Where did the story of a genie in a bottle granting three wishes come from? Did it originate as a single tale and split from there, or does the genie in a lamp have grander origins?
Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp
Most people are familiar with the tale of Aladdin. It has been retold in many different forms in the West for over 200 years, and it changes a little bit each time.
You might think Aladdin finds a lamp, rubs it, and a genie pops out to grant him three wishes. In the original tale, though, there are actually two genies: one bound to a magic ring and one found inside a lamp. Both are summoned by accident, and both vow to obey their master in all things.
Aladdin doesn’t exactly present us with the modern “you now have three wishes, use them wisely” trope, but it’s easy to see how this would inspire other retellings.
Arabian Nights: The Story of the Fisherman
The Story of the Fisherman is one of the earlier tales from Arabian Nights. It seems to be one of the first instances of a genie (jinn) appearing to a person after being freed from a bottle.
In this tale there’s no rubbing of a lamp or wish granting, just a man outwitting an all-powerful and ancient djinn who has vowed to kill the fisherman.
The Ludicrous Wishes
This tale by French author Charles Perrault was released a few years before Arabian Nights arrived in Europe. In it, a woodcutter complains about how poor he is, then a spirit appears to grant him three wishes.
The woodcutter wastes these wishes on foolish things, of course, and he ends up just as poor as before. There’s no genie in Perrault’s tale, of course, but the moral of the story is the same as later stories of genies granting wishes.
The actual origin of the genie in the lamp granting three wishes was assembled from a variety of different sources. Arabian Nights introduced people to powerful genies bound to mysterious lamps. This idea combined with other fables to add the “be careful what you wish for” moral of the tales we’re so familiar with today.