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 -


  1. What a great post! Is the habit of leaving a carrot, mince pie and a glass of milk for Father Christmas some kind of connection to courtesies with house elves? Your post made me realise that a Filipino character - the duwende - must have been Europeanised. Growing up, we Filipinos are taught to respectfully say 'Tabi po' ('Excuse my passign you') when encountering an anthill so as not to offend the duwende living there. I was taught that duwende are dwarf or goblin like men but reading earlier accounts the duwende might have been something totally different.

  2. You might well be right about Fther Christmas, Candy! About the duwende or duende - I've just checked, and apparently the word is a contraction of the Spanish 'dueño de casa' or 'duen de casa', "possessor of a house". So there you go- if the poor creature has been evicted into anthill, no wonder children are taught to address him respectfully! :)

  3. We still remember you Nis with great affection - in fact the Daughter says "no butter for poor Nis" when refused some delicacy she feels entitled to from the fridge...

  4. Loved it! We have domestic leprechauns; but they protect the house and in return hide things and return them in ways that seem amusing to them. They came from County Down with David when he first came to England... They emphatically don't do housework!!!

  5. What a wonderful post. I am not a big fan of Rowling, and you give me another reason why not. But I do love house spirits. We try to remember to have a gift for one when we move into a new house. A few years ago we'd just settled into a new place and were expressing our disappointment in various aspects of it. Apparently the house spirit was offended, as doors started banging shut and other activities of outrage happened until we apologised humbly, whereupon a rather sullen peace was restored.

  6. Actually, I AM a fan of Rowling. And I *know* about house spirits. So, I suspect, does she - but she uses a bit of this and a bit of that in a way that works for her. Sooner or later her young readers will be curious enough to look up some of the creatures she writes about and learn more - if she achieves that, it's good.

    You get them right, Katherine, but you're using them in the world where they belong. She is using a lot of different beings from different folklores and planting them in present day Scotland/England. I just can't imagine Dumbledore putting out a bowl of cream for the house elves! (And yes, they do seem to be the ones from Grimm)Frankly, I've never before seen giants and trolls portrayed the way she does either. ;-)

    Excellent post, Katherine, thanks for sharing!

  7. Amanda, thanks! - I take your daughter's fondness for the Nis (after all this time!) is a great compliment. Leslie thankyou too - and Sarah,I love your story about the house spirit!

    Sue, I agree, and I too enjoy Rowling's books. ALthough, maybe *not* putting cream out for the house elves was just where Dumbledore went wrong! ;)

  8. Ah, the tragedy of it all! Dumbledore might be alive to this day if Hermione, the scholar, had reminded him of the traditional ways to treat house elves instead of throwing her energies into acting as their union organiser! ;-)

  9. I enjoyed the first Harry Potter book SO much because it was such a great read. I was given a proof copy to read by a friend who is a best selling author who was given it by her publisher. I read all night and loved it.

    And I read all the rest because it was a series but I confess that characters like Dobby really did not appeal to me. And as for Dobby on screen..... oh dear. The house spirits my grandmother talked about (she came from the West of Ireland) were mischievous and naughty but basically well intentioned so long as you took the trouble to thank them properly. Most important. I guess the Malfoys never thanked Dobby but even so he never worked for me.

    My whole life seems to have been filled with things (sometimes as small as a single pin) that go missing and then reappear, usually in the middle of a carpet. There is definitely a leprechaun somewhere in this house. I don't put out many bowls of cream but there is usually a bowl of crisps in the kitchen. I hope that works.

    Incidentally, it was pictures like that wonderful Arthur Rackham image of Burd Isobel which convinced me that what I really wanted to make me happy was a four poster bed. So I got one. And I made the curtains and the patchwork quilt. And trust me, it works!

  10. You have a four-poster, Georgina? How truly wonderful!

  11. Great post - loved it.
    I agree that brownies were probably, originally, household spirits. I wonder, further, if they weren't/are a vestige of ancestor worship.
    When you consider that they're found throughout the British Isles, Scandinavia and Russia - which had strong links with Scandinavia in the past - I think this is evidence of a belief which goes wa-a-a-y back.
    As you say, no one in the household is surprised when the 'Billy Blind' starts up at the bed-foot. He comes to warn or advise - sometimes to punish for such sins as rudeness and laziness. He's always looking out for the household, in other words, heading off trouble that might come from outside, or from carelessness inside. Offerings are made to him. All this sounds rather like a household god, and a bit like Granny or Grandad.
    We now know, from DNA research, that the old idea of 'waves of invaders' coming in and replacing populations is wrong - and that the majority of the population has been here from the Stone Age. I used to joke with my partner that he was 'a Pict.' After reading some of the latest research, I said to him, "You are a Pict!"
    So I'm reminded of the skeletons buried under the floors of Stone Age houses. Given that human psychology doesn't change a lot, it's hard to believe that they were anything but close relatives. If you have any belief in ghosts or the after-life, you don't bury enemies under your floor.
    Are these burials the origin of the 'Billy Blind' - sometimes called 'a ghost' - who starts up in the night to warn and protect?

  12. 'Then one arose at her bed feet...'? You're right, Sue - perhaps that *was* all about the ancestors under the floor.

  13. I can't resist replying that YES I do have a four poster bed. You can spend as much as you like but I looked carefully and in fact my mattress was more expensive than the bed! And so was the fabric I bought for the curtains. It gives me so much pleasure it was absolutely worth it.