Aug 17, 2016

The nature and danger of the legendary Kobold

The legendary Kobolds
Featured image: An artist’s depiction of kobolds. Source: Forgotten Realms Wiki
In ancient folklore, the kobold is a small, pointy-eared, goblin-like creature with a short-temper and a mischievous spirit. While generally described as well-intentioned, angering a kobold is said to be a dangerous mistake. They are described as spirits that dwell among the living, and can sometimes take the form of humans, elements, or animals, depending upon where they choose to make their home.
What is most intriguing about the kobolds is not only their persistence into modern folklore but the way in which they seem to transcend various provinces and faiths.  Known in England as brownies, in France as gobelins, in Belgium as kabouters and so on, kobolds are still carefully considered and respected in Germanic culture.  However, the kobold does not first come from Germany but rather Greece.  Though there is much deliberation over the origin of the kobolds, it is believed that they descend from the ancient Greek kobaloi, sprite-like creatures often invoked by followers of the god Dionysus and rogues.  Even then, they were known as pranksters and tricksters, who simultaneously aided the god Dionysus in his bacchant endeavors.  But by the 13th century, the kobolds had been adopted by the German people, culminating in the final name kobold, the Germanic suffix –olt (eventually –old) signifying of the creatures' supernatural origin.
Kobolds
Kobolds are typically described as small, pointy-eared, goblin-like creatures. Image source: Wikipedia
There are three known factions of the kobolds, each task-oriented and initially well intentioned.  The sightings of the kobolds are few and far between, in part because they are said to complete tasks invisibly. Nevertheless, numerous people over the centuries have claimed to have seen the kobold, allowing a general description of their physicality and demeanor to be drawn.
DiscoverHousehold deityHumanBrownie (folklore)Spirit The most well-known, well-circulated type of kobold in Germanic folklore is the domesticated helper, not unlike the English brownie or hobgoblin.  In the past, this sect has been perceived as akin to the Roman idea of lares and penates, familial household deities of protection. 
By choice, a household kobold picks a family with which to tie itself, and it offers its services in the dead of the night.  By adding dirt to the family's milk jugs and saw dust to the otherwise clean living quarters, the kobold tests the master of the house to see if he understands and knows the service being offered.  If the master is smart, he will leave the sawdust and drink the dirty milk, signaling to the kobold that he accepts its help and will treat it with respect by sharing a portion of his nightly supper.  From then on, the kobold will serve the master's family until the last of his line dies off or it is otherwise insulted.
A kobold in the form of an infant
A kobold in the form of an infant helps with domestic chores. Image source: Wikipedia
However, tales of the dangers associated with insulting a kobold eventually led to the spirits being considered ill omens later in their mythology.  One story, as written by folklorist Thomas Keightley, describes a kobold named Hödeken.  Hödeken was insulted by a kitchen boy and the head cook refused to punish him.  In the dead of the night, Hödeken beat the boy and tore him limb from limb, adding him to the pot of food cooking in the hearth.  The cook was then killed for chastising the kobold's behavior.  Instances like this are not uncommon in kobold culture, and thus have caused the other two sects of kobolds to be feared—more so than the household creatures, undoubtedly due to their rougher natures.
The second form of kobold, which came to be described in folklore in around the 1500s, is the crude and dirty miners.  Akin to the Norse perception of dwarves, they are described as smaller than humans and hot tempered, and live underground to spend their days mining the metals of the earth.  Though probably the least friendly of the kobolds, legends say that they are more interested in what they find than anything else, and are generally indifferent towards humans.
  Nevertheless, stories of the mining kobolds were once so embedded within the human consciousness, that miners decided to name the ore ‘cobalt’ after them, because they blamed the kobold for the poisonous and troublesome nature of the typical arsenical ores of this metal, which polluted other mined elements.


