I feel like Aladdin.
You know that thing that happens when you see something once- something perhaps a little out of the ordinary- and then all of a sudden it seems to be everywhere?
For some reason I am seeing djinn all over the place lately.
It started with one of my cottage reads:
Ahmad, the djinni, finds himself released, from a centuries-long imprisonment in an oil bottle, in NYC in 1899. As he adjusts to life ‘on the outside’ and attempts to piece together just how he came to be captured, he is forced to interact with the popluation of the Lower Manhattan neighbourhood that houses the city’s Arab population. As a character, he is very much in keeping with the traditional representation of djinn in Arab stories and tradition- a creature of flame, but also physical in nature, with powers greater than those that humans command.
Since he doesn’t need to sleep, he wanders the nighttime streets and encounters a golem, a creature from Jewish legendary tradition, who is having her own issues having to do with displacement, loss of purpose/guidance and generalized existential angst. Working together they manage to overcome the obstacles- both human and supernatural- that come their way.
Although overly descriptive at times, the novel entertainingly and endearingly describes Jewish and Arab myth and immigrant history in early 20th century America and beautifully demonstrates the ways in which those of differing cultural backgrounds can find common ground and work together to improve their own lives (and the lives of those around them). Communities- and people- however insular (by choice or through circumstance) have more in common than their surface differences might suggest.
My second djinn-related incident occurred through a random, late night viewing of Rod Serling’s original (and awesome) Twilight Zone in an episode called ‘The Man in the Bottle.’
A less-than-successful antiques dealer, in an act of charity, buys an old wine bottle from a poor elderly woman. Later, bemoaning their lack of financial success with his wife, he drops the bottle, releasing a genie, who offers to grant them four wishes, with the caveat that every wish has a consequence.
Although their initial wish- for money- seem grasping and greedy, the couple share their largess with their neighbours and friends. When the IRS comes calling, they discover that the outstanding tax bill on their win-fall leaves them with only $5 (how the IRS knew about their increase in fortune and why the tax rate was so high remains one of those things that has to be addressed with simple suspension of disbelief for the purposes of entertainment).
Regretting that they started so small and forgetting the genie’s warning about the inevitable consequences associated with the wishing, the couple decide to ask for something more permanent than just cash. The shop owner wishes to become a the leader of a modern and powerful country where he cannot be voted out of office.
The genie turns him into Adolf Hitler. In the last days of WWII.
He quickly uses his final wish to return to his old life- with a changed perspective and attitude. The bottle breaks and the couple dispose of the pieces- only to have it reassemble itself once in the garbage can.
Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone stories have morals to them, spelled out in his signature sign-off at the end of each episode, and this one uses the motif of the genie and his wish-granting to demonstrate the age-old wisdom that nothing is free, and that all decisions have consequences.
* Brief aside- Rod Serling was a strong, and often controversial, voice of morality and progressive thought, and his values and commentary on injustices like racism are cleverly- and enduringly- addressed in The Twilight Zone. He was an interesting guy who understood the power and value of strong storytelling and timeless themes and characters. And who doesn’t equate the theme song with anything strange or unexplainable? THAT’S quality television that is deserving of its longevity and hallowed place in popular culture. ‘The Bachelorette’, my ass.
The third and final (so far) visitation (three is appropriate since that is the number of wishes much ‘genie lore’ has them offering those who release them- the Twilight Zone episode notwithstanding) was an episode of Supernatural titled ‘Pac-Man Fever.’
As is generally the norm with the things-that-go-bump-in-the night that the Winchester boys regularly have to deal with, the djinn that they encounter are of the pretty nasty variety. No wish-granting from these two. As is also often the case on Supernatural there is some pretty extreme poetic license taken with many of the myths that are incorporated into the storylines.
The episode features the trademark Winchester brotherly banter and the semi-recurring character of Charlie is fun to watch, so I’m not about to make a fuss about the strange vampire-djinn hybrids that were the Nasties du Jour. When Sam and Dean identify them as variants of djinn, the viewer knows that they are mythological characters and at least something about them.
Djinn are creatures from Arab and Islamic mythology who live in a dimension outside of the visible human world. Inscriptions from the Ancient Near East indicate that they were worshiped as gods. In Islamic tradition they represent one third of of the sapient creations of Allah (along with angels and humans). They are supernatural creatures in possession of free will and capable of good, evil or ‘benevolent neutrality’ as dictated by their individual natures.
In Islamic mythology, djinn were created by Allah from smokeless fire (as humans were created from clay). Their possesison of free will sometimes caused issues- one djinn in particular disobeyed Allah (by not bowing to Adam at the god’s command) and was expelled from Paradise.
He was called Shaytan. (Yes, in Islamic tradition Satan was a djinn. More on this when we get back to our ongoing discussion of all things Devil-ish…) Like humans, the djinn will be judged on the Day of Judgement, and sent to Paradise or Hell according to their actions.
Myths about the djinn came to the attention of the Western world in the early 18th century with the first English versions of a collection of tales from Arabic, Indian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Persian folktales called One Thousand and One Nights. Arabian Nights, as the collection came to be known, contained historical stories, tales of love, comedies, tragedies, erotica and poetry featuring characters known from history intermingling with sorcerers, ghosts and djinn.
The collection is a fantastic representation of the mythology of a variety of cultures, presented in a narrative frame (the new wife of a Persian king tells her husband stories each night for 1001 nights- ending each night with a cliff-hanger so he will postpone her execution) that dates back, in (barely) extant manuscript form, to the early 9th century.
Djinn appear as characters in a number of stories, but one of the most recognizable (to modern, Western audiences at least), first appeared in later European translations of the myths. ‘Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp’, although most certainly an older, authentic tale from Middle Eastern tradition, did not appear in Arabic versions of the collection.
This myth is the origin of many of our pop cultural representations of the djinn- and their associations with lamps and wishes- and while we, in the West, might picture djinn as buxom women in ponytails and pretty pink outfits or bulbous blue manic cartoons that sound like Robin Williams, they remain a part of a living mythological system.
Some adherents of Islam believe in the djinn in the same way that some Christians claim that angels can, and do, impact the lives of human beings. They are mentioned frequently in the foundational religious text, the Qu’ran, and even have a surah (72) that deals with them specifically.
When we see the position that mythological creatures like the djinn retain in the beliefs and practices of one of the world’s largest religions, can we reasonably doubt that myths have relevance?
Ancient motifs and themes are found all over contemporary literature and popular culture, and their riches continue to entertain and educate as the images and characters from stories that are thousands of years old remain recognized parts of our collective awareness. Without necessarily knowing why or how, we KNOW that genies come out of bottles and offer unsuspecting humans wishes- either benevolent or inimical- depending on the nature of each particular djinn.
Like the djinn that have been stalking me over the past couple of weeks, myths are powerful and wonderful things.
We would be much poorer without them.