Monday, March 13, 2023

Goblins Mythology and Fairy Tales

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The folkloric nature of goblin is so amorphous as to be impossible to pin down. This is because people began to use it in a fairly general way, to mean one of many different possible fairy creatures, but despite the often-frustrating ways which the English language often mixes words around there does seem to be a group of beings from which many of the ideas of ‘goblins’ sprang. These are tutelary deities, that is fairies of the household, which have been driven from their home, and or wild fairies that people tried and failed to domesticate.

Etymologically the word has two possible origins, one was used to describe traitors and demonic spirits, the second was used to describe household spirits, protectors of rooms and perhaps especially the bed chambers. In this one of the goblin’s folkloric ancestors, the kobold, is well known for its wild and raucous laugh. More than this they were also well known for stealing treasure from neighboring households.

William Sayer’s in their article on the origins of goblins states that:

An Old English protector of rooms can then have been evicted from the home to the wilderness, burdened with a derogatory foreign name…. An Old English protector of rooms can have been both evicted from the home to the wilderness and burdened with a derogatory foreign name. There the goblin survived but surely with an irreversible darkening of mood.

While I state that goblins were likely former domesticated fairies, it is important to keep in mind that household and forest beings were often intermixed, such that forest fairies often became house fairies and vice versa, what’s more it wasn’t always clear which one was dealing with. Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, who dwells within the woods, also dwelt within the home and helped with the cleaning. Pixies were at once a fairy of the moorlands and of the farms, who helped with the threshing and rewarded those who kept their homes clean.

There are perhaps five types of household spirits of interest here.

First are ancestral spirits who continue to live within a house and or with a family.

The second are tutelary spirits that are either connected to the house or the land it is on. That is, the soul of the house, the spirit who owned the land before a house was built, etc. One child, for example, was attacked by the spirit of a tree which had been cut down to make a house.

The third type is the fairy from the wilderness who is invited into the home to become a house fairy.

Third are the fairies which live near the home and help with domestic tasks but are still, essentially wild such as the pixies of Dartmoor.

Finally there are the deities of domestic things, such as the fairies of weaving, or which are involved in churning butter, caring for cows, etc. Even Zeus falls into this category, as he would take the form of a snake to protect homes and so might be found dwelling by a person’s fireplace.

These are, of course, likely intermixed with unrelated fairies such as the zwerg and knockers of mines.

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Loki and the goblins

One of the easiest ways to understand ‘domestic goblins’ is to examine Loki as there is so much written about him. Loki in folklore was a house fairy, seemingly very different from the mythological portrayal of him. As Eldar Heide put it: “It seems there were two Lokis. One was a vatte 'domestic spirit' living under or by the fireplace, helping farmers with the farm work and attracting wealth to the farm. The other, the mythical character, was very different but still derived from the vatte.”

Eldar Heide has an engaging article explaining the connection between Loki, the Nordic house fairy or Vatte, and the trickster character of folklore known as the Ash Lad. These Ash Lads and the Vatte would upset the natural order of things, aiding the peasants against the wealthy and kings. This would explain why the mythology we have, which was told and penned down by the wealthy disliked a figure like Loki, after all, robbing from the rich as Robinhood did, or overthrowing the judge as Loki did, might be all well and good for a peasant but it is an evil act in the mind of the nobility.

The ash lad is a dirty boy from a poor family who seems lazy, small, and weak. A dreamer who thinks in unusual ways he prefers to stay at home by the fire, but when forced to go out into the world he turns out to be extremely clever and able to trick powerful beings in order to get what he wants. They also, inexplicably, end up in the court of a King where traditionally they would seem to have no business being, just as Loki found himself in Odin’s court, despite being an outsider. More than this he became Odin’s blood brother.

The king in folklore promises the Ash Lad half the kingdom in return for his help, but then when the ash lad completes the quest the king tries to backpedal on his word, before finally having to give in. "It is understandable that the king is unwilling to accept as his son-in-law and successor on the throne a dirty, ragged, poor low-born boy who is comfortable with effeminacy and humiliation and who is supported by oddballs and hags, and animals from the wilderness. Accepting the Ash Lad amounts to a revolution."

Everyone assumes the Ash Lad will fail because they are so odd and don’t exhibit what would be thought of as heroic traits, but instead they succeed because of their oddness and non-heroic character. He succeeds because he negates the hierarchy and the snobbish establishment. The otherworld is an inversion of the human world, and so while the Ash Lad has trouble navigating or understanding the human world, they are the only ones who can succeed in getting treasures or rescuing someone from the other world.

Many kings would attempt to negotiate with these magical and spiritual outsiders in Germanic lore. Indeed, Odin became blood brothers with Loki, perhaps as a way of getting Loki to help maintain Odin’s vision of the world and his power. Loki in this case being primordial force or spirit that Odin sought to domesticate to obtain power, the way many will seek to domesticate and sometimes forcibly tame fairies to serve as house fairies. This worked for a while, Loki saved the gods on many occasions, helping them out of serious jams and aiding them in obtaining great treasures the way helping spirits often aided shamans. But as is so often the case the trying to tame wild spirits can backfire, and so it was the Loki would inevitably betray and destroy Odin once he failed to keep up his end of the bargain (Warner).

Just as Loki was an outside spiritual force brought into the home of Odin, house fairies were often spiritual forces brought into the home. Just as Loki often went on adventures with Odin’s son Thor, so too did house fairies often adventure with the children of the house, but this often turned out bad for them, as Loki often suffered in adventures.

