nce upon a time, way up in the mountains, there lived a
great and powerful spirit, who caused it to rain, snow or
fog, or for thunder to roar or lightening to flash, according
to his capricious moods. Sometimes he was seen as a hairy
wild man, others as a strange gigantic figure, horned and
with a tail, walking upright with a tall staff, still others as a
stately wizard, In fact, he was a shapeshifter, and could
become anything from gnome to giant, horrifyingly ugly to
fair and handsome. He preferred to be called “Lord John”
or the “Lord of the Mountains,” but the surest way to upset
him was to call him “Rubezahl.” He was a powerful genius
and all other spirits and creatures of the mountains and the
woods were under his control.
He was a bit of a trickster, and even those he liked could be the brunt of his practical jokes. He was an accepting, tolerant spirit, taking people as he found them, but he did have his standards. To the gentle simple, honest people he was affectionate and helpful, but to all shiftless, lying ones his punishments could be severe.
Recognize Rubezahl? Of course you do – he’s the folktale incarnation of Nørwi, or his later incarnation Eckhart, a swarthy, subservient and hirstute being, bearing a close resemblance to the Woodwose. In place of a spear, he’d brandish a besom – a broomlike instrument, consisting of a whiplike collection of fine nut brushwood ends, attached with twisted thongs around a wooden pole – with which he would threaten children and young women.1 He took on the function of a dark servant to Odin, trailed at times by phantom dogs, a vaporous, eerie coach, headless horses, and a throng of the ghosts of suicides, drunkards and various malefactors. The last were often headless, or were otherwise mutilated. This is what he began doing “offseason,” when he wasn’t doing his autumnal sidekick role.
Flash forward (sort of) to the early middle ages and the veneration of a new saint – St. Onuphrius (pictured left). Europe is at least going through the motions of Christianity – but whose version of it? The problem for the Roman church was that Northern Europe had not adopted Trinitarian Christianity, but Arianism (i.e., “Arianism” with an “i”, a spiritual doctrine, not “Aryanism “ with a “y”, which is racial). It is named for Arius (pictured below in a roughly contemporary painting) a 4th century cleric whose Christian canons were at odds with the orthodox Trinitarian ones confirmed at the Council of Nicaea: A council convened – and likely stage-managed – by emperor Constantine I in 325.
Never mind that two subsequent emperors – Constantine’s son Constantius II (r. 337–361) and Valens (r. 364–378) – were also Arians, or that it was with Constantius’ help and support that a Gothic cleric, Wulfila (pictured preaching below) and Fritigern, a Thervingian Gothic chieftain, separately but collectively oversaw a peaceful conversion of so many so-called “barbanians.” The Nicaean Trinitarians considered Arians to be heretics.
Constantine and his Trinitarians were very clear on the subject:
“…[I]f any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offence, he shall be submitted for capital punishment....”
And what was it about Arianism that upset Constantine and the Trinitarians so much?
For a start, Arians believed the gospels should be translated into the vernacular of the people, and services held in their own language (allowing them to learn Jesus’ revolutionary new teachings for themselves).i Trinitarians insisted that the gospels and services be exclusively in Latin. Arians also disagreed with the Trinitarians over the concept of an equal Holy Trinity. They believed Christ had been created by God the Father, and was thus, in Christ’s own words (John 14:28), inferior to Him.ii Accordingly, they refused to adopt the Nicene creed.
Some Arian places of worship still stand, such as a baptistry in Ravenna, Italy, pictured in the photographs at left,iii erected by Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great between the 5th and 6 th centuries. Arians practiced some degree of religious tolerance, allowing Trinitarians living amongst them to worship freely, albeit in churches and neighborhoods that were segregated from the Arians.