Artist’s depiction of the mining kobolds. Credit: C. Cleveland
Finally, the third and least recognized type is the sea kobolds. These kobolds have been most often recorded by the people of northern Germany and the Netherlands, signifying that they may have been inspired by the previous two factions and lumped in with the kobolds due to physical and task similarities.  Again, this group is similar to the household spirit, described as offering its protection and services to the captain and crew of a merchant or pirate ship. 
These creatures have been recorded as helping prevent the ship they are on from sinking, however if the ship does sink, the kobold flees for its life, leaving the humans behind to fend for themselves.  It is because of this that sighting of a kobold came to be seen as a bad omen; it was said that if a ship's captain sees one before leaving the dock, he is certainly better off remaining on land than tempting fate in the waters.
A sea kobold
A sea kobold, from Buch Zur See, 1885. Image source: Wikipedia
That the kobolds traveled so far in both time and space shows the deep respect of their culture, and reveals further the inexplicable bond of the human consciousness.
References:
  • Brown, Robert. The Greek Dionysiak Myth, Part 2 (Kessinger Publishing, 2004.)
  • "The Fairy Mythology: Germany: Kobolds." Sacred Texts. Accessed September 25, 2014.
  • Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, Part 2 (Kessinger Publishing, 2003).
  • Keightley, Thomas. The Fairy Mythology, Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries (London: H. G. Bohn, 1850.)
  • Liddell, Henry George, and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon, revised and augmented throughout by Sir Henry Stuart Jones with the assistance of Roderick McKenzie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940.)
  • Rose, Carol. Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns, and Goblins: An Encyclopedia (New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1996.)
  • Snowe, Joseph. The Rhine, Legends Traditions, History, from Cologne to Mainz (London: F. C. Westley and J. Madden & Co., 1839).
By Ryan Stone

Leprechauns: At the End of the Rainbow Lies Richness for Irish Folklore

Leprechaun hat
Featured Image: A Leprechaun’s hat. (Albund | Dreamstime.com)
Those little men all dressed in green, obsessed with rainbows and treasure, trickery, and of course shoe-making. These are all common perceptions today regarding the famous characters from Irish folklore: Leprechauns. The characteristics of these mythical creatures has transformed over the years and much of what made the little people special in the original tales has been forgotten.

Etymology for the Word Leprechaun

Many scholars believe that the origin of the word leprechaun is the old Irish Lú Chorpain meaning small body. Another definition has linked the modern name to luchorpán (a word from the 8th century AD) which is defined as sprite or pygmy. Finally, the word leprechaun has been connected to leath bhrógan (shoe maker). This definition is also a possibility as many stories about leprechauns have shown their profession to be the cobblers of the fairy world.
The word lubrican, another word associated with leprechaun, first was written in English in 1604 in the play The Honest Whore by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker.  The line from the play states: "as for your Irish lubrican, that spirit whom by preposterous charms thy lust hath rais'd in a wrong circle…"

The Ancient Leprechauns

Leprechauns are thought to have been one of the many types of inhabitants of the fairy forts or fairy rings in ancient Ireland. It has been suggested that the merry tricksters of today may even be a modern incarnation of the Euro-Celtic god Lugh (pronounced “Luck”). Lugh was said to be the sun god, patron of arts and crafts and leader of the Tuatha Dé Danann ("peoples of the goddess Danu").

Altar depicting a tricephalic god identified as Lugus (Lugh)
Altar depicting a tricephalic god identified as Lugus (Lugh), discovered in Reims. (Wikipedia)
Medieval Irish manuscripts (12th -15th Centuries) believed to be associated with leprechauns suggest that leprechauns were originally beings that lived underwater and, contrary to today’s depiction, they weren’t all male. They were depicted as warriors with voracious appetites and the female leprechauns were especially engrossed with luring away human men for secret adventures. These characteristics seemed to continue at least until the aforementioned writing in 1604.
Early leprechauns were described as sly old men that wore red suits and were often found working on a solitary shoe. The word solitary was also applied to the social preferences of leprechauns who seemed to prefer time alone to interacting with other faerie creatures, or even other leprechauns.
There friendless nature perhaps was also partly due to others avoiding them – early leprechauns were also thought to be particularly mischievous house-haunting drunkards. These characteristics were later passed on to the leprechaun “cousins” the clobhair-ceann or clurichaun, an Irish fairy that is always drunk and rude. The clurichaun got the blame for noisy nights and messy homes (especially wine cellars).
An illustration of a clurichaun, cousin of the leprechauns. (1862) T.C. Croker (Wikimedia Commons)

Changes in Leprechaun Traits: Now a Wealthy Shoemaker

By 1825, the leprechaun population was limited to only males. T. Crofton Croker's Fairy Traditions and Legends of the South of Ireland provided more insight on traits of these mythical creatures: “They are often described as bearded old men dressed in green and wearing buckled shoes. Sometimes they wear a pointed cap or hat and may smoke a pipe.”
The Leprechauns of the time were thought to be particularly stylish. Both Samuel Lover, writing in 1831, and William Butler Yeats (in 1888) made mention of the importance leprechauns placed in their appearance.

