Friday, 17 May 2019

Sisters with Swords

I have a very old book of Scandinavian ballads, ‘Ballad Stories of the Affections’, edited and translated by Robert Buchanan. There’s no date of publication, but in  Christmas 1887 (or 1881?) the book’s first owner, one GA Williams of ‘Spring Villa, Hanwell’, wrote his name and the date on the inside cover. I rather like the blue and gold book plate, too - although as it seems to say 'IG - his book', it may have been pasted in by a subsequent owner.

The ballads ‘emanate’, as Buchanan says in his introduction, ‘from the storm-tost shores of Denmark and the wild realm of the eternal snow and midnight sun … where the Ocean Sprite flashes, icy-bearded, through the rack and cloud of the storm.

‘Nothing can be finer’ (he goes on) ‘than the stories they contain, or more dramatic than the situations these stories entail; but no attempt is made to polish the expression or refine the imagery. They give one an impression of intense earnestness… That the teller believes heart and soul in the tale he is going to tell, is again and again proved by his dashing at once into the catastrophe –

‘It was the young Herr Haagen,
He lost his sweet young life!’

And all because he would not listen to the warnings of a mermaid, but deliberately cut her head off.’

Hagen is a character from the Nibelungenlied (and indeed fromWagner's Ring cycle). In the former, he steals the clothes of three nixies or waterspirits as they bathe in the Danube, but his cutting off a water-maid's head must be a later piece of folklore and annoyingly Buchanan does not include it here. However, I thought you would enjoy reading some of these ballads and I’ll be choosing a few to show you. They all have refrains, which if the ballads were sung would probably be repeated in every verse: you can imagine how the repetition multiplies the fatalism, the sense of gathering doom. 

Here then is ‘The Two Sisters’. It tells how the daughters of a wronged knight take revenge on his murderer whose thick-skinned bonhomie and sense of entitlement somehow reminds me of Boris Johnson, I can't think why. 

Through the 19th century diction you can see quite well what Robert Buchanan means about ‘intense earnestness’. He adds that ‘the adventurous nature burns fierce as fire and the heroes sweep hither and thither, bright as the sword-flash.’  I’ll go with that. 

At the foot of the ballad you'll find an illustration of the young women arming themselves and cutting off their hair. Éowyn and these two shieldmaidens share a similar heritage!



One sister to the other spake,
The summer comes, the summer goes!
‘Wilt thou, my sister, a husband take?’
On the grave of my father the green grass grows!

‘Man shall never marry me
Till our father’s death avenged be.’

‘How may such revenge be planned? –
We are maids, and have neither mail nor brand.’

‘Rich farmers dwell along the dale;
They will lend us brands and shirts of mail.’

They doff their garb from head to heel;
Their white skins slip into skins of steel.

Slim and tall, with downcast eyes,
They blush as they fasten swords to their thighs.

Their armour in the sunshine glares
As forth they ride on jet-black mares.

They ride unto the castle great;
Dame Erland stands at the castle gate.

‘Hail, Dame Erland!’ the sisters say;
‘And is Herr Erland within today?’

‘Herr Erland is within indeed;
With his guest he drinks the wine and mead.’

The maidens in the chamber stand;
Herr Erland rises with cup in hand.

Herr Erland slaps the cushions blue,
‘Rest ye, and welcome, ye strangers two!’

‘We have ridden many a mile,
We are weary and would rest a while.’

‘Oh tell me, have ye wives at home?
Or are ye gallants that roving roam?’

‘Nor wives nor bairns have we at home,
But we are gallants that roving roam.’

‘Then, by our Lady, ye shall try
Two bonnie maidens that dwell hard by –

‘Two maidens with neither mother nor sire
But bosoms of down and eyes of fire.’

Paler, paler the maidens turn;
Their cheeks grow white, but their black eyes burn.

‘If they indeed so beauteous be,
Why have they not been ta’en by thee?’

Herr Erland shrugged his shoulders up
Laughed, and drank of a brimming cup.

‘Now, by our Lady, they were won
Were it not for a deed already done;

‘I sought their mother to lure away,
And afterwards did their father slay!’

Then up they leap, those maidens fair;
Their swords are whistling in the air.

