Djinn and Sidhe

Michael Mock asked: Right, so… Djinn. Also Ifrits, and the like. How much are they like the Sidhe (later called Faeries) of the British Isles?

From a folklore perspective, despite the (notable) differences in cultural and geographical background, I see some definite similarities. They’re both races of individually powerful (in varying degrees) beings, capricious and dangerous to deal with (again in varying degrees), supernatural (or at least magical), but not particularly aligned with Heaven or Hell, angels or devils. Shapechanging features prominently into stories about them; I think both races have been known to interbreed with mortals; and then sometimes they show up in some odd stories that don’t seem to quite fit with anything I’ve just generalized about.

From an anthropological perspective, there also seem to be some odd similarities; they both look like cases of older, more-or-less animistic stories and beliefs that survived and were incorporated into the arrival of newer, more formalized montheistic/dualistic religions. There’s an additional similarity in that a lot of the remaining stories about them are seen through the lenses of those later religious beliefs.

What do you think? Is it a viable comparison? Or am I way, way off-base here?

Okay, so a quick primer for people who are unfamiliar with these traditions.  The djinn (or jinn, if you prefer – we have the French to thank for the weird silent ‘d’) appear in both pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions, and are considered a sapient race separate from humans or angels with a long and varying list of supernatural powers – shapeshifting, possessing humans, supernatural speed and strength, immortality/invulnerability (at least compared to humans), just to name a few.  There are references to the djinn in the Qur’an, but much of the conception of them comes from Islamic poetry and stories, in particular from One Thousand and One Nights, in which djinn often appear to make deals with humans.  The djinn also appear in the Muslim versions of some Abrahamic traditions, in particular in stories about Solomon, who according to the Qur’an could control the djinn (Q. 27:17), which, in some later traditions, meant that he had a ring or other talisman that summoned djinn to do his bidding.  Genies in the Western tradition derive from djinn stories, as seen in the story of Aladdin, who had a djinn trapped in a magic ring given to him by a sorcerer, which appeared in the first French translation of One Thousand and One Nights, but which was actually a fake added to the original stories.

As Michael mentions, djinn as a race are not good or evil, but can serve as benefactors, enemies, or mere foils to humans.  Ifrit, but comparison, are explicitly evil.  In the only Qur’anic reference to ifrit (27:39-40), they’re described as a strong kind of djinn who took the throne of the Queen of Sheba.  They often appear in literature as malicious spirits, both in Medieval literature, and in modern stories, as in the plays of Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz.  Shaytan are also often described as an evil kind of djinn, although the term “shaytan” is also sometimes translated as demon or devil, and in their use in Arabic literature, there appears to be some overlap with the Christian concept of a demon (although, again, djinn generically are also sometimes described as being able to possess people).

It’s worth pointing out that I’ve studied the djinn in a very limited manner as it has occasionally overlapped with my research (and stories of djinn have come up in some of my reading classes).  I have never studied the Sidhe, so everything I know about them is either from (a) my general trivia knowledge of Irish history or (b) research I’ve done in the last couple of days, mostly on the internet.

I can definitely see where you’re coming from in terms of the comparison between the two.  But I think the problem you run into with discussing similarities between supernatural traditions is that these traditions are so varied that you’re bound to find similarities.  In particular, from what I’ve read of the Irish stories of fae folk, there seem to be a nearly endless range of types and kinds, some appearing in multiple stories and across several regions (as with the banshee) and some being local lore that, at some point, was folded into this larger mythology, sort of like ghost stories.  The same goes for the djinn, with some authors using the term for any non-human, non-angel supernatural being, while others give precise definitions of types and kinds and their origins.  At some point, you have so much information that really what you’re comparing is pretty general – supernatural beings that sometimes mess with humans but also have their own lives.

There’s also another concern that I pretty much always have when it comes to comparing supernatural traditions from an anthropological standpoint, which is that I think there is a tendency to overemphasize the importance of supernatural traditions for ‘under-developed’ or ‘uncivilized’ traditions (which often means non-European or non-Christian traditions) and underemphasize it for ‘developed’ and ‘civilized’ (and European and Christian) traditions.  It’s hard for me to point to specific examples of this – it’s more just a general feeling I get from reading material about the supernatural.  Even within ‘civilized’ traditions, I think we also tend to assume supernatural beliefs occur more among poor people and women than rich people and men.  However, this assumption actually directly contradicts the evidence we have – for example, from a historical standpoint, both the Greek chronicle of John Malalas and the Syriac Khuzistani chronicle describe priests and monks being punished for pagan practices during the first centuries of Christianity, including communing with spirits and using runes, suggesting that these practices were widespread throughout the various strata of the culture, not something confined to specific ‘uncivilized’ classes.

