Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Goblin Watch, Episode 3: Mythology 2


Hello, and welcome back to Goblin Watch! The mini-series dedicated to the origins and iterations of everyone's favorite X and Y!

... Whoops, I didn't come up with variables for this intro.

Uh, let's see here... tricksters and knaves, no, I used that... critters and adventurer-fodder, no, that was from the time before last... This list really isn't going to last me as long as I had hoped unless I get creative. Maybe if I consult a thesaurus... Ah-hah!

Everyone's favorite sneaks and house-helpers! Yes, let's go with that.

Last episode, all the way back in the tumultuous year of 2018, we took a look at the earliest of the proto-goblins found in Classical Mythology- kobaloi, kabeiroi, kerkopes, ketcetera.

Today, we'll be moving forward by an indeterminate amount of time, and a few hundred kilomiles north to the interior of Central and Northern Europe, where the ancestors of the Germanic peoples settled during the later stages of the Indo-European migrations thousands of years ago. These peoples had a diverse set of religious beliefs and practices which fall under our umbrella of "Germanic mythology" today. Deities such as Odin/Wōtan, Thor/Donar, and Frigg/Frija figured prominently in those belief systems, and were venerated well into the Common Era before a shift toward newer religions caused a break in continuity. But other, smaller beings such as Heinzelmann,  Hödekin, and King Goldemar persisted or even came into existence as syncretized pagan outcroppings in a predominantly Christian context. What these three men have in common in modern German(ic) folklore is that they are all kobolds.

A kobold is a secretive spirit of a more domestic or artificial (in the sense of craft and artifice) persuasion than the wild or primal kobalos. They dwell in homes or the walls of mine shafts, assisting those who honor them (or at least staying out of their way), and causing a wide variety of mischief for those who anger them. They weren't just tricksters to encounter rarely in the wild or in the entourage of some greater god- in fact they seemed to factor significantly into the daily lives of mortals, albeit in an almost invisible way.

As mentioned in previous episodes, "kobold" seems to be etymologically descended from "kobalos", meaning a mischievous spirit or rogue. This etymology comes down to us from Jacob Grimm, a German mythologist as well as the elder of the famous Brothers Grimm. But that is not the only explanation for the origin of the word. Other competing etymologies look for a native Germanic origin.These include kuba-walda ("one who rules the house"), kofewalt (a cognate to Old Saxon cofgoda or "room-god"), and the contraction of the words koben and hold ("pigsty" and "stall spirit" respectively).

Interestingly, while these home, hearth, or room-related etymologies all distance the kobold from the kobaloi or kerkopes of ancient Greek and Anatolian religion, they also cause cause the kobold to resemble in function the di penates or domestic Lares of ancient Roman religion- spirits in effigy who also presided over and protected specific locations to which they were limited. There are, broadly speaking, three types of kobolds, and the above characterization fits best with the first.

House kobolds dwell in a family's home and act as house spirits--helping with chores, offering good luck, making it wealthy in gold or grain, etc-- though they are not bound to the existence of that house, nor do they originate from it. The home and the kobold seem to have completely independent ontologies. Many stories deal with how kobolds first come to live in a house of their choosing, often by announcing their presence through some ominous event and then reacting according to how the owners of the household respond. If a small, miserable creature appears at the door during a stormy night and the residents decide to take pity upon it and welcome it in, the kobold takes up residence in order to repay the favor. Or, if wood chips and cow manure are suddenly found tracked around the house and inside of the milk containers, a family who is tolerant of it will gain a kobold for being good sports. Other times a kobold has to be deliberately attracted to the home through a very specific set of events, such as bagging and speaking magic words to a bird standing on an anthill in the woods between the hours of noon and one o'clock on Saint John's Day.

I feel like that much work and planning could have more easily gone toward hiring a normal servant.

After a house acquired a kobold, it dwelt somewhere in the building, often in or around the central hearth. The occupants were expected to care for their new house spirit by leaving offerings out at night. These often took the form of food or drink, particularly beer for the subtype of house kobold called a bieresal, known to dwell in inn cellars. It appears that mortals did not generally interact with their kobolds directly. If all was as it should be, a kobold was not visible in the flesh (or whatever other form it took). Rather, they'd be represented by small effigies and statues, made in their ugly or exaggerated image and placed around the home by its owners. Kobold idols were being carved from boxwood at least as late as the 13th century, as recounted by the German poet Konrad von Würzburg, though Konrad describes the practice as mostly being "for fun" by that point in time, rather than as part of a serious ritual practice.