‘This for tempting our mother dear!’
Their red swords whirl, and he shrieks in fear.

‘This for the death of our father brave!’
Their red swords smoke with the blood of the knave.

They have hacked him into pieces, small
As the yellow leaves that in autumn fall.

Then stalk they forth, and forth they fare;
They ride to a kirk and kneel in prayer.

Fridays three they in penance pray;
          The summer comes, the summer goes!
They are shriven, and cast their swords away.
          On the grave of my father the green grass grows!

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Haunted by Heads

On a brief trip to visit friends and relations in Yorkshire and Manchester last October, I began encountering an unsettling number of severed heads. 

Not real ones of course. Stone heads, with an archaic, Celtic vibe. The one pictured above I've known for years, set in a wall beside my friend's house in Malhamdale. It had been found in the ruins of a chapel somewhere up on the tops and her uncle, a builder, salvaged it and built it into the wall as – well, what? Decoration? For luck? To watch over those who pass by? Perhaps all of those things? Visiting my friend again, I wondered as I’d done before, how old it might be. Medieval at least, surely - but might it be older? 

On the same day, heading out of the Dales for Manchester, we stopped to look into the church of St Michael the Archangel at nearby Kirkby Malham. I regard this as my church, the one whose walls I helped whitewash back in the 70’s, the one I was married in, the one where we held my father’s funeral. And looking up I noticed as if for the first time (though I must surely have seen them before) two more archaic or Celtic-looking stone heads placed between the arches. What?!

The church dates back to the 12th century but it was rebuilt in about 1490. The stone heads are described as ‘Celtic’ in various accounts of the church, and they certainly look very old with their slit-like mouths, wedge-shaped noses, lentoid eyes and blank, grim expressions. But you can’t carbon-date stone, so there’s no way to know. Placed where they are, however, they must be at least as old as the 1490 reconstruction of the church. I took some photos... and that evening in Manchester, we went for a drink at the Church Inn, Prestwich, which is a characterful 17th century building set on a quiet street next door to the 17th century church of St. Mary the Virgin. Finding a seat at a quiet table I glanced casually down to my right, to see lying on its side near the fireplace yet another stone head! 

I was beginning to feel haunted. Three lots of stone heads in a single day? And this one so up close and personal? 

As far as I've been able to discover, most genuine Celtic stone heads are carved in the round, whereas this one, as the Malham ones must be, is carved on the end of a block of masonry that could be keyed into a wall. We asked in the bar where the head had come from and were told it had been found during an archeological dig in the beer garden adjoining the churchyard (which dates to the 12th century), and that other bits and pieces from the dig could be found in the garden. I went to look, and found a couple of medieval gargoyles and other carved stones, but nothing else that looked nearly as old and strange as this simple stone head.   

Back home I consulted a book: ‘Investigating Celtic and other Stone Heads’ (Capell Bann 1998) by John Billingsley of Bradford University. Billingley had become intrigued by the very large number of archaic-style stone heads scattered about the north and north-west of England - a survey by the Manchester Museum had clocked up over a thousand. They were found on buildings, built into drystone walls, even used as garden ornaments, but few could be safely dated. As he investigated, Billingsley unearthed evidence for what seemed to be an on-going tradition of carving archaic-style heads in stone. Some heads might, indeed, be ancient, but the majority were medieval or post-medieval; several turned out to be modern. For example, the photo below, from Billingsley's book, shows a 19th century stone head 'believed to be the work of a Halifax quarry worker'. 

And, as is well known, the stone face at the Wizard’s Well on Alderley Edge in Cheshire was carved by Alan Garner’s stonemason great-great-grandfather Robert, with the inscription: DRINK OF THIS AND TAKE THY FILL FOR THE WATER FALLS BY THE WIZHARDS WILL. 

