Middle East Myths and Monsters Reveal Our Humanity

Though jinn, ghouls and other creatures from folklore seem inhuman, they serve to help us see ourselves more clearly

Middle East Myths and Monsters Reveal Our Humanity
Illustrated by Joanna Andreasson for New Lines

Each year, following Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, when Muslims slaughter animals to honor Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael, people in Morocco do something strange. Across the kingdom and especially in southern cities like Agadir, they dress up like beasts and roam the alleyways amid the hammering of drums. In earlier days, they would don the pelts of the livestock butchered on Eid and rub onlookers with broken animal limbs to bestow sacred power. Today’s teenagers will still whack any passerby if they don’t give them money. Local NGOs support these pageants as a kind of cultural memory, not unlike New Orleans’ “second-line” jazz funerals and other events. This is Boujloud, Morocco’s so-called Halloween.

A rowdy bacchanal stemming from the mists of Amazigh culture, Boujloud means “dressed in skins,” alluding to the ancient wearing of animal hides. Even today, at least one parade member still puts on real skins. This is why the Finnish anthropologist Edvard Westermarck calls Boujloud a modern-day Saturnalia, the Roman festival to the god Saturn who ruled a lost golden age. Above all, Saturnalia means flipping social norms. Celebrants choose a “Lord of Misrule” from the peasantry and masters serve dinner to slaves. (Saturnalia fell in mid-December, a fact that inspired wreaths, candles, feasting, gift-giving and other trappings linked with Christmas.) Viewers can see this role reversal in Disney’s “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” where Quasimodo is crowned as a false pope during the Feast of Fools, a French Catholic liturgical drama based on Saturnalia and decried by the medieval church.

How does all this connect to Boujloud? The ethnologists Edmond Doutte and Emile Laoust say the Moroccan carnival comes from pre-Islamic Amazigh seasonal rites. The Moroccan scholar Abdellah Hammoudi disagrees, claiming Boujloud is part of the Eid al-Adha sacrifice. Average Moroccans are proud of the holiday, yet they won’t say whether or not it is Islamic. “It’s a cultural celebration,” they often claim. Wherever Boujloud comes from, it signals a deeper human instinct. The wearing of pelts recalls Navajo skinwalkers, namely witches who can change their shape, or Old Norse berserkers, “bear-shirt” warriors frenzied in battle by the power of their draped bearskins. For them, wearing animal furs causes the wearer to actually become an animal. This taps a very human need: to play at being non-human, to pamper our brutish impulses, to picture becoming someone — or something — totally different.

This same itch to transform and be transformed, even if only in our minds, also birthed a whole cosmos of Middle East spirits, demons, hulkers and half-breeds. Like Boujloud, these creatures are a shrine to the sneaking suspicion that ours isn’t the only reality that exists and that other realities bleed into our own. Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not part of who we are. Historically, the beings of these spheres have haunted us, amused us and even embodied the muses of some of our best human creativity. They remind us who we really are. But we don’t play as monsters forever. The orgy of Mardi Gras precedes the fasting of Lent. When we return, we remember what made us human in the first place. And what better time to explore the riches of Middle East folklore than Halloween? There are treats that await the morbidly curious who are willing to face a few tricks in the form of otherworldly beings made of inhuman stuff.

“God created man of a clay like the potter’s, and He created the jinn of a smokeless fire.” The Quran, in Chapter 55, titled “The Merciful,” gives this account of humans and jinn — who, together with the angels, created from light, make up two of three classes of rational beings in Islam. It’s part of a thousand-mile vision of creation and the afterlife, wherein the God-fearing relax on brocade couches and sinners run away from boiling water and molten brass. The jinn, who aren’t the souls of the dead but rather subtle creatures possessed of free will, are among those sent to paradise or hell. “On that day none shall be questioned about his sin [because his fate has been decided], neither man nor jinn,” says another verse in the Quran’s 55th chapter.

The jinn choose whether or not to follow God, just as humans do. They practice different faiths and debate personal choice. Islamic lore shows them hearkening to the Prophet Muhammad, who orders his son-in-law Ali to teach them, “for among them are believers, heretics, Sabians, Jews, Christians and Magians.” According to the seventh-century preacher Hasan al-Basri, some jinn believe they answer to God for their actions, while others are silent about who’s saved and who’s damned. These details reflect supremely human disputes. Muhammad himself taught human Jews, Christians and others about Islam. In al-Basri’s time, some Muslims denied the idea of predestination in favor of free will, “qadar,” and were thus branded as “qadariyyah” (partisans of free agency) by those who thought choices were fixed by “jabr” (God’s power), yielding their own derogatory label of “jabriyyah” (partisans of divine decree). Whether or not the jinn exist, such details about human belief make similar-sounding claims about the jinn a kind of mirror for humans to study themselves.

