The belief that there are omnipresent providential spirits that can help or hinder humans is one that pervades cultures across the globe. To some, these represent the spirits of ancestors, to others the spirits of places and land features, to others the frightening forces of chaos seeking to test our resolve. In European cultures, these are represented as a sometimes confused and conflated set of beliefs and traditions in ‘fairies’, ‘elves’, ‘goblins’ and so forth, that handed down to modern times have become contradictory and perhaps meaningless, but in former times were of great importance in navigating the perils of this life and the next.
Fairy traditions come in two main flavours – those about beings encountered in mysterious, marginal, frightening and liminal places far from the comforts and sureties of home – the stuff of good stories. The other comprise of a set of beliefs about fairies or elves interact with us right at the heart of our households and in our daily lives – the stuff of aphorism and custom. In the latter category we place the ‘hobgoblins’ – domestic spirits akin to the Lares once venerated in Roman households, who go under many regional names, but generally follow the same pattern: Brownie, Lubber, Kobold and Goblin, Urisk, Gruagachs, Robin Goodfellows, Hobs, Domovoi, Phooka, Phynnodderee, Glashtin, Dooiney Oie, Tylwth Teg, Mooinjer Veggey, Tomte, Nisse – the list goes on. It is about this class of beliefs that I am going to discuss.
The most primitivist form of the house-fairy myth comes from its expression in Scotland, Northern England and the Isle of Man, where they were portrayed as hairy, semi-wild, slightly stupid and powerful beasts who would help householders with the work of day-to-day survival in return for a bowl of milk or some similar simple form of sustenance which would customarily be left for them at night. Peasants living a subsistence lifestyle would be certain to leave offerings to these beings in order to gain the favours of the Otherworld in their efforts. Just why such beings had an animalistic aspect is interesting:
Certainly, most of man’s helpers – if not other men – were the beasts whom they had domesticated to their cause, so it is logical from this respect that a Brownie, Gruagach, Phynnodderee or Urisk had a similar half-animal appearance. However, the significance of hairiness went way beyond the primitive and animalistic … The hairy ‘wild man’ had aspects of fecundity and fertility to him that represented the sprouting of nature from the body of the earth. It was also a more ancient allegory for the rays of the sun and tongues of flame from fire…
The worship of solar deities such as Apollo, Dionysus/Bacchus, Hercules, Ammon-Ra and the Celtic Belenos was as much about veneration of the seasonal cycle driven by the sun and the earth’s proximity to its heat as it was about a big fiery glowing orbs in the sky. Sun-worship was ultimately about transience, changeability and -ultimately – reincarnation. The flowing ‘hair’ of animals such as lions, horses, the bristles of the boar and the flowing locks of a barbarian warrior were a popular representation of this force – the planet’s great fertilising power, represented by the ancient Celtic ‘Grannus Apollo’ figures.
Each winter in Europe, the Earth – like a person as their life progressed – grew old and sparse. As humans were an intimate part of the Earth, they followed her patterns, and they used their own experience to relate to that of the Earth. The baldness and coldness of winter was contrasted to the sprouting youth and vigour of spring and summer when the Earth regrew its ‘hair’ – the foliage and vegetation that re-sprouted from the body of the ground. Hairiness was therefore also an important and naturalistic metaphor for this growth.
The ‘help’ offered by the Brownies and their kin was also a metaphor for the learned experiences passed on between generations in a cultural based upon oral transmission. As such, Brownies might be considered the helpful spirits of those who have gone before – those who had grown out of the very soil of the land. They were therefore quite obviously a manifestation of ‘ancestral’ spirits, and were believed to congregate (as families tended to do on night time evenings) around the hearth of the house – a symbol of continuity, which was customarily kept burning in perpetuity in the Gaelic provinces (it was considered bad luck to let the fire go out completely). Bowls of water or milk, and food was left out at night ‘for the fairies’, who typically (being creatures of the inverted Otherworld) visited at night, which was their daytime.
The ‘man-beast’ nature of these spirits was represented in the winter ‘guising’ traditions (e.g. – the Scandinavian Julbocken or dolly or as a disguised person in an goat costume). It was unlucky to offer a Brownie (or Phynnodderee, or Domovoi) clothes, because (to paraphrase the words of Robert Kirk) ‘When we have plenty, they have little, and so to the contrary’.
In fact, the word ‘Goblin’ (a ‘class name’ for the ‘Brownie’ beings comes from the Celtic/PIE root ‘Gabbal’, meaning ‘horse’. The horse occurs along with the other profound solar images of the sun-wheel and the head of the ‘glorious golden warrior’ on most of the Celtic coins of the Iron Age. In Irish myth, the helpful but horny Dagda appears to have been a representative of this spiritual role. The Nixie and the Kelpie were perhaps other aspects of this spiritual role, when the helper also became the conveyer to the realm of the dead.