In my general understanding, jinn (alternate spelling: djinn) are genies – specifically, the kinds of genies trapped in lamps that provide three wishes. Or instant death, depending on the story I was reading. Some spirits get cranky about how long they’ve been trapped, so don’t assume it’s all going to turn out perfect for the holder of the bottle.
So let’s start with that one stereotypical image and all of the things packed into it: the ethereal nature of jinn (gotta fit into that tiny lamp somehow), their magical power, their age. Those containers are old. No, let’s not start there. Let’s go back further. How did a being so powerful get locked into a bottle in the first place, or somehow tied to it at all? Even farther back – where did they come from at all?
Origin of the Jinn
For a second time, there is more to a question than meets the eye. Geographically, stories of jinn seem localized to the Near East. In pre-Islamic Arabian mythology, such spirits or spirit-like beings were probably worshipped. Unsurprisingly then, most of the visual inspiration is Arabian Nights inspired. Ahem. To greater and lesser degrees. Of course, “worship” nowadays comes in all kinds of flavors. Given their slippery and intangible physical presence, not to mention a certain amount of cultural overlap and general similarity-of-being, it is not uncommon for people to make note of the similarities between the Arabic-language jinn and the Greek-language daemon, a kind of chthonic spirit. I’m not getting into daemons here – that’ll have to be a topic for another day – but it’s worth noting the connection. We do have a fairly precise textual notation of how the jinn came into being, however, and that is the Qu’ran. In the 51st surah (this is a division of the Qu’ran – I take it to mean something like a chapter, but I’m out of my depth here), Zariyat 51:56 reads, “And I created the jinns and men, only for them to worship Me.” (See also this article.) In other words, jinn, like humans, were created to worship Allah. Like humans, jinn have a measure of free will. They can choose to be faithful or not. They can choose to be generous or not; also cruel, loving, merciful, gentle. They’re a lot like us in behavior, if not in essence. They are no more noble, no more base. That’s recipe for miracles or disaster – which, when you think about, is the exact danger of trying to wish for something from a jinni in most of the stories about them.
The Nature of Jinn
According to what I’ve found in online research, relying where I can on sources that seem plausibly familiar with the Qu’ran and Arabic (though yes, there’s a good chunk of Wikipedia in this research), there is an order in which sentient beings were created. First the angels, made from light. Second the jinn, made from smokeless fire (Qu’ran 15:26-27). Roughly two thousand years after the jinn, humanity. The jinn had been causing all kinds of mayhem, so Allah sent a troop of angels to beat them and cast them “to islands in the sea” (Remember this! It’s like foreshadowing!) One translation of the Arabic word “jinn” is “hidden from sight”, which goes some distance in explaining a jinni’s ethereal nature. They are not necessarily smoke-like so much as their natural shape is not physical in the same way ours is – to reiterate, they are not made from clay. Because they are not of the world that we perceive, I am classifying them within Otherworldly Creatures, though they are not in any way divine. They are powerful, though, no two ways about it.
Their more fluid bodies suggest that they are not terribly limited in their physical bodies. In some textual sources, one frequently mentioned typology of jinn includes three categories: those that fly, those that take ugly shapes such as snakes or dogs, or those that take human form. A second three-tiered typology includes the amir, which is a jinn that resides amongst people (perhaps like the Scottish brownie?), the shaytan, which is a malicious jinni (note the similarity here between shaytan and the anglicized name Satan, which is not a coincidence), and an ifrit, which is stronger than a shaytan. Of these three, there is no moral bearing mentioned with regards to the amir or the ifrit. Rather than imply goodness, I suspect it is simply the case that those other two kinds of jinn are as complex as people, given to fits of rage, pique, or swayed by mercy and love. However, al Jahiz has something to say about this as well.
Writing in the 9th century CE, al Jahiz was a celebrated prose author. Among his works is the Book of Animals, in which he may have written about jinn – I’m fuzzy on this point as I neither speak nor read Arabic and I’m not finding substantive writings on the Internet in English. According to one website, al Jahiz identifies six categories of jinn (I am taking “jinn” themselves as the overall descriptor of the various beings mentioned below):
- amir these jinn dwell in houses. If they refuse to leave after three warnings, they are malevolent and should be killed
- ruh jinn who interact primarily with children
- ghoul or si’lah the two names here are, respectively, the masculine and feminine forms. Typically I see writers referring to ghouls as zombie-like creatures, but here they are described as composite creatures, human in shape but with cat-like heads or faces.
- al-nasnas imagine a human body bisected vertically, from the top of the crown to the groin. One leg and one arm, curiously not falling over. That’s an al nasnas. I’ve never read about or encountered these in the folklore I’ve read, only in this research.
- shaytan a wicked jinn whose exists to or at least delights in the corruption of faithful believers.
