Genie lamps are often depicted as small, oval-shaped golden or bronze vessels with a lid, a handle, and a narrow spout. In other words, genie lamps look like really expensive teapots. Why, then, do we call them lamps, and why are genies supposed to be trapped inside?
Is it a genie’s lamp or a genie teapot?
Lamps as we think of them today are a surprisingly modern invention. Kerosene, paraffin, and electric bulb lamps only started appearing in the mid-1800s. Before then, lamps were made of ceramics or metal and burned oil through a wick or small channel. These were usually shaped as squat vessels with a handle and spout, just like the ornate lamps we see associated with genies.
The first stories about genies and lamps come from the ancient Middle East, thousands of years before electric lamps were even a dream. The tales in Arabian Nights, which introduced many of the modern-style legends of genies into Western culture, appeared in France in 1704, a time when lamps were still oil-based in function and design.
Of course, lamps have gone through countless redesigns in countless cultures across the centuries. Even oil lamps didn’t always look like they appear in retellings of genie tales. That recognizable flat oval design with a spout would have been familiar to most people throughout history, though, it just happens that since the 19th century we see more spouted objects dispensing tea rather than light.
The modern equivalent of a genie trapped in a lamp might be a genie in a blender or a genie in a coffee maker. It doesn’t have the same mystical appeal, which is probably why stories stick with old style oil lamps!
Why were genies trapped in lamps?
It’s thought that the first stories about genies trapped in bottles or lamps came from the tantalizing idea of a powerful supernatural being hiding in an ordinary household object just waiting to be set free. Most houses throughout history and around the world would have had some sort of oil lamp on a shelf, which is why the genie in the lamp mystery was so interesting for people to read. What if the very lamp in your bedroom actually contained a powerful spirit?!
Folklore reasons why genies were trapped in lamps usually include some tale about the genie misbehaving and a powerful magician sealing them inside of a lamp to restore order. Genies (jinn, or djinn) are notoriously powerful and extremely difficult to destroy, which is why even the most powerful humans opt for the lamp-sealing method instead of something more permanent.
King Solomon reportedly had a ring that let him command genies of all kinds. When one extremely powerful jinn (a marid) refused to proclaim his faith in God, Solomon actually sealed him in a jar and cast it into the sea. This is the same marid genie that the fisherman retrieves in the Arabian Nights story about the fisherman and the genie.