I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
These little critters go by many names and they are an adorable addition to any home. Whether they are called Hobs (England), Zashiki-warashi (Japan), or Haltija (Finland), these sprites concern themselves with the welfare of the families they adopt. They need to be respected and nurtured even though they are rarely seen.
The Characteristics of Household Fairies
Hobs are usually about the size of an adult human hand, although some are said to be people-sized or bigger, and wear human-style clothing from bygone eras. Their ears are, of course, pointed and they wear woolen caps with conical tops.
They are usually described as unattractive, being hairy and wizened. For example, the German Kobold are said to be “short, ugly beings who are depicted with large ears, hairy bodies, and large noses” (otherworldoracle.com).
In Slavic culture, where they are called Domovoi, they are portrayed as hairy and sometimes appear in the form of animals.
Spanish imps, Trasgu, wear red hats and cloaks and, according to Eric Grundhauser (Atlas Obscura), possess other notable features that “include a limp, and a hole in their left hand. Sometimes they are described as having horns.”
Another red-bonneted house fairy is the Monaciello in Italy, specifically around Naples. This rascal likes to take up residence in wine cellars in order to be close to his favourite libation.
Offered a regular supply of wine, the Monaciello will guard the stash against all-comers. He is perpetually drunk, but he's a happy drunk. Woe betide anybody who tries to walk off with a bottle of Sangiovese. Ireland has a similar protector of the booze stock called the Clurichaun.
Also in Ireland, the Bean-tighe has the specific task of helping mothers with babies and infants. Stories abound of women waking up to find an extra blanket has been placed over a child at night. Bean-tighes are very fond of berries and cream, so a good supply of these should be available.
In Scotland, the Brownie “is a small male creature, between one and two feet tall, who takes up residence in a deserving family’s home” (otherworldoracle.com). It's said that Brownies emigrated to Canada and the United States along with their host families in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Irrefutable evidence of this is that, for a while, a Brownie served as mascot for the Cleveland Browns football team.
To Clean or Not to Clean?
The writer and actor Quentin Crisp once observed that “There is no need to do any housework at all. After the first four years the dirt doesn't get any worse.” Crisp would have found himself out of favour among those Slav Domovoi, because they like the homes of their adopted families to be neat and tidy.
Clothes not properly hung up, food left out, dishes not put in cupboards; these are the sort of things that irritate Domovoi, and nobody wants an annoyed elf in the house. In a peeved state of mind, Domovoi steal small items, break others, and make noises that interrupt the sleep.
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On the other hand, most house Hobs, bless their little hearts, seem to love doing day-to-day chores.
If the home is a little dusty, a clean-up crew of Pixies will emerge when everybody is asleep to take care of it. Likewise, they will do dishes and are known to finish off needlework that needs to be completed. On farms and in shops they like to lend a hand where it's needed but they don't like to be seen at their work.
It's said that in medieval witch-hunting days some women deliberately kept their homes a little bit untidy so it didn't appear that they were consorting with the spirit world. An allegation of being involved in witchcraft almost always ended badly.
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The Care and Feeding of Household Elves
House goblins, imps, whatever you like to call them, don't like to be seen by humans, so they live in unused closets, attics, and basements. In the days when everything in a home centred on the open hearth, they used to hide themselves away in any nooks and crannies near the fire. Now we have furnaces, hot water boilers, and microwaves, so the little people have had to make different living arrangements.
They are nocturnal and can be quite temperamental. They do not like to be taken for granted but they also don't like to be thanked for their labours. They accept small offerings of food, as long the gifts are not viewed as payment, and seem to have a sweet tooth and a fondness for intoxicants.
They must never be given an item of clothing, this will cause them to leave your home. However, Kobolds in Germany love having gifts of clothes, so it's clearly important to know the ethnic origin of your house elves in order to avoid giving offence.
It's crucial to ensure that your house spirits are content; happy gnomes mean happy homes.
With such fairies in permanent residence, the household is likely to be harmonious and prosperous. The little scallywags can be mischievous and are fond of pulling small pranks. Can't find you reading glasses or the pot you always cook asparagus in? It's probably your house goblin having a bit of fun.
Such trickery has to be tolerated as part of a bargain that brings humans more benefits than harm. If you are kind to wild animals, unselfish, and open minded you can expect to have household sprites in your life. The opposite is true.
The big thing is that house Hobs need to be respected. Do not even think, and this bit needs to be whispered, of entertaining the thought that they do not exist.
- Household sprites have their origins in ancient pagan mythology. For centuries, Christianity waged an all-out war against them, portraying them as agents of the Devil. But, they have withstood the onslaught and emerged as a popular genre of books, games, and videos. However, there are still fundamentalist pockets that decry such interest in the world of fantasy as dabbling in Satanic practices.
- Boggarts are house elves you do want in your property. Some suggest they are friendly spirits who have gone to the dark side, perhaps after being abused by a human. The will destroy a house by eating its wood and will turn the milk of dairy farms sour. Boggarts torment children; hence the Bogieman
- Author J. K. Rowling made house elves famous by creating the character Dobby in her Harry Potter books. He bore an alarming resemblance to the Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
- “How to Appease Household Spirits Across the World.” Eric Grundhauser, Atlas Obscura, December 14, 2016.
- “House Fairies & Elves: The Brownie, Kobold, Monaciello, & More.” otherworldoracle.com, January 3, 2019
- “Household Sprites.” American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Wee Folk, undated.
- “Faeries: An Overview.” timelessmyths.com, undated.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor