The Middle East is rich in stories about ghosts and their antics. Today, Al Jazeera brings some of these stories to life.
Myths and legends, whispered from parent to child under the veil of night, offer a glimpse into a culture’s deepest fears, dreams and values.
In Iraq, the enigmatic swamps resonate with stories of the Tantal, an elusive creature that can change shape – from human to animal to inanimate object.
It is the essence of mischief, a trickster who takes pleasure in his deception.
Imagine encountering a stranger in the swamps, adorned in striking, seemingly tacky clothing. This stranger, possibly a Tantal in disguise, might ask a curious question: “Do you think these clothes suit you?”
Your answer has weight. Admire his choice, and he may not only befriend you, but also shower you with wealth. If you disapprove, you risk the creature’s wrath, which could send you into madness.
Swamp dwellers will tell you that the Tantal is a creature of the night, a guardian of hidden swampland treasures, and a malevolent spirit that is quick to ensnare the unwary, especially children.
Visually, the unadorned Tantal is unsettling – with vertically oriented eyes like a cat’s and strikingly long, sharp canines in an ambiguous ‘face’ that floats over the body of a giant as it slides along, loose and terrifying.
Of course, it often appears disguised as another creature – a man, woman, child, cat or dog – when it is about to ensnare the unwary.
Tales of the Tantal were also cautionary tales as adults told children of the wrath of the Tantal, of how it could pull the rebellious people deep into watery graves.
Tantals take their name from the names of the swamps – among the most famous names known in Iraqi folklore are Tantal Abu Ghraib, Tantal Umm al-Ubaid, Tantal Abu Asmej, Tantal Dawar, Tantal Salin and Tantal Hafiz, which is considered the ruler of many Tantals in the swamps.
The Tantal goes back to the legend of Hafiz himself, which was passed down from generation to generation among the clans of southern Iraq.
Legend says that in ancient times there were two great kingdoms in southern Mesopotamia, ruled by two kings, Al-Akr and Abu Shadhar, who had a brother named Hafiz.
Life flourished in the two kingdoms, and the kings built ornate cities and temples with vaulted arcades and beautiful balconies overlooking lush palm and fruit orchards that the kings had planted.
And they built huge fences around their kingdoms to protect them from flooding from the swamps. They felt that they had done everything necessary to ensure a safe kingdom and a happy population.
But the life of abundance and luxury eventually caused them to stray from the right path – they forgot God, forgot to devote their lives to obeying the divine, and wavered in their worship.
God’s wrath was swift and he caused an earthquake that destroyed most of the kingdoms, including the fences, and a flood that drowned what was left until all that was left was ruins.
Then God sent down Tantals and Jinn to guard the remains of these mighty kingdoms, which were entirely buried, with their treasures and delights.
And that’s what the Tantals have done. Over the centuries, they have used fear and deceit to keep people away from the hidden treasures that the Marshes hold.
But if you were ever close to a Tantal, you would notice that they have a gift: the power of foresight. Befriend it and you may receive prophecies about the future.
Yassir Kareem, an Iraqi filmmaker, once interviewed an elderly man from the swamps.
The man firmly believed that the Tantal had visited him in a dream, predicting a future in which the land would dry out and outsiders would claim it, driving out the native inhabitants. This was a prophecy, he said, given climate change drying out the swamps and foreign oil companies pouring into Iraq’s oil-rich areas.