Alan Garner’s 1975 book of trickster tales, ‘The Guizer’, displays a full cover photograph of a stone face on both front and back of the jacket, positive on the front, negative on the back. It's attributed on the inner flap as "Celtic stone head, circa 1st century AD’, copyright Alan Garner." There's nothing about where this head is to be found though, and considering it’s on the cover of a book about tricksters, I have to wonder…

Reflecting on the endurance of the archaic tradition down the centuries, Billingsley points out that although the archaic head may appear crude, it possesses a ‘silent depth’ which more sophisticated, naturalistic representations lack:

The value of a symbol is that it conveys a complex of meaning from only a minumum of information. The rudimentary and skull-like features of the archaic head – eyes, mouth, nose – relate to human faces everywhere, whether living or dead. On the other hand, classical faces narrow the range of affinity to the point where portraiture disqualifies any claim to universality and anchors the image in one time and one space. The remote yet recognisable features of the archaic head thus become the natural vehicle for a symbol relating to both human and otherworldly beings, and this is the role in which stylised faces such as the archaic head are constantly encountered. 
Celtic stone head in the Craven Museum, Skipton

In her book ‘The Celtic Myths’ (Thames and Hudson 2015) Miranda Aldhouse-Green writes:

The theme of supernatural disembodied human heads may have its roots in prehistoric ritual and belief. People in Iron Age Ireland, Britain and Europe appear to have accorded the human head special reverence. Archeological evidence provides clues as to how such veneration was expressed: by carving images of heads in stone and wood; by including head-symbols on decorated Iron Age metalwork and by repeatedly depositing real human heads in special places: wells, rivers, pits and temples.

Regarding the three-faced Corleck Head from Co. Cavan, Ireland (4th-1st century BCE), Green suggests that: 

The dual symbolism of the head itself and its triple face contributed to an Iron Age cosmological code in which sacred power was both expressed and enabled by this highly charged object.  It might depict a deity but it might equally have been used almost like one of Tolkien’s palantiri or ‘seeing stones’ (used to gain knowledge of places or events far away in time or space), giving immense predictive magical potency to … those who could read it and interpret its messages. 

I like that idea, for the three faces see in all directions at once, just as the two-faced ‘Janus’ of Roman tradition, who gives his name to January, stares backwards into the old year and forwards into the yet-unknown new one. In legend and folklore, severed or disembodied heads are important magical objects which can speak and deliver wisdom and counsel. In the Second Branch of the Mabiogion the hero Brân, stabbed in the foot with a poisoned spear, tells his men to cut his head off.

‘And take the head,’ he said, ‘and carry it to the White Mount in London, and bury it with its face towards France. And you will be a long time on the road. In Harlech you will be feasting seven years, and the birds of Rhiannon singing to you. And the head will be as pleasant company to you as ever it was when it was on me.’

The burial of Brân’s head was one of the Three Happy Concealments, and its disinterment (by King Arthur) one of the Three Unhappy Disclosures, for while it remained under the White Mount it protected the Island of Britain from evil.

There are many other talking heads: medieval literature is full of references to magicians and alchemists, like Roger Bacon, who construct oracular heads of brass or bronze which will answer questions - though usually only with ‘yes’ or ‘no’. In the 14th century poem the eponymous Green Knight picks up his head after it has been struck off by Sir Gawain, and challenges his adversary to a return match at the ‘Green Chapel’ in a year’s time. On his winter journey to keep the appointment Gawain rides through North Wales, turns up the coast with the island of Anglesey to his left, ‘fares over the fords’ by ‘Holy Head’, and passes into the ‘wild Wirral’. This is so specific that Holy Head has been identified as modern Holywell, site of St. Winifride’s Well. Winifride was a 7th century Welsh princess whose head was struck off by a prince, Caradog, whom she refused to marry. It rolled downhill and a spring of healing water burst from the ground where it halted. St Bueno restored Winifride’s head to her body and she became a nun - while the wicked suitor fell down dead. The site of this miracle is one of the oldest shrines in Wales, so Gawain might well have taken it for an encouraging sign that he should pass this scene of beheading and restoration on the way to his own encounter. 

One-eyed Odin

Heads are often associated with springwater and wells. In Norse mythology the giant Mimir is guardian of the spring (or well) of wisdom that rises from under the roots of the World Tree, and every day he drinks from its waters. Odin once asked Mimir for a drink, but had to sacrifice an eye in payment. (Has this any significance for the few stone heads which have one eye closed as if blind?) In other tales Mimir is killed by the Vanir who cut off his head, but it is preserved at the well and Odin visits it there to ask for counsel. 

