Most people in the West today associate genies with lamps and wishes and certain quirky magical powers. This is largely thanks to a few pieces of popular media, including I Dream of Jeannie and Disney’s version of Aladdin with that unforgettable blue genie who steals the show.
Genies are actually supernatural creatures with an incredible past that stretches back about 5,000 years. They’re described as malevolent tricksters, benevolent spirits, and everything in-between. Many people today even believe genies are real, though they don’t expect them to grant any wishes. At least, not willingly, and not without some ironic consequences.
Read more about the origin of genies:
Genie Basics, Genie Misconceptions
Genies, or jinn/djinn as the Arabic word is usually Romanized, come from a long line of mythological creatures dating back to the third century BC. They’re often called demons or spirits, but that doesn’t quite line up with our modern Western concepts of those words.
Jinn are intelligent, free-willed creatures who live close to nature and are endowed with all sorts of magical powers. Some of them are good, helping people and obeying the law, but some are evil; they trick humans and cause all kinds of mischief. Still more jinn sit somewhere between pure good and evil, making them quite complex as far as mythological characters go. Jinn are even said to have banded together into tribes, formed their own religions, and written laws to govern their cities.
Jinn were supposedly created by god out of the “fire of a scorching wind” or “smokeless flame,” giving them certain wispy and changeable characteristics. This is in contrast to humans who were sculpted from mud and clay, making us firm, solid, and not so changeable or mysterious. Compare a mysterious warm wind blowing out of the far desert with a clay pot and you’ll get an idea of the flavor difference, there.
The race of jinn is filled with different categories or classes of spirits. These include the rebellious shaitan (a proposed inspiration for Satan), ifrit (a particularly strong and cunning type of jinn), and the extremely powerful and dangerous marid. In ancient stories, marid jinn are usually the ones we find imprisoned in bottles. Sort of makes the jinn’s transition into cuddly, friendly genies a little more dramatic, doesn’t it?
Genies in Stories
The details of what powers jinn have varies greatly between sources. They’ve been said to transform into wolves, birds, and reptiles; they can dive to the bottom of the sea where one located pearls as large as eggs; they can even vanish, teleport, and both weave magic carpets as well as command them to fly. One tale insists genies created a magic carpet 27 miles in length!
One constant in the legends is that genies are tricksters who delight in playing pranks of both the harmless and harmful kind. They can also change their appearance at will, owing to their creation out of fire or wind. They do seem to follow some patterns in their choice of physical manifestations, however, favoring perfect copies or twisted likenesses of humans, various types of animals, and even human/animal hybrids.
And then there’s a 12th century story of the Queen of Sheba, who was said to have a human father and jinn mother. This story insisted jinn always have thick fur on their legs and the hooves of a donkey, no matter which form they take. This was actually used in the identification of genies even while they’re in disguise, as it was in unmasking the queen of Sheba as half jinn. If you saw someone who always hid their legs or had a suspicious amount of hair there, you could be pretty sure they were of the jinn.
But jinn can also take on more bizarre and unsettling forms, like the description below from the same sources of the Sheba legends:
“The jinn came in every shape and size, some with hooves, with long tails and flapping ears; some with bodiless heads and headless bodies.”
Just imagine a procession of disembodied heads and headless, hairy-legged, hoofed creatures shambling by. Doesn’t exactly make you want to go out and ask them to grant any wishes.
According to legends, the race of jinn eventually angered god, which led to their destruction. Only a small group of the most faithful were left intact. The remaining jinn scattered across the world, only appearing to humans when they wanted to cause mischief or harm. Their cities crumbled, their culture vanished, but the jinn themselves are still said to be around, they’re just not as common or numerous as they once were.
Genie? Jinn? Djinn? Ginnaya?
Tracing the history of jinn is a gigantic task that offers very little in the way of definitive answers. It’s difficult to locate reliable or consistent sources, partly because we’re digging through thousands of years of stories written or passed orally by different people in different cultures across centuries of time.
This does leave us with an interesting breadcrumb trail to follow, though: language. If we take a brief look at the word “jinn” and its cognates, we find some pretty tantalizing clues about genies, especially their constant relation to lamps and wishes in the West. Keep in mind that tracing linguistic history isn’t an exact science and many experts disagree on the details below. Still, in the world of genies, we’ll take what information we can get our hands on.
In the the first century AD, the Roman empire reached the borders of what is modern day Syria. Here, the people of the city of Palmyra had their own interpretation of jinn legends that was a little different from the history we described before.
A Palmyran gny (sometimes jny or ginnaya) was a spirit of sorts that watched over people, homes, and families like a guardian angel. No curses or wishes or mischief, just benevolent beings looking out for mankind. It’s this interpretation of jinn that was reinforced in ancient Roman culture and would eventually make its way to the modern day West.
The Latin word genii refers to benevolent attending spirits such as this, not their older, more sinister cousins. The singular form of genii is genius (pronounced like gay-nee-oos), which is actually related to the modern English word genius. Back in the day, people who were intelligent, creative and talented attributed those qualities to their genius, their guardian spirit. If you were a genius, you could thank your genius for that.