Yet questions of faith aren’t all that humans and jinn have in common. Over the years, legends about unseen souls became fleshed out until they grew into a whole jinn-haunted universe. The 13th-century Persian geographer Zakariyya al-Qazwini sketched the jinn and their origins in “The Wonders of Creation” (“Ajaib al-Makhluqat”), one of many “wonders and marvels” books such as Yaqut al-Hamawi’s “Almanac of Realms” (“Mujam al-Buldan”) and Abu al-Hasan al-Masudi’s “Meadows of Gold” (“Muruj al-Dhahab”). Like a museum, these roomy collections take stock of heaven and earth, letting readers taste countless fables that blend science with daydreams. The main goal wasn’t just to inform but also to delight.

“In ancient times,” writes al-Qazwini, “before the creation of Adam, a race of jinn lived on the earth. They covered the mountains and plains, the land and the sea. God’s favor was on them, and they had government, prophecy, religion and law” (one imagines a deadlocked jinn parliament or a primary school filled with good little jinn children). “But then,” continues al-Qazwini, “the jinn transgressed and offended … after which God sent angels, who possessed the earth, drove off the jinn to the islands and took many of them captive.”

To readers of the Bible, this sounds a lot like the Anakim and Nephilim, races of giants who sprang from the line of Seth and Cain. Or, as some interpret them, fallen angels, since the Hebrew word “nefilim” may mean “the fallen.” According to the Old Testament and the apocrypha, these fallen giants roamed the earth until they were swallowed by Noah’s flood. Later, their descendants fell again, only this time in battle to the Israelite kings. The 12 spies sent by Joshua to Canaan spoke of giants there, whom Joshua had to subdue before taking the Promised Land. Goliath may have been one of the Nephilim’s offspring.

Likewise, the jinn have their own progeny. Rumors that humans and jinn made love and reared children caught fire among ancient storytellers (and continue to make headway in some circles today). “Aberrant love affairs between jinn and humans circulated,” writes the scholar Amira El-Zein, “creating fear and flaring the curiosity of all classes of society.” Again, this tracks with Near Eastern mythology. According to Talmudic legend, after Adam and Eve were cast out of Eden, they parted for a hundred years, during which time female spirits coupled with Adam and male spirits with Eve. This led to the birth of the “mazzikim” (“tormenters”), evil spirits that afflict people mentally and physically. The Victorian scholar-adventurer Richard F. Burton thought the mazzikim were the same as jinn, but others believed they were demons. Still others thought they could fly and practice magic, like fairies in European myth.

As for the jinn, the best known of them to mate with a human was the mother of the Queen of Sheba, known as Bilqis in Islamic lore. Bilqis’ father, King al-Hadhad, went deer hunting one day and, in a fit of mercy, chose to spare the herd. He didn’t know they were actually a tribe of jinn, echoing the pre-Islamic Arab belief that deer are sacred and that the jinn often take on animal shape. As a reward, the grateful jinn king offered the hand of his daughter, Ruwaha, as long as al-Hadhad promised not to question any strange goings-on. This he did, and together he and Ruwaha had two sons and a daughter, named Bilqis.

But things got strange indeed. Following each child’s birth, a large dog came and snatched the newborn away. Keeping his promise, al-Hadhad didn’t ask the first two times it happened. On the third time, as the dog came to take their daughter Bilqis, he finally broke his silence. “The dog is a jinn,” explained his wife Ruwaha, “who takes our children to the realm of the jinn to be raised there.” With that, Ruwaha left home and never returned, as a result of al-Hadhad shattering his oath. After al-Hadhad’s death, Bilqis took the throne and enjoyed her people’s respect, not least because of the magic she wielded from her jinn ancestry.

As with other legends, these human-jinn couples say something about our world. “From Sudan to Morocco, relationships with jinn are understood as a fusion of Islam and indigenous practices,” writes the historian and podcaster Ali A. Olomi. His remark nicely frames Bilqis’ story and makes it fit with everyday life. It also explains “folk religion” practices like the use of amulets, charms and pendants. Such talismans betray a common belief, then as now, that the jinn torment people’s minds, haunt their homes and seize their bodies.

