Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

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Kobolds: Household Tricksters

Household spirits fascinate me. Not too surprising, given the subject of this blog. Modern popular paganism tends to focus so much on the greater deities and the wild spirits of the forests, bodies of water, mountains, etc., that spirits of the home tend to be overlooked or shrugged off. Perhaps house spirits seem less interesting because they occupy the same spaces we live in day after day; perhaps they seem too domestic, too banal. Or perhaps, like many, many other spirits known to our ancestors, we have just forgotten about them. Whatever the reason, I can say that household spirits are just as mysterious, rich with character and personality, and even dangerous as other types of spirits. They offer just as much spiritual value and the potential for material reward. They are just as vital to our lives as they were to those who came before us.

One of these spirits is the kobold, a German spirit of the home as well as mines and ships. It is a helpful trickster, one that can come into a family in a number of ways – including choosing the family itself – and promises a fruitful (if complicated) relationship that can last a lifetime.

Fiery Shapeshifters

The type of kobold, when one is lucky enough to see one, is distinguishable by its clothing: those wearing sailors’ clothing live on boats; the ones that live in mines wear miners’ clothes; and ones living in houses wear peasants’ clothing. Scholar Benjamin Thorpe states that they may don a red jacket and cap (156). Essentially, they are adaptive spirits, mimicking the modes of humans who occupy their dwellings.

Kobolds can also take the form of a variety of animals and even, like the drac, fire. Thorpe states that the kobold may appear as a black cat or a fiery stripe, sometimes colored blue (155). Peter Alexander Kerkhof lists the etymology of the word “kobold” as a combination of the Proto-Germanic elements *gub- meaning “fire” and *haldija indicating a house spirit, which suggests an affiliation with the hearth or stove, a common feature of many house spirits.

Housemates for Life

How does one receive a kobold into their home? One method is to “go, on St. John’s day, between twelve and one [in the afternoon], into the forest, to an ant-hill, on which he will find a bird sitting, to which he must speak certain words, when it will transform itself into a little fellow and jump into a bag held ready for the purpose, and in which he must carry him home” (Thorpe 141). This suggests that the kobold may originally be a wild spirit that becomes domesticated by the bonds created between itself and the humans with which it works.

Another, more common rite is a test posed by the kobold, who selects the family itself. Kobolds pour animal dung or dirt in milk and scatter sawdust and wood chips across the floor of a home to make themselves known. If the family leaves the mess and drinks the milk, the kobold will stay with the family forever, wherever they go. This can be a good thing, a bad thing, or both. Depending on its nature, a kobold can be a wonderful helper, terrible trouble-maker, or may vacillate between the two depending on how well it’s been treated.

“Bad” kobolds are reputed to create messes around the household, throw dishes and cookware at night (although, to be fair, they tend not to actually break anything), playing tricks on sleepers (such as rearranging their positions or pulling the covers off of them at night), and may even turn to violence. Several stories tell of kobolds chopping off human limbs, throwing people into fires, or burning down homes.

The “good” kobolds, however, help with virtually all household needs, including:

  • Cleaning
  • Dusting
  • Feeding animals
  • Cooking
  • Tending fires in the hearth and/or stove
  • Threshing grain
  • Bringing stolen grains, gold, and other forms of wealth from one’s neighbors into one’s own house (not unlike the drac mentioned above)
  • Finding lost objects

As with most engagements with spirits of any type, there’s always a risk involved, and reciprocity is usually the best way to ensure a healthy, happy working relationship with a kobold.

Feeding and Care of the Kobold

The kobold must, above all, be treated with respect by those in the household. It must also be fed at regular intervals, as much as once a day or as little as once a week and on holidays. A portion of one’s dinner is often a good offering to the kobold, although other sources claim it has a penchant for grits or water-gruel ("Popular Legends and Fictions XII: British Popular Mythology” 76). These can be placed on the stove or in a corner room occupied by the kobold, usually one that is not often frequented and used as storage.

Another tradition of kobold-keeping is giving it a name. This name can be based on its dress (e.g. Hödekin, “little hood”), dwelling (e.g. Kellermӓnnchen, “little man of the cellar”), the way in which it manifests (e.g. Klopfer, “knocker”), or some other distinguishing and familiar aspect (Lecouteux 121-122). We first called the one at our house Ghost Cat because that’s how it appeared to my husband – a cat slipping around the corner, out of sight in a moment – although, these days we mostly refer to him as the House Elf.

Getting Rid of a Troublesome Kobold

If there’s a kobold in your midst that is causing more trouble than it’s worth, there are a few ways to rid yourself of it. Like the Harry Potter franchise’s house elves, presenting it with clothes may cause a kobold to disappear forever. Sometimes, exorcism by a priest can be effective, although there are stories in which this actually backfires on the priest, chasing him out of the home. Rushing a kobold in his work may cause the kobold to give up the home angrily, usually with a curse. For those desperate enough, burning down the house is another option, although the kobold may do this in vengeance as well.

While these tactics have been used to good effect in the past, there is no guarantee that they will work in all circumstances or with all kobolds. Thorpe shares a story in which a man, desperate to free himself of one of these spirits, packed up his belongings and planned to abandon his home in a hurry, thinking he’d leave the kobold behind. However, the night before he was to do this, he saw the kobold washing his belongings, and asked what he was doing. The kobold replied matter-of-factly, “I am washing out my rags, as we move to-morrow [sic]” (Thorpe 84). Hearing this, the man gave in and took the kobold with him.

Clearly, the kobold is a difficult spirit to get rid of, and even if one finds success, there are usually consequences for making it leave. Those unwilling to put up with its mischief are best served seeking out another type of household spirit. But for those willing to take on the risks, or those who unwittingly find themselves tied to a kobold, it can be a wonderful, devoted helper that deserves the respect and care offered to any other member of a household.

 

References and Other Sources

Bane, Theresa. Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology. McFarland,

2013, https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=nSuXAAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP2&dq=kobold+folklore&ots=lUHH6f-gdw&sig=l4NlEQ56InPEKD77mgqJu3FUYCc#v=onepage&q=kobold&f=false. Accessed 4 Aug. 2017.

Keightley, Thomas. The Fairy Mythology Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of

Various Countries. H.G. Bohn, 1850, https://books.google.com/books?id=3cByu3_ZtaAC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false. Accessed 4 Aug. 2017.

Kerkhof, Peter Alexander. “Germanic goblins and the Indo-European fireplace.”

Abstract, https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/indo.2015.120.issue-1/if-2015-0005/if-2015-0005.xml. Accessed 4 Aug. 2017.

Lecouteux, Claude. The Secret History of Poltergeists and Haunted Houses: From

Pagan Folklore to Modern Manifestations. Simon & Schuster, 2012, https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=NFwoDwAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT6&dq=kobold+folklore&ots=uAhmATyZDI&sig=PILaifQplE4EUHBYOZtDkD5TwAs#v=onepage&q=kobold&f=false. Accessed 4 Aug. 2017.

--- The Tradition of Household Spirits. Inner Traditions, 2013.

"Popular Legends and Fictions XII: British Popular Mythology." The Saturday Magazine,

Vol. 10. John William Parker West Strand, 1837.

Thorpe, Benjamin. “Northern Mythology.” Lumley, 1851,

             https://archive.org/details/northernmytholog03thoruoft. Accessed 4 Aug. 2017.

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, spirit worker and traveler, guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic and Slavic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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