Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Fisherman and the 'Ifrit fairy tale

Similarities to ‘The Spirit in the Glass Bottle’ can be found in ‘The Fisherman and the ‘Ifrit’ – one of The Arabian Nights tales or Tales of One Thousand and One Nights, which was compiled in the ninth century. Since I have in my possession a reputed translation, here's a bonus folktale summary.

There once was an old fisherman. Every day, he would cast his fishing net into the sea four times. If he caught anything of value, it would be used to support his wife and three children.

One afternoon, despite his prayers and pleas to the Lord above, his net seemed to bring him nothing but toil and worthless trash. His first attempt brought up a donkey’s corpse, the weight of which had torn a great hole in the net. His second attempt brought up a big pot of dirt and debris. His third attempt gave only bones and broken pieces of pottery.

The poor fisherman had nothing to show for his back-breaking labour. The day would only let him cast his net one last time. Crying another prayer for God to show him mercy, he threw his net over the water and waited for it to settle. He waded into the sea to pull the net to shore, but the net had caught on something beneath the surface. After much hardwork, he managed to haul the net out of the water.

Inside the net, the fisherman found an old, sealed bottle. It was made out of brass and marked with an emblem of King Solomon. The fisherman could not have been happier, because he was sure to get a good price for it at market. First, he would open the bottle and find out what was making it so heavy.

Using the knife he had on hand, the fisherman cut through the lead seal and tipped the bottle on to its side. To his astonishment, nothing but smoke drifted out from the spout. The dark plumes covered the sky above and the ground below. They merged, began to take shape and transformed into an ‘ifrit as tall as the clouds. His hands and feet were huge. His mouth was like a cave lined with pointy rocks. He scowled at the terrified fisherman with flaring nostrils and fiery eyes.

The ‘ifrit, believing he was in the presence of his captors, proclaimed King Solomon as the prophet of God. He asked for his life to be spared and swore he would never again betray King Solomon’s trust. However, he learned from the old fisherman that the king had died hundreds of years ago. The old fisherman was horrified to find the ‘ifrit turning on him and sentencing him to death.

It didn’t matter how many times the fisherman called himself the ‘ifrit’s saviour – the ‘ifrit would not be swayed. Because the fisherman insisted on knowing why he should be killed, the ‘ifrit revealed the circumstances behind his long imprisonment. Centuries ago, he had rebelled against King Solomon and rejected his Faith. King Solomon sealed him inside the brass bottle, which was tossed out to sea by the loyal jinn.

During his first one hundred years of confinement, the ‘ifrit promised his saviour enough money to last a lifetime. When no one came to his aid, he promised for the next one hundred years that his saviour would receive all the treasure the world had to offer. Still, nobody opened the bottle, so for the next four hundred years, the ‘ifrit promised to grant his saviour three wishes. After centuries of waiting, the ‘ifrit became so consumed with rage that he vowed to kill whoever released him.

Once again, the ‘ifrit asked the poor fisherman how he would like to be killed. The fisherman couldn’t believe his bad fortune, but was determined to use his human intelligence to outwit the brute. He said it was impossible for one as enormous as the ‘ifrit to fit inside a small bottle. Keen to prove his worth, the ‘ifrit changed back to smoke and dutifully went inside the bottle, which the fisherman stoppered with King Solomon’s inscribed lid.

Triumphant, the fisherman declared he will return the ‘ifrit to the depths of the sea and will personally watch over the coastline to prevent anyone from repeating his mistake. The ‘ifrit panicked. He insisted his threats had been made in jest, but the fisherman branded the ‘ifrit a liar. After all, if the ‘ifrit refused to show mercy, then why should the fisherman?

When the ‘ifrit started to promise the fisherman untold riches, the fisherman reconsidered. He made the ‘ifrit swear by God’s Greatest Name and proceeded to lift the seal from the bottle. The ‘ifrit returned to his enormous form and, without a word of warning, threw the brass bottle into the ocean. The old fisherman trembled in fright and was certain his life was over. He reminded the ‘ifrit of his sacred promise.

