Saturday, January 18, 2020

StorySpotting: Fishing for genies (The Witcher)

StorySpotting is a weekly or kinda-weekly series about folktales, tropes, references, and story motifs that pop up in popular media, from TV shows to video games. Topics are random, depending on what I have watched/played/read recently. Also, THERE WILL BE SPOILERS. Be warned!

Where was the story spotted?

The Witcher, season 1, episode 5 (Bottled Appetites)

What happens?

Geralt goes fishing for a genie, because he can't sleep and wants three wishes. After casting a net into a pond many times and coming up empty, he finally pulls up a clay jar, stopped with a seal. The jar breaks, the genie goes free, and Geralt gets three wishes, which gets him into a world of trouble before the creature is finally away.

What's the story?

I'm not going to go into djinn lore here, because it is vast and elaborate (and awesome). Instead, let's just focus on the "fishing a djinn bottle out of a lake" part here. This is a well-known folktale type, ATU 331 - The Spirit in the Bottle.

The most popular version of the story comes from the 1001 Nights, right from the beginning, from nights 4-9, titled The Fisherman and the Jinni. It features a fisherman who casts his net out 4 times, and at the fourth try catches a copper jar stopped with Solomon's seal. He opens it, and out pops an ifrit. This one, however, is o-v-e-r granting wishes to humans; during the centuries he spent bottled up, he'd sworn to kill anyone who freed him, so he tells the fisherman to prepare to die. The fisherman tricks him back into the bottle with what is one of the oldest tricks in the book: he pretends to doubt that such a large creature can fit into such a small bottle. Once the genie is back in the bottle, the fisherman puts the seal back on. Eventually they come to a compromise, and a whole other new story begins when the genie is freed again, and the fisherman grows rich.

This story exists in many cultures with little variation; sometimes the spirit is freed, and sometimes it is thrown back in the water. There are some versions collected by the Grimms, and other ranging from Finland to Sri Lanka.

But how did the genie get into the bottle in the first place? Another favorite tale of mine from the 1001 Nights, The City of Brass, explains the phenomenon in a way that warms my little archaeologist heart. The story claims that when King Solomon ruled over the people and animals, God granted him power over the djinn. He used his power to imprison them in brass jars, pouring lead over the opening and closing it with his seal before he cast the bottles into the sea. Many years later, travelers ended up on the coasts of Africa where they saw fishermen pull brass jars out of the water in their nets, break them open, and release djinn who flew away yelling "repentance!" Apparently, it was a common occurrence. The whole legend of the expedition to find the City of Brass kicks off with the sultan sending people to find him some of these magic bottles.


Apparently these bottled djinn are a lot less eager to grant wishes as the one in The Witcher. For a moment in the beginning of the episode I thought they were going to stick to the story when Jaskier started dying, but then they did the wishes anyway.

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