The Trinitarians did not return the sentiment, but there was little they could do to about the Arians – at least at first. In 498, Clovis I, King of the Franks (pictured, right), was the first of the pagan Germanic rulers to embrace Trinitarian Christianity, rather than Arianism. But getting the rest of the Franks to go along proved a long and arduous task that took another 200 years. But the Franks did manage – in the course of a century and a half – to convert their Lombard, Goth and Vandal neighbors from Arianism to Trinitarianism – largely on a pro-forma basis, and at sword point. Meanwhile in the 8 th Century, St. Boniface, with his destruction of pagan shrines throughout Germany, began converting the Saxons. But this, too, was the commencement of a what would be a hard, lengthy process. It was a pyrrhic victory: Trinitarian Christians only actually converted a small percentage of the upper classes – the rest “went along,” but grudgingly, resentfully, with no real loyalty to a religion new and quite alien to the pagans, at odds with their own Arian Christian beliefs.
But the Church had not been without success elsewhere in winning pagan hearts and minds – conversion had been successful amongst the Celts throughout the 5th and 6th Centuries.
They worshipped a three-headed god they called “Lugh” (pictured below), comprised of Taranis, the sky father, Toutatis, the protector and preserver and Esus, the transporter and agent of change. Using the deity as a context, monks were quickly able to get the Celts to understand and embrace the
Christian Trinity. They were similarly able to get the Celts to abandon the pagan festival of Imbolc, changing it to St. Bridget’s feast day. The Church had little hope of reaching out to the resentful Arians, but now had a playbook for marginalizing them by reaching out to Germanic pagans. It appeared to adopt pagan values, claiming that Christian ones were really compatible with them. The Saints – even Christ Himself – were depicted as warrior heroes. The pagan deities were co-opted, and repackaged as “saints.” Festivals sacred to pagans were quietly and similarly co-opted by the Church as its own
But though the pooh-bahs in Rome preferred to have pagans with a veneer of Christianity in charge over the Germanic Christians of the Arian “heresy,” and though they were rather obtuse when it came to the sensitivities of their northern flock, they were not so completely out of the loop that they weren’t aware of Ekhart’s alternative identity. They wanted the Dark Helper back on a chain and back “in the box” of the demonic identity they’d designated for him.
What did they do? They went back to the playbook, naturally: If the Green Man and Woodwose represented a way for the “old religion” to worm its way back into society, the Cburch would simply have to conflate the two, and generate a Green Man/Woodwose saint that would be on the Church’s side, and could be safely managed. Hence, the canonization of St. Onuphrius the Hermit. He was said to be a staunch ani-Arian, who prayed for deliverance from the Arian Roman emperors, Constantius II and Valens. This is historically open to question, since there seems to be a dispute as to whether he lived in the 3rd, 4th or 5th centuries, thus whether he would have been alive during their reigns. What is known is that, after studying jurisprudence and philosophy, he joined a monastery near Thebes (now Luxor, 420 miles south of Cairo), before going into the desert as hermit; an angel was his sole companion, bringing him his daily sustenance as well as delivering communion to him once a week. He was made patron saint of weavers due to the fact that he was depicted “dressed only in his own abundant hair, and a loin-cloth of leaves."
Exactly where in a North African desert, which has six month summers with insufferably hot desert temperatures and dry, burning African winds, one would find leaves sufficient to make a loincloth is an unanswered question – but no matter, since he’s depicted wearing the leaves of the northern European rainforest – the same ones, by fantastic coincidence, that usually surround Green Man – and he’s hairy in exactly the same way as Woodwose.
Logic and reason would have the Church make St. Onuphrius a Green Man/Woodwose assistant to St. Nicholas – a way to sanctify/neutralise Eckhart – instead, St. Onuphrius’ feast day is on the other side of the calendar, June 12. The Church wanted to have its cake and eat it, too. It wanted a Woodwose/Green Man saint it could control, but well away from Christmastide, so that Eckhart could remain a way to ridicule the old religion – a cowed, farcical demon on a chain, doing the bidding of good St. Nicholas – there was no room in their plan for a Nørwi-like partner saint for Nicholas – and this was where the Church made a major mistake.