The ‘ifrit regarded the cowering fisherman and laughed. He told the fisherman to follow him. Their path took them out of the city, over a mountain and into a valley. There was a pond filled with colourful fish and the ‘ifrit told the fisherman to cast his net. The fisherman caught four fish: white, red, blue and yellow. The ‘ifrit instructed the fisherman to present his catch to the sultan, who would reward him generously. The ‘ifrit also advised the fisherman to only cast his net in the pond once a day.

Not knowing how else to help the fisherman that moment in time, the ‘ifrit bade him farewell and kicked a fissure into the ground. The fisherman watched the ‘ifrit disappear down the crack and then returned home with his catch. He did as the ‘ifrit requested and took the colourful fish to the sultan, who was delighted and impressed. The fisherman left with more than enough money to care for his entire family.

Read the complete story by purchasing a collection of the Tales of One Thousand and One Nights that has been professionally translated from the original Arabic. This book was consulted to write this summary:

Lyons, Malcolm C. (ed.), The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, Volume 1 (London: Penguin Classics, 2010).

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

The Spirit in the Glass Bottle: Thoughts and Facts

Once upon a time

I wanted to try something different, so leafed through my collection for an obscure fairy tale. To dabble outside my comfort zone, I zeroed in on male protagonists. Even though I hadn’t a clue what I’d be getting into, I settled on the tale with the most intriguing title: ‘The Spirit in the Glass Bottle’.

Between the student and the genie, I had to leap for the genie. The thought of designing Mercurius was scary, but the possibilities seemed too wonderful to miss. Luckily for me, I was getting into One Punch Man. This testosterone-pumped anime somehow made the muscly, menacing and monstrous look unbelievably fun to draw. My forte has always been cute and pretty girls, so it really changed how I saw myself as an artist.

‘The Spirit in the Glass Bottle’ may look small and insignificant, but if you give it a chance, you’ll reap the rewards.


Here are the original Arabic terms for (what we Westerners call) genies:
Jinni – male spirit
Jinniya – female spirit
Jinn – spirits
‘Ifrit – type of jinni that’s usually evil
‘Ifrita – type of jinniya that’s usually evil

Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm learned about ‘The Spirit in the Glass Bottle’ from a tailor in north-western Germany. The story was published in the Grimm Brothers’ first edition of Children's and Household Tales: Volume 2 in 1815.

According to Bruno Bettelheim, the idea of trapping a spirit inside a bottle goes back to ancient times. Judean-Persian legends see King Solomon, ruler of ancient Israel, banish wicked spirits inside small vessels and tossing them into the ocean. Over the centuries, there have been many tales that look at what would happen should an individual release an imprisoned spirit. Bettelheim refers to several such stories in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.

Because of my fascination with early fairy tales, I'll be summarising the Arabian Nights tale ‘The Fisherman and the ‘Ifrit’ as a bonus for my next post. It makes for an interesting comparison with ‘The Spirit in the Glass Bottle’!


Mercurius is the flashiest character in ‘The Spirit in the Glass Bottle’, but before his thunderous entrance, you’re introduced to very relatable characters. There’s a father who has no faith in his son’s abilities. There’s a son who must prove himself in the working world. This family dynamic is all too familiar. When a vengeful spirit is thrown into the mix, the story becomes decidedly unfamiliar. There’s an eruption of craziness that catches your adult self out and places your child self centre stage.

Personally, I was struggling to keep my adult self and my child self apart throughout the fairy tale. My adult self agreed with the father’s common sense, but my child self loathed his constant put-downs. My child self rejoiced in the son’s good fortune, but my adult self cringed at any silly mistakes he made.

The tale is about the child and the adult. It’s about a child who overcomes his parent’s negativity (and outwits an abominable genie) by trusting his own instincts and intelligence. The story empowers the underdog and therefore has the potential to empower the reader.