Folktales and Urban legends, the two words that always take us back to our childhood days. Irrespective of the language or geographical location, we all have at one point or the other have heard stories on various urban legends in our life. From fairies to spooky and haunting tales we have heard stories about almost every possible creepy creature. They’re whispered around the campfires and passed down from generation to generation. They are the stories that we all love to hear and get scared of. But what are these urban legends and where have they started?
Origin of Urban Legends
Urban legends, referred to by folklorists as contemporary legends, are fictional stories claimed to be true. These urban legends started appearing in print around 1968, but these stories existed as an oral tradition way before they came to existence in print form. Myths and legends from throughout history often contain an underlying warning about a potential danger to avoid.
Elements of Urban Legends
Generally, the urban legends are framed as complete stories with plots and characters. The compelling appeal of a typical urban legend is its elements of mystery, horror, fear, or humor. Often they serve as cautionary tales. Some urban legends are morality tales that depict someone, usually a child, acting in a disagreeable manner, only to wind up in trouble, hurt, or dead. These stories generally kindle the element of shock and fear in the readers which makes them memorable for the readers. These shock values can be found in almost every form of urban legend and these values make these tales impactful. Sometimes, these tales include supernatural or paranormal activities to instill fear and thrill in the audience. Their subject generally takes form as bloodthirsty creatures of the night, sinister enchantresses, monsters, or vengeance-seeking ghouls.
Psychology and Urban Legends
Social scientists have started to draw on urban legends in order to help explain complex socio-psychological beliefs, such as attitudes to crime, childcare, fast food, and other “family” choices. Psychologically, urban legends are a way for us to understand the world and manage the threats in a safe environment. From the believer’s perspective, these myths act as proof and reinforce existing beliefs. This is important because they help to validate a person’s worldview and help in legitimizing their fears as real and genuine.
Urban Legends in the Arabian Context
Folktales are a popular form of oral literature in Arabian countries. The UAE (United Arab Emirates) for a long time has been the playground for the wealthy and powerful. But beneath the jaw-dropping architectural wonders, there exist stories that cast a shadow on the dazzling lights of the cities. Of jinns and fairytales, this powerhouse has many legends which are famous for its rich, diverse, and colorful legends. Being passed down orally from generation to generation, these stories are known to be pure myths and have taken the role of common fairytales among Arabs. Many others still hold a hint that they actually did take place, which makes these myths and legends ever more exciting.
The Legend of Aladdin’s Wonder Lamp
One of the most famous folklore of Arabia, the legend of Aladdin, and his wonder lamp can be found in the pages of the book One Thousand and One Nights. The famed story beautifully captures the imagination of children and adults from all over the world. The impoverished story revolves around the life of a young man named Aladdin who embarks series of adventures after being tricked by an evil sorcerer. Aladdin also comes in contact with a magical creature called jinn or (anglicized Genie) who helps him win the love of a Princess.
Djinn / Genie
Djinns are believed to be powerful, invisible beings, capable of possessing people and even inflicting suffering on them. Stories of human encounters with djinn are very common across cultures and history. Generally, it is believed that these transparent and invisible beings have tremendous powers and are not predetermined by the laws of physics such as matter, weight, time, and place. Unlike humans, they straddle the invisible and the manifest worlds and move across dimensional boundaries. They can also travel anywhere in the blink of an eye and metamorphose into the shape of other beings such as cats, dogs, birds, serpents, or even humans.
In popular western culture, Djinns are often seen as spirits entrapped inside an old lamp by the evil sorcerer, who, when rubbed, a djinn appears outside of them. Traditionally, it is said that the great and wise King Solomon shut misbehaving Djinn in lead-stopper bottles and threw them into the sea. This description comes from the western translation of the book One Thousand and One Nights. When someone rubs the lamp three times, the Jinni inside will appear and obey the one who set it free by granting three wishes. However, in the original lore, Djinns are not found inside the brass lamps nor do they grant wishes, contrary to popular belief.