Or rather, its second major mistake. The first had been its jihad-like attack on the Arians. The second was its approach to the wee folk, still on the fringes of society, who’d seen no advantage to interacting with the Romans and had spent several centuries is hiding and isolation, but had re-emerged after the end of the Roman occupation, sometimes intermarried with practitioners of the old ways. The Roman church had a near-genocidal determination to neutralize them – by wiping them out, if necessary. For all its supposed opposition to Manichæism, the Church’s own philosophy had become almost Manichæistic: There was a fixed, immutable and absolute latitude of right and longitude of wrong, and no room for subtlety, nuance, alternative ideas or shades of grey. Determination of what was good and right was a closely guarded monopoly of the powers in Rome. Anyone found dabbling with that thought risked an ecclesiastical kangaroo court and execution – usually by being burnt at the stake.
But the Arians – or any other “heretics” – had the option of publicly recanting, whilst privately retaining their beliefs and living to fight another day. The same was not true of the “wee folk,” where the Church’s campaign was as much an attack on what they were as upon their beliefs. It was true that the Church, unable to fathom the idea of an omniscient nature spirit that was part of everything, and engaged in creation and destruction as parts of a single process, viewed their panentheism as not only anti-theistic – and therefore heretical – but as satanic. But it was the “wee folk” themselves, living outside the established order with their odd “powers” that upset the Church most.
Not that the Church, at least initially, had any objection to household spells or to herbalism, or to natural healing, as such. It was well aware of “the cunning folk,” as they were called in the Midlands (known as “De kloka [wise ones] in Scandanavia, “Hexen” in central Europe) who practiced a kind of folk magic – often removing or undoing curses – along with herbalism, midwifery and natural healing – which they usually claimed that they learned from certain “familiar spirits.” It was with “familiar spirits” themselves – alternately considered to take human and animal forms – that the Church took issue. The cunning folk were said to be taken to a “fairyland” in the woods or a “netherworld” in the mountain caves, where they feasted and danced with familiars and fair folk, and where they were taught their healing and magic skills. The fair folk and familiars were all said to be shapeshifters, appearing and vanishing at will, “talking to spirits,” practicing divination and brewing their “magic potions” that did more than merely heal – love potions and death potions, in particular. The Church had a reasonably good idea who these people who could take the form of animals were – the same ones who still roamed freely, as of yore, hunting and gathering wherever and whenever they pleased, and thumbing their noses at the rigid social order that the Church sought to impose, with its clergy, royalty, aristocracy, serfs and slaves.
So the Church began a campaign to systematically eradicate those amongst the “little people” who refused to join and abide by the Church and the social order – extending sometimes even to those who did – hunting them down,engaging all too often, in wholesale butchery of families, even entire clans – driving those who escaped deeper into the forests, further into the mountains and even into the marshlands. Fugitives – particularly heretics – runaways – particularly slaves and serfs – and an assortment of malcontents often found their way into these areas, as well. The wee folk might watch them, unseen, for weeks. If they decided the observed person was trustworthy, they might approach the person, more often than not receiving the person into their group, where they intermarried ultimately with the little people. Some of the offspring of these unions later rejoined the society of normal sized people. Marriage records, death records and inscriptions on headstones – dating from the middle ages through the end of the 17th century – record the existence of people of this ancestry living amongst, and intermarrying with, the ordinary people of towns, villages and hamlets across Europe.
Tales of any number of strange creatures can be traced back to the now fugitive little people, or to their halfblood or full-blood offspring. There were the trolls, depicted in the 3 illustrations at top left: Hairy, aboriginal hoarders, living underground or in caves who posed a life threatening danger to any who came near – at times said to lie in wait to trap and eat the unwary, at other believed, as was the case with Rubezahl, to aid the simple and the good, but punish the arrocant and the deceptive. They were also the basis for the trolls’ refined and elf-like cousins, the trow, who ranged from dark, grotesque goblin elves like the one depicted at lower left, to creatures bordering on the “drow” (as depicted in both of the illustrations shown below) of role-playing games and fantasy lit: Beautiful, regal – and despotic, bigoted, corrupt, borderline dysfunctional – and clearly dangerous to all mortals.
