Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture

Article excerpt

The Pre-Islamic Ghoul

The earliest records of Arabs document their activities in Mesopotamia, providing evidence that the nomads of Arabia were always in direct contact with the more "advanced" people of Mesopotamia, mainly for the purpose of trade. This contact produced cultural exchange between the two peoples, mostly in terms of life style and borrowed words. In ancient Mesopotamia, there was a monster called 'Gallu' that could be regarded as one of the origins of the Arabic ghoul. (1) Gallu was an Akkadian demon of the underworld 'responsible for the abduction of the vegetationgod Damuzi (Tammuz) to the realm of death' (Lindemans). Since Akkad and Sumer were very close to the Arabian deserts, Arab Bedouins in contact with Mesopotamian cultures could have borrowed the belief in the ghoul from the Akkadians.

Before discussing different ideas of the ghoul, however, I will examine the ghoul's general depiction in a pre-Islamic context to show that the Arabic ghoul is older than the religion of Islam. In some old Arabic works written before Islam, ghouls were regarded as devilish creatures. al-Mas'udi (c. 896- c. 957) referred in Muruj al-Dhahab to the older books written by Ibn 'Ishqq and Wahb Ibn al-Munabbih, who tackled the old Bedouins' myth of creation. Arabs before Islam believed that when God created genies from the gusts of fire, He made from this type of fire their female part, but one of their eggs was split in two. Hence, the Qutrub, (2) which looked like a cat, was created. As for the devils, they came from another egg and settled in the seas. Other evil creatures, such as the Marid, (3) inhabited the islands; the ghoul resided in the wilderness; the si'lwah dwelt in lavatories and waste areas; and the hamah4 lived in the air in the form of a flying snake (1986, 171).

al-Qazwini (c.1208-c.1283) mentioned a different description taken from an old Arabic source, which says that when the devils wanted to eavesdrop on Heaven, God threw meteors at them, (5) whereupon some were burnt, fell into the sea and later turned into crocodiles, while others dropped onto the ground and changed into ghouls (1980, 236). Such descriptions cannot be found in Islamic texts. For instance, Abu 'Uthman al-Jahiz (c. 775- c. 868), who compiled many popular beliefs in his book al-Haywan (The Animal), wrote that commoners thought that the devil's eyes were upright as in images taken from the Bedouins (1969, 214), whose ideas lived on for almost two thousand years.

As for popular tales, several stories dealing with the ghoul circulated before Islam. For instance, 'Umar Bin al-Khattab (c. 586-644), the second Muslim Caliph, was known as the man who killed a ghoul in the desert when he was traveling to Syria. After stopping him, the female monster asked the man: 'Bin al-Khattab, where are you heading?' The Caliph answered: 'This is not your concern,' and the ghoul turned its head completely around in order to frighten him (Ibn Manzur vol. xxvii, 269-70). Knowing the evil intentions of the monster, Bin al-Khattab raised his sword and killed it by striking it between its shoulder and neck. When he returned to the same place after few hours, however, he could not find the ghoul there (Ibid.).

In addition, Abu Asid al-Sa'di mentioned the story of Arqam Bin Abu al-Arqam in which a ghoul appeared and kidnapped al-Arqam's, son who was on a desert journey. The ghoul, disguised in the form of a woman, carried the boy on its back. When they saw al-Arqam's friend, the woman pretended to be the boy's attendant (al-Waqidl 1984, 104). This story emphasizes the well-known deceitful and wicked character of the ghoul. In folktales, motif (G443.2) 'Ogre abducts woman's children...' (El-Shamy 1995, 149) is similar to the account given above. In general, the Pre-Islamic ghoul is known as a devilish female creature that intends to inflict harm on travelers and is able to change its form. In most cases, the ghoul is defeated by striking it with a sword. …

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