In G. Willow Wilson’s novel Alif the Unseen, she identifies five types of jinn. There is the marid, which she associates with the sea and which is physically the most powerful of jinn; the efreet, who live in caves, are cunning, and may or may not be wicked; the undead-like ghoul; the shape-shifting sila; and jinn of Indian origin, “semi-malevolent” vampires, the vetala
Jonathan Stroud has five broad categories of spirits in his Bartimaeus novels. In increasing levels of power, they are imps, foliots, djinni, afreets, and marids. He implies further nuance within this. The title character is a “fourth-level djinn,” for example. Also several of the most powerful spirits – Ramuthra (The Amulet of Samarkand), Nouda (Ptolemy’s Gate), and Uraziel (The Ring of Solomon) are never identified even as marids, and in fact their power would seem to dwarf that of the marids that do make an appearance. Okay, so there are lots of kinds of jinn out there, inconsistently categorized. Good to know. It’s also worth reiterating that jinn are found male (jinni) and female (jiniri). They are very long-lived but not immortal. They can have children. Their similarities with humans, then, are many.
Where Jinn Are Found
In the same way that jinn are otherworldly, so is their home. Remember when I said to remember that jinn were thrown to islands in the sea? Well, according to legend, the jinn reside on an emerald green peak, Mount Qaf, located far to the east beyond the ocean. Alternately, Qaf may be the highest peak of range that encircles the globe. Some sources I found suggest that Qaf was where the shaytan Ibliss landed after being defeated. Another source suggests that Mount Qaf was somehow doubled and was the place where the sun both rose and set. This last scenario works both if the mountain is as ethereal as its denizens as well as under the circumstances that the earth is a globe (which, given the early historical locus of these apparent legends is no small assumption).
Qaf wouldn’t seem to be an inherently evil place, however. In the medieval Persian epic poem The Conference of the Birds, an allegory of the Sufi path toward enlightenment, a group of various birds seek out the mighty Simurgh who resides at the top of Mount Qaf and who will, they hope, answer all their questions (a parallel book that might be more familiar to readers with knowledge of Christian tradition is Pilgrim’s Progress, written about 500 years after Conference). More than anything, Qaf seems unattainable to mere mortals. In some Muslim tellings of Alexandrian romances, apparently, Alexander the Great journeyed to Qaf, but if he did (and I’m not saying he didn’t), I would argue that:
- He is the exception that proves the rule
- He isn’t a good example of a “mere mortal” anyway
G. Willow Wilson imagines that jinn like places that humans have abandoned (“Detroit is popular.”) and that their “native” homes are simply “turned sideways” from our own view. It our human belief and perspective that denies us vision and experience of the place. Jonathan Stroud, who removes all religious context from his spirits but keeps their Arabic names in many cases, has them originating in the “Other Place.” This is perhaps a parallel dimension, but it is not a place that is conducive to human life. It is constant fluid movement and it is only there that Stroud’s spirits are comfortable. Drawn to our earth and enslaved here they are in constant, enervating discomfort. There is no suggestion that they can die in the Other Place, but they are very mortal when physical here. Perhaps it that “turning sideways,” to use Wilson’s phrasing, that helps create the conditions for jinn to be subject to capture by humans?
The Physical Manifestation of Jinn
The Qu’ran and hadith commentary suggest that jinn are often invisible or that they take the form of low or unclean animals (dogs and snakes). Folkloric sources may identify some evil mothers as ghouls. In my previous readings (and these were primarily in Inea Bushnaq’s Arab Folktales, to which I sadly do not have access as I write this), I had grown to align her “ghouls” with European “ogres.” Bushnaq’s ghouls (my memory of them at any rate) terrorize those they encounter, whether their own children or people that wander into their domains. This current research into jinn, however, suggests the additional possibility that such ghouls are equally otherworldly. Part of the hurdle in making concrete identifications of how jinn can appear is their complexity and potentially contradictory taxonomy. One of my sources above (www.jinndemons.com) has ghouls and si’lah as male and female versions of the same essential creature. In her novel, Wilson has sila as primarily female shape-changers who are comfortable in human society and who are more dangerous than marids (not more powerful necessarily, but that in turn implies elevated intelligence).
The 1977 Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual (my first introduction to something more than simply genies) identified djinn, efreet, and marids as mystical spirits originating from air, fire, and water respectively. Djinn tended toward the good, efreet were inherently evil (shaytan without saying so) and marids were the strongest and the most disregarding and contemptuous of humanity, but neither good nor evil. Catherynne Valente’s marids from her Fairyland series are blue and human-shaped, but they exist in a separate relation to time. The marid she introduces, Saturday, sees not only his child while he is still a child himself (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland) but also has a questionable relationship with one of his future incarnations (The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland). Stroud’s spirits can take any shape whatsoever in our world, with the understanding that there are seven planes of existence in our world. If Bartimaeus wants to look like an Egyptian child wearing a leather jacket, that is how he will appear on the first plane, which is all humans can see without assistance. His essence, however, is fully revealed on the seventh plane, visible only to other higher spirits. Seventh plane manifestations are never described in the text but the implication is that they are more than the human mind can comprehend. The distinction he makes is that his spirits are fundamentally creatures of air and fire. Water and earth are anathema to them. Many visual representations of jinn fall back on simple exoticization: the male jinn are powerful with rippling muscles; the female jiniri have large breasts and wide hips. Costumes are similarly stereotypical, weapons optional. For unsurprising reasons, I’m looking at a wider range of presentation. They are not human, after all, and to show themselves in such shapes shows a rather limited imagination on their part – or perhaps, a rather limited imagination in our comprehension. In his short story “Hooves and the Hovel of Abdel Jameela,” Saladin Ahmed writes about a self-described “ghoul or demon” who is a composite creature in appearance and suffers no imaginary lack whatsoever – jackal-headed with goat hooves and a scorpion’s tale but whose voice is more beautiful than any woman’s could be. The main character, a physician can barely keep a hold on his sanity as he struggles to reconcile the physical presence of this creature in front of him. The jinn of Wilson’s Alif the Unseen “turn sideways” to be more visible, but most humans still tend to look through them. Even when he does know who he’s dealing with, Alif struggles with a jinn’s talons and wings that suggest their presence without necessarily appearing.
