Today we’re crossing over to the Middle East to take a look at some of the spirits lurking amongst the sand dunes of the trackless deserts. This is part of a series of posts on mythical creatures. Previous posts can be found here – dragons, fantastical horses, mythical creatures of the sky, saltwater spirits – Part 1 and Part 2, and freshwater spirits.
Iblis – A fallen angel of Islam, and the spirit of doubt. Like, we don’t have enough doubts of our own, right? As if that’s not bad enough, this guy is also a type of djinn with, wait for it, an army of djinn to command!
This guy has a real egotistical thing happening, since he refused to bow to Adam when Allah commanded it, saying ‘I am better than him. Him, you created out of clay. Me, you created out of fire’. OK, I paraphrased. The way he said it was more pompous, and in fact the Quran describes him as ‘puffed up with pride’. Funnily enough, that was enough to get this guy tossed out on his ear.
He pleaded for clemency, so Allah was merciful, and he wasn’t sent immediately to hell. Instead of being grateful, Iblis then lurked in wait for humanity, hoping to tempt them into evil. Spirit of doubt indeed!
Djinn – Invisible and illusion-casting, this lot can appear as anything they like and pretty much anywhere they like. No wonder everyone wanted the genie in a bottle! I suppose the magic lamp myth may have been one way to ensure all your brass stayed shiny. ‘Here, polish this – if you rub it hard enough, a genie may come out and grant you three wishes and then you can wish to never have to polish anything again!’
Djinn are spirits, neither human nor angel. The Quran says they were created from smokeless fire, and so they have no bodies of their own. Although they are masters of disguise, the tell-tale betraying them every time is their flaming eyes. As they are made from flame, their eyes, apparently, cannot be disguised. The fact that the eyes are set vertically (instead of horizontally like ours) is a mere detail and hardly conclusive in identifying them a non-human of course! A djinni is believed to exist for every human, with the djinni seeking to tempt his human into evil. If a djinni is hurt by his human, the human also hurts himself, the result being insanity.
Djinn were believed the be the cause of violent sandstorms, whirlwinds and shooting stars. Like fairies, they steal babies (or swap them), push people down stairs, spill their milk and give them nightmares, but this is small-time stuff compared to some of their other acts – epidemics, convulsions, insanity and death. Their preferred residence was the desert, with every place having its own resident spirit which must be appeased before a traveller could pass. It was necessary to respectfully seek permission – and if greeted with a spinning pillar of sand, the best advice was RUN!!
The standard advice for avoiding the wrath of djinn is not to throw water on a fire (djinn like to rest in the ashes), don’t throw stones in the desert (you might hit an invisible djinni), treat black cats, black dogs and snakes with respect (djinn like these forms) and never sweep at night , apparently for ‘obvious reasons’, but this one has me stumped! Salt, loud sounds, and strong odours (especially tar) keep them away, as does pins, needles, silver, iron and steel.
Shaitan – A type of djinni that is invariably evil and tempts humanity into evil by creating illusions to tempt the human into sin. They are said to be endlessly imaginative, and therefore, I expect, rather successful. For this reason, they are closely associated with inspiration, poetry and art, and often a Shaitan was said to be responsible for the work of an artist or composer. I feel the need to check under my bed to see if a Shaitan is responsible for my novels now!
The Shaitan seems to be the (or an) origin of the genie in a bottle myth, as Shaitans were trapped in bottles with the seal of Solomon on them. A fisherman who pulled up a lead-sealed bottle opened it to release a dark smoke. Forming into a malevolent presence, it promised to grant him one wish – that he might choose the manner of his death! Gruesome, and quite some way from the traditional three wishes. The Shaitan had, in fact, upon his imprisonment resolved to grant the man who released him riches, some kind of monarchy, and three wishes, but after three hundred years without surcease he downgraded his generosity.
The fisherman was quite clever, refusing to believe the Shaitan had ever fit in the bottle, as huge and as grand as it was, unless the Shaitan would re-enter the bottle, whereupon the fisherman sealed him inside once again.
Shaitan eat dirt and excrement (ew! Someone needs to introduce them to a proper menu!) and they dislike water. One nasty piece of lore suggests if you don’t wash your hands after supper, you may wake to find them licked to bloody stumps.To protect yourself against Shaitans, use fresh water, the bone of a hare, or a white cock. Also, they can’t open doors, so if you keep your doors shut at night, you should be good.
Ghoul – A most malicious species, often sporting matted, shaggy hair hanging over his eyes. He shapeshifts constantly, but watch for hooves as feet – they won’t change, no matter the form! Ghouls often prefers horses and oxen (perhaps because it hides their feet) and camels (go figure).
Ghouls can also appear in human form, lighting fires and calling out to human travellers. As ugly as they are, ghouls can sing as sweetly as siren, thus luring humans into their camp to be devoured whole. Bizarrely, if you offer to cut a ghoul’s hair so he can see, he’ll go out of his way to help you. So it might be useful to keep some barber’s scissors handy.
Ghouls also have a female version, Si-lats. They are much the same as the males, except she don’t want her hair cut, she wants you to nurse at her breast, and then she will treat you as her own. Just. Ew.
It is possible to kill a ghoul with one blow, but if you then strike it again it will return to life. So I recommend you don’t hit it one more time ‘just to be sure’.
Devalpa – This one is sneaky! Often appearing as a decrepit old man standing by the side of the road, sighing and weighed down by life. He pleads with the passers-by to carry him on their shoulders. If anyone does, he shape-shifts immediately, snakelike tentacles emerging from his stomach and wrapping around the human. The devalpa commands the human to ‘Work for me!’. The human may choose to live and be the devalpa’s slave – or die. Talk about a disincentive to be a good samaritan!
The devalpa features in the story of Sinbad the Sailor. Sinbad was captured by a devalpa who prevailed upon him for assistance. After weeks of unbearable servitude, Sinbad fermented grapes into wine so that drunkenness might ease his misery. Seeing the effects of the wine, the devalpa commanded Sinbad to pour him some. As the devalpa grew drunk, his grip on Sinbad loosened. Escaping from it’s grip, Sinbad dashed its brains out with a rock. I can’t say I would have felt any differently!
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