Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Genie of the Lamp - Revision #2

“It's all part 'n parcel of the whole genie gig: Phenomenal cosmic powers! Eeeetibity living space!”(John Musker, Aladdin). The concept of insanely powerful beings being bounded by a seemingly insignificant object interests me. I often found myself making the comparison between Jodahs and Genie from Aladdin. Aside from the resounding sound of the voice of Robin Williams, the true meaning behind the previous statement reflects the overall quality of Jodahs’ life in Lilith’s Brood. There too we saw a highly powerful being held back by something seemingly insignificant; humans. In order to keep Jodahs from using its power in favor of its human contradiction, it has to be eternally bound to human mates, who are in turn bound to him. However, with further research into the true mythology behind the genie it’s evident that Octavia Butler drew from several forms of genie folklore in order to further the fidelity between Jodahs and its humans.

The “human contradiction” as stated by the Oankali is the fatal combination of hierarchical and intelligence. In order to keep Jodahs from using its power in favor of its human contradiction, it has to be eternally bound to human mates, who are in turn bound to him. If Jodahs were a genie, this would be his lamp, or, “Eeeetibity living space!”(John Musker, Aladdin). Jodahs is so entirely bound to his humans, as a genie to its lamp, that without it, it threatens dissolution. Rather than correcting the human contradiction the Oankali have simply given a powerful creature dependence on an outside source. Without its boundaries in place, the constructs have no purpose in life. Their extreme sexual tendencies combined with their hopeless need for a bond with a human couple keeps them trending toward dissolution until this bond has made. Therefore, their extreme power added to the human tendency is impotent without their “lamp”, which in turn binds the constructs to a more nonthreatening existence.

 “In Roman mythology, the genius (pl. genii) is present at the birth of a person, remains with him or her throughout life, and shapes the person’s character and destiny.”(Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, Genie). The bond between Jodahs and is mates are almost parallel to this mythology. Though Jodahs is not present at the birth of the humans, both Jodahs and the humans find one another early in life. In fact, Jodahs had not yet undergone its second metamophosis and was still considered an adolescent by its family members.

Following the Roman mythology, the idea of bonding for life could not be truer with Jodahs and its mates. Once sexually bonded the humans and the Oankali (or Oankali construct) mate are chemically incapable of separation. “It worked both ways, of course. Soon I would not be able to stand long separation from her. And she could hurt me by deliberately avoiding me. From what I knew of her, she would be willing to do this if she thought she had cause – even though she would inflict as much pain on herself as me.”  Physical separation causes a two way hurt once mated. Going too long without seeing each other caused an actual physical reaction (rather than the simply emotional reaction of ‘missing someone’) to both the Oankali and to its human mates. The shaping of the mates’ “character and destiny” is also exceedingly accurate. Though not exactly what was implied through folklore, the mates of Jodahs have chosen an entirely different fate by bonding with it. If the human mates of Jodahs had chosen to remain strictly bonding with humans, their fate would have been Mars. However, by choosing to be mated with Jodahs they are choosing to give up a “human” lifestyle and their hope of Mars.

The Romans were not the only people with this folklore in their culture. The story of Aladdin actually comes from Arabic culture. Though Roman and Arabic genie folklore are generally parallel, Arabic folklore is more specific through the help of the Qur’an. The sexual relationship of Jodahs and its humans are also contextualized within the scope of Arabic genie folklore. “The ability of the jinn to copulate with humans – they are almost satyr-like in their sexual appetite in some popular anecdotes – is recognized in the Qur’an, where the maidens of paradise are described as untouched by humans or jinn.”(Neguin Yavari, Jinn). As we saw throughout Lilith’s Brood Oankali and Oankali constructs had an insatiable desire for all humans. “It’s a good thing your people don’t eat meat. If you did, the way you talk about us, our flavor and your hunger and your need to taste us, I think you would eat us instead of fiddling with our genes.”(Butler, 680). This desire is a reaction of the Oankali to the “human condition” along with the humans’ tendency for cancer. It seems that their only reason for continually overlooking the “human contradiction” is that it is equally as horrible as it is sexy to the Oankali. The novel describes the attachment between the Oankali and its mates as “Literal, physical addiction to another person…”(Butler, 679). This complete need for one another surpasses any typical form of desire, going into the realms of “satyr-like” merely because of the idea of complete physical addiction.

Though the sexuality of the jinn in the Qur’an is noticed, there is a clear human backlash to their sexual preferences which is also witnessed in the scope of Lilith’s Brood. “Marriage with jinn was forbidden by most classical exegetes, both Sunni and Shi’i, on the grounds that God has commanded humans to marry with their own kind.”(Neguin Yavari, Jinn). Like the humans of Lilith’s Brood the humans of folklore also saw a disagreeing factor to copulation with non-humans. In their eyes, the act of marriage with the jinn is such a sin that God saw the necessity of decreeing it off-limits. The humans of Lilith’s Brood also were extremely mistrustful of marriage with the Oankali and then went to great lengths to preserve human-only relations. This resulted in extreme deformation within their tribe, and shortened life spans. These humans too spread folklore about the Oankali “demons” and what would happen to them should they choose to mate with a non-human. I believe that Jodahs and Aaor recognize this most. The conversations between it and its human mates characterize its longing and their resistance.