There is no shortage of other examples. One of the two title characters in Helene Wacker’s The Golem and the Jinni is bound into human shape by an enchanted iron bracelet. While he appears human for all intents and purposes to most people, a partially possessed man sees the Jinni for what he is, a burning shape trapped in this physical shape. The translation that I am reading of The Thousand Nights and One Night has jinn flying and taking different shapes but primarily looking like humans – though in their “natural” form they are never mistaken for humans. Robin Williams’ genie in Disney’s Aladdin (1992) is also a nimble shape-changer, and always blue. Diana Wynne Jones’ novel Castle in the Air showcases three spirits. The mighty Hasruel is gigantic and winged – very marid-like in his strength. His half-brother Dalzel is only half-djinni and his wings are smaller and ineffective. The main character finds a genie in a lamp, the third spirit, that can grant limited wishes but never through the manipulation of reality and instead typically through re-location (i.e. commanded to supply breakfast, the genie does so but it turns out that he stole the sultan’s meal). The genie is the only “ethereal” spirit, trapped in his lamp, whereas the other two djinn are not “spirits” in any sense. The Wishmaster horror film franchise showcases what is essentially a wish-granting demon from hell. The main variation? Tattoos and brands. (Tattoos also feature in Valente’s character Saturday and in a djinn in the webcomic Namesake)
Created from smokeless fire and yet marids are comfortable in the ocean? Able to take the shapes of clay (humans)? All this, potentially, and greater power than humans but like humans in temperament, yet longer-lived. Which brings up the next point…
The Relationship Between Jinn and Humans
A rather different conception of the ghoul version of jinn appear in Saladin Ahmed’s novel The Throne of the Crescent Moon. Doctor Adoulla Makhsloodis a ghul hunter, though this title elides the truth somewhat. He does kill ghuls, to be sure, but here ghuls are more like golems. There are sand and water ghuls, flesh ghuls and earth ghuls. They are spirits that don’t so much take a particular shape as they are bound into a particular combination of materials. Given form by dark magic, they are difficult to destroy and it is questionable if they are actually killed. Doctor Makhslood is after the person who has animated these creatures. In the same sense that a physician must treat the symptoms of the disease and attack the infection at its source, Makhslood hunts the ghuls in order to hunt their masters. This relationship – that of control – is often at the crux of jinn and human interaction. First consider the intersection of power and position. Jinn were created second, after the angels, and humans third. Wilson’s jinn often refer to the main character Alif as either “cousin” or “third born,” for example. As a species, jinn are elder and therefore inherently deserving of more respect. Second, jinn are inherently more powerful than humans are. They can fly with no mechanical assistance. They are outrageously strong. They can change shape. Some can grant wishes. In these two ways, power and age, jinn should be superior to humans – and yet Allah placed humans above them. This is one source of unsurprising tension – stronger, elder siblings who resent the prestige and benefits granted to the younger. According to a handful of sources I read, the reason many jinn turned away from Allah was because he commanded them to bow to humans. Iblis, chief amongst the jinn, refused. He became the Devil, the figurehead at the forefront of all the shaytan who followed him. A realted problem area is that of command. As a rule, jinn in folklore do not randomly slay their human cousins. They may be entranced by a human boy’s beauty and therefore transport him to be next to a human girl of equivalent beauty. They may masquerade as a woman and marry a man and cause him problems. They may be mischievous and cruel. They often threaten death, but they rarely carry it out. Contrast this with the fact that humans can enslave jinns. They may be contained in a lamp (Aladdin) or a bottle (I Dream of Jeannie – see also some episodes of the television show Charmed) or bound to an iron bracelet (The Golem and the Jinni) or some other physical object (Hasruel in Castle in the Air), or by mystical commands generally (the Bartimaeus novels). Given this juxtaposition, greater power cosmically placed at the mercy of a lesser power, you’d think there would be more antipathy from jinn toward us than simple disregard or general mischief. Iblis considered himself superior to humanity: “I am better than he; Thou didst create me from fire and him from clay.” (Sura 7:11-12). The shaytan react pretty much as you might expect, but not the rest of the jinn.
