‘Fisherman and Djinn’: Illustration by A Stieren in ‘Tausend und eine Nacht’

Deborah Hyde
Deborah Hydehttp://deborahhyde.com/
Deborah Hyde is former editor of The Skeptic and is a fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. She writes and lectures about belief in the malign supernatural, with special regard to the folklore, psychology and sociology behind belief.

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This one is for all of us who are frustrated at being unable to go to a pantomime this year and shout ‘BEHIND YOU’ at the tops of our voices. Pantomime favourite ‘Aladdin’ features a genie or ‘djinn’ who lives in a vessel – a lamp.

'Fisherman and Djinn', Illustration by A Stieren in 'Tausend und eine Nacht'
The fisherman inadvertently rubs the lamp he has found, and is amazed by the apparition of the djinn (genie).

While people are made of the clay or the earth, the Djinn are spirits made of smokeless flame. Like us they have free will and, although they are long-lived, they are not immortal. They are mentioned in the Koran many times, but they predate it and come from pagan Arabic belief. In this respect, their endurance reflects Islam’s ability to adapt to its environment. Many strands of major religions contain elements of their pagan predecessors which have blended in a process often referred to as ‘syncrasy’. Djinn are hard to characterise as simply either good or evil – they can be both. The notion that spirits could be contained by bottling is thought to have originated with the legend of King Solomon, another example of a pre-Islamic theme which survived.

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