Sunday, February 3, 2013

Solomon, Jinn, and Arabian Nights

It may surprise some readers, as it surprised me, how often Solomon is referenced in the Arabian Nights. I was only familiar with the Solomon of the Old Testament, but as it turns out, Solomon is also mentioned in the Koran, although the Muslim Solomon is slightly different. Other writings have told stories of Solomon that would have been considered common knowledge to the earlier audiences of the Nights.

Arthur Rackham

More specifically to the tales of the Nights, Solomon is given power over the jinn (or genie, the more commonly known term, also interchangeably djinn or jinni). Jinn are similar to the Christian idea of angels and demons, but also have more similarities to the Western ideas of fairies. They are not either good or evil, but often provide the element of unpredictability to the stories. Just like fairies, they may reward the protagonist, or unfairly punish them. Such as the jinn in the story "The Fisherman and the Genie", who is grateful for being released from his copper bottle, but after years of longing to be released and intentions of rewarding his rescuer, the jinn became so weary of waiting he resolved to kill whoever released him.

The fisherman uses trickery to get the jinn to return to his bottle ("I'll only believe it [the jinn's ability to fit into the bottle] when I see it with my own eyes"-ah, the power of reverse psychology), and throws the jinn in his bottle back out to sea.
Errol Le Cain

According to tradition, the jinn's confinement in said bottle was because of Solomon. As some of the jinn remained true to Solomon and Allah, others became evil and rebellious. To punish the evil ones, Solomon used his power to trap them in various flasks/bottles. Thus when a person discovers a jinn, they are not automatically guaranteed a servant who will grant all their wishes-they may have to cleverly fight for their lives.
                                                                 Image from here

Interestingly, though folklore all around the world dapples with the idea of marriage between natural and supernatural beings, the conclusion of virtually all Western stories of such unions are that they are doomed to failure. Yet marriages between female jinn who can take the forms of swans or creatures of the sea have a higher likelihood of success. In fact, a Syrian legal treatise from the fourteenth century condemns such marriages, but the fact that it is a law reveals that they were thought possible by the people at the time.

The Islamic Solomon also has power over animals and nature, and like the Biblical Solomon, is the possessor of great wisdom. Marina Warner even calls him the "chief model in fantasy for the white wizard," comparing him to Gandalf and Dumbledore.

*Information taken from Marina Warner's Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights, chapter 1

The above illustrations of jinn are a huge contrast to the bubbly, comic relief genie of Disney's Aladdin, once again following the trend of...just about everything in history (fairies, vampires, and pirates get a lot of discussion on this blog)...the dangerous and mysterious has become controlled, cute, and funny.