Stone head with blind (pupil-less) right eye

In Christian legends like Winifride’s, the severed head is rejoined to the body and does not remain in the well, but the holy spring which emerges at the place of martyrdom retains miraculous properties. In some tales that may channel older traditions, disembodied heads actually inhabit wells. A Scottish story from Fife, ‘The Wal at the Warld’s End’ (a very old tale, namechecked in the 1548 ‘Complaynt of Scotland’ though misspelt as ‘The Wolf of the Warldis End’) tells how a king’s daughter is sent by her stepmother to fetch a bottle of water from, yes, the well at the world’s end. The girl goes on and on till she comes to a tethered pony which asks her to ‘flit’ him (set him loose) for he’s been tethered seven years and a day. ‘Ay, I will, my bonnie pownie, I’ll flit ye.’ So the pony gives her a ride over ‘a moor of hecklepins’. (I thought ‘hecklepins’ might be something like the ‘seven miles of steel thistles’ which gave me the name for this blog. In that West Irish tale, otherwise not much like this one, a magical talking pony leaps over the steel thistles with the hero on his back. Hecklepins turn out to be not thistles but sharp steel pins up to nine inches long, packed together like a bed of nails, used for teasing out the fibres of flax or wool. So even nastier!) 

Arriving at the well at the world’s end, the girl finds it too deep to dip her bottle in, but as she wonders what to do, she sees ‘three scaud men’s heads’ looking up at her. (‘Scaud’ means scalded or burned; it may mean the heads are bald and blackened.) The heads say together, ‘Wash me, wash me, my bonnie May/And dry me with your clean linen apron.’ When the girl obliges, they fill her bottle with water and give her three gifts: to be ten times bonnier than before, for jewels to fall from her mouth every time she speaks, and for her to be able to comb gold and silver out of her hair. (Her rude and careless stepsister of course fares badly.) Similar requests and rewards (even to the association of combing gold from hair) are found in George Peele’s 1597 play ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’, when two heads rise from a well to the accompaniment of voices singing:

Gently dip but not too deep
For fear you make the golden beard to weep,
Fair maid, white and red,
Stroke me smooth and comb my head
And thou shalt have some cockle bread.

            Gently dip but not too deep
            For fear you make the golden beard to weep,
Fair maid, white and red,
Comb me smooth and stroke my head
And every hair a sheaf shall be,
And every sheaf a golden tree.

The Three Heads in the Well
In the English fairytale ‘The Three Heads of the Well’  an old man advises a princess how to get through a thicket of thorns. Hidden beyond it is a well. ‘Sit down on the brink, and there will come up three golden heads, which will speak, and whatever they require, that do.’ The heads sing:

Wash me and comb me
And lay me down softly
And lay me on a bank to dry
That I may look pretty
When somebody passes by.

In all these stories the heads want attention, they want to be combed and made to look presentable, they want to be shown the sort of honour due to the dead, to the severed head of a hero. 

In the Grimms’ tale ‘Mother Holle’ although there are no floating heads, a girl throws herself into a well and finds Mother’s Holle’s magical otherworld at the bottom. Mother Holle was originally the goddess Holde: Jacob Grimm suggests she was a sky deity associated with the weather, who could at times like Wotan "ride on the winds, clothed in terror, and she, like the god, belongs to the ‘wütende heer’ [the furious army]." The souls of unbaptised infants were believed to join Holle’s wild company: she may have ridden through the sky, but clearly she was also a goddess of the dead, and as Mother Holle her country is underwater - at the bottom of a well.  