For these two particular groups, I sort of feel like they’ve been singled out as historically/anthropologically important because they’ve been used to highlight the supernatural/irrational beliefs of the communities they represent.  The Irish fae stories, as least the ones I could find online, seem pretty similar to ghost stories and fairy tales from other traditions, but for some reason, we’ve singled them out as A THING, and I wonder how much that has to do with the long-standing European tradition of the Irish as being the most backward and uncivilized (and ineffectively Christianized) of all European peoples.  The popularity of One Thousand and One Nights and other Arabic and Indian stories in Europe in the early modern period sort of follows a similar pattern – these stories were often mined for information about what the Middle East was like, emphasizing how superstitious their people were, despite the fact that stories of djinn tormenting humans or granting wishes are not terribly different from the wicked witch in Snow White or the fairy godmother in Cinderella.

I think you’re right that both the djinn and the sidhe represent a intermixing of pre-conversion beliefs with a major religious tradition, but again, I think arguably you can find this with every major religion.  Local traditions that are popular or that serve a strong social/anthropological purpose don’t die out – they’re just given a nice, religious gloss.  See, for example, saints’ tales, local shrines, Easter bunnies and Christmas conifers.

One similarity I did find particularly interest, but which I think also further complicates the comparison between the two traditions is how much both mythologies have been influenced by literary traditions, and even single works within that tradition.  I didn’t realize how much of the common conception of the Sidhe comes from Yeat’s collection.  One Thousand and One Nights is similarly influential for djinn stories, and in particular, the French translation/redaction by Antoine Galland in the eighteenth century was massively influential on the Western conception of what Islamic and/or Middle Eastern belief systems were like.

But again, I don’t really know what to do with this similarity, as this connection to a literary tradition really just complicates the whole issue of believing versus knowing, in terms of the anthropological/sociological use of these mythologies.  Again, to use a more familiar comparison, most of us know about Wonderland and Never Never Land.  We can probably even answer questions about the people who live there, what they’re like, their backgrounds, and their relationships to one another.  But that doesn’t mean we believe in those places.  Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to discern the difference in historical texts because people tend to reference familiar literary/cultural references, assuming their audience knows which are fact and which are fiction.  Plenty of authors like to play around with the distinction, as well – I don’t think people would call themselves superstitious for liking Twilight or “The Walking Dead,” but those also stem from a mythology of supernatural beings who sometimes screw with humans, and because those works focus on supernatural creatures invading an otherwise normal world, it would be easy for a future historian to read into those works as representing a general belief that some people are vampires or that a zombie apocalypse is really going to happen.

Sorry, this has turned into a very rambling response, but hopefully there is some useful information in there.  Overall, I think you’re right that there are interesting similarities, but my gut tells me that those apparent similarities may be due to the diverse nature of those traditions, coupled with people outside the tradition stressing these two traditions as particularly important or distinct.  But proving that would take a ton more research.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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3 Responses to Djinn and Sidhe

  1. Michael Mock says:

    Actually, I’d have said that the very diversity that makes the question so hard to answer (sorry about that, but I hope it was at least interesting to look at) was one of the similarities between the two traditions. But yes, it does also make it easy to find potentially false positives when trying to compare the two, and I think it would take a huge amount of work to try to sort out whether the similarities were real or only apparent. (And, given the human tendency towards bias, it might not be possible at all.) I really don’t know enough about other traditions to know if there are (even loosely) comparable cases; do the Raksasha, for example, show up in a similarly varied fashion, or are they always evil? (Wikipedia suggests that it depends on which traditions you’re reading.)

    Anyway, it’s something that has tickled my brain off and on over the years, and I really appreciate hearing your perspective on it. As I writer, I should have expected that popular perceptions would have been shaped by particular literary treatments (c.f. Dracula and vampire lore), but I hadn’t really focused on how much either Yeats or One Thousand And One Nights had done exactly that.

    And, yeah, I do realize the inherent difficulties in trying to figure out how much of any given mythology people seriously believe, and how much they just sort of… play with.

  2. Certainly, there are mythological parallels which beg the questions of origins for such myths. For instance you will find the myth all across northern Europe that the Sidhe/Elves/Hidden Folk etc were cast from heaven and fell to various stations in the sublunary realm (elemental earth) where – not being bad enough for hell – they took up stations in he earth,air, water and fire. The same folklore about Djinn can be found in accounts from Egypt. The ‘elemental’ nature of the idea suggests it was possibly folklore imported to Europe during the crusades, or simply just polemic used by he early Christians, Muslims and Jews trying to displace the ideas of the Greco-Roman world. The argument for a crusade-era introduction is supported by the appearance and use of the words Fae and Faery in Middle French and Middle English literature, the latter being proposed to be a synthesis of the former with ‘Piri’, ‘Peri’ or ‘Pari’ (of Persian origin) whom folklore made ‘Good Djinn’. Not sure if this is likely or not, as ‘Fairy’ can also be constructed from Celtic language words meaning ‘Night Man’ (Fir Oidche, Fer Oie etc). Of course, the Persian language and culture has more in common wih Celtic languages than the Semitic languages.

  3. Djinn is rooted in the Persian (Avestan) Jaini, who were believed to be evil spirits.

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