“You know what I want of you. Your people must have warned you. I want to mate with you. With both of you. I want you to stay with me.”

“To…to marry? But you’re … we’re strangers.”(Butler, 636).

The ellipsis here speaks loudly. We see the reluctance of Jesusa, Jodahs’ mate, to cross the boundaries between humans and Oankali. Though we may just see this as strictly sexual relations it is clear that what truly is taking place is akin to marriage. Jodahs continues by saying, “I don’t think one of your priests would make us a marriage ceremony, but Oankali and constructs don’t have much of a ceremony. For us, mating is biological … neurochemical.”(Butler, 636). Not only is Jesusa capable of choosing to partake in a non-human marriage, but something that transcends that; goes into her biology as well.

Though it would be easy to believe that most stories involving human/genie relations are between a female human and male genie (as it was easy to believe Jodahs was a male) there are also tales of female genies seducing young men. “In that community female jinn also frequent the sexual fantatsies of young men as ephemeral beauties who are objects of arousal but disappear before any physical contact with them. Jinn as agents of sexual desire prevail in Muslim communities, although rarely.”(Neguin Yavari, Jinn). I took great interest in this passage. The absence of contact within this branch of folklore is also reflected in Butler’s writing. The Oankali constructs have sexual relations with the humans through chemical stimulations within their bodies, not through actual touch. Furthermore, once two humans have bonded with their Oankali or construct mate they are incapable of touch between one another. They are “physically” capable of touching one another; however the pleasure or comfort they may have once found in physical interaction is now uncomfortable. In the novel the humans take comfort in touching one another’s hair because they no longer feel comfortable with physical touch of their living cells. Though physical needs for mates are enhanced, the ‘physical’ part is removed and the act sexual desire is now neurological. Furthermore, this reminds us of the fact that Jodahs is neither male nor female. As an ooloi, Jodahs seduces both a male and female mate therefore it is part of every facet of this mythology.

Even more basically is the standard appearance of the jinn. “The evil jinn are hideously ugly, but the good are singularly beautiful.”(Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Jinn).  Though there is no “good” and “evil” Oankali within Lilith’s Brood they are certainly viewed as one or the other by the separate human groups. Those who rebelled against the Oankali and chose to remain on their own mating only with humans certainly see the Oankali as “evil”. To them, the tentacles and the overall appearances of the Oankali are horrid. The humans who chose to remain with the Oankali no longer see them like this. For example, Lilith’s first reaction to the sight of an Oankali was revulsion.

“She frowned, strained to see, to understand. Then, abruptly, she did understand. She backed away, scambled around the bed and to the far wall. When she could go no farther, she stood against the wall, staring at him.


…Revolted, she turned her face to the wall.”(Butler, 13-14).

Through time though, Lilith loves Nikanj and is not repulsed by its tentacles and its outward appearance. In fact, Lilith has equal sexual desire for Nikanj so I therefore interpret that as attraction to its appearance as well as the pleasure it can give to her. Though there are not designated “good” and “evil” Oankali, the viewpoints of the humans that see them change the idea of their beauty. We also see the transition in the development of the constructs within their beauty. Our first description of the Oankali is a hideous being. However, Lilith’s daughters are described to be more human-like. Akin, a further development, is described as “beautiful”, “My god, she said, “that’s a beautiful child. Isn’t there anything wrong with him.”(Butler, 347). Jodahs is the final step in this process. Not only outwardly human in appearance, but Jodahs is capable of changing his appearance to be more aesthetically pleasing to his mates. In this way we can understand the transformation of the constructs through time as also an evolution in to a more jinn-like state of being.

Even simply the birth of Jodahs reflects a form of genie, the “jinn”, found within the Qur’an. “Jinn are beings made from fire… interpreted by some as smokeless fire or a mixture of fire with other elements. They are presented in contradistinction to humans who are made of clay, and angels whose provenance is unclear in the Qur’an but are made of light according to later exegesis.”(Neguin Yavari, Jinn). Though nowhere within Lilith’s Brood is it stated that Jodahs is made of fire, Jodahs is a construct child. Where jinn of the Qur’an come from the loins of an angel and a human; Jodahs is born of an alien race and the human race. Because of this fact, the Oankali race as a whole cannot be seen as a genie, though all previous examples could be applied to the race as a whole. Perhaps Octavia Butler’s reason for this was to present the Oankali constructs as a type of final evolution into this “genie” state.

