Cultured Wednesday: Thoughts on Brownies

Although I chose two of Arthur Rackham’s brownies for illustration purposes, this post is not about Arthur Rackham, the book illustrator, but about the Brownie, his model.

house sprite
A brownie sweeping with a handmade broom by Arthur Rackham

Rackham most famously illustrated fairy tales and the fairies, brownies, hobs, Heinzelmännchen, sprites, undines and nisse in them.  If you have ever read Grimm’s “Children’s and Household Tales”, or Hans Christian Anderson’s “Fairy Tales”, or William Butler Yeats’ “Irish Folk and Fairy Tales”, or any other European collection of poems and stories, you surely know the Little People who I am talking about.

But did you know that these little household companions used to be far more than helpers for decent people and pests for lazy scullery maids?  They used to be understood and revered as the souls of our dead ancestors.  In fact, it appears as though Europeans, more precisely Proto-Indo-Europeans, first experienced the existence of something beyond their material experience when they were confronted with death.  If you look at different types of household deities, you will find that they are wide-spread in European mythology and fairy tales.


“This religion of the dead appears to be the oldest that has existed among this race of men.  Before men had any notion of Indra or of Zeus, they adored the dead; they feared them, and addressed them prayers.  It seems that the religious sentiment commenced in this way.  It was perhaps while looking upon the dead that man first conceived the idea of the supernatural, and began to have a hope beyond what he saw.  Death was the first mystery, and it placed man on the track of other mysteries.  It raised his thoughts from the visible to the invisible, from the transitory to the eternal, from the human to the divine.”

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges: “La Cité Antique” (The Ancient City), 1864, p. 28-29

In other words, Brownies originated as domestic tutelary spirits, very similar to the Lares of ancient Roman tradition.  Jacob Grimm equated the Roman lar familiaris to the brownie and explains in his “Deutsche Mythologie”, in good linguistic manner, thus:

“Larva betrays its affinity to lar…, and the good kindly lares were often held to be manes or souls of departed ancestors.  So in our German superstition we find instances of souls becoming homesprites or kobolds, and still oftener is there a connexion between unquiet spirits and spectres.”

A tutelary is a guardian deity or spirit.  He can be a patron of a particular place, be it a geographic feature or a homestead.  He can also be a protector of a person, lineage, people, culture, or even occupation.  In late late Greek and Roman religion, one type of tutelary deity, the Genius or Juno, functioned as the personal deity of an individual from birth to death, very similar to the concept of the guardian angel in the Christian tradition.

Another form of personal tutelary spirit are the spirits of European folklore, and those are the kinds we are so familiar with, the little men and women who danced through our childhood dreams, who populated our childhood gardens, who we expected to catch in the closet or behind the curtain if only we could be quick and quiet enough.

If you look into Ancient Greek and Roman religious practices, you will find how these deities related to the ancestors.  In essence, they believed that upon death, the soul and the body of the deceased person did not separate, which is why a proper burial was so very important to the Greeks and Romans back in the day.  Homer and Virgil give plenty of examples of this.  Because the soul stayed with the bones that were buried in the crypt or catacomb, the family was responsible for providing their ancestors with a peaceful rest (hence R.I.P.) by offering food and libations to them.  This was done on little household altars, or hearths, on which live coals were kept as the sacred fire.  As long as the family was alive, so were the coals, and it was the responsibility of the head of the household to tend to them: A cold hearth meant that the family line was ended.  If a family neglected the rites and did not provide food and drink, their ancestors would have no peace in death and plague their living family members with diseases and ill fortune until the proper rights were restored, while ancestors that were well cared for were protectors of the family, tutelary spirits as described above.

Isn’t it fascinating how something that is from of old, that has been formative for our people from the very beginning, is still right here and accessible to us today?  People as formidable as C.G. Jung didn’t tire pointing out the significance of fairy tales for our psychological health because they provide a bridge to that within us which is from ancient times.

Consider this in connection with Jung’s collective unconscious:

“It is a strong proof of the antiquity of this belief, and of these practices, to find them at the same time among men on the shores of the Mediterranean and among those of the peninsula of India.  Assuredly the Greeks did not borrow this religion from the Hindus, nor the Hindus from the Greeks.  But the Greeks, the Italians, and the Hindus belonged to the same race; their ancestors, in a very distant past, lived together in Central Asia.  There this creed originated and these rites were established.  The religion of the sacred fire dates, therefore, from the distant and dim epoch when there were yet no Greeks, no Italians, no Hindus; when there were only Aryas.  When the tribes separated, they carried this worship with them, some to the banks of the Ganges, others to the shores of the Mediterranean.  Later, when these tribes had no intercourse with each other, some adored Brahma, others Zeus, and still others Janus; each group chose its own gods; but all preserved, as an ancient legacy, the first religion which they had known and practised in the common cradle of their race.”

Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges: “La Cité Antique” (The Ancient City), 1864, p. 35

Something to ponder as you go about your business today, wondering where your car keys might have ended up this time.


Featured, you see Rackham’s illustration “O waken, waken, Burd Isbel”, from Young Beichan, Child ballad number 53; here in all its beauty:

brownie rackham2
“O waken, waken, Burd Isbel”, from Young Beichan, Child ballad number 53



2 Replies to “Cultured Wednesday: Thoughts on Brownies”

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