Mythical Creature of Bahamut
- The Bahamut is a giant and monstrous fish that lies in the deep ocean. Its power lies in its massive size and strength. This mythical creature was believed by ancient Arabs to hold up the earth itself. In this myth, the giant fish carries a giant bull, named Kujata. On Kujata’s back, there is a mountain made of ruby. On top of the ruby mountain, an angel holds the seven stages of the earth. Beneath the cosmos, surrounded by water and mist, swims Bahamut, a fish of incomprehensible dimensions who carries the world on his back. No human eye can see Bahamut, but without him, all humans would be plunged into darkness. In addition to his brute strength, Bahamut also has the ability to baffle human vision. He is so large that even the mere sight of him would drive a man out of his senses.
A variation of Bahamut appears in Hebrew legend, under the name Behemoth. A behemoth usually takes the form of a hippopotamus, elephant, or bull. He dwells on land and is famous for his huge appetite. He is sometimes cast as a servant of Satan and said to preside over gluttonous banquets in Hell.
Monster of Nasnas
In Arab folklore, Nasnas is a monster who is believed to be the offspring of a demon called a Shiqq and a human being. This monster is said to have the power to make humans fleshless by simply touching them. A Nasnas is a half-human being, having half a head, half a body, one arm, one leg, and hops around with a lot of agility. The Nasnas are mentioned in Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony.
Mythical Sea Creature
- In Arab folklore, there is a mythical sea creature called Dandan which lives in the deep blue waters of the sea. Dandan is a large monstrous fish in the sea and is capable of swallowing a ship and all its crew in a gulp. The description of this creature can be found in the pages of the book One Thousand and One Nights (or Arabian Nights). It appears in the tale “Abdullah the Fisherman and Abdullah the Merman”, where the merman tells the fisherman that the Dandan is the largest fish in the sea and is the enemy of the mermen.
Mythical Bird of Roc
Roc is an enormous mythical creature in Arabian mythology. Many sailors, fishermen, and explorers have said that they saw this magical creature during their adventure in the sea. The Roc can be compared to the Western mythical creature Phoenix and the Indian mythical creature Garuda. The episode of Roc encounter can be found in the story collection One Thousand and One Nights, the tales of Abd al-Rahman and Sinbad the Sailor.
Falak is the giant serpent mentioned in the One Thousand and One Nights. He resides below Bahamut, the giant fish, which carries along with a bull and an angel, the rest of the universe, including six hells, the earth, and the heavens. Falak herself resides in the seventh hell below everything else. It is believed that this creature is so powerful and that only its fear of the greater power of God prevents it from swallowing all the creation above.
Almiraj- The Mythical Beast
In Arab folklore, Almiraj is a mythical beast that lives on a mythical island called Jazirah al-Tennyn (Sea-Serpent Island). This island is said to be in the deep confines of the Indian Ocean. It is said this magical creature can take the form of a rabbit with a unicorn-like horn or horns. According to legend, the beast was a gift that was given to Alexander the Great by the inhabitants of the island after he killed a large dragon that had been eating the livestock of the people there.
The Mythical Creature of Shadhavar
Shadhavar was a mythical Arabian creature during the medieval period. Shavadhar is believed to be a unicorn-like creature that has one horn with 42 hollow branches. When the wind passes through these many branches, it produces a pleasant sound that mesmerizes the animals and makes them sit and listen to music. When played on one side, they produce a cheerful sound, and when on the other, the music is so sad it makes people cry. This creature is believed to have lived in the city of Byzantium.