Fast forward 1,600 years or so and this definition has only gotten stronger. The root form gen- found in words like genie means to produce, create or inspire; or a warm or cheerful manner. Modern English still carries those fragments in words like generate and genial. This gave the English speaking world of the early 1700s even more reason to assume genies were a certain way, instead of their ancient Middle Eastern selves.
jinni – djinni – genius – genie
jinn – djinn – genii – genies
Today, whenever you see the word genie, jinn, djinn, or any number of variant spellings, you’re usually seeing different forms of the same word. This is because transliterating Arabic script into the Roman alphabet isn’t a precise endeavor. Inevitably different words will be rendered in different ways, which has led to handfuls of different spellings over the centuries.
Arabian Nights and Genies
In the beginning of the 18th century a collection of stories made its way to Europe that Westerners today are still pretty familiar with: Arabian Nights, also called One Thousand and One Nights.
Antoine Galland was a French orientalist and archaeologist who was the first to translate the Arabian Nights stories for a European audience. The initial volume appeared in French in 1704, and eleven more volumes would follow over the next dozen years. The English language version would release a decade or so later, then known as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment.
When Galland came across the Arabic word jinni, he thought it sounded a lot like the French word génie (zh-yee-nee). But jinni referred to demons or spirits of old, and génie was closer to the guardian spirit definition originating in Latin. Galland simply used génie to refer to jinn, which was accurate in many ways, perhaps inaccurate in others, but still a decent fit. This act formally united the two meanings under one word. Now, referring to a genie could either mean a mystical spirit from the Arabian world, or a benevolent spirit that watched over people.
Genies, Lamps, Wishes, and Aladdin
We have an idea of where genies came from and how they lost some of their ancient mythological status and became tame. Now let’s get into this business of genies, lamps, and wishes.
The stories in Arabian Nights had been floating around the ancient world for hundreds or thousands of years before Europe got wind of them. When Galland brought the tales to France and saw how popular they were, he actually added a few new stories to the collection. These were reportedly relayed to him orally by a Syrian storyteller Antun Yusuf Hanna Diyab, who is likely the original author.
What were these add-on tales? They included Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp. These are tales most westerners immediately associate with Arabian Nights, yet they were written and added to the collection in the modern era. That doesn’t mean they aren’t fantastic tales, of course, just that they aren’t exactly ancient.
Aladdin brought with it a serious genie/bottle connection that is likely the reason modern genies are always trapped inside them. We’ll get to that in just a second. Before Aladdin, though, Arabian Nights did connect genies with bottles and genies with wishes, just not in such an obvious or memorable way.
The Arabian Nights tale “Story of the City of Brass” follows a group of travelers searching the Sahara to find a lost city. Of brass. Their side-quest is to locate a vessel that supposedly held a jinn imprisoned by King Solomon. The life of Solomon and his god-given jinn-controlling ring is a fascinating topic on its own, but this seems to be the first legend that trapped a genie in a small container.
In another story from Arabian Nights a fisherman actually discovers this brass vessel and opens it. A gigantic evil jinni named Asmodeus immediately pops out. After being trapped for 400 years, Asmodeus wasn’t in the greatest of moods. He reveals he has long contemplated how to reward/punish the one who freed him from his prison. One of his ideas was to grant this person three wishes. (Instead, he lets the fisherman choose how he will be killed.) This seems to be the earliest specific reference to three wishes being granted by a freed genie.
Back to Aladdin. In the original tale, Aladdin is recruited by a sorcerer to retrieve an oil lamp from a magic cave filled with traps. The sorcerer gives Aladdin a ring that’s supposed to protect him in this cave. Far into his journey, Aladdin starts to fret and rubs his hands together. A genie pops out of the ring and whisks Aladdin back home, oil lamp in tow. Aladdin’s mother sees the lamp is dirty and decides to clean it. Rub rub rub, another more powerful genie appears, this one bound to do the bidding of whoever holds the lamp. Aladdin becomes rich and powerful, the sorcerer comes back to stir up trouble, people die, other people live happily ever after, so on and so on.
This formed a pretty solid connection between genies, lamps, and wish granting. Because the Aladdin story was immensely popular, it entered the 18th century’s version of pop culture and has been passed on and expanded upon ever since.
Genie in the Bottle
A series of popular stories and what are essentially linguistic accidents led to genies being seen as cute, funny, quirky, and often safe creatures who do little more than grant wishes and play the occasional prank.
The original, ancient idea of genies is far from gone, though. In certain Middle Eastern and African cultures they still believe jinn haunt abandoned ruins, possess humans, and cause mischief in our daily lives. Even in Western media genies sometimes show up in their classical incarnations. Just look at modern movies, books, and video games to see examples of classic jinn, ifrit, and the like. The past is far from forgotten.
The most fascinating part of this modern shift is it fits in perfectly with the pattern of genie lore. There are countless tales of jinn that contradict each other, alter supposed facts, and add information out of thin air. Maybe genies as simple, friendly wish-granters is just their latest incarnation. Another chapter in the millennia-long story of the creatures made from smokeless flame.
If we’re to believe the oldest and most persistent legends about jinn being clever tricksters, though, maybe we should think twice about their new, friendly modern image. It might be all part of their plan.
So if you find any stray oil lamps in the desert, you might want to think twice about rubbing them. You never know what might pop out.