Clay and Fire and Inconsistency
Our base natures are what divide human and jinn. Could those natures motivate other aspects as well? In so many regards we are largely the same: free will, desire, love, hate, appetite, pain. Smokeless fire suggests purity to me – nothing is not burned in it. There is no waste. It is heat and light, weightless (or nearly so) and ever moving. Clay suggests damp earth, pottery, weight, something grounded. Clay is a medium for pottery, ceramics, brick-making, a material waiting to be shaped. Fire, contained, is a tool or a resource (fire for baking bread or for a forge). Uncontained fire is destruction. Clay is directed and given form. “Form” is not fire’s natural state. Clay is passive. Fire is active. Why should clay be superior to fire? Why should humans be elevated above jinn? Is it because the jinn’s smokeless fire is contained to begin with that they may be contained by us, their lesser cousins – that is, enslaved? Taken as a generic elemental force, the idea of fire-given-form is power held at bay. A water-based marid embodies the same two sides of power: life-giving, buoyant water and drowning undertows. Could it be that such spirits, originating in smokeless fire, embody any such tamed force? Could there be spirits of air (as the Dungeons & Dragons djinni), spirits of electricity, of cold? Or are these latter spirits closer to the Greek daimones along with water-dwelling marids, chthonic spirits of a place, and the jinn are, properly speaking, closer to Stroud’s description, at home in the air and the fire and at danger in water and earth? The textual and literary record provides too many options for a clear and consistent taxonomy of jinn, though that perhaps is also a reflection of the nature of fire – inconsistently shaped, mercurial. Another possibility – clay can exist by itself but fire needs fuel. Yes, humans need food and drink to survive, while such basic necessities as sustenance seem rather beside the point in most writings about jinn. As purely as smokeless fire burns, it still needs a fuel. To me, that is the greatest mystery of jinn. Not the enslavement, not the shape-changing, not being “turned sideways.” No: what keeps them from being extinguished?
 It’s tempting to take “genie” as a corruption of “jinni,” but in fact the former is a fairly direct translation of the Latin genius, which is in turn the translation of the Greek daemon. English translations of The Arabian Nights followed the French genie rather than the Arabic original. Language! Crazy!  Confusingly for me, apparently jinn is the plural and jinni is the singular. I’m used to my plurals having more letters/sounds than my singulars. The bias of language!  These sources are called hadith. As I understand them, hadith are supplementary writings connected to the Qu’ran and its study that have varying degrees of import depending on a variety of factors, including the particular branch of Islam and the authority of the hadith’s author, for example  Iblis was of great enough stature that he was considered to be on par with the angels. They angels could not and would not rebel because they were not created with free will, not like jinn and humans. Free will is the blessing and the curse that separates us from divinity. It can bring us toward divinity or it can lead us away. This is true for both of us free-willed, independent cousins.  For some reading on the Simurgh, see this Bestiary entry on Roc, its closest counterpart.  I should say that my understanding of “ogre” is not the Dungeons & Dragons beast, larger than a human and smaller than a giant. Instead, my understanding has shifted to be a brutish man (almost always a man) with cruel and cannibalistic tendencies. They tend to be more cunning than smart. Not to get too far out on a tangent, but consider the difference between someone like Bluebeard (ogrish) and Hansel and Gretel’s witch. Their characters are very similar, but Bluebeard is a rich “noble” while the witch has mystical powers. The former is more analogous to an ogre and the latter more to a jinn via her magic, though being very this-world (like Bluebeard) keeps her from moving much closer. Arab folklore also has sorcerers, so there’s no need to stretch this analogy any further.  The main character’s psychic suffering is positively Lovecraftian – which I don’t mean to reflect upon the writing and tenor of the story so much as the threshold of madness that the physician approaches.  There are several films that play on the power of shaytan – the Wishmaster series (1997,1999,2001,2002) about a jinn that grants wishes that he twists and corrupts; Djinn (2013); Jinn (2014). Don’t think this represents the end of the list of such films.  Note: tamed only; never domesticated.
While these other webpages are not ones I cite directly in the article above, they may be of further interest. In no particular order: http://cryptidz.wikia.com/wiki/Jinn http://mythicalbeasties.blogspot.com/2008/09/d-for-djinn.html http://namesakecomic.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/Chapter15_36.jpg http://wendyjargonncom.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-djinn.html http://www.allposters.com/-sp/Aladdin-and-the-Djinn-Posters_i6740840_.htm?aid=1630434966&LinkTypeID=1&PosterTypeID=1&DestType=7 http://www.occultopedia.com/j/jinn.htm http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jinn#Etymology_and_definitions http://paranormal.about.com/od/demonsandexorcism/a/aa060506_2.htm
My first exposure to this particular beastie came, unsurprisingly enough, from the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual. After that, it was Walter Wangerin Jr.’s The Book of the Dun Cow, which a friend of mine was reading. We were very excited to discover that the evil Wyrm in the book was in fact a cockatrice because were 11 years old and because it meant that our knowledge of one fantastical creature had links out into the world beyond the game we were playing. That was pretty cool.
Here’s what we knew then: cockatrices hatch out of an egg laid by a rooster and incubated by a toad. They look like that picture up there and their gaze, like Medusa’s, causes death. (Super-Category: Composite Creatures.)
Here’s What We Know Now
Actually, D&D had this one pretty well down, so there’s not so much a need for correction as there is one for expansion.
In the first place, with all due respect to first Dungeons & Dragons and second to J.K.Rowling and hordes of Potter fans, there is some considerable debate as to whether basilisks and cockatrices are simply different names for the same thing. Most people seem to think they’re the same thing, although basilisks occasionally get lumped into a generally more serpent-like category.
