In American Gods S01E03, Head Full of Snow, a smiling Omani salesman comes to an appointment at a business office. His appointed time comes and goes. He waits and waits. Eventually the day has passed and he is still waiting for this unseen client. The secretary will not reschedule for him insisting a new appointment has to be scheduled by phone.
Defeated, dejected and in the rain, the Omani salesman catches a cab home. The cab driver is also middle eastern, though his nationality is not clear. Though conversation, the Omani discovers the cabbie is in fact an ifrit who also struggles in the United States to eek out a living. Among the ifrit’s grievances of American life is the stereotypes.
Here they think we just grant wishes, the cabbie laments. I don’t grant wishes.
Hours later, the Omani and the Ifrit have decided on a trade, the Ifrit takes the wares where the Omani takes the cab license. I don’t grant wishes, the Omani thinks ironically. He had sought to be delivered from an obstreperous sales gig only to have a stable taxi-cab job fall into his hands. The Ifrit, in his case, granted wishes after all.
Part and Parcel of the Whole Genie Gig
In the original One Thousand and One Nights, there was nothing formal about genies and wishes.
As legends of Araby tell, King Solomon was a bit of a sorcerer. No, the sorcerer. King Solomon is what would happen if Jafar (Aladdin, 1992) didn’t fall for the thief’s wiles at the end of the movie, and stayed high Sultan and the Most Powerful Sorcerer In the World all rolled into one. And Solomon was famously wise as well.
When Solomon wasn’t kinging, he had a full time hobby capturing jinns and ifrit (and sometimes angels!) and caging them in bottles or binding them to objects. When Solomon needed additional labor for public works, he turned to his captives to get the job done.
Time passed, as, eventually, did Solomon. And his superfluous collection of jinn-keeping bottles and trinkets (still occupied) trickled out to his heirs, and as fate and the chaos of time would have it, scattered asunder throughout the world.
The most famous Jinn today is, of course the Genie of the Lamp in the story of Aladdin. The original Aladdin was a thief in China, skilled enough to determine the coins in his hand by their weight. Like thieves by trade, Aladdin picked pockets and stole from wealthy merchants in the market. His mother, also a career thief, was getting on in years and he would provide for her as he could. Aladdin came across the magic lamp by accident, either as an unwitting courier hired by a sorcerer, or as a passing cutpurse who lifted a courier’s delivery. (Stories like these are fraught with variations.) Neither thief nor courier were aware of the nature of the parcel until Aladdin would later tried to give the tarnished lamp a polish.
The Genie of the Lamp was one of Solomon’s many victims. The Solomon sorcerer-king not only captured him but burned glyphs of obedience onto his face, and then tethered him to the lamp. For a Jinn, he was neither vindictive nor kindly, but was nonetheless compelled to obey whoever possessed the lamp.* And there was no clear-cut means of escape. His imprisonment and servitude were, as far as Solomon or the story was concerned, for all eternity.
Curiously, Aladdin also had a second genie, that of the Ring, who is poetically forgotten in modern versions. He, too who was also bound to obey whoever held his totem. The Genie of the Ring was gentler than the Genie of the lamp, and less powerful. As such he wasn’t noticed as often, and when Aladdin was captured and the lamp seized, his jailers would still leave him the ring.
With retellings and translations, the story of Aladdin got westernized. Hollywood versions suggest captivity and service are intrinsic to jinn. Jinn come with a lamp or bottle the way humans come with a navel. And jinn grant formalized wishes: They’re limited in number; the lamp-bearer has to specifically say I wish, and can inadvertently activate a wish by haphazardly uttering the phrase. Sometimes the jinn is obligated to take the phrasing literally, and subvert the intent.
So what happened?
I work for Señor Psychopath now.
Aladdin’s genies are particularly cooperative and helpful (and it doesn’t hurt that Aladdin calls on them with fairly noble intentions).
Many Most of the rest are not so eager to assist, and all this formalized wishing evolves partly from their stories.
Not all of Solomon’s victims were so completely fettered. (Also, it is not clear that Solomon was the only guy in the jinn-bottling business.) Some were merely stuffed into vessels and jars. Break one or open one up, and you’d have a jinn free to do what he pleased. Often enough, the freed captive would be content enough to flee. Other times the story ended with a dead beachcomber and a rampaging ifrit. Still, some would stop and say Hey, thanks for bailing me out. You need anything before I go?