Heinzelmann,  Hödekin, and King Goldemar were each house kobolds, and each brought varying degrees of good fortune to their patrons. Goldemar was a great kobold in particular, being a king among kobolds with his own queen, nobles, and court in service of the human king Neveling von Hardenberg. His retribution was as terrible as his gifts were great, however. As with many kobold tales, a servant eventually tried to catch a glimpse of his invisible form by deception, and in response Goldemar killed him, chopped him up, roasted his meat, and left Castle Hardenstein after placing a curse of bad luck upon it. In fact, most of the high-profile, named kobolds in myths seem to rack up quite a body count from being angered so easily, invariably slaughtering and cannibalizing other people. Heinzelmann seems to be an exception to this, giving fair warning of his bad luck and generally acting more gentle.

Just don't ever ask him what's in the trunk of his car.

The next type is the mine kobold. These industrious workers were expert miners and metalworkers native to the shafts and tunnels of mines throughout early Renaissance-era Germany. Or rather, they lived in the stone of the shafts and tunnels. Some legends surrounding mine kobolds claim that they can actually move through solid earth the same way a human can move through open air. They seem to be more immediately malevolent toward humans than house kobolds are, with the bulk of tales about them showing them in a negative light. The sounds of kobolds working could be heard throughout otherwise quiet tunnels, and if one followed after the sounds of their drilling, shoveling, or knocking, one was liable to end up collapsing their tunnel, flooding it, or filling it with noxious fumes. Mine kobolds were also blamed for the disappearance of tools or food, or the breaking of machinery in and around the mine. But the most famous type of mine kobold trick takes a far more physical form.

They would deceive miners into prospecting what looks like rich veins of copper or silver and then mining all of the ore out, only for the miners to realize later on that the ore was worthless, devoid of precious metals, prone to causing skin irritation on contact, and sometimes possessed of a toxic gas which was released during the smelting process. These veins of junk were named after the kobolds who put them there and wisely avoided until the 18th century, when a Swedish chemist named Georg Brandt isolated a substance from it that was hitherto unknown to mineralogy. Later on in 1780, this metal was discovered to be an all new chemical element. Cobalt still bears the name of its ill-disposed creators.

Less frequently, mine kobolds were known to be benevolent, and to operate under the same system of respectful conduct and reciprocal favors as house kobolds. They were fond of such appeasements as silver and gold. In such instances, their tunnel-knocking could be interpreted as being a warning not to dig toward danger, or alternatively to dig toward hidden veins of metal. Or they could give them more poisonous cobalt. It was pretty tricky business.

This is the part where I make an aside to address the tiny, scaly elephant in the room. I believe that the classic mine kobold--a nasty interpretation of it in particular--was a partial inspiration for kobolds when they became monsters in the original release of Dungeons & Dragons. Territorial, fond of mining and traps, and antagonistic toward the subterranean creatures they lived close to (including the dwarves and gnomes whom traditional kobolds are often conflated with), these little para-goblins would go on to become an endearing and colorful part of fantasy pop-culture. I will leave the bulk of that discussion for its own episode someday, but there is one point I'd like to touch on. Oftentimes older tabletop gamers will remark at how strange it was for 3rd Edition to remake of kobolds as reptilian dragon-sycophants, but in researching for this project, I've come to wonder what inspired the "original" form of kobolds-as-adventurer-fodder to begin with. After centuries of approximately human or dwarf-like appearance, 1974 marked the date when kobolds became dog-faced goblins with scales and forehead-horns.

And let's not even get started on the Vulcan ears.

Carrying on the spirit of odd ones out, we come to the third and final major type of kobold.

