Jinn, Golems, and Pretas

February 16, 2020

There is a very thin line between metaphysics and superstition.
-SD

Jinn, Golems, and Pretas

Elemental spirit beings known as jinn are said to hide in abandoned places, reclaimed by nature.

A golem is brought to life through the moulding of clay and mystical chanting.

Pretas wander, invisible to humans, tortured by unquenchable thirst and constant pain.

These supernatural beings might be well known if you’re a part of Muslim, Jewish or Eastern faith traditions, respectively.

Or you might know them through their various incarnations in popular culture — like the genie in Disney’s Aladdin — or religious artwork, folk stories and local knowledge.

It’s worth looking closer at these frightening, mystical, enigmatic beings because they can tell us about the historical anxieties that run rife through our religions.

They can also lay bare our most cherished ideas around impermanence, memory and imperfection, our allegiance to the natural world, and the power of mystery that comes alive when we choose to notice it.

Mystery of the world

Mystery and mysticism are at the heart of the story of both the jinn and the golem.

As Ali A Olomi explains, jinn are “elemental beings made out of a smokeless fire”.

Dr Olomi, an assistant professor of history at Penn State Abington University, says jinn were born in the tribal society of pre-Islamic Arabia, where there was “a great deal of religious diversity”.

“They are one invisible race amongst three races created by God,” he says; the others are humans and angels.

“We believe they were perhaps some type of intermediary between the gods and mankind.”

English speakers may know the term “genie”, a word that comes from jinni, the singular form of jinn.

For people growing up in the Muslim world, Dr Olomi says, the jinn are like bogeymen, invoked by bad behaviour.

They exist on a spectrum, with some down the mischievous end, while others occupy a darker, more threatening space in the Muslim psyche.

Birth, death and truth

Invisible powers play a similar role in the tale of the golem — a man-made being constructed from clay, then animated to protect the Jewish people, which it does, violently, before its murderous rampage gets out of control.

The legend is steeped in Jewish mysticism and hints at the power of the Torah, the five books of Moses.

It has featured in biblical stories, films from Weimar Germany and more recently in literature.

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