It ‘s doubtful the wee folk had the desire – much less the time or the wherewithal – to create any settlement that would even have remotely approximated any drow city, but they were likely ahead of the sluagh (pronounced “sloo-ah”) the “descendents” of those eerie followers Eckhart had of old – who lived underground or in the shadows now – who, over time, became conflated with the little people. Earth, heaven, hell and the pagan afterlife all rejected them, as they degenerated into quasihuman form, said to live off others’ cast-off rotten food, with no cell or cage able to confine them. Tending to act and move as a single hoard, they tried to enter houses of the dying to steal their souls – or failing that, to enter into the homes of the living with the goal of stealing all their secrets, hopes and dreams – or failing even that, to wreak as much havoc in their lives and daily activities as could possibly be arranged at any given moment.
Similar to the Sluagh, but a bit more human – albeit like ugly humans – in their appearance were the Spriggins (left) who lived above-ground in old ruins and barrows, guarding buried treasure and acting as fairy bodyguards. They were also said to spend a lot of time stealing. Usually small, they had an ability to swell to an enormous size. Of poor disposition, they caused mischief to any who offended them, sending storms to blight crops, and stealing mortal children. More hostile yet were the Recaps (pictured left), who lived in ruined castles, murdering travelers who strayed into the ruins and dying their hats with their victims' blood (from which they got their name). Indeed, redcaps needed to kill regularly – if the blood staining their hats ever dried out, they died. They were very fast despite the heavy iron pikes they wielded and iron-shod boots they wore. It was impossible to outrun or outmaneuver them – the only way to escape one was to quote a passage from the Bible. Then they left at once, losing a tooth upon hearing it, which they left behind. In all fairness, it is said that there’s a Redcap residing in a room at Grantully Castle (pictured at left, Redcap’s tower’s to the right) who grants good fortune to any coming across him. It seems, in fact, that the closer ones gets to one of these kinds of creatures, the more benign their disposition becomes – most of the vicious ones tend to be reported from a distance. An example is the forest trolls (left) who become wise and helpful when one actually meets them. Another is the Heinzelmännchen (pictured below).
According to The Fairy Mythology by Thomas Keightley (1833) they lived in the city of Kőln, doing the work overnight whenever the tradesmen or their wives became overwhelmed by the work they had to do. In the case of a tailor they especially liked, they presented him with a sumptuous feast on his wedding day, complete with fine table settings. His new wife wanted to see the benefactors for herself, and strewed peas on the shop, floor which they slipped upon, injuring themselves. Angered, “they went off all in a body out of the town, with music playing, but the people could only hear the music . . . [they] forthwith got into a ship and went away, whither no one knows.” (pp. 30-31). The same book mentions a “hollow” mountain above the moors outside Salzburg with a grand city inside , populated by little people who guard its treasure, and a group of beautiful, pious “Wild women” with long, blonde hair, who feed the children herding the nearby cattle, a times carrying one away – invariably a boy – that they adopt. One of the boys was later seen in the woods, dressed in green
Did the little people hiding in the mountains prosper, mining and hoarding riches, as in so many tales of the dwarves or dwerrow? And what are we to make of the beautiful blonde women? The Wild Women of Salzburg are not an isolated story: There are Elle-maidens in Sandanavia, the web-footed Lamiak in the Basque country (who, like the Heinzelmännchen, will help with the work overnight if the people are overwhelmed, provided meals are set out for them at sunset) and the Ondine throughout much of central Europe, particularly German-speaking portions, who live by forest pools and waterfalls, and can only get a soul by marrying a mortal man and having a child by him.