As to their birth, here’s a bit more information, quoted from Edward Topsell’s The Historie of Serpents (1608).
For they say that when a Cock groweth old, he layeth a certaine egge without any shell, in stead whereof it is covered with a very thicke skinne, which is able to withstand the greatest force of an easie blow or fall. They say moreover, that this Egge is layd onely in the Summer-time, about the beginning of Dogge-dayes, being not long as a Hens Egge, but round and orbiculer: Sometimes of a dusty, sometimes of a Boxie, sometimes of a yellowish muddy colour, which Egge is generated of the putrified seed of the Cocke, and afterward set upon by a Snake or a Toad, bringeth forth the Cockatrice, being halfe a foot in length, the hinder part like a Snake, the former part like a Cocke, because of a treble combe on his forehead.
Topsell (clearly in the tank for the “these are the same” crowd) goes on to note that their breath is foul and putrid if not pestilential (prolonged exposure will cause death), and recounts how in the ninth century a city suffered from one or another cockatrice, so boom, history is like science, y’all, and that proves that cockatrices exist (note: Pope Leo IV’s prayers killed it, too). On the plus side, no bird, spider, or snake will enter into a house with a cockatrice, so if you can put up with being killed by one, they’re an effective means of pest control. Alternately, you can kill yourself one and have it stuffed. That works, too. However, these things are so toxic that if you were to kill one with a spear and touch the spear point, you would die. Maybe even just the spear itself, hard to say.
You can kill one with a mirror (same as Medusa, subjecting it to its own gaze). It will die upon hearing a rooster’s crow. Or you could throw a weasel at it. Seriously. A weasel is, apparently guaranteed to kill a cockatrice and the cockatrice will flee upon seeing one. You wonder why Pope Leo IV didn’t just throw a weasel in the hole…
Alright, everybody, don your biohazard suits, we’re going in.
The first mention of a cockatrice, properly speaking, is from Pliny the Elder, who calls it a basilisk anyway (I’ll get back to this discrepancy, gimme a minute). In his Natural History, published around 77-79 CE, Book 8 (zoology), section 33, he writes:
XXXIII. The basilisk serpent also has the same power. It is a native of the province of Cyrenaica, not more than 12 inches long, and adorned with a bright white marking on the head like a sort of diadem. It routs all snakes with its hiss, and does not move its body forward in manifold coils like the other snakes but advancing with its middle raised high. It kills bushes not only by its touch but also by its breath, scorches up grass and bursts rocks. Its effect on other animals is disastrous: it is believed that once one was killed with a spear by a man on horseback and the infection rising through the spear killed not only the rider but also the horse. Yet to a creature so marvellous as this—indeed kings have often wished to see a specimen when safely dead—the venom of weasels is fatal: so fixed is the decree of nature that nothing shall be without its match. They throw the basilisks into weasels’ holes, which are easily known by the foulness of the ground, and the weasels kill them by their stench and die themselves at the same time, and nature’s battle is accomplished.
Interestingly, he notes that weasels are also venomous. Nor was he the only naturalist to make notes about the basilisk/cockatrice. Ulisse Aldrovandi (1522-1605), reckoned to be the father of natural history by no less a figure than Carl Linneaus, had a number of nifty titles to which he attached his name. Relevant for us is his Monstrorum Historia (1642) (but I have to mention as well his Serpentum, et draconum (1640), because come on.) Where is Rick Yancey when you need him???
Cockatrice or Basilisk?
The problem of the cockatrice or the basilisk seems to originate with the Bible. For example, Isaiah 11:8 (King James Version): And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the cockatrice’s den. Further mentions of “cockatrice” appear at Isaiah 14:29, Isaiah 59:5, and Jeremiah 8:17. However, by the 1885 revision, the King James changed this to “basilisk,” then later again changed it to “adder,” and finally to “viper” (reference here). Alright, fair enough – this is clearly a translation issue.
Cockatrice (English) would seem to come from Old French circa the late 14th century, cocatriz (note that coq in French is rooster and that perhaps some of the visual imagery arrived at this point?). Cocatriz in turn is from the Latin calcatrix, a derived noun from the ver calcare, which is itself a translation of the Greek ichneumon, meaning tracer or tracker.
The thing is, the ichneumon is an actual creature. Ironically enough, it’s the mongoose, the killer of snakes (hello, Riki Tiki Tavi!), and something that looks a great deal like a weasel. Hold on, let’s not get sidetracked, there’s more translation issues going on here.
So some Bibles may have used the word “ichneumon” in Greek but apparently the Hebrew word tsepha’ (or tsiphoni’ – not sure if one is a plural of the other or if they’re not actually related?) also plays into this, and this word means “serpent.”
Now, getting back to Pliny the Elder, while he never mentions cockatrices, he does mention both basilisks and ichneumons. These latter animals to which the Bible refers are most likely Egyptian mongooses.
Not only were these animals noted for killing snakes, in ancient times they were believed to take on crocodiles, diving into their mouths and going to town from the inside out. At the very least, they predate on serpent and crocodile eggs.
