In the story of "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp," a sorcerer convinces a young boy, Aladdin, to fetch him a magic lamp from underground cavern. Abandoned in the cave, Aladdin finds himself in possession of a magic ring that summons a genie, and of course the lamp, which summons an even more powerful genie. Aladdin falls for the local princess and orders the lamp-genie to bring her to his chambers at night, then marries her and moves into a magnificent palace built by the lamp-genie. Then the sorcerer steals the lamp back, and Aladdin must recover it. In an epilogue, the sorcerer's brother makes a try for the lamp, but Aladdin wins again. The story was an instant classic, but contains many questions about the nature of genies.
The ring and lamp don’t actually contain the genies; rather, they summon them from somewhere else, and the genies must obey whoever hold the objects. There is clearly a power hierarchy, with one genie stronger than the other. But where did they come from? Why do they serve the holder of the objects? Why a lamp?
The History of Aladdin
Before tackling the lamp, it's important to look at where the story came from. "Aladdin" is grouped with the stories of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, also known as the Arabian Nights. However, there is no Arabic textual source. Aladdin did not enter the collection until the French writer Antoine Galland began publishing Les mille et une nuits, from 1704 to 1717 - the first known European translation of the Nights. The collection was a huge hit and became incredibly influential. However, Galland was working from an incomplete manuscript, and eventually ran out of stories. He went looking for new ones to insert, stories that had never been part of the collection before – including “Aladdin” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” He got these from a Syrian storyteller named Hanna Diyab, in 1709. When Galland published Diyab’s stories, he never mentioned his source or gave any credit.
Other genies in the Arabian Nights
If you look at the older Nights, most of the djinni are free agents, not unlike fairies or other spirits in European stories. They may play matchmaker, or marry humans, or work mischief. But there are some who are imprisoned, or who serve humans.
In the story "The Fisherman and the Jinni," a fisherman's nets bring up a copper bottle with Solomon's seal. When he uncaps the bottle, a djinn bursts out. We learn that he’s been in the bottle for centuries. He explains that he was one of a movement of djinn, alongside Sekhr, who rebelled against King Solomon. As punishment, this djinn was imprisoned and thrown into the sea.
In the first couple of centuries, he swore to grant riches to anyone who freed him. In the third century, he swore to grant his rescuer three wishes. After four hundred years, however, he was pretty fed up and decided to grant his rescuer his preferred choice of death.
King Solomon – yes, the one in the Bible – is the subject of numerous non-Biblical legends, including stories about djinn. In a Jewish legend, Solomon had a seal ring engraved with the name of God, with which he could command the spirits. One named Sekhr, Sakhr, or Asmodeus stole the ring and replaced Solomon. Solomon was forced to wander in poverty until he managed to get the ring back.
Solomon's signet ring appears in other Arabian Nights tales, "The Adventures of Bulukiya" and "The City of Brass." The latter even details the war between Solomon, his army of good djinn, and an opposing army of evil djinn, which ended with the evil djinn sealed in copper jars or bottles. One is imprisoned in a pillar with his head and arms sticking out.
Another genie servant appears in the story of "Judar and his Brethren," where the main character gains a magic ring. Whenever he rubs the ring, the djinn who serves it will appear and obey any request. This story does bear a passing resemblance to Aladdin; the djinni Al-Ra’ad al-Kasif transports Judar home and helps him gain riches. Judar marries a princess and becomes Sultan, only for envious thieves to steal the magic ring and his wife. Unlike Aladdin, Judar is murdered by those who want the ring. In the end, the princess poisons Judar’s murderer and destroys the ring so that no one can ever possess it again. “Judar” does not appear in Galland’s translation.
Dom Denis Chavis, a Syrian priest, published a Galland-inspired continuation of the Nights. One story, "The Tale of the Warlock and the Young Cook of Baghdad," bears a resemblance to the story of Aladdin, with a young man magically kidnapping a certain princess every night. To do this, the young man learns from a sorcerer how to summon the Jánn from beneath the earth. This is more of an involved black magic ritual involving needles, clay and meat.