Lover wrote that a leprechaun was:

“…quite a beau in his dress, notwithstanding, for he wears a red square-cut coat, richly laced with gold, waistcoat and inexpressible of the same, cocked hat, shoes and buckles.”

    Following that, Yeats later added:

    “He is something of a dandy, and dresses in a red coat with seven rows of buttons, seven buttons on each row, and wears a cocked-hat, upon whose pointed end he is wont in the north-eastern counties, according to McAnally, to spin like a top when the fit seizes him.”
    The 18th Century poem by William Allingham entitled The Lepracaun; Or, Fairy Shoemaker further promoted the idea that in the fairy realm occupations are chosen by group, and leprechauns were in charge of keeping the rest of the community’s feet happy. He also provided a hint to people searching for leprechauns (more on why soon) – the presence of leprechauns can be noted by their tapping sounds as they work:
    "Lay your ear close to the hill.
    Do you not catch the tiny clamor,
    Busy click of an elfin hammer,
    Voice of the Lepracaun singing shrill
    As he merrily plies his trade?"


    ‘Elves and the Shoemaker’, originally from ‘The Book of Fables and Folk Stories’, by Horace E. Scudder. Illustration by George Cruikshank (Wikipedia)
    Allingham is often credited as the creator of the “modern leprechaun”: a short man with a red beard, a green hat in which a golden four-leaf clover (symbol of good luck) is tucked, and a green suit with a large buckle on its belt.
    A modern stereotype of a leprechaun
    A modern stereotype of a leprechaun. (Wikimedia Commons)

    The Moral behind Leprechauns

    By the 1800s the perception of leprechauns as wealthy, clever folks was a common notion. Thus the old “wee” (small) fellows were depicted in stories with a strong interest in protecting their gold from the greedy humans that sought it out. Leprechauns are supposed to offer bribes to humans if caught in order to regain their freedom.
    Engraving of a Leprechaun counting his gold, 1900
    Engraving of a Leprechaun counting his gold, 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)
    The legends about leprechauns not surprisingly focus mostly on a human catching a leprechaun then trying to attain their wealth. The most common story involves a boy or farmer who finds a leprechaun and forces him to tell where he has hidden his gold. The leprechaun is obliged to show him to the spot, which is below a tree or plant. As the human is without a shovel he ties a red cloth around the nearby tree/plant and makes the leprechaun swear he will not remove the indicator. When the person returns with the shovel he finds that there are now many red cloths and the leprechaun has vanished. Thus the leprechaun has managed to trick the human and maintains possession of his gold.
    Another similar story tells of a girl who catches the leprechaun and makes him lead her to his treasure, but along the way hears a noise to which the leprechaun tells her there are bees chasing her. When she turns around to look, the leprechaun disappears.
      Also according to some legends a leprechaun carries two leather pouches. He has a silver shilling in one which returns to his pouch whenever it has been given. The other pouch has a gold coin which is said to turn into leaves or ashes once the leprechaun is set free.
      Another widespread interpretation of events after humans find and catch leprechauns is the offering of three wishes to which the capturer goes insane or is tricked as his wishes backfire. A popular story of this sort is that of Seamus. Seamus was a man from County Mayo who caught a leprechaun and was offered wishes. He chose to be the richest man on a tropical island. His wish was said to have come true, but there was a catch – there were no pubs, shops or other people on the island. Seamus got bored and eventually wished to be back in Ireland.
      All of these stories present the same morals: getting rich quick doesn’t work out in the long run, stealing is wrong, and don’t mess with the Irish faerie folk.

      The Fascination Leprechauns Continue to Hold

       Leprechauns are now understood to be the fairy tales of the past and fanciful stories to tell when one sees a rainbow. However there is still a hold these little folk have on modern society. In Dublin there is even a Leprechaun museum which provides tours and detailed information on leprechauns and Irish folklore throughout the ages. Some Irish-themed sites also provide readers with tips and tricks on how to catch a leprechaun (and what to do when you have).
      Leprechaun, Wax Museum Plus, Ireland (Wikimedia Commons)
      On the other side of the pond, General Mills cereal’s Lucky Charms has “Lucky” the leprechaun to keep children entertained while they consume the sugar-filled product for which he is the mascot. There are also horror/comedy movies that are focused on a monstrous trickster of a leprechaun to torment adults.
      Leprechauns may not really provide us a treasure of gold and silver, but they certainly have provided richness to Irish folklore.