House fairies and Ash Lads like Loki used cleverness and cunning and wit to obtain treasures for the house. Yet like Odin their family would eventually betray them by acting immorally (notice Loki’s criticism of the Gods), by acting too self-centered and certain (notice his attack on the judge), or by not feeding them properly.

Loki can be thought of as a lesson on how to treat and avoid mistreating a house fairy, for fear that they should become a goblin. For make no mistake, while some house fairies were ancestral spirits, many if not most were still wild beings that had entered people’s homes, more than this they were spiritual beings and such beings are very ambiguous.  

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Spiritual Beings are Ambiguous Beings

Household fairies in Germanic lore were often thieves who stole from the neighbors, and in Slavic lore they were often dangerous to the neighbors. It is possible that their thieving nature originated as a desire to steal from one’s wealthier neighbors and as fear that someone’s neighbors would steal from them. Fairies, as Perkiss points out, are often a reflection of our dark desires and sins. That is, we accuse them of that which we wrongfully did or want to do. So, people loved their house fairies but often feared the fairies of others. There are numerous stories of these fairies stealing from neighbors, trying to smother house guests, etc.

Fairies and ancient deities were ambiguous figures in general. That is, they could act in ways that were both good or bad depending on their mood and relation to the person they were encountering. We must first recall that Zeus would protect people as a domestic deity, but in many stories, he would also assault them.

Consider also Sylvanus, the god of farms and woodlands in Roman lore, who was so beloved that he was one of the most venerated deities in Rome, however, people also had to keep him away from women giving birth for he would harm them and the child. Or Hermes, the god of shepherds who would come down the chimney to snatch children away. Fairies and deities in lore have always been associated with both danger and wealth. What else could we expect from nature which gives us food and predators?


As I have pointed out in the past fairies and deities are frequently their own opposites, having multiple souls that can be both kindly and dangerous and we certainly see that with house fairies. In one Welsh Story, a bwca (house fairy) was insulted by a servant he’d thought was his friend, he attacked her then turned into a bogle, a monstrous goblin fairy, haunting houses and causing trouble for years before finally finding a new friend who could help him settle, then when their new friend died, they turned back into a destructive bogle.

Household fairies were often capricious, in part, because they existed in a precarious world in general, torn between humanity and fairyland. We see the danger of this in the story of “Puss in Boots”. After inheriting nothing but his father’s cat a young man says; “but for my part, when I have eaten up my cat, and made me a muff of his skin, I must die of hunger."

Jacob Grimm presumed that the cat in question was a house fairy, and this makes sense for a number of reasons, and this moment certainly shows the precarious situation house fairies could find themselves in. Although eating them likely didn’t happen often in lore, there are certainly stories of them being threatened with knives or beaten and banished from homes in tears.

 Peeves, Dobby, and the Goblins - It is interesting to note that goblins can often be thought of as poltergeists or the house fairies from the borderlands between Scotland and England called dobies. That is, they are the spirits of a building, place, or ancestral spirits who grow troublesome, or house fairies that are troublesome.

 The Underground Others – It is likely that there were fairies who dwelt underground and loved shiny things or were associated with treasure for longer than people have cared about gold. Whether the zwerg (dwarves) of Germany, the Shirte of the Nenets in Northern Asia, who have beautiful beaded objects and silver and lived underground, or the little people of Yupik lore in Alaska.

 These little peoples most often lived underground and could be associated with industry and mining, or among hunter-gatherers with hunting luck and food. Yet they were also tricky and would put people under their spells, deceive people, and of course steal from people’s food stores. They often had animal features or twisted features that appeared ugly to human eyes, although some could be beautiful, they were all strange.

 These others, or underground people, don’t have to have a common origin per say, although they might. They could, also however, come from the fact that they tap into something that many cultures, from Africa through Asia and the Americas find engaging. They are one of our most important and oldest pieces of folk religion and folklore, because they have emotional and psychological value, because they offer us truths.

 As has always happened people spin false tales about the goblins specifically and fantasy in general. These new tales are as damaging as any spun by the nobility and kings of old. Rulers who clung to power by claiming that the others of lore were demonic figures, were against the heavens, represented something people of their and our day despised. Those in power have always disliked goblins and the underground people, perhaps because they refuse to be controlled.

 This isn’t to say that goblins aren’t dangerous, or that they are safe and good. Goblins are of value because they aren’t safe. They warn us of mistreating those who are helpful, they give us symbols of rebellion, they poke fun at the status quo, they offer us the psychological and emotional benefits of horror stories, and so much more.


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Still Wild

House fairies aren’t tame, they are supernatural and often wild entities. Say a curse word around one and it might just burn down the home in revenge. Get in a loud argument and it might just give you a disease out of spite.

 So, what are goblins? Well, in this iteration they are fairies and deities when they are acting destructively as part of their ambitious nature. Or they are house fairies who have been wronged and turned destructive, or they are wild beings which someone attempted but failed to tame. Rather than a species of being then, they can be thought of as an aspect of spirits.

However, Goblins are also Trickster Beings. Something I will explore more in future articles, along with their more violent and funny natures. 

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Wanner, K. J. (2009). Cunning Intelligence in Norse Myth: Loki, Óðinn, and the Limits of Sovereignty. History of Religions, 48(3), 211–246.



Heide, E. (2011). Loki, the “Vätte”, and the Ash Lad: A Study Combining Old Scandinavian and Late Material. Viking and Medieval Scandinavia, 7, 63–106.


Sayers, William. “The Dispossessed House-Spirit: The Etymology of goblin and Some Thoughts on its Early History”