So there are traces of a legend where King Solomon imprisoned rebellious djinn inside bottles. They might be grateful enough to grant wishes when released, but they might also kill their rescuer out of sheer spite.
Separately, in the story of Judar, is the theme of a ring which can summon an obedient djinn. There are several magical treasures in "Judar" – saddlebags which generate food, a sword which summons fire and lightning. The ring is just another object with mystical properties - a common theme across many mythologies.
So, back to Aladdin. The magic ring is familiar. However, the magic lamp still raises some questions. Why is it a lamp? Why not another ring, or why not a jar, which most imprisoned genies seem to be stuck with?
The Spirit in the Blue Light
Aladdin has a neighbor in European fairy tales categorized as Aarne Thompson 562, "The Spirit in the Blue Light." This tale type gets its name from the Brothers Grimm's story, “The Blue Light.” In this tale, a witch sends a soldier down a well filled with treasure to retrieve a blue light which never goes out. Abandoned at the bottom of the well, he discovers that when he uses the blue light to light his pipe, a dwarf will appear and carry out any request. The soldier commands the dwarf to get him out of the well, and not much later, to bring the local princess to his home at night. The princess manages to leave a trail marking his house. When the king finds out, the soldier loses the blue light and is about to be executed, but regains it at the last second and ends up marrying the princess and becoming king. Aside from the ending, the plot is identical to Aladdin.
Blue fire is the hottest part of a flame, and has otherworldly associations, like will o’ the wisps that may lead the way to treasure. It might also be connected to lightning. However, the Grimms focused not on the otherworldly blue light, but on the fact that the soldier used it to light a pipe. They compared it to a Hungarian tale titled “The Wonderful Tobacco-pipe,” and to the flute in one of their other stories, “The Gnome.” Near the very end of “The Gnome,” there is one Aladdin-esque scene: a huntsman is trapped in an underground chamber and finds a flute. When he plays it, a huge crowd of elves appear and grant his request to be freed. The Grimms theorized that all of these stories were based on a story of a magic flute. However, going through a few different versions, there is an equally strong theme of light or heat sources.
This is not even close to an exhaustive examination, but some common spirit-summoning tools in Tale Type 562 are:
The Grimms also mention the legend of a thirteenth-century friar called Albertus Magnus. Rumors and legends about Albertus' magical studies abounded, one being a fifteenth-century poem, "Es war ein Kung in Frankereich.” There is no magical helper here, but part of the shape of Type 562 is clear. In his rebellious youth, Albertus magically carried a certain princess to his apartment every night. She was able to leave a trail of red paint to identify him. Albertus was set to be executed by the furious king, but escaped using a magical ball of yarn.
How did the summoning of a spirit become tied to a light source? It reminds me a little of the idea of candles lit in prayer. But ultimately, searching for a reason for Aladdin's lamp in European fairytales is backwards, because Aladdin may be the ultimate source for the magical candle or light. Galland's version of the Arabian Nights was hugely popular, and obvious descendants of Aladdin appear in many European folktale collections. For instance, in 1853 Heinrich Pröhle collected a German folktale titled "Der Geist des Ringes und der Geist des Lichtes" which is a straightforward retelling of Aladdin with every single plot beat.
There does seem to be a division between wholesale Aladdin retellings and variants of "The Blue Light." In “The Blue Light,” the protagonist uses his magical servant to kidnap the princess nightly, until she marks his house and her enraged father has the protagonist imprisoned. The protagonist loses his magical servant, regains it at the last second, defeats the king’s forces, and marries the princess.
Aladdin does steal the princess away at night on a few occasions, but otherwise goes through the proper channels to marry her. The problem arises from his old enemy, the sorcerer. Aladdin does briefly face execution from his father-in-law when the sorcerer causes trouble, but the focus is on his battle against the old enemy who’s turned his tricks against him.
The story of the young man kidnapping the princess via magic can be tracked at least the fifteenth century with the legend of Albertus Magnus. But the idea of the magic light summoning an obedient spirit can be tracked back to . . . uh . . . Aladdin, told by Hanna Diyab in 1709.