So! We have accounts of real severed heads placed in rivers and wells as offerings in prehistory. Legends about heads that can be rejoined to their bodies; beheaded saints ditto. Severed or disembodied oracular heads in legends and fairytales which can speak, protect or punish, bring good fortune and convey prosperity. Prehistoric stone heads, modern stone heads. Wells and springs as entrances to the otherworld. Sacred wells believed to have healing properties. Stone heads set above doorways and in medieval churches and on the central spans of bridges. Twentieth and probably twenty-first century stonemasons still carving archaic heads. It’s all very suggestive, but where does it get us? To be honest I’m not sure. Perhaps the best we can say is that while the primitive or archaic stone head has clearly had meaning for – and evoked responses from – many generations of people, it’s likely those meanings have morphed over time. Maybe looking into the face of a stone head is a bit like looking into a crystal ball, or else an old mirror, or else watching shapes in the clouds as they go strolling across the summer sky, continuously changing, negligent that any shape may look as if it's meant, slowly forming and deforming and reforming, while the human mind races after, trying to make sense of them. John Billingsley says,

Plato, in Timaeus, states that ‘the human head is the image of the world, by which may be understood that it is the primary point of our perception of the world external to us and simultaneously, paradoxically, contains the world within it.

Many years ago, looking at the stone face on the cover of Alan Garner’s book of trickster tales, I wrote a poem which ended: 

Junctions in meaning
Seldom come on the long ruled road between past and future.
You stare and are silent. That is all I can see.

Picture credits

Top photo: copyright Caroline Chappell.
Next four photos: copyright Katherine Langrish
Photo from the book 'Stony Gaze' by John Billingsley
Wizard's Well, Alderley Edge: by Thorgrim at the Megalithic Portal 
Front cover photo of 'The Guizer' by Alan Garner, copyright Alan Garner 
Celtic stone head, Craven Museum, Skipton
The Corleck head, National Museum of Ireland 
One-Eyed Odin, 18th C. Icelandic ms, via the website Norse Mythology for Smart People
Stone head with blind eye, Sheffield Museum, via Brigantes Nation (where you can see many other Celtic heads)
The Three Heads in the Well, by Arthur Rackham
Back cover photo of 'The Guizer' by Alan Garner, copyright Alan Garner

Tuesday, 12 February 2019

House Spirits - Brownies, Nisse, Boggarts...


Talking with a group of Girl Guides a while ago, we fell (as you do) into a discussion about house spirits. The best known example, annoyingly enough, is Dobby the house-elf from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. I have a soft spot for house spirits, and for me Dobby isn’t the best ambassador for the breed. Rowling takes a freehand approach to creatures from folklore: she happily reinvents the creatures. Her Boggart, for example, resembles not so much the boggarts of folklore, but a nursery bogeyman. ‘Boggarts’, declares Professor Lupin in ‘The Prisoner of Azkaban’, ‘like dark, enclosed spaces.  Wardrobes, the gap beneath beds, the cupboards under sinks. …So, the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a Boggart?’  Of course Hermione comes up with the answer:

"It’s a shape-shifter,” she said. “It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.’

This certainly isn’t what a boggart from folk-lore does, although they are able to take the shape of animals such as black dogs. More about boggarts below. But to return to Dobby, the down-trodden house-elf of the Malfoy family. Dobby is a slave. He lives in terror, forced to punish himself whenever he criticizes his master. It’s a great twist of reinvention, but hardly representative of house spirits in general. From English brownies, boggarts, lobs and hobs, to the Welsh bwbach, from Scandinavian nisses and tomtes and German kobolds, to the Russian domovoi, most house spirits are independent, mischievous, strong-minded characters. And although Rowling employs the folklore motif best known from the Grimms’ fairy tale ‘The Elves and the Shoemaker’ that a gift of clothes will set the creature free (Dobby has to wear a pillowcase instead of clothes), many folk-tales make it clear that far from longing for this gift, many house spirits are perversely and deeply offended by it.

'It was indeed very easy to offend a brownie,' writes the folklorist Katherine Briggs in ‘A Dictionary of Fairies’ (1976):

It was indeed very easy to offend a brownie, and either drive him away or turn him from a brownie into a boggart, in which the mischievous side of the hobgoblin was shown. The Brownie of Cranshaws is a typical example of a brownie offended. An industrious brownie once lived in Cranshaws in Berwickshire, where he saved the corn and thrashed it until people began to take his services for granted and someone remarked that the corn this year was not well mowed or piled up. The brownie heard him, of course, and that night he was heard tramping in and out of the barn muttering:

“It’s no weel mowed! It’s no weel mowed!
Then it’s ne’er be mowed by me again:
I’ll scatter it ower the Raven stane
And they’ll hae some wark e’er it’s mowed again.”