Are these the descendents of mixed unions between the little people and the normal sized, less hirsute people that they took in and protected? Did the mixed descendents interbreed with one another until their own descendents approximated the size and appearance of the people of the outside world. Was such a premium placed on their appearance by the population that they took to kidnapping the children from the outside world, or to seducing its men, to ensure a perpetuation of that appearance?
The possibility is raised when one considers tales like the ùruisg, said to be a mixture of the brownies of England and mortal men, who, like the brownies, were jolly, helpful household entities (again, like the Heinzelmännchen), who could only be seen when they wanted to be seen (except to mortals with “second sight”), but who were larger and better looking than the brownies, with long, flowing blonde hair. Ùruisg, to perhaps no great surprise, are often sighted – like Ondine – alongside forest pools, rivers, streams, waterfalls and other bodies of water. The Swedes tell of hairy, gnome-like entities, who suddenly transform into beautiful, blonde fairy-like creatures slightly smaller than a child (see illustration, below).
Are these mixed blood descendents of little people and the normal sized fugitives who intermarried and bred with them, who have the appearance of the normal sized people, but were like the little people in terms of their stature? There are other permutations – ones that perhaps are a bit more ominous.
But first, we need to address the inevitable question of whether these women – or rather these female characters – are simply projections of male wish-fulfillment, and have no basis in fact at all. It’s a fair point, and certainly fantasy/wish-fulfillment characteristics were grafted onto them, as they invariably are to any fairy/folk tale character. But created from whole cloth? Doubtful. The Ondine, once they marry and bear a child (and thus “get a soul”) have no more enchantment about them – they become like any other mortal, including the propensity for them to age, for their beauty to fade and for them to ultimately die a mortal death. Some fantasy. No man stayed with a Wild-woman long enough to know whether they age, fade, die or what – but their excessive piety and rigid sense of “morality” would send most men running for the hills. If these are mere wish-fulfillment fantasies then they’re fantasies with very ironic twists. The Lamiak do seem to be hard working and of a sweeter temperament – but then again, there are those duck-like feet – and it’s possible that they age in a rather unsetting way. The Bretons also tell of duck-footed women they call “canard noz” or “ducks of the night.”
These are three hideous old crones, who wash the shrouds of those about to die, or bloody clothes of men about to be killed. They predict who is about to die, and to see them is an omen of death.
Rusalki are a curious, fascinating lot. Clearly a dark version of the Ondine, they reside in trees, near bodies of water. They have pale, translucent skin, long hair and eerily large eyes. But eyes of a Rusalka have no pupils, and their hair is straight, pale blonde, white, or silver – and perpetually wet. Indeed (not unlike the case of the hats of the Redcaps), if their hair ever dries, they will wither and die, but they possess an enchanted comb that they can always use to keep their hair wet. In a way, they are neither dead nor alive, for they are the spirits of young women who drown, commit suicide or have been killed (in some versions strictly brides to be dying before their wedding day, in others any young woman who has died such an untimely death) who have taken on a temporary corporal form until their deaths can be avenged.
Carl Jung insisted that the Rusalka was a dark manifestation of the part of the male unconscious known as the Anima. an inner female personality that Jung believed every male had (just as every female had an inner male personality called Animus). Again there may be aspects of the dark anima that have been grafted onto the Rusalki, but they were not, per se, evil, and there are too many caveats with respect to their power and behavior. True, they were lustful and wild if one met them in the woods, and any male seeking to take advantage of this for his own ends was almost certain to find himself drowned, tickled to death or even killed by a Rusalka’s strange and frightening laughter.
But Rusalki had no power to do any of this if a man kept a fern in his hair – even when he did not, a particular Rusalka could be merciful, particularly to a man she thought might either avenge her or marry her. Indeed, if she married a mortal man, the Rusalka became sweet and demure, though always a bit unstable beneath the surface. Only witches, or those under protection of a witch, were ever completely safe with a Rusalka.
