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Jinn: A Serpent Helps Abu Zayd


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(Arab/Western Sahara)

jinn are spirits. Nature is full of living beings that are superhuman, the jinn or demons. These jinn are not pure spirits but corporeal beings, more like beasts than men, for they are ordinary represented as hairy, or have some other animal shape, as that of an ostrich or a snake. Their bodies are not phantasms, for if a jinni is killed a solid carcass remains. But they have mysterious powers of appearing and disappearing, or even of changing their aspect and temporarily assuming human form, and when they are offended they can avenge themselves in a supernatural way, by sending disease or madness. They have, for the most part, no friendly or stated relations with men, but are outside the pale of man's society, and frequent deserted places far from the wonted tread of men. In the Sahara and adjoining African regions, serpents and jinn are the common denizens of water points, caves, tree roots, low-lying thickets, and groves, and both beings are often confused as common protectors of hidden treasures.

As the poet Abu Zayd Muhammad (Abu) ‘l-Khattab al-Qurashi accompanied a party of riders on a journey, they saw a great snake (shuja') dying because of the heat. They told Abu to kill it, but he allowed it to live. He cooled the snake with water from his water skin, and it slid away to its lair. The party continued its journey and accomplished its aims. When they returned, they passed that same river valley where the serpent lived. Abu was delayed, because his camel was tired. Alone in the strange place, he was afraid, but he heard the voice of a friendly jinni. It gave him a fresh camel so that he could continue his journey. When he got home, he gratefully released the second camel. Then he heard the jinni's voice, telling him that it was the serpent that he had befriended in its agony, and that the camel which had brought him to safety had been his reward. Within the haunted deserts and thickets of the Sahara and Arabia, the serpent was both a friend and a foe to man; in its form was the supernatural, always prepared to help or to hurt mankind, depending on the nature of the jinni, or the intentions of its human confronter. Hausa call them aljannu, iskoki, ibilisai. See also: Abu Zayd, Jangare, Juntel Jabali.

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