Sure enough, the whole harvest was thrown over Raven Crag, about two miles away, and the Brownie of Cranshaws never worked there again. 

In folk-lore there’s never any suggestion that humans have a say in whether a brownie comes to work for them or not. Often they seem simply to belong in the house, to have been there for generations, such as the house spirit Belly Blin or Billy Blind in the illustration above, who comes to warn Burd Isabel that her betrothed, Young Bekie, is about to be forced to marry another woman.

‘Ohon, alas!’ says Young Bekie,
  ‘I know not what to dee;
For I canno win to Burd Isbel,
  An’ she kensnae to come to me.’


O it fell once upon a day
  Burd Isbel fell asleep,
And up it starts the Billy Blind,
  And stood at her bed-feet.


‘O waken, waken, Burd Isbel,
  How can you sleep so soun’,
Whan this is Bekie’s wedding day,
  An’ the marriage gaïn on?

Taking the hob's advice, Burd Isabel sets out with the Billy Blind as her helmsman, to cross the sea, find her lover and prevent the marriage.  There's no great sense that she's surprised at this supernatural warning: rather, the Billy Blind (whose name like Puck's may have been generic, as it appears in other ballads too) seems to have been a known household inhabitant who could be expected to offer help when needed.

Some hobs may live locally in a pond, river or hollow, and come to the farm to work.  They offer their services freely, and will stay for so long as they are treated with respect and a dish of cream or oatmeal is left out for them.  Katherine Briggs writes of another such creature, a hobthrust:

There is a tale of a hobthrust who lived in a cave called Hobthrust Hall and used to leap from there to Carlow Hill, a distance of half a mile. He worked for an innkeeper called Weighall for a nightly wage of a large piece of bread and butter.  One night his meal was not put out and he left for ever.

Briggs, of course, wrote her own story about a hobgoblin. ‘Hobberdy Dick’ (1955), set in 17th century Oxfordshire, is one of the most delightful of children’s books, full of folk-lore magic plus a few moments of cold terror as well. Here, Hobberdy Dick scampers up to the Rollright Stones on May Eve, to greet his friends:

‘I’m main pleased to see ye, Grim,’ said Dick, greeting with some respect a venerable hobgoblin from Stow churchyard. ‘…These be cruel hard times. I never thought to see so few here on May Eve; but ‘tis black times for stirring abroad now.’
            ‘Us never thought the like would happen again,’ said Grim. ‘Since the old days when the men in white came, and built the new church, and turned I out into the cold yard, I’ve never seen its like for strange doings. First I thought old days had come again, for they led the horses into the church in broad day; but the next day they led them out again. …And then they broke the masonry and smashed up the brave windows of frozen air… and these ten years there’s not been so much as a hobby-horse nor a dancer in the town.’
            The Taynton Lob joined them – a small, good-natured creature with prick ears and hair like a mole’s fur on his bullet head. ‘It may be quiet in Stow,’ he said, ‘but there’s more going on than I like in Taynton churchyard.’
            ‘What sort?’ said Hobberdy Dick.
            ‘Women,’ said the Lob half-evasively, ‘and things that feed on ‘em, and counter-ways pacing, and blacknesses.’

The Scandinavian Nisses are my personal favourites among house spirits. The painting above is by the 18th century Danish painter Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard, and I was once contacted by a New York auction house who asked me to confirm that the subject is indeed a Nisse. As you can see, he wears a red cap and is sitting by the fireside with his broom, eating groute, or buckwheat porridge - but the women of the household are clearly startled and uneasy in his presence. Where the painting is now I do not know, but hope the lucky owner will not object to my sharing the image since I lent a hand in identifying the subject. I first met Nisses in Thomas Keightley’s 1828 compendium ‘The Fairy Mythology’, and made use of some of the legends in my own ‘Troll’ books (available, if you will excuse the quick puff, in one volume under the title ‘West of the Moon’.)  I was charmed by their mischief, vanity, naïvety, their occasional bursts of temper and their essential goodwill.