Conflating the Ùruisg, Ondine and maybe Rusalki are the Nøkken, also known as Nykken, Näkki. Näckken or Nekken. They, too, live near bodies of water, growing despondent if they go too far away from them;both male and female, in some versions of the story, the males are gender-reversed versions of the Rusalki, the females akin to the Wild-women, though in most tales they are friendly and harmless, and in some versions even helpful. Beautiful and blonde, they often appeared naked by their bodies of water, although they could dress quite elegantly when they chose. The only ways one could definitely differentiate them from ordinary mortals were that they had slit ears and that, when dressed, the hems of the women’s skirts were wet, as were the men’s hose about the ankle.
Shapeshifters, they could assume the forms of forest creatures, dark hairy little people, dragons, fish, brownies and ordinary mortals. Excellent singers and musicians, they charmed those who heard their music into revelry, meditation or deep sleep, depending on the mood the Nøkken were in at the moment. They were particularly active during the Christmas season, when their music created a particularly enchanting ambience, and instilled feelings of empathy and good will. At this time, they sometimes elected to help out those in need.
Invariably, in any discussion of “wee folk” we come to the Leprechauns. They were Irish water spirits, similar to the Nøkken, but without shapeshifting abilities, called “Luchorpán,” meaning small body. These sprites eventually merged with a mischievous household fairies of the Irish said to haunt cellars and drink heavily. The word leprechaun may also be derived from the Irish leath bhrogan, meaning shoemaker. Indeed, though leprechauns are often associated with riches and gold, their main vocation is anything but glamorous: they are the shoemakers of the fairy world.
It would seem to be a lucrative business, since each leprechaun is said to have his own pot of gold. People lucky enough to find a leprechaun and capture him (or, in some stories, steal his magical ring, coin or amulet) can barter his freedom for his treasure. Clearly there are shades of the Woodwose here, emphasized by the fact that leprechauns are described as hairy, bearded, wizened old men in green. They could also grant their captor three wishes. But getting a Leprechaun to abide by any of this was a problem since, as magical tricksters, they knew any number of ruses, stratagems and machinations to make sure they never had to deliver on the promises they made.
Similarly conflating Leprechauns, brownies and Nøkken are the Gnefro of Italy, who live by waterfalls, guide lost travelers and protect homes. Further north, conflating the Nøkken with imps and brownies are the Wichteln, who help the deserving all year long, but particularly become active during the Christmas season, delivering, or even making gifts. Both Gnefro and Wichteln resemble Christmas elves, and, for all intents and purposes, Wichteln can basically be considered ancestors of all Christmas elf type characters today.
So what happened to the wee folk? We’ve found enough physical remains to map their genome. We’ve enough accounts to know something of how they lived. We’ve juxtaposed this with any number of stories of similarly fantastic creatures throughout Europe. But where are they now? Perhaps, as in the times of Roman occupation, they have found our modern materialistic “civilized” ways too off-putting, and have sequestered themselves away from us. But just as Arians, seeking to escape religious persecution from Roman clerics, or runaway slaves seeking freedom and personal dignity found refuge with them long ago, perhaps those who seek refuge from unfair persecution within today’s society might now and then “disappear” as they find sanctuary with such beings, far from our ability to hunt them down or find them. Then again, perhaps as “halfbreed” forms such as Nøkken, Ondines, Russalki and the like interbred with ordinary mortals, they bred themselves out of existence. But if so, another, more uplifting, possibility exists: That many of us need look no further than the mirror to find a descendant of the wee folk today. Who knows how many of our ancestors may have married such wee folk descendents and how much of their essence flows within us at this very moment, waiting to manifest the moment we open ourselves to it and give it permission to bloom.
i Wulfila had, in fact, developed a Gothic alphabet, thereby launching a new literacy amongst Goths that involved their own language. He then translated the New Testament into this new literary language. ii :”You heard how I said to you ‘I am going away and will be coming to you.’ If you loved me, you would rejoince that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.” Johm 14:28 iii Photos by Georges Jansoone, used under GNU Free Documentation License, and no endorsement or this article or its contents by the copyright holder should be inferred from its use