’ (sometimes Jinn or Jinni and, in the case of females, Jiniri) is debated, but general consensus is that the name comes from the Arabic word ‘Jann’ meaning to hide or to adapt. Djinn are said to be similar to spirits. They are capable of possessing people, shapeshifting into different forms, both human and animal, and significantly are known for their ability to turn invisible.
Djinn were also said to be ephemeral creatures, capable of both good and evil, who live in a world similar to our own but in another plane of existence. They live separately to the world, but able to interact with it. In other versions of the myth they live underground and are liable to react with either mischief or hostility when they are disturbed. They would either torment or inspire humans – symptoms of epilepsy could be signs of a Djinn’s torment, however great poets, soothsayers and philosophers were said to be inspired by Djinn. While Djinn were sometimes worshipped, they were distinct from gods, in that they were not immortal. While they had great power, it was theoretically possible for a human to kill a Djinn.
In the 7th Century, when Islam began to become prevalent within Arabic countries, the Djinn was incorporated into these beliefs, and they are mentioned almost thirty times within the Quran. In the Quran, it is said that Allah first created angels, then Djinn and then humans. The prophet Muhammed is said to have initially feared that his visions were a trick sent by the Djinn. Unlike angels and demons, whose fates are predetermined, Djinn are similar to humans in that they have free will.
They are also similar to humans in that they are capable and even dependent on certain human things – eating and sleeping for example. Much like humans they reproduce, and while they may be more long lived, they are equally capable of dying. Djinn, are often depicted as jealous of humans, for human have superiority to the Djinn. This is because humans are made of earth and water while Djinn were made from the less substantial smokeless flame and so are associated with fire and air.
One example of humanity’s dominion over the Djinn is in the story of King Solomon. King Solomon is said to have had dominion over several powers, animals, winds, demons, and also Djinn. This sovereignty was granted by a ring, gifted to Solomon by Allah and inscribed with a seal of power on it. In some versions this symbol is an 8-pointed star, and in others the name of Allah.
This is not the last time that a ring of significance is associated with the belief in Djinn. During the Islamic Golden Age, a collection of Middle Eastern stories were collected into a book named ‘1001 Nights’. In the 1700s, this was translated into English as ‘Arabian Nights,’ a collection of myths that are still widely read today. Two of these stories significantly feature Djinn, one ‘The Fisherman and the Jinni’ and the other, ‘Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp’. In ‘The Fisherman and the Jinni’ and old Fisherman is (as you may have guessed) fishing when his net pulls in a copper jar, marked with the seal of Solomon. When opened a malevolent Djinn appeared. He would have killed the Fisherman, but the old man was able to trick the Djinn back inside the lamp. In return for his freedom the Djinn swore to help the Fisherman however he could – this ultimately resulted in the Fisherman’s two daughters being married to the Sultan and the Prince, and his son serving as treasurer to the Sultan.
‘Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp’ may be slightly more familiar to most people. It was not a part of the original collection and was instead added in the 1700s by Frenchman Antoine Galland. Aladdin is tricked by a sorcerer into descending into a cave to retrieve a lamp. He does this with the use of a magical ring, granted to him by a sorcerer. During the retrieval Aladdin is trapped in the cave and discovers that the magical ring contains a Djinn. He uses this to retrieve the lamp and escape the cave. He later learns that the lamp also contains a much more powerful Djinn, which he uses to gain wealth and hand of Sultan’s daughter.
Elements of both stories were used as the basis for Disney’s Aladdin, although the Djinn was known by a quite different name – Genie. Genie is the anglicised version of the name ‘Djinn,’ thought to originate from the Roman word, ‘Genius’ chosen both for its similarities to the word Jinni, and for the fact that a Genius denotes a benevolent household spirit. The name of the Genie is not the only thing that Disney changed. Firstly Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ only mentions the genie from the lamp – the one from the ring has been removed, and many of its actions replaced by those of the flying carpet (for example, helping Aladdin out of the cave and later assisting Aladdin in retrieving the lamp). Secondly, the Djinn of the original tales do not offer their releaser three wishes. While they assist the protagonist of their stories with gaining great wealth, it is not specifically the result of a ‘wish.’
In modern times, beliefs about Djinn are still surprisingly prevalent. There are many people around the world who still believe that Djinn exist, even if they can’t be seen. There are places in the Eastern World where illnesses, both mental and neurological are still ascribed to Djinn. In Egypt 48% of people who experience sleep paralysis consider it to be an attack by a Djinn. Unlike many mythical or spiritual creatures which have long since faded out of common knowledge, the Djinn very much remains both well-known and much believed in.