What we have, then, is the historical fact that basilisks predate cockatrices by at least 1000 years, given that Pliny was writing at the turn of the common era and that the latter beasts don’t show up until the medieval era. Translation errors would seem to have made the mongoose, a snake-killer, slowly metamorphose in our understanding, probably with an overlapping understanding of basilisk, to become the perceived cockatrice, itself only vulnerable to the very thing that gave birth to it in the first place: a weasel or mongoose.
I don’t know much about alchemy, but closing the circle that way really floats my boat and I’d like to think that somebody out there could do something with this. Come to think of it, its entire history is rather reminiscent of a snake eating its tail. Which brings us back to the basilisk, it being more serpent-like. Are these, in fact, two separate creatures, examples of convergent evolution by which they both end up with nearly the exact same fatal qualities and only distinct appearances? Could one be a sub-species of the other? The cockatrice, perhaps, as a late-breaking cousin or step-child of the venerable basilisk?
At the very least, we have to grant that there is a great deal of overlap between basilisks and cockatrices. And we’re still not done, because while poor translations of “mongoose” may have given us “cockatrice,” once we had this monster, we weren’t about to let go of it.
Heraldric uses of the cockatrice are found in England, France, and Switzerland, where it is the mascot of the city of Basel and has been for about 500 years.
“Hi! No, don’t worry, he doesn’t bite. Ha ha. Get it? He doesn’t bite because he stares and… Oh, you’re dead already.” Oh, those Swiss.
Heraldry being all about both lineage, pride, and history, I guess it’s not very surprising that people start getting specific. On the one hand, there’s this guy, who figures that anyone using a cockatrice/basilisk would be positioning themselves as a stern and deadly warrior. This other guy has to point out the difference between cockatrices and wyverns, though, which sort of drags cockatrices (and basilisks) toward the dragon camp, where they have never really been before now (and this third person does the same thing). Now, I don’t know anything about heraldry, but I have to wonder exactly how well its visual vocabulary was laid out in an era long before Shakespeare came around, and even by his day there was no one way to spell his name right. I have to wonder about consistency, that’s all I’m saying.
I have to say, I did not expect to be doing a bunch of poking into Bible and translation-related sites, but for now I’ll return to the beginning, ouroboros-like. I feel like the folks who put that first edition Monster Manual together had the right idea.
They both kill in the same ways. They’re equally deadly, differently armored, and one has wings. It’s a big world. There’s room for all kinds of alchemical, chimerical monsters out there.
Sources, Cited or No:
Amphisien cockatrice at Heraldry on the History Road (website, accessed 4 March, 2013).
Ashton, John. 1890. Curious Creatures in Zoology.
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The rukh (or roc) is a giant bird of prey. It looks like an eagle. That’s pretty common knowledge, right?
Rukhs appear in 1001 Arabian Nights (which may date as early as the 8th century) in the stories of Sindbad the Sailor, specifically his second and fifth voyages. While the picture above is very evocative of the size of the rukh – specifically, of one of its eggs – it is inadequate to the task. When Sindbad discovers an egg initially, all he sees is a white dome in the sand. He paces around it to determine its circumference and determines fifty paces. Shortly thereafter a cloud seems to pass over the sun, but instead it is the bird landing to keep watch over its egg. As large as the rukh is, however, the egg is disproportionate and the bird can only cover it with one wing. (more…)
Technically speaking, any critter that shifts its features is a shape changer. Consider the vampire, occasionally attributed the abilities to transform into a rat or a bat or a large dog or a mist. And that’s to say nothing of faeries, dragons, or spirits that can affect multiple shapes; the djinni of Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series, Marvel Comics’ Mystique, or the Dungeons and Dragons version of doppelgangers. In general, though, we’re not speaking that broadly when we talk about shape changers.
Really what we’re on about are werewolves and their ilk, but the fact remains that our imaginations run wild at the thought of transformation. As with our romance of vampires, there is almost always some kind of price to pay – hunger or loss of control and giving in to the animalistic nature, primarily.
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t all of those other things, though. Shape changers are another in the big super-category bunch.
A Taxonomy of Shape Changing
We could potentially break this into two groups initially, those who change willingly versus those who change unwillingly, but we could as easily make those groups those who change at will and those who have no control over what they do. No, it’s got to be more complicated than binary oppositions. How about a preliminary list that will, I hope, take into account a variety of factors and features that allow for shape changing in its various facets?
Shape Changing as Ability
Occasionally, people and creatures can simply do this. Maybe there are restrictions and maybe there aren’t. It might be easier to change from human to wolf at the full moon, perhaps, but there’s nothing to stop you from doing it whenever. Or as a vampire, you become that rat or bat. The mutant Mystique can adopt the shape of anyone that she touches. Jonathan Stroud’s djinn (and his fellow spirits) can change their shape because their essence comes from the Other Place and is very malleable here on earth.
In addition, there are always those stories of Greek or Norse deities wandering the earth incognito. It helps that the deities look human, but apparently their disguises are good enough to mask their god-ness. Japanese spirits such as kitsune (fox creatures) can take human form and the witch Maleficent in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty turns herself into a crone.
All of which is to say, shape changing doesn’t have to be from animal to human, it can also be from human to human.