      By Alicia McDermott

      Sources:

      Aug 16, 2016

      Philadelphia Recipe, Espresso and vanilla panna cotta



      Ingredients for 6

      • 60 ml strong black coffee
      • 25 g caster sugar
      • 200 ml whipping cream
      • 25 g caster sugar
      • 0.5 vanilla pod, split or 1 tsp vanilla essence
      • 225 g Philadelphia Lightest
      • 1 tsp powdered gelatine dissolved in 1 Tbsp boiling water
      Instructions
      1. Combine the coffee and sugar in a small saucepan and stir until the sugar is dissolved, simmer for 1-2 minutes until syrupy. Pour into small glasses and allow to cool.
      2. Heat the cream, sugar and vanilla pod in a pan until almost boiling but do not allow to boil. Discard the vanilla pod and cool the mixture.
      3. Beat the Philadelphia until smooth and then gradually add the cream mixture and gelatine. Spoon into the glasses and chill for 2-3 hours until set.
      For more recipes click here

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      Aug 13, 2016

      The Power of an orange...


      "In this awesome photograph by Caleb Charland, we see an LED located inside sliced wedges of an orange. The cool part is that the LED is powered by the orange itself. As Caleb explains:

      “Recently one Sunday I spent the day at the kitchen table playing with oranges, copper wires and galvanized nails. My hope was that I could make this on going project work with a single piece of fruit. I tried cutting it into slices and wedges but that ever present voice in my head reminded me the SIMPLER IS BETTER. It only seemed logical to use the orange’s natural wedges as the cells for the battery. The wedges are held up-right with an armature of small wooden skewers. The LED is nestled with in the bounds of the orange wedges. I’m still amazed this worked…though it did require 14 hours of exposure.”


       And....

      Aug 12, 2016

      Lessons from the Hidden World: Icelanders believed in elves, but it is probably not what you think





      Top Image: Haunting and beautiful Middle-Earth-like elves by artist (Araniart/CC BY 3.0)

      Icelanders believe in elves. They refuse to begin major construction projects unless they consult with elves first. They lobby their politicians on behalf of elf colonies. They run “elf schools” and “elf tours”. Elves in Iceland are everywhere and all around.
       

      Reality Check

      Few things about the Icelandic nation are as misrepresented as its ancient belief in the hidden people. Somehow this idea that modern Icelanders believe firmly in the existence of elves gained a bit of traction in the international media a few years back, and the idea snowballed until it seemed that every other media outlet had a “those kooky Icelanders and their elves” story. 
      Yet the elf belief has much deeper and more significant roots that those sensationalized media stories illustrate. We Icelanders are very much aware of our hidden people legacy, but today the elf belief is mostly a non-entity in our daily lives. That being said, occasionally there will be a story of some incident in rural areas where, say, elves are blamed for the breakdown of construction equipment when land is being bulldozed—though it is hard to know whether or not such remarks are in jest.

      Ancient Tales of Hidden People

      There is no doubt, though, that these stories served an important purpose for our ancestors. Our old folk tales speak of álfar and huldufólk - two terms that mean, respectively, “elves” and “hidden people”, and are used more or less interchangeably. They refer to the same sort of beings— (hidden) people who lived in a parallel world to the mortals, yet were invisible to them. 
      For people outside of Iceland, the term “elves” probably conjures up a very different image than it does for Icelanders who hear about “álfar”—some variation of a diminutive being with pointy ears, who may or may not be green.
      Discover Human Belief Infant mortality Scandinavian folklore
       
      Scuplture of "Korrigan", small elf of the Celtic forests. (CC BY 2.0) 
      The álfar of Icelandic folklore, however, were quite a different apparition: tall, regal beings, dressed in luxurious clothing, whose homes were opulent, filled with tapestries and ornaments of gold and silver. They were akin to Tolkien’s elves of Middle Earth, though without the pointed ears. 

      A beautiful Middle-Earth elf imagined by an artist. (Alystraea/CC BY-SA 4.0
      They also held a great deal of power. Hidden people frequently appeared to humans in dreams, often because they needed help. Many stories involved hidden-women in labor who had to have a mortal woman assist them in giving birth. If the mortal woman did as the hidden person (often the husband of the hidden woman in labor) requested, her life inevitably changed for the better. Her crops excelled, her children thrived, and good fortune permeated all aspects of her life. 
      If, however, she refused to help the hidden person, her life took a turn for the worse and she often wound up destitute. In other words, the hidden people had the power to make or break a person’s destiny. 