Mythical Creature of Shahmaran
- Shahmaran © Google
Shahmaran is a mythical creature, half-woman and half-snake, found with different variations in the folklore of Iran, Anatolia, the Armenian Highlands, Iraq, and of the Kurds. In Arab folklore, the first human she encounters is a young man named Camasb. Camasb gets stuck in a cave after he tries to steal honey with a few friends; his friends abandon him. Stuck alone in the cave, he decides to explore it and finds a passage to a chamber that looks like a mystical and beautiful garden. The cave served as a shelter for Shahmaran, who lived harmoniously with thousands of off-white-colored snakes. At this point, Shahmaran and Camasb fall in love and start living in the cave chamber. Shahmaran teaches him about medicines and medicinal herbs. Eventually, Camasb misses living above ground and wants to leave, but he assures Shahmaran he will not reveal her hiding place. Many years pass and one day the King of the town, Tarsus, falls sick. The vizier suggests that he requires Shahmaran’s flesh to treat the King and save him. Camasb reveals Shahmaran’s hideout to the townsmen and, according to the legend, Shahmaran says, “Blanch me in an earthen dish, give my extract to the vizier, and feed my flesh to the sultan.” It is believed that Shahmaran was brought to the town and killed in a bath called “Sahmaran Bath.” Her flesh was given to the king and the lives and the vizier dies after consuming the extract. Camasb drinks the water of Shahmaran and becomes a doctor, by gaining the Shahmaran’s wisdom. As with any folklore, as time passed by, many variations were added to this story.
Treacherous Spirit of Arab Folklore
Sila (literally: “Hag” or “treacherous spirit of invariable form”) is a supernatural creature in Arabian folklore. They are the most malicious spirits of the djinn class and they are assigned to work for the djinns or ghouls in Arabian folklore. They are described as talented shape-shifters, often appearing in human form and especially as a female. Despite their impressive shape-shifting abilities, they can be discovered by their hybrid appearances of animals.
It is said that the Si’lats live in the desolate parts of the desert where they lead the travelers and nomads astray, leading them to their deaths. They are also said to seduce and marry men or even give birth to a child from a relationship between a human and jinn. Silas are usually female and aligned to intercourse, but not all of them are succubi or female.
Atlantis of the Sands
The lost city of Atlantis of the Sands, now shrouded in myth and legend, was supposedly an ancient city in Arabia that was destroyed and buried under sand by a series of natural disasters caused by angry gods. Many explorers continue to believe in this tale and search for this lost city, with some believing it to be located somewhere in the southern deserts of modern-day Saudi Arabia.
The Blue-eyed Woman
- Blue-eyed woman © Google
In Arabian mythology, Zarqa’ Al-Yamama was a powerful woman with incredible powers and magic. Legend says that she had brilliant blue eyes which helped her foresee the future and predict events. Zarqa’s tribe relied on her powers in detecting enemies and defending their land, as she was believed to have the ability to see riders from the distance of one week. In hopes of evading Zarqa’s gaze, the enemies decided to hide behind the trees that they carried. Zarqa noticed what was going on and alerted her tribe that the trees were moving towards them and that they hid soldiers behind them. To her dismay, members of her tribe thought she was going mad and chose to ignore her warning. But eventually, the enemies caught up with them and destroyed Zarqa’s tribe and crucified Zarqa, and tore her eyes out.
The Monster of Qutrub
In Arabian folklore, the Qutrub is a type of djinn or demon, which has an appearance similar to that of a werewolf. Qutrub is often depicted as similar to the Western concept of a ghoul, as it is written to be the haunt of graveyards and devouring corpses. Qutrub also appears as a monster in the role-playing game Final Fantasy XI.
Urban Legends in Modern Day Concept
Urban legends are one of the most relevant and resilient forms of modern storytelling. These stories are important because they are reflections of our society’s perceptions, concerns, and interests. One can even say that urban legends are in many ways a phenomenon. Why do so many people believe things without any real evidence of them being true? The fact is that we love to believe unlikely, curious, and awe-inspiring things, whether or not they seem reasonable. Urban legends are fuelled by an individual’s imagination and creativity. Apart from enhancing and dueling one’s creativity, urban legends also serve as a way to impart a message to the young generation. For example, the moral “appearance can be deceptive” is promoted through the character Sila. Similarly, the story of Zarqa and Shahmaran shows selflessness and extending help to those in need. What’s more, everyone likes to share crazy and interesting stories and rumors—today’s culture loves gossip, and we have convenient ways to share it. Thus, urban legends reflect our culture’s habits and are driven by our everyday practices and curiosities.