Those that were were bound to obedience were often still still peeved about it, and sought any opportunity by which to spoil requests for aid. (One tale tells of a merchant who called on an ifrit to deliver his caravan from a firey sandstorm. Dutifully, the ifrit carried the whole company, camels and wagons and all to Antarctica.) Then there were those willing to serve, but fell into the hands of mortals too greedy, who demanded wealth and kingdoms and magical might. Those stories also tended to end poorly. Really, when meddling with bound Jinns, tragedy was poised to strike unless both parties were willing to be fair and reasonable.
Western bards and minstrels looked at this dynamic of mortals begging boons from magical captured (often ill-disposed) creatures and found it easy to compare to similar shenanigans by fairies.
Fairy deals came in two flavors:
The Hasty Bargain: Look, that dragon is burning your village down. Promise me the first thing your wife shows you when you get home (hint: it’s not a new sweater) and I’ll help you beat the dragon.
The Trapper’s Boon: Oh dear, you caught me, a magical talking fish! Free me, and I shall grant you a wish.
Again, these tales tended to be cautionary not to get too greedy for money or power. Western feudal culture was particularly sensitive about desires to change station. A person’s social status was thought to be fixed and determined by fate (or divine providence), and that a peasant who sought to be king could upset the grand order and cause the earth and sky to tilt on on their axes (seriously, as per disaster, meaning bad star).
So important safety tip when bargaining with fairies: Bumper crop this year–good! Mend my ox’s leg–excellent! Fix up my boat–AOK! Make me lord–bad! I want a kingdom to rule–Too much! Make me rich beyond my dreams–Very dangerous!
So the transition from generic unearthly servant to formalized wish-granter likely was a western interpretation. And yet, jinn from the east were not the only creatures who were so transformed by time and reinterpretation.
The Most Powerful Being On Earth
Long ago in the early middle ages, we had our own infernal servants who could be summoned and bound to duty by practitioners of the dark arts. Summoners, demonologists and disgruntled scholars would pull demons straight from the charnel depths of Hell. They’d then reshape these mind-warping monstrosities into presentable minions to follow them around, run their errands and call them master.
In time, stories of summoned Hellions faded in exchange for one-shot transactions with The Dark One, himself. Those who dared would make ever-regrettable Faustian deals with Old Scratch, usually a modicum of power in exchange for the an immortal soul. (Clever wizards realized it didn’t necessarily have to be their own soul.)
Some scholars regard jinn as the same thing as demons, or at least sharing some amount of cross section. Debates rage on as to whether or not both groups are intrinsically evil. (Evil is, as always, a matter of perspective. Great Satan probably wears seatbelts, loves His children and is happy to choose eco-friendly renewable fuels over coal and fossil fuels when He can, but He has declared eternal war on humanity and seeks to destroy all of us to the last infant. On the other hand, as the post-modern age progresses He seems to either be distracted or at least not trying very hard.)
Still, both tropes as literary devices do share related lessons. The Faustian deal represents the temptation to resort to extremism when desperate (theft, murder, arson…) where begging a boon from a jinn represents the temptation to demand too much, to be too greedy for wealth or power. Like much with Jinns and devils, there’s a lot of cross section.
To be fair, this may not necessarily indicate a common lesson but a shift from descriptive stories to prescriptive ones. The intent is less to describe the world as it works, and more to use literary device to convey moral lessons.
Still, this isn’t the end of the story for wishes and boons. In the real world, we speak of such things in terms of debt and obligations, and these lessons are applicable to creditors meek and mighty. But this is fodder for another time.
* The Genie of the Lamp was also not powerful enough to actually turn Aladdin into a prince. (That involves hooking him up with a principality, a considerable estate like Monaco or Lichtenstein.) But he could dress Aladdin up as one, and help him pass off as royalty. The Genie in the Disney version still can’t (or just doesn’t) set Aladdin up with a proper province despite his Phenomenal Cosmic Powers. And yet Genie is perfectly capable of helping Jafar usurp the sultanate of Agrabah. It’s an inconsistency that belies the story’s origins and intent.