What is a Jinn?
The Jinn (also called djinn or genies) are a race of magical beings who crawled out of ancient Arabic folklore and overran folklore worldwide. They seem to have unlimited power, so much that they can create and destroy cities at their whim. Above all else, they are tied to the element fire and to the habit of granting wishes.
Jinn are talented shapeshifters, so it’s tough to peg down their natural appearance. They often take on a human shape, with horns, tails, feathered wings, or extra heads added for flair. Likewise, their skin comes in many vivid shades, from blue to green to red—anything but the bland, human shades of brown. Wreaths of smoke billow around them.
Classifying Jinn by their power can also help to explain their differences in appearance. Marids are the strongest, and they often appear as enormous men with blue or green skin and a booming voice. Ifrits, although second to the Marids, are the most dangerous and the most fearsome in appearance, with red or blue skin, long, curved horns, and a halo of fire. Ghuls, Si’lat, and Jann are clever beings who have perfected the art of shapeshifting and can be found in any form, although beautiful women and whirlwinds are popular. Hinn, Nasnas, and Shiqq are relatively weak beings who often appear as human-animal chimeras.
In some cases, these magical beings are bound to inanimate objects. While they prefer glamorous objects, like precious gems set into rings, they can also be bound to commonplace objects like an empty bottle or an old handmirror. These objects may be identified by spells or pentacles drawn on the outside, or they may be identical to an ordinary object, which can cause quite a surprise when an innocent person picks it up!
Jinn are independent creatures. They have the gift of free will, and they can be held accountable for their choices, whether they are good or evil! Throughout folklore, they have popped up as heroes, romantic figures, demonic villains, pitiful slaves, wise sages, and, of course, wish granters. No two Jinn are like, so the possibilities are endless!
The original meaning of the word “jinn” is “the hidden ones,” and throughout history, these supernatural characters have maintained their veil of mystery. They are said to live in an alternate universe, a sort of gulf between mortal men and the immortal gods. When they do visit the world of men, they tend to be elusive, living in distant caves or in the desert wilderness. Few human-Jinn encounters are planned by the Jinn!
Enslavement is another theme in their saga. Despite their awesome power, they are often trapped under magicians’ thumbs. Rulers like King Solomon, who are blessed with magical power or magical artifacts, can keep hundreds of them in slavery at the same time, creating mighty empires on the back of their labor. Other magicians can trap them in artifacts, like a scepter or a ring, and channel their power through the artifact. The Jinn are usually eager to escape this yoke, so whoever releases them may earn a rich reward—or be destroyed in an outburst of anger against humanity.
Depending on a Jinni’s classification, it will have more or less magical power. Marids, for example, have uncapped power and are capable of conjuring up anything imaginable. Meanwhile, Hinn are rather weak and cause more mischief than actual damage, yet their cumulative strength has done a lot to shape history. The Quran claims that a minor Jinni, like a Hinn, is assigned to every human on earth and given the task of whispering evil thoughts into his/her head.
Other types, including the Ghul and the Palis, have found a niche in vampirism.
According to Islamic tradition, Jinn are one of three types of sentient beings. As scripture goes, Allah made Jinn out of smokeless fire and angels out of light. For a long time, Jinn were allowed to inhabit the earth, and they even built up a thriving society. Eventually, though, Allah created humans out of clay. When the Jinn rejected humans, Allah punished them by banishing them to a nether realm and giving the earth to humans.
One of the central characters in the banishment story is Iblis, a beautiful and mighty Jinn who was a favorite of Allah. Iblis led the rejection of humans, refusing to bow when Allah commanded all angels and Jinn to bow down to the first human. Allah was enraged by Iblis’ defiance, and he cursed him and all his followers. In some translations of Islamic texts, Iblis is referred to as “shaitan.” In the west, “shaitan” morphed into “satan,” and his followers were transformed into demons.
Jinn are found in some of the most ancient stories in One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of Persian and Arabic stories that spans the eighth century to the thirteenth century. Their presence in native folklore is indisputable, and they can already be seen in some stereotypical roles, like being trapped in bottles or granting wishes. Some archaeological sites suggest that the magical beings may also have been worshipped during this time.
Eventually, when Islam began to expand in the Middle East, the native Jinn were incorporated into the Quran, where they were described as creations of Allah. Although the Quran does point out that these magical beings have free will, they are mostly portrayed as dangerous and demonic.
In the seventeenth century, One Thousand and One Nights was translated and published in Europe under the title Arabian Nights. The popularity of Jinn exploded, and they became immortal characters in fantasy stories worldwide.
Jinn are popular characters in modern fantasies, especially fantasies that draw on magic and the occult or are set in Arabia.
The world’s most famous Jinn is “Genie,” a loquacious blue spirit with boundless power, who stars alongside Aladin in a Disney movie based on one of the stories from Arabian Nights. Almost on par with Disney’s Genie is Jeannie, a blond bombshell from I Dream of Jeannie who is determined to fulfill her “master’s” every wish. Both Genie and Jeannie follow the most popular western stereotypes: they are friendly, they emerge from bottles in plumes of smoke, and they are eager to grant wishes.
The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathon Stroud, is more true to ancient lore. Stroud depicts magicians struggling to control their free-thinking Jinn and even offers a glimpse into the “hidden one’s” hierarchical society and mysterious nether realm. Children of the Lamp and The Golem and the Jinni also find their footholds in history.
Outside of the fantasy genre, there is a small group of occult artists who continue to believe in Jinn and, if they are brave enough, even attempt to summon these mighty spirits. Today, most occult “magicians” are simply aiming to talk to a Jinni, rather than making him a slave.