      Escape to a Land of Abundance and Safety

      Many scholars now believe that the belief in hidden people served a significant psychological purpose for the Icelanders in centuries past, acting as an anti-depressant. Iceland was truly on the edge of the inhabitable world in the days before electricity and central heating. 
      The Icelanders were an oppressed and downtrodden colony, living in turf houses that were dark, dank, and infested with bugs, and they were frequently starving. Infant mortality was high, disease rampant, poverty pervasive, and the landscape and climate harsh and unforgiving. Given these abject conditions, people escaped into a fantasy world, a parallel universe that was very close to their own, in which people very much like themselves lived lives of abundance, prosperity and relative ease. Everything was better in the hidden world - even their sheep were fatter and their crops more bountiful than those of the humans. 

      Painting of Icelandic family in kvöldvaka, by August Schiøtt (1823 - 1895) (Image Source) 
      Yet that was not the only way in which the hidden people stories served to ease the lives and emotional trials of the Icelanders. They also helped them deal with loss and grief. Many hidden people stories involve them abducting the children of mortals and taking them to the hidden world, where they raised them well. 
      These stories, it is now believed, bely a tragic reality. Many children in the Iceland of old went missing. Perhaps their parents did not keep watch over them—after all, people worked up to 18 hours a day in the summer, trying to get the most out of the short season, and children were left more or less to their own devices. Or the children would themselves be working, often alone, as they were sometimes put to work as early as the age of five. Whatever the cause, they often went missing, and given Iceland’s dangerous landscape it is not hard to imagine that they frequently met with accidents: falling into a river, or off a cliff, or into a deep lava crevice. 

      The beautiful but unforgiving landscape of Iceland (CC BY-SA 2.0
      How does a parent grieve for a child when there is no privacy, where one lives with up to ten people in a room about four yards wide and ten yards long? Perhaps they tell themselves that the child has gone to live in the hidden world, where he or she will be well taken care of. The hidden people tales were likely a way for people to process their grief.

      The Gentle Men

      Another motif in hidden people stories concerns the romantic and sexual involvement of mortal women and hidden men, who were called ljúflingar, literally: “gentle men”. In these stories, the woman was very often working in the so-called mountain dairy, or sel in Icelandic, a rudimentary structure located near the mountain pastures, a considerable distance from the farm. This is where the sheep were kept during the summer, and female laborers were often stationed there, sometimes alone, sometimes with a child who watched over the sheep in the pastures, and sometimes with more people, depending on the size of the farm. The woman would be responsible for milking the ewes daily and making butter and skyr, an Icelandic dairy product, similar to yogurt. 

      Turf house with a wooden gafli in Iceland. (CC BY 2.0
      In the stories, the women often became romantically involved with hidden men, and fell pregnant. The hidden man would be very attentive to the woman during her pregnancy, would assist her in childbirth, and afterwards would take the child away to raise it in the hidden world. As an added twist, the hidden man was never able to forget the mortal woman, nor she him, making for a tortured, unrequited romance.

      Scholars today interpret these stories in a couple of different ways. One, it is possible that they were the Harlequin Romances of the time, serving as fantasies for lonely women who would probably not get married, since the authorities of the times placed tyrannical restrictions on who could marry, and regular laborers were at a decided disadvantage. So again, the stories of the lovers from the hidden world helped women escape the severity of their own realities.
       

      An engraving showing a man jumping after a woman (an elf) into a precipice. It is an illustration to the Icelandic legend of Hildur, the Queen of the Elves. (Public Domain) 
      Another explanation, however, is more sinister. Women who worked the sel were often the victims of sexual abuse, either at the hands of their employers or by men from nearby farms. Icelandic law at the time imposed harsh penalties for having children out of wedlock, and so, the stories of the ljúflingar might have been a way to justify an unwanted pregnancy. Even more tragically, the notion that the child was carried away by the hidden man might have been a cover-up for infanticide, which sadly was prevalent in those days, given the cruel repercussions attached to illegitimate births. 
      The couple of examples outlined above have little in common with the sensationalized “Icelanders believe in elves” stories in the media or the Icelandic tourism industry. In fact, that presentation rather trivializes a tragic and profound reality, completely bypassing the glimpse it provides into the rich cultural history of the Icelandic nation.

      By Alda Sigmundsdóttir

      Alda Sigmundsdóttir is an Icelandic writer and journalist. She is the author of The Little Book of the Hidden People, and The Little Book of the Icelanders in the Old Days. You can find her on Facebook or Twitter.

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      Cartoonist and Blogger for Popular Science. The John Hodgman of comics. Pictorial minstrel. Inconsolable grump. As seen in the NY Times.
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