House spirits

In Germany they speak of kobolds, in Denmark, nisses, in Scotland and the north of England, brownies. [ref] The Fairy Mythology, by Thomas Keightley 1892 pg 200 [/ref] It seems nearly every European culture has a similar house spirit.

A Kobold

If the spirit was kept happy they would generally be helpful in small ways, such as keeping the house clean. In the cases of brownies, it was recommended to place a small offering of milk in a corner, or when brewing beer to leave a small part of the wort for the brownie to partake of.

If however, the house spirit was offended, they would make trouble, though again, usually in small ways. In a Midsummer’s Nights Dream by William Shakespeare, the character Puck is described at one stage as a hobgoblin, and is accused of the following mischief.

 “…bootless make the breathless housewife churn;

And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;

Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?” [ref] Midsummer nights dream, by William Shakespeare [/ref]

So basically, he makes people not be able to churn butter properly, or brew beer properly, or makes them get lost at night and laughs at their misfortune. So, it’s like having a string of annoying, bad luck, and it is all because the house spirit was annoyed.

The myths of house spirits are persistent through the ages. Even today, when people are renovating old houses, they might come across concealed shoes [ref] [/ref].  There was a practice, persisting into the 19th century, of placing a worn out shoe in the space behind or chimney, or above some stairs, in a bid to ward off evil spirits from the house.

One theory as to why a similar house spirit myth springs up again and again throughout Europe is that it is a left over from a pre-Christian time. Before Christianity spread across Europe, the villagers were pagan, worshipping not just many Gods, but saw the world infused with spirits. There were spirits everywhere such as the spirits of ancestors or spirits attached to locations such as mountains and rivers.

 Carolyn Emerick on her blog posits that when Christianity spread throughout Europe, it came as a top down conversion, with the political rulers and spiritual leaders of the society becoming Christian and enforcing it among the population. This created a hybrid religious situation, where people would identify as Christians, but would find no issue with continuing to practice their earlier beliefs. [ref] [/ref]

Even today, people will do all sorts of things for luck, such as knocking on wood, or throwing a pinch of salt over their shoulder [ref]>[/ref], so if keeping the house spirit happy would bring good luck to your house, it wouldn’t take too much effort to leave out a bit of milk for the brownie of the house, just in case.

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