The Life of Hanna Diyab
Diyab's autobiography was rediscovered in the Vatican Library in 1993. Since then, some scholars have suggested that his stories were inspired by his own life.
Hanna Diyab was a nineteen-year-old Maronite Christian from Aleppo with a longing to travel, when he encountered Paul Lucas, a French traveler (plus tomb raider and con artist). Lucas offered to hire Diyab as a manservant and take him to meet the king of France. Along the way, it was Lucas who would introduce him to Antoine Galland.
Modern scholars have drawn connections between Diyab's autobiography and the story of Aladdin. Paulo Horta compares Diyab’s account of Louis XIV’s court to Aladdin’s processions, princesses and palaces. Diyab met Galland a few months after being introduced to court. Horta also mentioned that Diyab compared the bell of Notre Dame to an "egg made out of iron," located atop a "minaret," which rang so loudly that it scared the citizens. I wasn't able to check this against the source, but this would be an intriguing parallel to the deadly roc's egg that Aladdin's princess wants to hang in the dome of the palace.
Not only can you see Diyab as Aladdin and Lucas as the magician, but one of Lucas' main goals was to bring home treasures and artifacts. Early in their travels, they found an underground tomb that Lucas wanted to investigate.
He [Lucas] walked around the tomb, looking for a way in. He only saw a small opening, and asked one of the armed escort to go down through it. None of them did; they said that it could contain a wild animal, like a hyena, leopard, or something. … As we were talking, a shepherd walked by, and the officers asked him to go down. … The tomb was six feet and one span of the hand deep. The Frenchman said to the shepherd: ‘Go around the tomb and give me everything you find.’ He started to walk around and saw a human skull, which he handed over. It was the size of a large watermelon. The Frenchman told us it was the skull of a man. Then, the shepherd handed him another skull, which was smaller. The Frenchman said it belonged to a woman. He claimed that the tomb was that of rulers of the area. He threw the shepherd a piece of cloth and said: ‘gather everything you find on the ground and give it to me.’ The shepherd proceeded to do so, and among the things he collected we saw a large flat ring. The Frenchman examined it and said that it was rusty, and that there was no clear writing on it. He was not able to identify the metal from which it was made, nor whether it was gold, silver, or something else. He kept it with him. Then he said to the shepherd: ‘Feel around the walls of the tomb.’ As the shepherd did so, he felt a niche inside of which there was a lamp, similar to those of butter vendors, but he could not identify the material….
So someone is sent underground to retrieve treasures, and returns with a lamp and a ring. Was this an incident that influenced Diyab when he told the story of Aladdin? Or was his storytelling style affecting the way he wrote down his life story decades later? Hanna Diyab’s memoir is likely at least partially fictionalized. He had probably retold his journey many times over the years, embroidering or exaggerating. Paulo Horta points out a story of a private meeting with a French princess that probably would not have been allowed.
Lucas described the tomb incident in his own memoirs, but only mentioned the skulls. (Diyab and Lucas’s travelogues cover some of the same events but portray them differently – for instance, they both describe being raided by pirates, but Lucas is an innocent victim in his version and a conniving sleazeball in Diyab’s.)
In-story, I think the lamp and ring would be most equivalent to the magical ring in the story of Judar. It's simply a property of the magical objects that they summon otherworldly servants. Out-of-story, we know that Aladdin is the result of a collaboration between Hanna Diyab and Antoine Galland, and I agree that most of the story came from Diyab. What inspired him to make the magical object a lamp? I do like the idea that he was influenced by an incident on his journey, where a lamp was found in a buried tomb. Or the tomb incident could be irrelevant, just Diyab retelling his own life in the style of a fairytale. Maybe there is something in the idea of candles lit in prayer. Either way, I think Diyab's magic lamp is comparable to Perrault's glass slipper - a stroke of storytelling genius that forever defined the popular image of the fairytale.
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4/29/2022 10:42:56 pm
I grew up very fond watching the Disney Aladdin, but I admittedly never really looked into the origin before. I came across the French author relatively recently while trying to understand why Disney+ was putting controversy warnings before its showings...
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.