There lived a man at Thrysting, in Jutland, who had a Nis in his barn.  This Nis used to attend to the cattle, and at night he would steal fodder for them from the neighbours.
            One time, the farm boy went along with the Nis to Fugleriis to steal corn. The Nis took as much as he thought he could well carry, but the boy was more covetous, and said, ‘Oh, take more; sure we can rest now and then?’  ‘Rest!’ said the Nis; ‘rest! and what is rest?’ ‘Do what I tell you,’ replied the boy; ‘take more, and we shall find rest when we get out of this.’ The Nis then took more, and they went away with it. But when they were come to the lands of Thrysting, the Nis grew tired, and then the boy said to him, ‘Here now is rest,’ and they both sat down on the side of a little hill. ‘If I had known,’ said the Nis as they were sitting there, ‘if I had known that rest was so good, I’d have carried off all that was in the barn.’

Here is my own Nis (in ‘Troll Fell’, book one of ‘West of the Moon’) disturbing the sleep of young hero Peer Ulffson as he lies in the hay of his uncles’ barn.

A strange sound crept into Peer’s sleep. He dreamed of a hoarse little voice, panting and muttering to itself, ‘Up we go!  Here we are!’  There was a scrabbling like rats in the rafters, and a smell of porridge. Peer rolled over.
            ‘Up we go,’ muttered the hoarse little voice again, and then more loudly, ‘Move over, you great fat hen. Budge, I say!’  This was followed by a squawk.  One of the hens fell off the rafter and minced indignantly away to find another perch. Peer screwed up his eyes and tried to focus.  He could see nothing but black shapes and shadows.
            ‘Aaah!’ A long sigh from overhead set his hair on end.  The smell of porridge was quite strong. There came a sound of lapping or slurping. This went on for a few minutes.  Peer listened, fascinated.
            ‘No butter!’ the little voice said discontentedly. ‘No butter in me groute!’  It mumbled to itself in disappointment. ‘The cheapskates, the skinflints, the hard-heared misers!  But wait.  Maybe the butter’s at the bottom.  Let’s find out.’ The slurping began again.  Next came a sucking sound, as if the person – or whatever it was – had scraped the bowl with its fingers and was licking them off. There was a silence.
            ‘No butter,’ sulked the voice in deep displeasure. A wooden bowl dropped out of the rafters straight on to Peer’s head. 

Our personal Nis, based on Abildgaard's, sits by our fire...

In Russia, the house spirits are named domovoi, often given the honorific titles of ‘master’ or ‘grandfather’. According to Elizabeth Warner in ‘Russian Myths’ (British Library, 2002) the domovoi looked like a dwarfish old man, bright-eyed and covered with hair, who dressed in peasant clothes and went barefoot. ‘Sometimes he took on the shape of a cat or dog, frog, rat or other animal. By and large, however, he remained invisible, his presence revealed only by the sounds of rustling or scampering.’ Like nisses and brownies, domovoi often busied themselves with household tasks, or with looking after animals in the stables.  Sometimes they would befriend a particular cow or horse, which would flourish under their care.  But they could also be mischievous, pinching the humans black and blue at night, or throwing dishes and pans about like a poltergeist. One last duty of the domovoi was to foretell ill events. ‘When a family member was awakened in the middle of the night by the touch of a furry hand that was cold and rough, some disaster was likely to occur.’

Temperamental, unpredictable, generous, hard-working, sometimes dangerous, the house spirit is reminiscent of the household gods of the Bible, the teraphim which Rachel stole from her father Laban (Genesis 31, 34), and of the Lares and Penates of the Romans.  Better to have your own, humble little household spirit who could be pleased with a dish of cream or a bowl of porridge, folk may well have thought, than try to gain the attention of the greater gods. And so the house spirit became a member of the family, helping and hindering in his own inimitable way. 

 Picture credits:

 Brownie by Arthur Rackham
Billy Blind and Burd Isbel by Arthur Rackham  Wikipedia
Lob Lie By the Fire by Dorothy P Lathrop: 'Down-a-down-derry,' Fairy Poems by Walter de la Mare 1922
 Nisse by Nicolai Abrahan Abilgaard
 Domovoi by Ivan Bilibin - Wikimedia Commons
 Lararium: shrine of household gods from Pompei: photo by Claus Ableiter -