Amulets can be made from words or characters, often quoted from the Quran, or by fastening medicines or other ingredients to the body. Classical Islamic writers credited pre-Islamic desert Arabs with wearing charms, one of many practices logged under the heading “oddities of the Bedouin” (“awabid al-arab”). The 11th-century anthologist Abu Sad al-Abi claims in his book “String of Pearls” that the Bedouin wore rabbits’ feet to check the jinn. The reason was that the jinn refused rabbits as riding mounts because — improbably — rabbits menstruate. The 13th-century North African scholar Ahmad al-Buni includes recipes for magic squares and talismans in “The Sun of Gnosis” (“Shams al-Maarif”), a popular grimoire (magic textbook) that shows readers how to use magic to achieve hidden wisdom.

Nor have Middle Easterners stopped hexing and potion-ing. The religion scholar Esmé Partridge tracks alternative spiritual practices on TikTok, or “WitchTok,” as a way for Gen Zs to explore their identity. The sociologist of religion Alireza Doostdar explains that traditional Islamic occult science, “modulated by pop-psychology seminars, self-help literature, and a heavy dose of New Age spirituality,” is one way modern Muslims try to make their economic dreams a reality. This speaks to a basic impulse of exercising faith, however odd that faith may look to the untrained.

The existence of so many tunnels leading to the unseen world might have something to do with all the dizzying categories of jinn. There is, for instance, the “ifrit,“ a devious, sneaky brand of spirit; the word “ifrit” itself has come to mean any cunning person. The “hinn” (pitiables) are a weak type of jinn, while the “marid” (rebel) is an unruly force sometimes equated with “shaytan,” a satan or demon. The term “shiqq” (half) denotes a grotesque, one-eyed, one-handed and one-legged half-man who attacks humans. The ninth-century essayist al-Jahiz tells of a man named Alqamah ibn Safwan who wrestled a shiqq in a grove of trees. The two rivals swapped quotations of poetry before squaring off and beating each other to death.

By far one of the strangest jinn-types is the nisnas. “The nisnas seems a sad copy of the shiqq,” writes El-Zein. It’s basically a weak human-animal hybrid that hides in trees and runs away from humans. It ends up as prey more often than predator. In al-Masudi’s “Meadows of Gold,” one narrative says that people in the Hadhramaut region of present-day Yemen and Oman would stalk the nisnas for food. There is a cartoonish scene in which a group of trackers enter a nisnas-filled grove:

“Look at how red this one’s blood is!” says one of the hunters.

“That’s because he ate sumac!” says a nisnas hiding in a tree.

“Nisnas! Get him!” cry the hunters, as they fall on the nisnas and kill it.

“If he’d kept quiet, we wouldn’t have found him.”

“I’m being quiet!” says another nisnas from its perch.

“Nisnas! Get him!” cry the hunters again as they grab him.

And so on. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, like watching “Looney Tunes” or “Benny Hill,” but at the same time oddly wretched. The nisnas are shy, panicky half-breeds with little or no self-defense. They barely make a showing against the mighty humans, whose slaughter of the pathetic nisnas mirrors the pattern of “might makes right” that colors human society down to the present. Such a state makes the nisnas the most affecting order of the jinn: Instead of fear, they evoke its twin emotion of pity.

Aside from the jinn themselves, who give us the word “genie,” the other Middle East specter to come into English is the ghoul (Arabic “ghul”). In some ways, ghouls and jinn couldn’t be more different. Although meeting a jinn can bring wishes or gifts, most people shouldn’t tangle with a ghoul. “To be called ghoulish is rarely considered a compliment,” writes the literary scholar Kevin J. Wetmore Jr. The reason for this is clear. Ghouls are shape-shifters, ugly monsters posing as beautiful women who lure foolish travelers to their death.

This trope gets exploited by pre-Islamic poets who lament their faithless beloveds, as in the words of Kab ibn Zuhayr:

From form to form, she turns and changes,
like a ghoul slipping through her guises.
She makes a vow, then holds it
like a linen sieve holds water.

Another pre-Islamic poet, the outcast Taabbata Sharran, boasts of his triumph over a ghoul after locking with her in an all-night skirmish:

I stayed pinned on top of her
to see in the morning what had attacked me:
Two eyes in a tomcat’s head!
Forked tongue, cloven-hoof legs, dog-scalp,
and a robe striped like old waterskins

Above all, ghouls lie in wait for travelers so they can eat them. Ghouls are “the original-corpse eaters,” writes Wetmore in his book “Eaters of the Dead: Myths and Realities of Cannibal Monsters.” He explains that, in some myths, ghouls are “born” when a human grows especially wicked or eats dead human flesh. The latter case betrays a basic fear of being eaten, which comes from an even deeper fear: ceasing to exist.

