Libris Monstrum #23: Genies
Good evening everyone! Tonight our entry of the Libris Monstrum is going to talk about the enigmatic beings known as genies. These are a favorite topic of mind because they come from old lore that isn’t Eurocentric. These awesome beings come from old folklore and have been developed into something awesome for our RPGs. Not only that but there are, in fact, other similar beings through mythologies, but that will be something for our revisit. For now, let’s delve into what genies are and where they came from!
Jinn. Djinn. Genies. These are creatures of immense mystery. Early Arabian mythology is where the jinn come, but many stories over the centuries from that area feature a jinni. The name comes from a the word that means to conceal and may, in fact, literally mean “being concealed from the senses”. These are beings that we unable to be seen or perceived by humans in anyway. They were worshiped by the pre-Islam people, but not in the traditional way you might think. Their worship treated the jinn as mortals, not immortals. They were people who required food and wanted similar things to humans, but were also much more. The jinn were treated as those that assisted and inspired humans. However, they were also feared as many powerful beings are. Jinn were thought to have the ability to cause disease and mental illness, and is likely part of the reason for worship. Living alongside such powerful beings that can elude all your senses, mortal though they may be, definitely call for respect that would readily drip into reverence and worship.
What Are They?
There is no simple answer for this, especially given the idea that they were mortal rather than immortal. They might be spirits of some kind or they could be angels. Demons? Some mixture or unique category of supernatural being? There is no real way to pin down jinn and they are harder to categorize than creature adopted by multiple religions such as the naga. They did become more categorized through the ages, often being more closely associated with Daeva. They are also categorized as lesser spirits similar to angels but not being as important or powerful. Depending on whether we approach jinn from the Asian adaptations or monotheistic religions, their place in the universe is different and vague. Even though the Qur’an says God made them from the “fire of the scorching wind”, we don’t know how elevated they were made to be within that mythology. At best we can approach it more from a a question of what types of characters they are, rather than looking for their “field guide” placement. Inherent to them is the mystery and deception of the senses. Alongside this, unsurprisingly, is a tendency towards magic or even witchcraft: invisibility, flying, and shapeshifting. While it doesn’t get us something much different, we can begin to figure on a couple factors that represent the backbone of what jinn are: beings that exist somewhere between the mortal and spiritual worlds, devious but potentially helpful, and capable of amazing feats of magic.
From here on out I will be spelling this in the anglicized way: genie. The reason for this is because the concept we are really looking at is not being taken in time much closer to and into contemporary. Aside from this the distinction is important when we begin to discuss D&D and other RPGs. Genies as we know them today are recognizable from literature, film, and television. One of the firsts that will likely come to mind is Genie from Disney’s Aladdin. As far as we know, he is immortal or at the least very, very long lived. Genies perform magic, can disappear, and can fly away. We also know that they are found in bottles, trapped there in the ancient past somehow, and that releasing them from their prison binds them to grant you three wishes. Some of those things can be seen from the look at the old myths of jinn, but what about those other two things? Well, those might owe some credence to old tales that exhibited these occurrences, but they might just be a situational thing. Kind of like drawing the conclusion that all humans live on boats at sea if you are an alien who only met humans on a ship. Nevertheless, the ideas became reused and popularized and it is an idea we still reuse today. Where exactly those origins are from is difficult to suss out (I couldn’t find conclusive evidence just likelihoods), but they are hear to stay.
As we can now recognize in many D&D monsters, one of the most impressive early developments was the codifying of so many creatures from mythology and exactly what they were and their relationships to one another. These have evolved over the years (just look at will-o’-wisps) but as players of D&D we know genies to be beings of the elements. Where angels come from good and demons from chaos, the genies come from the primal elements: earth, air, fire, and water. The genies is a category of creature, a family if you will. I would argue that in D&D terms that genie is a race and the different types are subraces, but that distinction is mainly to get the relationship across. Those associated with earth are called dao, those associated with air are the djinn, those with fire are efreet, and the genies of water are the marids. Except for the dao (whose origins of genie-relationship I do not know) each of these derive their names from the same myths as the original jinn. While not classified in this way, it is nice that there is a pulling in of the mythology into a usable context for the game.
At the table there are a lot of things that you can expect from genies. In general they are considered evil, being creatures that willing enslave, connive, and murder. They are similar to devils in many ways except for the cosmological binding to law. They also tend to be a lot more explosive in their emotions and actions, capricious by nature. In terms of D&D genies are elemental, but they are almost a cross between devils and fey lords. The concept of trapping a genie in a lamp or a bottle is a regular plot device. Freeing one might earn you wishes or might just earn you other great boons and an ally in the elemental planes. They have inherent magical abilities that will be familiar from stories including natural flight, invisibly, and planar transport. On top of that they each have special abilities and features that are unique to their element. What is great about the way they are handled is that they have a codified, unique mythos within the game but they also readily recognizable in action to those who have not played.
There is plenty more we need to discuss. There are many other types of genies, not to mention half-blooded humans. These have changed more than genies themselves and deserve their own good look. That, and how some of them relate to mythology in the real world, are things we will cover in the revisit. If you have a favorite genie form modern RPGs, a new take on them, or some insight into the mythologies they come from, let us know in the comments below. If you enjoyed this, check out the rest of our Libris Monstrum series and share this article with your friends!