The Mythical Ghoul in Arabic Culture
By Ahmed Al-Rawi
Cultural Analysis, Vol. 8 (2009)
Abstract: For a long time, the idea of the ghoul preoccupied the lives of many people from different cultures and religions. Though the ghoul has origins as old as the Mesopotamian civilization, Arabs were largely responsible for popularizing it. Because Islam incorporated this being in its doctrine, the ghoul remained a source of fear and mystery in the Arab culture.
Peter M. Holt and Ann Katherine argue in The Cambridge History of Islam that Islam came about as a ‘revolt’ and as a ‘protest against’ the old Arabs’ beliefs, but that it could not change all their existing convictions. Instead, it ‘integrated’ some old practices like the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. This study argues that Islam could not change the belief in supernatural beings such as genies and ghouls, because they were an integral part of Arab culture. This essay sheds light on the Arabic origins of the Arabian Nights and suggests possible written sources for some tales as a complement to existing arguments that certain tales were orally transmitted and later written down. In relation to the ghoul, the paper also discusses the fact that some Arabian Nights tales contain Islamic elements and motifs, and feature plots that are clearly similar to older written accounts found in various Arabic books. This work traces its evolution from the past to modern times in an attempt to give an overall understanding of the ghoul, and an idea of how and why its concept changed from one culture to another.
Introduction: The earliest records of Arabs document their activities in Mesopotamia, providing evidence that the nomads of Arabia were always in direct contact with the more “advanced” people of Mesopotamia, mainly for the purpose of trade. This contact produced cultural exchange between the two peoples, mostly in terms of life style and borrowed words. In ancient Mesopotamia, there was a monster called ‘Gallu’ that could be regarded as one of the origins of the Arabic ghoul. Gallu was an Akkadian demon of the underworld ‘responsible for the abduction of the vegetationgod Damuzi (Tammuz) to the realm of death’ (Lindemans). Since Akkad and Sumer were very close to the Arabian deserts, Arab Bedouins in contact with Mesopotamian cultures could have borrowed the belief in the ghoul from the Akkadians.