Thursday 24 March 2016

House Spirits


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 say ‘annoyingly’ because I have a soft spot for house spirits, and for me Dobby isn’t the best ambassador for the breed. Rowling’s approach to magical creatures from folklore is cavalier: she takes the names and 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 sometimes 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, by the way, wrote her own story about a hobgoblin. ‘Hobberdy Dick’ (1955), set in 17th century Oxfordshire, is one of the most delightful children’s books ever and glows with genuine folk-lore magic.  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 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, considering 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 (now 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 to try and 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 -

Monday 14 March 2016

Folklore snippets: The Slimy Lindworm

Pictured above is one of the 'head posts' from the famous Oseberg ship, which may well have been how the Vikings imagined the Lindorm or Lindworm, a slimy, poisonous and usually wingless Northern dragon. Ormr means snake, serpent, worm. Miðgarðsormr, the Midgard Worm, which lies beneath the sea and is so large it encircles the earth, is the largest and most famous of the breed. Norse and even Northern English legends include many lesser Lindorms. Here are a few of them. First is a tale from Aarhus, Denmark, which may well be the only story ever to feature a heroic glazier. (I feel a bit sorry for the lindworm though.)

The Lindorm and the Glazier 

It happened once many generations ago, that the bodies which were laid in Aarhus Cathedral disappeared time after time, without anyone knowing what the cause of this could be. It was then discovered that a lindorm had its hole under the church, and went in by night and ate the bodies. It was also found out that it was undermining the church, so that it would soon be liable to fall into ruins, and against this danger help was sought for in vain. At last there came a wandering glazier to Aarhus, who on learning the straits into which the town had come, gave his promise that he would help them. He made for himself a chest of mirror-glass, with only a single opening in it, and that only large enough for him to thrust out his sword through it. He had the chest placed on the floor of the church during the day time, and when midnight came, he kindled four wax candles, one of which he placed at each corner. The lindorm now came creeping through the choir-passage, and on seeing the chest and beholding its own image in the glass, it believed it to be its mate, but the glazier thrust his sword through its neck, and killed it at once. The poison and blood, however, which flowed from the wound, were so deadly, that the glazier perished in his chest.

From: Scandinavian Folk-Lore, ed. William Craigie, 1896

Folklore is full of stories about people who find and raise baby lindworms, which then proceed to grow until they menace the entire countryside. In County Durham there's the Lambton Worm which young John Lambton caught in the River Wear and - disgusted with its looks - carelessly tossed into a well before heading off to the Holy Land on crusade. In his absence the creature grew and grew, first poisoning the well, then crawling out and wrapping itself around an entire nearby hilltop, where it spent its days gobbling up livestock and unlucky passers-by. The Lord of Lambton Castle, John's father, attempted to keep the creature quiet by feeding it enormous quantities of milk daily, in a stone trough. When John finally returned from the crusades he tackled the worm, covering his armour with spikes on the advice of a Wise Woman. There was one proviso:

"If thou slay the Worm, swear that thou wilt put to death the first thing that meets thee as thou crossest again the threshold of Lambton Hall. Do this, and all will be well with thee and thine. Fulfil not thy vow, and none of the Lambtons, for generations three times three, shall die in his bed. Swear, and fail not."

The ruse worked: as the slimy worm cast its coils around young John and squeezed, the spikes pierced its sides and it fell writhing into the river and died. However, the first thing to meet the hero as he returned home was not his hunting dog, as he had planned, but his own aged father. As he was now clearly unable to fulfill the condition of the Wise Woman, the curse descended on the Lambtons as she had foretold.

I once read an entertaining book, 'The Great Orm of Loch Ness' by F.W. Holiday (1968), which claimed that the Loch Ness Monster not only exists, but is an enormous mollusc. The author pointed out that many accounts of sea-serpents and lake monsters describe them as possessing hairy manes: 'Virgil had never heard of the Loch Ness Orm, yet he wrote: "Look, from Tenedos there come down through the quiet sea two serpents in enormous coils, moving through the sea, and together they direct themselves to the strand, their chests held up between the waves and their blood-red manes are held up above the waves." ' Holliday suggests the revulsion which people who've 'seen' the LNM claim to have felt could be explained if the creature were in fact a giant mollusc. He continues, 'Some sea-slugs do in fact have a substance resembling hair or fur. It is known as cerata.' Be that as it may, I do love the idea of 'Nessie' as perhaps our last surviving slimy Lindworm.  Here's another Danish tale, featuring a maned serpent.

The King of the Vipers

A man in the district of Silkeborg once found a viper-king. It was a tremendously big serpent, with a mane like a horse. He killed it, and took it home with him, and boiled the fat out of it. This he put into a bowl and set aside in a cupboard, as he knew that the first person who tasted it would become so clear-sighted that they would be able to see much that was hid from other people; but just then he had to go out to the field, and thought that he could taste it another time. He had however a daughter who found this bowl with the fat in it, while her father was out in the field. She thought it was ordinary fat, which she was very fond of, so she spread some of it on a piece of bread, and ate it. When the man came home, he also spread a piece of bread with it, and ate it, but he could not discover that he could see any more than he did before. In the evening when the cows were being driven home, the girl came out and said, ‘Look, father, there’s a big red-speckled bull-calf in the black-faced cow.’ He could see well enough then that she had tasted the fat of the viper-king before him, and had thus got all the wisdom, in place of himself.

