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In the original 1001 Nights (a.k.a. Arabian Nights) story "Aladdin" the titular character gets a lamp that contains a magical being called a "genie" that grants wishes. This is fairly common knowledge nowadays with the Disney movie of the story. However, in the original story, there is no limit to the wishes made. Whoever controls the lamp, is the master of the genie and has (seemingly) no limitation of what they can wish for. If there is a restriction it would be a on what the genie is capable of.

Yet, the Disney movie shows that the genie only grants three wishes and three wishes only per master. Many depictions of lamp genies have a similar limitation - three wishes for the owner of the lamp. It's quite ingrained into popular culture with a lot of jokes and/or setups that implicitly have this three wish limit imposed. For example, if three people somehow find the lamp, they might get one wish each or one person could use his wishes to try and create a loophole for infinite wishes.

The number is really not surprising - three is a very common number when it comes to folk stories and a setup of three is very standard in short stories (like jokes). Three wishes even show up in a lot of folklore outside genies.

My question is not why we got to three wishes but when. Is there something concrete we can point to that combined "three wishes" and "genies"? Perhaps in particular lamp genies but perhaps it started with other genies.

For the record, there are many other genies that show up in 1001 Nights and the lamp genie from Aladdin is the only one of its kind - bound to a lamp as a servant to its master and grants wishes. For example, there is also a ring genie in the same story that is very similar - it again has no limitation on the number of wishes - it's mentioned that it's less powerful than the lamp genie. Most other genies that show up in other stories from the collection are free and don't grant wishes to mortals.

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    Lotsa things come in threes in stories. – Valorum Jan 21 at 15:16
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    @Valorum I know that - I mentioned as much. But again - I wonder where did "three" and "wishes granted by genies" come together. – VLAZ Jan 21 at 15:17
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    Up to you. If I were you, I'd double check that the answer there makes sense, then copy it over here (with acknowledgement, obviously) – Valorum Jan 21 at 15:30
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    @viaz There are other genies bound to lamps in the 1001 Nights. In "The City of Brass" Musa bin Nusayr (640-716) is sent by the Caliph to find a genie in a lamp so the Caliph can uncork it and watch the genie emerge. And I think there is one where a fisherman finds a genie in a lamp who wants to kill the fisherman but tricks it into agreeing to give him three wishes instead. – M. A. Golding Jan 21 at 17:10
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    It's a conflation of the Arabian notion of wish-granting genies, who serve as permanent slaves to their masters, with the European tradition of wishes coming in threes. – Buzz Jan 21 at 17:30
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According to Wikipedia:

"The Fisherman and the Jinni" is the second top-level story told by Sheherazade in the One Thousand and One Nights.

According to the synopsis, in the third century that the Jinn (genie) was imprisoned he swore to give whoever freed him three wishes.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Fisherman_and_the_Jinni

Therefore, the concept of an imprisoned genie granting three wishes to the person who released him goes back to the first creation of "The Fisherman and the Jinni", or at least to the hypothetical later addition of that detail to the story, and possibly much earlier. Though in "The Fisherman and the Jinni" granting three wishes was something the genie decided to do and not some magical commandment he had to obey.

So a study of the history and various versions of "The Fisherman and the Jinni" may be able to indicate when the idea of genies (sometimes) granting three wishes appeared.

According to Wikipedia, "The Fisherman and the Genie" is one of the few stories included in every known manuscript of the 1001 Nights.

The work was collected over many centuries by various authors, translators, and scholars across West, Central, and South Asia and North Africa. Some tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Greek, Indian, Jewish and Turkish[3] folklore and literature. In particular, many tales were originally folk stories from the Abbasid and Mamluk eras, while others, especially the frame story, are most probably drawn from the Pahlavi Persian work Hezār Afsān (Persian: هزار افسان‎, lit. A Thousand Tales), which in turn relied partly on Indian elements.[4]

There is an existing 14th century Syrian manuscript with 300 stories, so "The Fisherman and the Genie" should go back at least to the 14th century (1301-1400).

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/One_Thousand_and_One_Nights1

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    I completely forgot about that genie vowing to grant three wishes. I did remember the story but I guess I should have looked it up - I thought the reward was going to be riches or something and then he turned upon inflicting punishment. – VLAZ Jan 21 at 17:47
  • @vlaz I'd forgotten about the wishes too. The "great riches" are in there too, so I suspect that many retelling drop the wishes (since it doesn't really matter to the story). It's worth noting that in this story there is actually no wish granting - the three wishes are entirely theoretical. – Arcanist Lupus Jan 22 at 1:45
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    "Three wishes" is a pretty common construct, as is the almost inevitable outcome of the story: One wish made by accident on something trivial that drives it home that yes, this is for real; one wish made deliberately but, as it turns out, foolishly; and the last wish to undo the damage caused by the first two by wishing they'd never found that damn wish-granting item. – Shadur Jan 22 at 8:27
  • From my memory, the Jinni doesn't grant wishes. He wan't to kill the fisher man as a revenge against king Salomon. The second gennie of the story want to kill the man that killed his son by drinking water. The only "wish" he granted was to delay the execution 3 times. – xdtTransform Jan 22 at 13:17
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    I miss read the answer, I had the impression that "The Fisherman and the Genie" was about a genie granting 3 wishes. When it's just one sentence that the genie said. – xdtTransform Jan 22 at 13:31

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