Kobolds and cavern-dwellers

A brief history of goblins, elves and ‘hidden folk’

By Soncirey Mitchell
Reader Staff

Among the modern aesthetic practices popularized by social media lurks the aptly named “goblincore,” which celebrates the conventionally ugly and prioritizes personal happiness over current beauty standards. Though Gen-Z has adopted the goblin as a symbol of freedom and personal expression, the history of goblins in European myth is far more complex than modern adaptations might suggest.

Across Europe, goblins have been known by various names — including pucks, fae, bugbears, fairies, dwarfs and elves — and range from helpful to murderous. Fantasy content like The Hobbit and Dungeons & Dragons treat these mythological figures as separate races, but looking back to at least the 13th century reveals that all these little, invisible people were relatively synonymous until new literary traditions put their own spins on them.

Origin stories

One of the surviving creation myths from Norse mythology, recorded by Icelandic historian and poet Snorri Sturluson in the 13th-century Prose Edda, recounts the creation of dwarfs at the beginning of the universe. Also called “dark elves,” these beings began life as maggots crawling from the corpse of the giant Ymir, from whose body the gods made the universe.

“Then [the gods] gave them wits and the shape of men, but they live under the hills and mountains in rocky chambers and grottoes and caverns. These man-like maggots are called dwarfs,” according to Kevin Crossley-Holland’s English retelling of the Prose Edda.

Despite these unflattering origins, the dwarfs do play an important role in Norse myth as craftsmen, advisers to the gods and personifications of the four directions, which Sturluson believed held up the sky.

The dwarfs of the Prose Edda will sound familiar to fantasy fans for a number of reasons. First, Sturluson names some: Gandalf, Thorin, Nori, Dori, Ori, Oinn, Gloin, Fili, Kili, Bifur, Bafur, Bombor and Dvalin. J.R.R. Tolkien used these names for his characters in The Hobbit, adding the dwarf Balin.

The Norse dwarfs bear characteristics that modern audiences would likely associate with goblins and trolls — they were said to be ugly, deformed and greedy with a healthy fear of sunlight, given that exposure turns them to stone. Their magical qualities were something to be feared, as shown in Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga, in which a dwarf kidnaps the mythical Swedish king, Sveigðir, ending his reign.

As Christianity took hold in Europe, so did alternative origin stories for these beings. Folklore compiled by the 19th-century Icelandic author and librarian Jón Árnason, and translated by Jacqueline Simpson, suggests two Christian explanations for “elves,” or hidden folk more generally.

In one version of events, the Abrahamic God visited Adam and Eve post-Garden of Eden to check on their children. When he arrived, however, Eve had only given some of her kids a bath and shoved the dirty ones out of sight, leading God to decree, “That which had to be hidden from Me, shall also be hidden from men.”

Alternatively, Icelandic tradition also suggests that the fae refused to side with God or the Devil, and therefore fell to Earth as morally gray, disembodied spirits. Simpson believes that the clergy invented and emphasized this incorporeal version of elves to teach their followers that you cannot — and should not — have sex with them.

This is heartbreaking news for fans of New York Times bestseller A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J. Maas.

Practical considerations

Living in close proximity to potentially dangerous, otherworldly beings led to the invention of certain rules, shared across cultures, to appease them. Myths from the British Isles all the way to Eastern Europe affirmed that fairies, goblins, boggarts, etc. could inflict diseases and insanity, kidnap, mangle or murder people or, if treated well, bestow good fortune and perform household chores.

In part, the extensive list of synonyms for the same or similar creatures stems from the belief that calling a fae by its name would offend it. Polite alternatives include generalizations like “good neighbors,” “little people” or “hidden folk,” or descriptive titles like “redcaps,” so named for their hats dyed in human blood.

UCLA Professor Gail Kligman documented existing Romanian beliefs in beautiful, mythical women called simply iele, which is a third-person plural feminine pronoun that would translate as “they” in English. Even with the cautious wording, simply interacting with the iele results in permanent disfigurement or death.

Mischievous but relatively helpful beings like the Scottish brownie, the Germanic kobold or the Slavic domovoy are now categorized as “house spirits” due to the belief that they would take up residence with families, performing chores and ensuring farmers’ prosperity. House spirits were — and in some regions, still are — treated with the utmost respect and given daily portions of food and drink to ensure their favor.

If denied their due, even these beings will resort to diabolical deeds to punish their former families.

For believers, it was relatively impossible to avoid the fae. They were said to inhabit wild areas like forests or mountains, but also held power in towns, especially in liminal spaces.

Transitional times and spaces like dusk, midnight, crossroads and thresholds represented an intersection between the human world and whatever lies beyond, allowing people to unwittingly fall into other realms.

“One key is ambiguity, the concept of both/and and neither/nor. If a man stands exactly on the boundary where three parishes meet, on the stroke of midnight, in which parish is he, and what date is it?” wrote Simpson in European Mythology. “He has cut loose from normal space and time. He has also reversed normal human conduct by going outside at night, the time when supernatural beings are active, but humans should be asleep.”

A key characterization of these other worlds is the belief that they are simultaneously all around us and relatively impossible to purposefully reach. According to Welsh Academic Brinley Rees, in Celtic folklore these worlds existed on distant islands; underwater in lakes, rivers and oceans; or underground beneath specific hills or mounds, which believers refused to go near.

It’s likely that the taboo around tampering with earthen mounds has preserved many ancient burial sites.

Fae reimagined

Though historically elves, dwarves, fairies and goblins were all essentially the same thing, the English literary tradition has shaped these beings into distinct races. The separation began in earnest in the 16th century with William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose depiction of idyllic fairies captured the Elizabethan imagination and influenced subsequent literary and artistic portrayals.

Shakespeare’s character Puck underwent the largest transformation. A puck (also written as púca, pwca, pooka, phouka, bucca, púki, puke or puk depending on the Celtic or Germanic region), was initially a malevolent spirit or demon that wouldn’t be caught dead meddling in the affairs of lovers. Shakespeare used the name “Puck,” but characterized him as an English hobgoblin or “goodfellow,” which were more joyous and mischievous than deadly.

Subsequent literary depictions of pucks and fairies romanticized them further, shrinking them down into miniscule creatures, adding insect wings and using their images to evoke a bucolic, halcyon time that stood in opposition to increasingly industrialized metropolitan life.

While the image of fairies crystallized, the exact nature of goblins was relatively undefined until 1937 when Tolkien published The Hobbit, casting goblins as one of the chief antagonists. These ugly, cruel cave-dwellers are akin to the Norse dwarfs and inspired the gnarled characters that populate Harry Potter, Labyrinth and many other works of modern fantasy.

Tolkien’s characterization of goblins was so influential that it remained even after he began calling them orcs in The Lord of the Rings. The word “orc” likely stems from the Old English “orcneas” for “monsters,” but was not a fleshed out fantasy race until Tolkien’s time.

Our cultural imagining of goblins has changed to reflect the needs of the time. After 87 years of vilified goblins, the internet is now reshaping them yet again, dropping the malicious elements and using goblins as champions of freedom of expression. The trinkets, toadstools and earthy tones of the goblincore aesthetic continue to attract more followers, modernizing a tradition that has existed for time immemorial.

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