Scandinavian Folk-Lore, ed. William Craigie, 1896 

Picture Credits:

Headpost from Oseberg Ship: Wikipedia

Lindworm from Swedish runestone: Wikipedia
 The Lambton Worm: John Batten
Sea Serpent: Andreas Alciati, c. 1583 - Wikimedia Commons

Monday 7 March 2016

Pele the volcano goddess and her fiery hair

I’d heard of Pele’s Hair but never seen any till, on a visit a few months ago to the Museum of Natural History in Kensington, I came across some in their Geological section. I was fascinated. But before I show you what it looks like, you need to know the story – or one of the many stories! Pele is a volcano goddess who inhabits the Halemaumau  Crater of Kilauea, the most active of the five volcanoes from which Hawaii is formed.  (The others are Mauna Kea, Mauna Loa, Hualalai and Kohala.) According to the folklorist William D. Westervelt's 1916 book ‘Hawaiian Legends of Volcanoes’, the Hawaiians told how Pele came from far away with her little sister Hiiaka, and drove out an older volcano god, Ai-laau, to establish her home on Hawaii.  

A story told to Westervelt in 1905 relates what happened when the young chiefs of Kahuku met the fiery and voluptuous goddess.  It is a legend which explains the origin of a particular, ancient lava flow from which ‘two symmetrical mounds rise from the rugged splintered rocks. These are marked on the maps of the large island as “Na Puu o Pele” – the hills of Pele’.

Kahuku, the land now under past and present lava flows, was at one time luxuriant and beautiful. The sugar cane and taro beds were bordered with flowers and shaded by trees. Two of the young village chieftains excelled in the sports and athletic feats popular in those days. Wherever there was a grassy hillside and steep enough slope, holua races were carried on. Holua were very narrow sleds with long runners.

Maidens and young men vied with each other in mad rushes over the holua courses. Usually the body was thrown headlong on the sled as it was pushed over the brink of the hill at the beginning of the slide.  The more courageous would kneel on the sled, while only the very skilful dared stand upright during the swift descent.

Holua sled reproduction

Pele, goddess of fire and lightning, loved this sport and often appeared as a beautiful and athletic princess. She came to Kahuku’s holua course, carrying her sled, and easily surpassed all the women in grace and daring.  When the two handsome young chiefs saw her, they challenged her to race with them, and soon began competing for her love. As the days passed, however, they found her so capricious and hot-tempered that they began to suspect their companion must be Pele herself, come from her home Halemaumau ('The continuing house') of the volcano Kilauea on the other side of the island, able to wield the terrible power of underworld fires wherever she went.  The young men spoke privately about their fears, and tried to draw away from their dangerous visitor.  But Pele made it hard for them. She continually called them to race with her.

Then the grass began to die. The soil became warm and the heat intense. Small earthquakes rippled the ground, and the surf crashed in violence on the shore.  The two chiefs became afraid. Pele saw it, and was overcome with anger. Her appearance changed. Her hair floated out in tangled masses, her arms and limbs shone as if wrapped with fire. Her eyes blazed like lightning and her breath poured forth in volumes of smoke. In terror, the chiefs rushed towards the sea.

Pele struck the ground with her feet. Again and again she stamped in anger, and earthquakes swept the lands of Kahaku. Then the fiery flood burst from the underworld and rushed down over Kahaku. Surfing the crest of the molten lava came Pele, her fury flashing in great explosions above the flood.  The two young chiefs tried to flee northwards, but Pele hurled the fiercest torrents beyond them to turn them back. Then they fled southwards, but again Pele forced them back upon their own lands.

With the molten lava at their heels they raced for the beach, hoping to leap into their canoes and take to the sea.  At top speed Pele came after them, shrieking like a hurricane, tearing out her hair and throwing it away in bunches. The floods of lava, obeying the commands of their goddess, spread out all over the lands of the two chiefs – who sped on, drawing nearer and nearer to the sea.

But Pele leaped from the flowing lava and threw her burning arms around the nearest of her former lovers. In a moment, his lifeless body was thrown to one side and the lava piled up around it, while at Pele’s command a new gush of lava rose from a fresh crater and swallowed all that was left. 

As the other chief stood petrified by fear and horror, Pele seized him too, and called for another outburst of lava which rose rapidly around them. Thus the lovers of Pele died and thus their tombs were made: to this day they are called the Hills of Pele and are still to be seen as markers by the ocean side.

This is such a wonderful story, such an intense personification of the fiery and unpredictable volcano!  As for the moment when Pele rushes after the two young chieftains, shrieking and tearing out her hair ‘in bunches’ – well, this is Pele’s Hair:

It looks exactly like hair – like the wad of hair you might tease from an over-used hair-brush.   

These tangled golden filaments are strands of volcanic glass. They are formed when drops of extremely hot, liquid lava – the sort commonly produced by ‘shield volcanoes’ like those of Hawaii – are hurled up in fountains and teased out by the wind into into hair-thin strands of basaltic glass – just as when you stretch hot toffee into brittle strands! – light enough to float away and catch like straw in treetops, fence-poles and telegraph wires. A marvel of nature spun by Hawaiian storytellers into the fiery hair of their terrifying, unpredictable goddess.

Picture credits

Pele the Volcano Goddess - Flikr/Ron Cogswell, via the website Learn Religions

Halemaumau Crater: Hawaii Volcano Observatory, USGS -, Public Domain,

Holua sled: Reproduction of a Hawaiian Holualoa sled, a sport involving sliding down lava rock courses into the ocean. On display in the Keauhou museum. W Nowicki

Pele's lava entering the sea: Public Domain,

Pele's Hair - Katherine Langrish; personal photos