Shape Changing as Inherent to a Species
Breed, species, I’m not too concerned about the difference here. Now sure, you’re going to say that there is overlap here with Ability and I’m going to agree with you. The reason I separate the two is because doing so raises nuances. Having the ability to shape change does not make one inherently a different kind of creature. I considered this in relation to Rhiannon Held’s werewolves in Silver. They change only between human and wolf (no halfway humanoid shape here) and they are their own species. They keep to themselves but they interact with the rest of the world. There are advantages and disadvantages to these creatures – their shape changing is more of a chronic condition than a disease and they never “lose themselves.” Instead, they are equally rough humans as they are animals.
Shape Changing as a Curse
Consider the Frog Prince, who is *truly* human but cursed to be a frog until freed by an unlikely condition being met, the kiss of a princess (although being thrown and splattered against a wall works in some versions – yay!). This is an unwilling change (similar to Disease below) and not one inherent to the Prince in the first place, the same as the fate of Queen Elinor in the 2012 film Brave (albeit bear, not frog).
Which raises the question: should we consider the thrower of said curses to be shape changers? If the witch who cast that spell on the unfortunate prince (or on the Beast (see: Beauty and the…)) cannot change her own shape, s/he can certainly inflict change on another. Though who’s to say s/he can’t. In Seanan McGuire’s Rosemary and Rue, the main character, a changeling private investigator named October Daye in contemporary San Francisco is turned into a fish (a koi?) for fourteen years.
When the curse is broken, you’d think there would be some psychological consequences. The Frog Prince doesn’t often seem to have these, while October Daye’s are limited to disliking being submerged (showers are okay, baths are right out). Do shape changers have to get used to their new bodies again, or is it a seamless shift, mid-leap, into a cinematic landing?
Shape Changing as the Result of a Device
Perhaps a person has a special token that allows them to change shape. These may be foreign objects or what I’ll call inherent objects.
Foreign Objects include such things as hexenwolf belts, greegrees, or other talismans. The first of these turns the wearer into a wolf, as found in Steve Jackson Games or in Jim Butcher’s Fool Moon, in which several baddies don the belts to become, essentially, werewolves-thanks-to-the-belts. Greegrees are tokens in the MMPORG Runescape – the ones with which I’m familiar (thanks, Google!) let the holder become a monkey. The children’s cartoon Jackie Chan Adventures contains a world of magic talismans and the Monkey lets the holder change other people into whatever animal s/he wants. In each of these cases, the Foreign Object is a magically charged thingamahooie that has some kind of specific effect.
Inherent Objects are proper to a creature, and in this regard “Device” and “Breed” overlap. Consider selkies (seal-human), swan or dove maidens, or in some African folklore, people who can transform between leopard or buffalo and human. These changers need their skins in order to effect a change, a seal skin or a robe of swan feathers, for example. Inherent Objects are connected to their owners (or species), though. Unlike Foreign Objects, which can be picked up by any and everyone, if any of us put on a selkie’s skin we wouldn’t turn into a seal. At least if we can there aren’t any stories about this (Anne Ursu tinkers with this in her novel Breadcrumbs, in which the main character Hazel dons a swan maiden’s robe, but because it’s not hers the transformation is incomplete and grotesque).
A third path here contains skinwalkers, humans who use pelt-devices to switch forms. These are trickier because their devices are not inherent to their person (as with a swan maiden or selkie) but nor are they machinistic as with the foreign objects that can be used by anyone who happens on them. Presumably there is a connection of some kind between the artifact (pelt) and the creator (skinwalker) that doesn’t transfer simply because another person is holding the object in question.
Shape Changing as a Disease
The classic case, naturally enough, is lycanthropy, the horrific affliction under which a human becomes a beast. Nearly always an angry and rabid-like one, too. No one ever becomes a cute were-bunny (except Wallace, sort of). Worth thinking about. In this instance, there’s nothing particularly good about what’s going on – as with disease in general. Typically under the full moon, the disease rears its ugly head and causes the transformation from human to beast.
The short form of lycanthropy is, often enough, “lycan,” which preserves the Greek portmanteau origins: lykos (wolf) and anthropos (human). For a more general term, use “therianthropy,” the shifting between human and wild beast.
Diseases are malevolent forces that act upon our bodies. The victims of therianthropy not only become a creature, but they lose themselves to the anger of said beast.
The Nature of the Change
None of these categories addresses a separate issue, which is, “What kind of change is happening?” Is what we are considering a cosmetic shift, as Mystique, who, if knocked out, reverts to her normal blue form? Is it a full change from human to animal with full loss of human intellect? Is it a third path that has human knowledge in an animal body?
Fundamentally, the question here is how deep or complete does the change go? The dragons in Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina adopt human form to interact with people, but it is a great deal like a costume into and out of which it is difficult to climb. Losing oneself may be a matter of deed (the more a person with a hexenwolf belt gives in to the bloodthirsty nature, the more enmeshed s/he becomes in Butcher’s Fool Moon) or it may be a matter of duration, the amount of time a person spends as that-other-thing.
