This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

King Solomon's Genie*

Following in the footsteps of other beloved creations of legend and folklore, the Islamic Genie has by now been irrevocably co-opted by the Disney cartoonists. Future generations of children will undoubtedly envisage the genies of the Arabian Nights as amorphous blue creatures with the appearance and manic personality of Robin Williams.

The original Genie, or jinn, was of course a being of a different colour. Stemming from the hazy past of ancient Arabian paganism, Muslim tradition enriched the jinn's profile by adding to it features derived from the demons who inhabited Jewish and Christian lore, as well as the more exotic South Asian and African civilizations into which Islam subsequently penetrated.

The Qur'an, Islam's sacred scripture, mentions the jinn on several occasions. Some of the passages will evoke familiar associations for readers versed in talmudic legend.

For example the Qur'an relates that King Sulaiman's (Solomon's) mastery of the languages of all creatures allowed him to regiment the hosts of humans, birds and jinns under his command. This echoes the talmudic legends of how the wise monarch exercised dominion over the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and assorted demons and supernatural spirits.

Solomon's sovereignty over the animal kingdom can be derived in a reasonably straightforward manner from biblical verses such as 1 Kings 5:13 ("He spoke also of beasts and of fowl and of creeping things and of fishes"), but the tradition about Solomon's control over the supernatural realms was derived from imaginative midrashic exegesis of verses like 1 Chronicles 29:23 ("Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord") and Ecclesiastes 2:8 where Solomon recalls how he accumulated "shiddah veshiddot," an obscure expression that might refer to anything from concubines to cabinets, but which rabbinic midrash identified with the Hebrew word for demon, "shed."

The Qur'an also records stories about how Solomon harnessed the power of the demons (or: jinns) for his ambitious and demanding construction projects: "They made for him what he pleased of fortresses and images, and bowls large as watering-troughs and cooking-pots that will not move from their place."

According to the Qur'an, Solomon died while leaning upon his staff, but his demise did not become known until a worm started to gnaw through the wood of the staff. Had the enslaved jinns known this fact, they would not have continued to labour for the king.

Several of the themes in this story can be traced to talmudic writings. Rabbinic legend tells us that Solomon was punished for his overbearing pride when he was impersonated by the demon king Ashmedai and removed from the throne. In this early prototype of the "prince and the pauper" motif, the real king was forced to wander the world as a beggar until, as the Midrash states it, nothing remained of his former magnificence except the staff in his hand. One version of the tradition states that Solomon never regained his throne and died in abject poverty, a theory that is supported by a very literal reading of Ecclesiastes 2:10: "and this [i.e., only what I am now holding in my hand] was my portion of all my labor."

The worm in the Muslim story also recalls one of the more marvelous inhabitant of the talmudic bestiary, the "shamir," a miraculous worm-like creature that Solomon (with the unwilling assistance of Ashmedai) captured and utilized to cut the stones for the construction of the Temple.

The story of Solomon and Ashmedai resurfaces again in the legends of the Thousand and One Nights. All of us are familiar with the propensity of genies to get stuck inside lamps and jars. In at least one instance the genie claims to have been placed there by none other than King Solomon who "sent his minister...to seize me, and his vizier had me bound and brought against my will to stand before the prophet [Solomon] as a suppliant." When the jinn stubbornly refused to proclaim his faith in God, Solomon had him imprisoned in the jar, which was sealed with lead, stamped with the royal ring inscribed with God's name, and cast into the ocean.

This Arabic folktale shares many elements in common with the talmudic story in which Solomon sends his chief minister Benaiah ben Jehoiada to capture Ashmedai. Solomon continued to hold the demon in chains with the help of a magic ring. It was by tricking Solomon into lending him the magic ring that Ashmedai was able to depose the king, and only after taking back that ring was Solomon (according to one version of the story) able to return to power.

When all is said and done, an unmistakable thread of continuity, twisted and complicated though it may be, leads from the pages of the Bible and the Talmud to the cartoon genie of Disney's "Aladdin" films.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[1]
First Publication: Jewish Free Press, June 2 1994.

Bibliography:

  • Dan Fredrick, The Jinn in Islamic Theology and Folkore (Honours Thesis, Religious Studies), Calgary, 1994.