The belief in the evil eye, magic rituals, monsters, curses and protective charms is common
in Tunisia. Particularly in the south of the country, people believe placing dead lizards in the family’s house will prevent other people from cursing it. Tunisian folklore is rich with stories of monsters, ghouls and shape-shifters which have a taste for human blood.
In Tunisian folklore the Ghoul, a monstrous creature that feeds on human flesh, is one of the most popular characters. President Essebsi used the images of Ghouls in his electoral campaign in 2014. Parents even now warn their children the Ghoul will eat them if they don’t go to bed early or abide to their parents’ rules.
“Amine Discovered with the Goule”, illustration for “History of Sidi Nouman” of the Arabian Nights, image source Wikimedia electoral campaign
The Ghoul has been a feature of folklore since Sinbad the Sailor, one of the main protagonists of Arabian Nights. Sinbad’s encounters with monsters, cannibals and other mysterious creatures strikes a chord in the Tunisian soul as much for the horror, as for the adventurous spirit it encapsulates. No more so than his escape from a Ghoul in the shape of a giant black humanoid with fiery-red eyes and razor-sharp large teeth.
Tunisian ghoul myths also include a spiritual dimension. In graveyards the creatures eat the flesh of the dead, especially the newly buried. Desert creatures, on the other hand, change shape and form. Sometimes they appear in the form of a hyena. Other times they appear as a lost woman who lures desert travelers to stray from their paths only to be devoured.
Depiction of the Obbitha in Tunisian candid camera, image source Daily Motion
One of the most famous
monsters in Tunisian folklore is the Obbitha, comparable to Scotland’s banshee. A symbolic female figure who, clad in shining white dress with goat hooves, is the incarnation of a soul who met a violent death. As with other shape shifters, the Obbitha are creatures of the night who lure people to their death. Sometimes she cannot be seen, only heard: bleating, screaming or crying.
She can also morph into animals, like owls, donkeys or dogs. According to Arabic myths about the Ghoul (which is believed to be the original source for the Obbitha), the Obbitha can change any aspect of her form, except for her hooves.
There are ways to escape the evils of the Obbitha. One is equipping oneself with protective charms against evil spirits. Another is reciting verses from the Quran, or starting a fire where the dead person was killed. In the North-West, it’s believed the Obbitha can’t bare the sound of clacking keys or dog barks.
The white owl, the N’ouusha, is distinguished by its bizarre shrieks. The N’ouusha comes from an interesting story
. She was once a mother who sent her adored son to buy a sieve. But he ended up playing with his friends, totally forgetting to buy the sieve. When he came home, his mother was furious and beat him to death. God’s punishment was to transform her into an owl, cursing her to harm children in their homes, with male babies being a special favorite.
There are many brutal variations of this folktale; that she drills her beak inside the noses or ears of babies and sucks out their brains: or that she kidnaps babies who are never to be seen again; or, most bizarrely, the tale of her visiting children as they sleep, rubbing her feathered body against them and tickling them so hard that they choke on their laughter.
However, there are ways to protect yourself against the wiles of the N’ouusha. Prevention includes not leaving children’s laundry out to dry at night, locking babies inside their homes, or ultimately leaving sieves by the window or scattered around the house, all work as powerful deterrents against her nefarious plans, as they remind the N’ouusha of her own unfortunate experience with sieves.
But there is a moral to every folktale and in this case, it is to take care of your children. The N’ouusha story comes with a compelling twist, parents can sometimes confront this creature and reason with it. Should a parent meet this creature face to face they can demand of it: “Promise me you will not touch my children.” If she nods the creature will acknowledge the demand and the child is safe, but a shake of the head means you must take precautions.
The reason for the popularity of this tale is that people can sometimes actually see an owl attacking their baby before their eyes. These owls would try to hunt anything they can see while starving, and babies could prove to be an easy prey. Parents witnessing such a shocking scene would be more inclined to believe supernatural forces are at work.
Djinns are popular both in Islamic culture and Tunisian folklore. They could sometimes be used as an explanation to someone’s misfortune, sickness, or just as a way to curse someone (for instance, saying “I hope a djinn possesses you”) or to describe someone who’s violent (by saying “he’s possessed with a djinn”).
Stories about Djinns possessing people and haunting houses are common to the point where a famous TV
show once tried exploiting the idea by faking an exorcism in front of the camera. Djinns also have the ability to lit fires in houses or even marry people, especially women, and prevent them from marrying anyone else. They have a wide range of abilities and are generally considered dangerous to deal with.
The origin of Djinns are thought to date back to the pre-Islamic era (called “Jahiliyah” or “Ignorance” in Arabic) in what is now known as Syria, though they were later adopted by Islam due to the numerous mentions they have in the Quran. The book describes them as beings made of fire, just like Iblis (or Shaytan, Satan), and are able to see humans without being seen by them, allowing for their favorite activity, possessing the bodies of the unwary.
If a person gets possessed they would become unstable and commit violent acts, and they no longer can stand the Quran. When an exorcist starts his work, the sufferer will begin to shake violently and start screaming loudly, with the exorcist being forced to hold the possessed person down. A sign that the exorcism was successful and that the Djinn has left the body is the flow of blood from the toe of the possessed.
These mystical creatures continue to define Tunisian superstitions. They guide norms and behaviors towards religion, family and ordinary life. Every story carries an important message we can learn from.