Five Helpful Clans of Little Folk

shee_an_gannonNot all faery beings can be imposing sídhe lords and ladies, sinister jinn, or wild, unpredictable satyrs. In world mythology, some of the inhabitants of the Otherworld are humble, unassuming, and even quite helpful to mortals. Today, I’ll highlight five types of little folk that you probably wouldn’t mind dropping by. They are all good with chores and domestic tasks of various sorts, and are usually happy to help mortals out for a modicum of remuneration. (Offerings of food or milk or cream usually does the trick.) All of these beings are all found in Scotland, Ireland, or surrounding regions.

Brùnaidh/Grogan

A brownie is called a brùnaidh in Scots Gaelic and grogan in Irish. These are domestic spirits who attach themselves to a house or family and often perform domestic chores when no one is looking. The house elves of Harry Potter are modeled largely on brownies.

Uruisg/Fenodyree

The uruisg (or urisk) is very much like a brownie, but is set apart by having goat-like hooves. They are called fenodyrees on the Isle of Man. The are said to have a mischievous nature and also tend to be inclined to perform farming or agrarian tasks. They are thus somewhat similar to a pooka.

Kilmouli

Kilmoulis are faery millers, an ugly form of brownies said to haunt mills. They also hail from the Border counties. They have enormous noses but no mouths, and therefore they have to inhale their food through the nose. Kilmoulis work hard, but also enjoy tricks and pranks.

Gruagach

Gruagachs (the Gaelic plural is technically gruagaichean) are field-folk native to Scotland. Their name literally means “long-haired one.” They love to help mortals with household tasks. Female gruagachs herd and protect cattle, and are also associated with water. They are described as having long blonde hair and wearing a green dress. Sometimes they are said to be attractive; more often, however, they are grotesques hags—although extremely kind-hearted.

Male gruagachs have thick fur, although occasionally they are described as handsome youths dressed in green and red. They commonly work as farm hands shredding and thrashing grain.

Clurichaun

A clurichaun (Irish clobhair-ceann) is thought by some to be a variant form of the leprechaun who goes out to drink after finishing his daily work. They are always drunk. If treated well, a clurichaun will protect a mortal’s wine cellar.

Kindly Elves

The most recent development in elf-lore is to see them neither as tall, powerful, benevolent beings as in Norse mythology, nor as tall, powerful, sinister beings, as in later Germanic folklore, but rather as small, shy beings who are usually quite helpful to humans. Although they may still be mischievous, they are rarely malicious.

Germanic “House Elves”

One early depiction of this sort of elf is in 1812, in the Brothers Grimm fairy tale Die Wichtelmänner, known to English readers as the story of “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” In this story, two tiny naked imps help the shoemaker with his work. When he seeks to reward them with clothing, however, they are so delighted that they run away and are never seen again.

It is debatable whether these Wichtelmänner should be interpreted as elves at all or rather as some other sort of fairy being: kobolds, dwarves, or brownies, for example. The word, itself a diminutive of German Wicht, “wight,” which might better be translated imp or goblin. They seem to have a bit in common with the nisse or tomte of Scandinavia, kindly, diminutive sprites similar to the hobs and brownies of England. At any rate, due to the common translation, they have entered the constellation of images to which English-speakers attach the word “elf.”

Dobby and Company

The depiction of tiny, helpful, industrious elves certainly influenced the house elves of Harry Potter more than either of the previous types. There is even a mythological basis for their aversion to conventional clothing. In English folklore, brownies are a type of sprite that secretly tidy up the house and perhaps do other domestic chores. It is said that they always dress in rags, but are deeply offended if ever anyone offered them more suitable clothing to wear. Do this, the legends say, and they will promptly disappear, never to return.

These domestic sprites are often attached to a particular family. In fact, they are believed by some to be the departed spirits of an ancestor. Such is the case, for example, of the domovoi of Slavic folklore. They may be especially associated with the hearth.

In addition to the nisse and tomte already discussed, other iterations of this sort of “elf” are the Spanish duende, the Irish grogan, the Welsh bwbach. There are also an assortment of faery creatures involved in a number of “working-class” functions: the vazila of Russia takes care of horses; the bodachan buachailleen of the Scottish highlands is a herdsman while his neighbor, the bodachan sabhaill, inhabits the barn; the kilmouli of the Border region is a spinner.

Christmas Elves

Louisa May Alcott first mentioned elves in a Christmas story in 1856. Sadly, the publisher declined to print the story. A year later, however, Harper’s Weekly published an anonymous poem titled “The Wonders of Santa Claus,” which begins:

Beyond the ocean many a mile,
And many a year ago,
There lived a wonderful queer old men [sic]
In a wonderful house of snow;
And every little boy and girl,
As Christmas Eves arrive,
No doubt will be very glad to hear,
The old man is still alive.

In his house upon the top of a hill,
And almost out of sight,
He keeps a great many elves at work,
All working with all their might,
To make a million of pretty things,
Cakes, sugar-plums, and toys,
To fill the stockings, hung up you know
By the little girls and boys.

It would be a capital treat be sure,
A glimpse of his wondrous ‘shop;
But the queer old man when a stranger comes,
Orders every elf to stop;
And the house, and work, and workmen all
Instantly take a twist,
And just you may think you are there,
They are off in a frosty mist.

Thus, Christmas elves appear on the scene only thirty-five years after Clement Moore gave us the “canonical” depiction of Santa Claus himself. The depiction of these beings varies from story to story, but they are almost always shorter than normal humans. By temperament, they are cheerful and jolly—as befits Santa’s helpers. They usually dress in bright, festive colors.