If we then accept that Butler expects us to see Jodahs through the scope of this folklore and its connections with the Qur’an it presents us with interesting consequences to the understanding of his character. The Qur’an describes jinn as being “Similar to humans… free will allowing them to do as they choose.”(Jinn – Crystalinks). Jodahs is the final step in the gene transfer between the humans and Oankali. The ooloi constructs are decidedly most human in appearance (even capable of changing appearance to be more appealing to their mates), human in their feelings and sympathies toward humans and Earth, and yet the epitome of the power from the Oankali. Even Akin was frightening to the Oankali because of his human male aggression with the “human contradiction” and the power of the Oankali. Ooloi are even more powerful than the male gender. Because of this ooloi freedom and abilities are even more frightening to the Oankali; so frightening that some Oankali never set foot on Earth, and some still do not even come in contact with the human race in order to avoid the threat. To be so fearful of something that you must remain light-years away from the very planet it takes place on is tremendous.

 The Oankali’s attempt at reigning in this extreme power is to bind the ooloi constructs perpetually through their mates (as a jinn is bounded to theirs). However, even though the humans are weaker beings than the Oankali they too are free and full of the “human contradiction” causing the Oankali reason to remain fearful even with the bond in place. The situation is incredibly risky; should the bond not control this extremely powerful creature the Trade was unsuccessful, which is the driving force of Oankali life. The Oankali have reason to believe that the human born ooloi construct will fail. Previously Akin, the human born male construct, resulted in a form of rebellion because of his human-like traits. This tendency toward human behavior threatens the Oankali way of life absolutely.

The Oankali constructs, and moreover, Jodahs (because of his human connections) reflect the folklore of genies. To be jinn is to be something completely powerful and yet human in the ways of being (will and emotions) though still meaningfully bounded in those powers to a lesser object (or being).  The Oankali  sexual desires for humans reflect the Islamic and pre-Islamic tales of jinn. By eternally binding the constructs to their mates to the point of dissolution, Butler gives her characters a “lamp” figure connecting them to a less powerful state. Though the Oankali constructs are decidedly powerful all of their genie-like attributes create them into benevolent creatures. In this way their “phenomenal cosmic powers” (the “human contradiction”) is kept neatly in check. Jodahs, as the finally evolution in the “jinn-like” state is a great threat. However, this state helps our understanding of Jodahs and what his character truly represents to the Oankali.


Butler, Octavia E. Lilith's Brood. New York: Aspect/Warner, 2000. Print.

“Genie.” The Encyclopedia of Demons and Demonology. Rosemary Ellen Guiley. New York: Facts on File, 2009. 94-95. Web. 24 March. 2012.

"Jinn." Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. London: Chambers Harrap, 2009. Credo Reference. Web. 26 March 2012

“Jinn - Crystalinks." Crystalinks Home Page. Web. 27 Mar. 2012. <>.
“Yavari, Neguin. “Jinn.” Encyclopedia of Sex and Gender. Ed. Fedwa Malti-Douglas. Vol. 3. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. 809-811. Web

1 comment:

  1. Minor complaint: don't treat semicolons as colons!

    1st note: Your argument hasn't been fine-tuned much from the original draft, at least in the opening paragraph, which is where the greatest impact from an improved version could be realized.

    2nd note: not all genies are bound by lamps or the like, right? But all "new" Ooloi seem to be bound by humans. Not sure that it matters *much*, but it's at least worth remembering.

    I'm still not terribly interested in the Roman concept of genies - the arabic one seems so much more relevant!

    You do a good job of discussing the transgressive nature of Ooloi (and genie!) sex. It would have been foregrounded more if you'd jumped from the beginning to this, in place of the dubious Roman material.

    Your brief analysis of the lack of contact common to ooloi sex and Jinn seduction is interesting. Of course, the lack of contact with Ooloi is relative or apparent - but still, the odd ways in which they are *like* spiritual beings is getting some interestin attention from you.

    I think the phoenix imagery from the second novel would help you conceptualize Jodahs in terms of fire.

    Overall: I don't see any essential changes here from the last version I saw. I see two real problems. While we have a compelling, stimulating list of ways in which Jodahs is like a genie, we lack two things:
    a) Direct evidence demonstrating that we *should* consider him as such, rather than just showing us that we *could*. You're good with the could, but that's not enough.
    b) An analysis of what genie-Jodahs would mean to our understanding of the novel.

    I have my own thoughts on b, at least. I think that thinking of Jodahs as genie lets the supernatural and spiritual dimension of human life into the Oankali by the back door, which is profoundly significant: this is the survival, or the literalizing, of the spiritual and supernatural which the Oankali have been denying.

    About the first, I don't know. You're the one with the ideas - I wonder if there are names that would help you make this case, though. Names here are so pervasively significant, it's hard to imagine that she wouldn't have left any breadcrumbs in the form of names if this is what she'd up to.

    Final note: Why not think of the Oankali in terms of genies who grant wishes? This seems plausible and interesting.