A Look at Aladdin’s Genie—and Its Jinn Origins

May 24, 2019

With the much-hyped release of the new version of Disney’s Aladdin, I thought it would be interesting to take a brief folkloric look at genies and jinn.

Jinn (or djinn) refers to creatures that appeared in medieval Arabic folklore; they were usually depicted as threatening and free-willed—so dangerous in fact that rituals and amulets are and were used to protect against them. Though belief in jinn predates the creation of Islam, the creatures are referenced in the Koran; Allah created three types of beings from three substances: humans (made of earth); angels (made of light); and jinn (made of smokeless fire). Many Muslims around the world today believe in the literal existence of these jinn, much as many Christians around the world believe in the literal existence of angels.

In his book Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar researcher Robert Lebling notes that “jinn are taken seriously and regarded as real, tangible beings by a large segment of the world’s population…. They often appear humanoid or even human but possess amazing powers we lack. They can change their shapes, can fly through the air, and even can render themselves invisible.” Jinn are sometimes blamed for unexplained minor health scares, accidents, and misfortune. Like spirits and demons, jinn are said to be able to possess humans and can be exorcised from the human body through rituals. Jinn are believed, like ghosts, to sometimes haunt buildings, homes, and other locations. They are associated with wind and fire.

Genies, on the other hand, are the Westernized, commercialized, and often sanitized versions of the jinn, such as the genie in Aladdin. Jinn are not particularly known for their Aladdin-like wish granting (though they can be commanded to carry out tasks by those schooled in the magical arts); that aspect is much more closely aligned with genies—perhaps best known to American audiences in I Dream of Jeannie and Aladdin.

Emergence of the Genie

Much of the American public’s ideas about genies come from The Thousand and One Nights (sometimes called The Arabian Nights), a frame tale (similar to The Canterbury Tales) containing hundreds (or, in some cases, 1,001) stories. References to it appear as early as the ninth century, though the first known manuscript dates back to the fourteenth century.

The Thousand and One Nights contains many stories of jinn, though Westerners have focused on only two of the tales, most prominently “Aladdin and the Marvelous Lamp” and the “Tale of the Fisherman and the Jinn,” both of which feature themes of jinn being trapped in lamps or bottles until released by a human, and out of gratitude or obligation granting wishes. Lebling summarizes the latter tale: Ashmedai, a jinn of very powerful variety called marid, “was accused by King Solomon of being an unbeliever. When the jinn stubbornly refused to proclaim his faith in God, Solomon had Ashmedai imprisoned in a jar, which was sealed with lead, stamped with the Seal of Solomon inscribed with God’s name and cast into the sea. Hundreds of years later, the jar was recovered by a fisherman, who frees the marid and hears his story” (p. 40). Thus the tale offers clues about the hierarchy of power: King Solomon had the power to command and imprison jinn, who in turn had great power but could not use it unless freed by an ordinary human. The jinn described in the other The Thousand and One Nights tales aren’t typical of what would later become genies.

In contrast to the big blue genies portrayed by Robin Williams and Will Smith in Aladdin, the original jinn described in The Thousand and One Nights were usually invisible, but as shapeshifters could materialize in any form (usually in human likeness). The depiction of genies as smoke in their “natural” form probably comes from their origins in the Koran as beings of smokeless fire. However that merely describes how they, as a race of beings, were originally created (much as the Bible references humans being made from dust—or women from Adam’s rib). It doesn’t suggest that jinn live in, or exist as, smoke or fire. They’re more typically invisible or look like ordinary people.

Speaking of Westernized ideas of genies, Jackie Mansky of Smithsonian examined the question of why Disney’s genies are blue:

Eric Goldberg, who was the supervising animator for the genie in the original 1992 animated Aladdin, had a simple answer for why the Disney genie looks the way he does. “I can tell you exactly,” he says, citing the film’s distinctive color script, as developed by then-Disney production designer Richard Vander Wende. “The reds and the darks are the bad peoples’ colors,” Goldberg says. “The blues and the turquoises and the aquas are the good peoples’ colors.” So, if Williams’ warm baritone didn’t instantly clue you in on the genie’s moral fiber, the clear-as-day blue coloring was there to telegraph him as one of the good guys (in turn, Aladdin’s foil, the evil Jafar, turns scarlet when he gets genie-fied).

Such is the nature of folklore: It gets adopted, changed, and commodified in the process of spreading between cultures and lands. Jinn can be good or evil, but are often associated with malevolence. This is because of their original association with nature, which is today thought of as good and positive, but millennia ago nature was often terrifying, bringing death in the form of storms, droughts, and floods. Thus nature (and by extension nature spirits, of which jinn were one type) were to be feared and respected. The original fairy tales collected by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson were often cruel, bloody, and vicious, but sanitized for modern American audiences. So too were the carefully curated versions of the jinn that became Aladdin’s genie.

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