Update: I’ve just started the book Rabid (Wasik and Murphy, 2012), and they mention the goddess Diana’s transformation of the hunter Actaeon into a stag as punishment for him seeing her bathing. Actaeon is completely aware of what has happened to him and names his favorite dogs as they tear him to pieces. So don’t forget to look at Ovid’s Metamorphosis (the source of said story) for more inspiration.
Humanity and Bestiality
Similar to the dangers presented by Composite Creatures, shape changers typically run the risk of giving in to their animal nature and becoming that thing. As I’ve noted, however, that “nature” is almost always one that is hostile to humans. Consider that, while all animals are invariably dangerous to one degree or another (carriers of disease or eaters of meat or simply aggressive), there is not one that I know of that seeks us out as prey. Werewolves don’t seem to hunt anything other than people, if the threatened denizens of fiction novels are to be believed.
Presumably this is less of a commentary upon the bestial nature of beasts than it is upon the bestial nature of humans and the lengths to which we allow ourselves to go, or to which we subject those around us. Whether therianthropes imagine themselves on the next highest rung on the food chain or whether they seek to impose their Nietzschean überwill on the rest of us is one of the things that makes shape changers so interesting. Are they our unleashed id, given raw strength and teeth? If so, why do they always kill and so rarely mate? I mean, I look at my cats having killed a bird or a mouse or a squirrel (I’ve got mean cats) and as soon as that critter is dead, they’ve lost interest. There’s no bloodlust there.
People, on the other hand, we’re known for enjoying killing.
Power and Affliction
No such thing as a free lunch, right? Werewolves are vulnerable to wolfsbane and silver and lose control at the full moon. What they gain in strength and savagery (is savagery really a net gain?) and large invulnerability, they lose in reaction to even small doses of silver. After all, it’s not a bullet through the brain that kills them, it’s simply a silver bullet. Apparently a shot in the leg is as good as a shot to the heart.
When shape changing is not intrinsic to the being in question (it is an ability), there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of cost associated with it. In most cultural references, vampires no longer have the ability to change shape. If kitsune have weaknesses, they are related to their fox-spirit-nature, not to their transformational agility. In this case, it’s simply this cool thing I can do – and don’t forget the occasional gender-bending transformation, when a man can become a woman or vice versa. Question: what is scarier to you – being eaten by a werewolf or having sex with a member of the opposite sex who is actually the same sex as you? I bet more people would freak out about the second. Death, and especially violent death, is too abstract. Sexuality is every freaking day. (See: The X-Files episode “Gender Bender” (1994)).
Similarly, curses and devices don’t necessarily play with costs per se. Curses may leave the afflicted with their intelligence (the Frog Prince, the Beast) or deprive it (Queen Elinor, October Daye). In the former case, the victim may have a hand in their own freedom. In the latter, less and less as time passes and they forget their human side. This is useful for dramatic tension, but doesn’t shed much light on our “better” natures.
The different species are another thing altogether. They are, in good hands, a separate culture entirely. Held’s Silver does a good job of stratifying society, not to mention addressing her werewolves’ particular religious beliefs. Why wouldn’t they have them? Any group this unique would be bound to consider themselves the chosen ones (most likely; it’s what we all do) or the cursed, and they act to try and right whatever cosmic wrong they see themselves as having committed. Mind you, writing new cultures is hard work. It’s not enough to say that they like different music. I’ve held off on mentioning Stephenie Meyers’ werewolves because I haven’t read New Moon and I don’t know much about her world, though from what I gather, her shape changers are more culturally bound/species than they are diseased.
The disease of therianthropy is curious because the shape changer in question (I’m going to go ahead and stick with werewolf for now) is both afflicted with lycanthropy and the vector for the rest of the population. Whether or not that werewolf infects other people with his (for now) disease, he kills the creature around him. One werewolf equals many dead civilians. He is, in effect, an incarnation of disease given animal form.
Which on its own is an interesting idea: the physicalization or instantiation of disease. What kind of animal shape would ebola take? AIDS? Cancer? Influenza?
Is there a cure for therianthropy? Or a vaccine?
My initial intention was to write about dryads, but the slightest research indicated that I was operating with a mistaken assumption. “Dryad” is not a neutral or abstract term of its own. In fact, a dryad is not the spirit of a tree per se, but the spirit of an oak tree in particular. The larger term is nymph – a female nature spirit perhaps of trees (for example, ash: meliai; walnut: caryatid), or of streams, rivers and springs (pegaeae), or of mountains, valleys, and ravines (oreads). Et cetera and so on. Furthermore, there are other spirits of trees beyond those of Greek mythology – which got me to thinking, what is it that these various incarnations of tree spirits have in common?
It’s been a long time since I’ve done a bestiary entry. My initial thought was to tackle something off my running list-of-creatures, but I settled on Dryad and realized that there’s a lot more to it than just spirit-of-the-tree. So here we go with another super-category. I’ll be updating the Bestiary Page this week and adding a couple of related tags that I can expand on more easily. That being said –
In the ancient Near East – bleeding historically over time into Europe and so on and so forth – there is a broad category of beasts conceptualized as “composite creatures.” Unsurprisingly given this name, the beings in question are a hodge-podge assembly of various animal parts. Without intending any kind of hierarchy, there are roughly three categories of composites: (more…)