But despite their awful nature, ghouls are not all-powerful. Legends show them being conquered by humans through faith as well as physical might. The story of “The King’s Son and the Ogress” from the “1,001 Nights” folk tale collection tells of a young prince who meets a ghoul in the forest. She tries to seduce him, after which he prays for help. “Better to help yourself with your father’s great wealth!” she says mockingly, egging him on to more prayer. This he does, then points his finger at the ghoul, causing her to fall to the ground and burn to a crisp. Another well-known story of humans versus ghouls appears in the popular epic, or “sira,” of Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan, a real king of pre-Islamic Yemen in the sixth century. According to legend, a race of ghouls sprang up after the wife of an exiled wizard king was raped by a wolf and then impregnated by her husband. The mixing of wolf and human seed — a link between monster and canine often seen in such legends — spawned a whole Yemeni Valley of the Ghouls. This King Sayf finally wiped out by himself.

It is strange that more people don’t remember ghouls as a Middle East import. Apart from the jinn, ghouls may be the Islamic world’s most enduring myth in the West. They appear in Lord Byron’s poem “The Giaour” and William Beckford’s Gothic novel “Vathek,” which in turn crossed the radar screen of H.P. Lovecraft. Since Lovecraft’s time, ghouls have been a staple of Western horror. Robert Bloch, one of the “Lovecraft Circle” and author of the novel “Psycho” that inspired Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, wrote ghoul-centric stories like “The Grinning Ghoul” and “The Creeper in the Crypt.” R.L. Stine’s “Goosebumps” and the 1985 film “Ghoulies” speak to the myth’s enduring power. With all these changing guises, it seems ghouls are still the ultimate shape-shifters.

By contrast, the jinn have a mixed record. Aladdin is famously helped by a jinn in the “1,001 Nights.” In the 27th chapter of the Quran, “The Ants” — a version of the Jewish Valley of the Ants legend, in which Solomon zips past an ant colony on a magic carpet — the story declares that “Solomon’s hosts rallied to him, jinn and men and birds, all duly disposed.” This shows the Israelite king’s alleged power over nature, like being able to talk with animals and jinn. The latter even help him defeat his enemies. Yet, in other legends, Solomon must lock up malevolent spirits like “shayatin” (devils) and “divs” (demons) with the help of a magic ring. In the “1,001 Nights,” readers find the tale of “The Merchant and the Jinni” about a merchant who carelessly tosses a date pit and kills a young jinn. The jinn’s father threatens to kill the merchant, who barely escapes when three old men distract the jinn with stories.

A bit of jinn lore that shows their double-edged rapport with humans is the notion, echoing the muses of ancient Greece, that the jinn inspire poetry and song. It’s an old idea, going back to pre-Islamic days, but it is best pictured in an 11th-century essay by Ibn Shuhayd al-Andalusi, “The Treatise of Familiar Spirits and Demons” (“Risalat al-Tawabi wa-l-Zawabi”). The narrator starts with his own crippling writer’s block and how he snapped out of it. “I found myself facing a knight at the chamber door, upon a horse black as the hair on his own face, leaning on his spear. He called to me: ‘Are you unable to continue, young human?’” This is Zuhayr ibn Numayr, the narrator’s jinn muse, who sparks a flow of thoughts and words that lead to the “Treatise” itself.

The narrator then asks Zuhayr for a tour of poets and essayists, ones whose writings are sparked by their attendant jinn. Zuhayr obliges him, showing some of Zuhayr’s jinn comrades in the business of encouraging art and literature. There is Utayba, the jinn of the pre-Islamic poet-king Imru al-Qays, who rides a flaming mare while chanting, “A passion of yours has been aroused after having been subdued!” There is also Husayn of the Wine Jars, a drunk, mustachioed old man sitting on a heap of flowers and surrounded by young boys. This is the jinn of Abu Nuwas, the bacchic poet whose passion for wine and lovemaking — both with men and women — is the stuff of legend:

O monastery of Hanna
with the cramped monk cells —
others may sober up from you
but I never do!

The “Treatise” goes on to show a jinn literary salon, where the spirits debate the merits of poetry, and even a scene with jinn in the shape of talking donkeys and geese. All of this taps common wisdom about the jinn, reshaped into a vivid image depicting the wellspring of individual genius.

But if familiar spirits and demons are the source of poetry, then what about humans? Do we matter, and can we ever know where our ideas come from? It’s fun to talk with jinn or even take cues from them. Speculating about their nature lets us think about our own. Yet when the spirits depart and the masks come off, there remains the work of being human, of facing ourselves and what’s plain to see in front of us. And that can be scarier than any encounter with the unseen world.

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