Arabic Folklore: Fascinating Myths and Legends
By: Pamela Dimitrova / Arab America Contributing Writer
Arabic folklore and mythology are one of the most diverse and colorful in the world, with stories about supernatural creatures, brave heroes, magic lamps and thrilling adventures. Many of them were passed orally from generation to generation over hundreds of years, preserving the authentic spirit of the Arab culture in them. While some of these are known to be pure myths and have taken the role of the common fairytales, many of them are still surrounded by mystery, making them even more exciting and interesting.
In Arabic mythology, Bahamut is a large fish that swims around in a cosmic sea, that supports the earth.
Legends tell, that a bull named Kujata/ Kuyuta rides Bahamut, and on top of it, there is a ruby mountain; on the mountain, an angel; over the angel floats six hells; above the hells lies earth and over the earth are seven heavens.
Some myths describe Bahamut as having the head of an elephant or a hippopotamus. Occasionally, he is given a more monstrous form, appearing as a sea-serpent with limbs and fierce teeth.
Jinn (often called al-jinn or djinn) are spirits, made of fire and air. According to El-Zein, pagan Arabs worshipped jinn long before Islam was introduced in the seventh century, believing that the spirits were masters of certain crafts and elements of nature who had the power to turn plots of land fertile.
They can be both good and evil, and just like humans they possess free will and can make their own choices. Jinn are capable of assuming human or animal form and are believed to dwell in all conceivable inanimate objects – stones, trees, ruins – underneath the earth, in the air and in fire.
There are many types of jinn. Marid are the most well-known and also the most powerful. They are able to grant wishes, but the cost is high – usually, there is a battle or extraordinary amount of flattery required.
Ifrit are Jinn that are living in ancient ruins and even though they have the free will, most of them are considered to be wicked and malevolent creatures.
Ghoul are the most feared Jinn, mostly because they crave human flesh. Ghouls are thought to frequent areas like graveyards, ruins, and places that are generally uninhabited. They tend to attack people who travel alone or who are in small groups that can be outnumbered by the ghoul pack.
Other types are hinn, jann, sila, palis, qareen, vetala and shayteen.
Atlantis of the Sand
Atlantis of the Sands, also referred to as Ubar by Bedouins and as Iram in the Qur’an, is one of the most mysterious lost cities.
In the Quran, Iram was said to be adorned with lofty buildings and was populated by a group of people known as Ad. As they had turned away from Allah and led wicked lives, the prophet Hud was sent to summon them to return to the worship of Allah. The people of Iram reacted with hostility and did not heed to words of Hud. As a result, the Ad was punished, and a sandstorm was sent against their city consecutively for seven nights and eight days. In the end, Iram vanished beneath the sands as though it had never existed.
The city was located in southern Arabia between India and the Mediterranean directly on the trade route. Merchants used that route to transport fine spices and highly valuable resins and essential oils for sale.
Sinbad the Sailor ( السندباد البحري)
The legend of Sinbad the Sailor is one of the most famous Arab stories, that charms the hearts of children and adults to this day. The legend appeared for the first time in the “Thousand and One Nights”. It is about a merchant from the city of Baghdad in the Near East, who made seven voyages to lands and islands through the seas east of Africa and south of Asia. He had great adventures, survived numerous dangers, and acquired many riches during his travels.
Nasnas is a supernatural creature, that is half-human – it has half a head, half a body, one arm, and one leg. Some of them are described having the wings of a bat.
Also, in Somali folklore, there is a creature called “xunguruuf” “Hungruf” which resembles the “nasnās” as it has the same characteristics and features. It’s believed it can kill a person by just touching them and the person would be fleshless in mere seconds.
Zarqa’ Al-Yamama (زرقاء اليمامة)
According to the legend, Zarqa’ Al-Yamama was a blue-eyed female prophet that had the ability to see enemies from a distance of three days.
In hopes to evade Zarqa’s gaze, enemies of her tribe decided to hide behind trees which they carried. Zarqa noticed what was going on and alerted her village that the trees were moving towards them and that they hid soldiers behind them. However, the people thought she was going mad and choose to ignore her warning.
The troops of Hassan al-Himyari eventually reached her tribe and killed every man in the camp, then they tore out Zarqa’s eyes and crucified her.
Arabic folklore and mythology are one of the most diverse and colorful in the world, with stories about supernatural creatures, brave heroes, magic lamps and thrilling adventures. Many of them were passed orally from generation to generation over hundreds of years, preserving the authentic spirit of the Arab culture in them. Curious about them? Check this list of myths and legends from Arab countries, compiled by Pamela Dimitrova, Arab America Contributing Writer.