Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

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Monsters in the Closet: Echoes of Household Spirits

For about a year, my son had a mild fear of goblins, ever since he saw the kidnapping scene at the beginning of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth – nothing that kept him up at night, but something he mentioned frequently and required reassurance about.

What I find particularly interesting was his belief that goblins reside in and enter from his closet. His belief was so strong that, for a few months, my husband and I had to tie his closet doors shut with ribbons every night to reassure him that the goblins couldn’t come in. The closet seems a natural residence for fearsome things -- it is the darkest place in a room, especially at night, and we fear what we can't see. Yet this belief about spirits in storage places isn't new.

Spirit Residences

A belief about monsters in the closet (or under the bed) is found in many cultures throughout Europe. In Germanic countries, these monsters are often called butzemann, busseman, or another similar term. They are described as dark, often formless shadow-creatures. Sometimes, they’re reputed to kidnap children who don’t go to sleep at night or otherwise misbehave. It may be related to instances of sleep paralysis and “hag syndrome,” in which sleepers wake in the night to find themselves paralyzed and occasionally pressed by shadow figures.

Yet this nursery lore may also have its origins in household spirits. Take, for instance, the kobold, which I’ve written about before. This spirit is said to occupy “a corner of the dwelling—attic, cellar, or garret—and this offers us a link to the junk room spirit (Polterkammer)” (Lecouteux). Like the hobgoblin, kobolds are believed by scholars to be connected to the Anglo-Saxon cofgodas, cove-gods, honored in niches and cupboards. In fact, “kobold” is believed to be the German variant of the English word “goblin.” The English term bogeyman (UK) or boogeyman (US) stems from Middle English bogge – again, meaning “goblin.”

The Di Penates resided in the innermost part of Roman homes, the storeroom or pantry. They were worshipped as “deities of provision,” the sustenance that households required to survive (Britannica.com). As such, they were honored during family meals and on special occasions through a family shrine. Offerings included “portions of the regular meal or of special cakes, wine, honey, incense, and, more rarely, a blood sacrifice” (ibid.) Perhaps it’s the blood sacrifice associated with spirits of the household that generated the fear of them – make them angry, and they might choose a member of the household as their portion, as the kobolds were reputed to do.

Who's Afraid of the Boogeyman?

One way of getting rid of a spirit that causes sleep paralysis, which many night-haunting spirits do, is keeping mistletoe or thunderstones nearby (Thorpe 30). Thunderstones are “any of various stones (such as a meteorite or an ancient artifact) regarded as having been cast to the earth as thunderbolts” (Merriam-Webster). The connection to Thor, the Thunderer – protector of humanity against other spirits – lent to these thunderstones apotropaic powers.

One could also give them a portion of the family’s meals, or otherwise bread, milk, or wine. This would satisfy a house-dwelling spirit and might even inspire them to help out around the house: cleaning, fixing broken things, caring for domestic animals, or bringing in wealth stolen from neighbors.

These days, my son talks about goblins rarely. He began to overcome his fear after watching the Sofia the First episode with trolls, which spawned an imaginary friend he called “the tiny goblin.” Never underestimate the power of the imagination to create fear as well as conquer it.

 

*Image: "Here Comes the Boogeyman" by Francisco Goya, via Wikimedia Commons

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, crafter, witch, spirit worker and traveler, guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic and Slavic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

Comments

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Monday, 30 July 2018

    I remember reading about old stone axe heads being regarded as thunderstones. Those definitely qualify as ancient artifacts. The interplay between Jim Henson's Labyrinth and Sophia the First in your sons imagination is interesting. I wonder what he would make of the anime Natsume Yuujinchou?

  • The Cunning Wife
    The Cunning Wife Friday, 03 August 2018

    I love Natsume Yuujinchou! I know he'd be a big fan of Nyanko-sensei (but who isn't?), but some of the more aggressive yokai would probably be nightmare fodder. Haha

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