The Klabautermann is the kobold of a ship, protector of sailors and giver of good fortune to fishermen of the Baltic and North Seas. Sometimes, it will even rescue people washed overboard. It takes a fairly modern appearance, seeming to be a little man with a yellow sailor's hat or coat, and smoking a pipe filled with tobacco. Rather than having figurines or effigies of the ship's kobold, its image is often carved into the mast of the ship directly. Unlike house kobolds who come and go as they please, a Klabautermann seems more strongly associated with a particular ship. For instance, they come to protect a ship by having lived in a tree used for wood in the construction of the vessel, so the ship becomes an extension of its home. A Klabautermann is also known to carry around a caulking hammer for ship repairs, lending some credence to one etymology for Klabautermann which derives from the Low German verb kalfatern, or "to caulk". But in keeping with the theme of dualism among kobolds, Klabautermann can also be responsible for accidents and pranks aboard a ship far out at sea. And rather than being punished for trying to see the kobold's physical form, he willingly reveals himself to the crew of a ship so that they know that they are doomed by a storm or some other impending terrible event. The sea-kobold even goes down with the ship in such instances.

Similar in name and shape but different in nature is the Dutch Kabouter. A Kabouter is a small creature who commonly lives in a hill, or in modern popular culture, a large mushroom house. They are more shy of humans than dedicated house spirit kobolds, but will occasionally teach a nice young Dutchman how to make wooden shoes or deep building foundations. Kabouter men typically wear long, full beards and pointed red hats. If you're noticing how similar this appearance sounds to a certain other fictional creature, you are correct: Kabouters were famously written about and richly illustrated by Wil Huygen and Rien Poortvliet in their 1976 book series, Leven en werken van de Kabouter. In English this translates to "Life and works of the Kabouter", but when the book was translated for sale in English-speaking countries, "Kabouter" was replaced with the word "Gnome". Eight years later the Spanish animated television series David, el Gnomo was released, and the following year David the Gnome hit American audiences.

And he kept on swinging.

So here we have another example of syncretism between a member of the goblin family and something quite different. This conflation with other sprites and beings is as common for kobolds, up to and including King Goldemar whom I referenced above. In the cycle of legends surrounding Theoderic the Great (taking the mythical form of Dietrich von Bern), Goldemar is described not as a kobold but as a dwarf. This might be a case of the terms for such creatures being vague, overlapping, or even synonymous during the times they were first used, and then that convention carrying on into modern times. I believe that this is supported by the fact that his brother Elbegast was described as an Elf-king while hanging out and robbing people with Charlemagne in a Middle Dutch poem. Their other brother, the dwarf Alberich, appears in the Nibelungenlied and serves as a treasure guardian for the protagonist Siegfried. They were a pretty popular bunch.

Despite the long and storied histories of German and Dutch communities in the land that would eventually become part of the United States, I was surprised to find almost nothing in the way of kobold myths or traditions in modern North America. Perhaps because they were so often tied to certain houses, or particular families, or to the earth itself, the kobolds were largely left behind in the Old Country by emigrants. Of course, just because there's no popular tradition centered on them doesn't mean that they aren't here. A handful of kobolds have made their way to this "New World" over the ages, always keeping just out of human notice or the eyes of history in these strange new lands. When the Dutch privateer Jan Janszoon van Haarlem was captured by Barbary Pirates in 1618, you can be sure that his fleet's water-kobolds came in tow. When he became Murat Reis the Younger, Grand Admiral and Governor of the Republic of Salé, they hunkered down in those balmy ports and made an uneasy alliance with the Djinn of Morocco. And when his son Anthony Janszoon van Salee moved to the New Netherlands and became the first and largest grantee of land on Coney Island, they were right behind him, pleased to find a semblance of home at last. Certainly, Janszoon's descendants have enjoyed considerable good fortune for the past few centuries, being the Vanderbilt Dynasty and all.


Next episode, we'll be moving further west, to the shores of France as well as the British Isles and Ireland, where we will finally touch upon the linguistically modern goblin and its Insular Celtic neighbors.

I want to give a special thanks to all of my donors and supporters, as well as to one Goody Mooncup. Without her letter to the editor and advice column, I wouldn't have completed my research for this episode nearly as "quickly".

I am the Furtive Goblin, this was Goblin Watch, and I thank you for listening!

Dowden, Ken. European Paganism. Taylor & Francis, 2002.

Grimm, Jacob.Teutonic Mythology, Part 2. Kessinger Publishing, 2003 [1883].

Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1996.

1 comment:

  1. I love these posts. It is just such a fun read and you are a very clever speaker as well.