Monday, May 26, 2008

Of Fairies, Gnomes and Men

In addition to their pantheon of gods, ancient Germanic tribes acknowledged a number of supernatural beings, who were capable of help or harm. Air, meadow, forest, water, even the interior of the earth – in short, everything that surrounded them was populated by such beings. They were generally called Alben (goblins) or Elben (elves) and they inhabited the realm of light (Lichtalben) or darkness (Schwarzalben). Those inhabiting the realm of light lived in Lichtalbenheim, between Midgard and Asgard. They were delicate and gentle creatures of indescribable beauty. They seemed to be woven out of a sheer fabric of sunlight and vapor. They were so light and transparent, that when they landed in the calyx of a flower, it did not tremble. A dewdrop did not break when such a creature alighted on it but rather vibrated ever so slightly. More than anything else, the Light Elves or Light Fairies loved music and their greatest pleasure was dance and play. In forest clearings on quiet moonlit nights, they performed their round dances faster and faster, with ever-higher leaps into the air. Sometimes they preferred to sing their gentle songs quietly, sometimes with an even solemn grandeur. If they were disturbed by curious onlookers, they vanished immediately. Such troublemakers had to take care that the outraged elves did not seek to play some unkind prank in retaliation.

Schwarzalben or gnomes were different from their dear relatives the Light Fairies. The gods created them from the same dark fabric they used to make the monsters. They resided in Schwarzalbenheim, deep inside the earth. Many of them were so small, they could duck inside the shell of an acorn cap. They were a diminutive folk; an entire group could ride a ship fashioned from a leaf. When they celebrated a feast, the amount of water boiled in an egg-shell would be enough for all the guests. Others were about the size of a thumb but the largest among them rarely reached the height of a two-year-old child. They were ugly, their faces dark gray, ashen and full of wrinkles. Beards were wild and unkempt. They lived together in underground holes and the glitter of gold and precious stones that decorated their abodes was so radiant that they did not miss the light of day. Like the Light Fairies and Elves, they loved to dance and play in the moonlight. But they were mindful of the rising sun, for a single ray was enough to turn them to stone. Gnomes were masters of the art of finding precious stones and fashioning beautiful objects from them. They also used magic rings to uncover every treasure deep inside the earth. With their magic caps, they were able to make themselves invisible to humans.

Usually, gnomes were friendly toward humans. They richly rewarded anyone who helped them, but they did not like to be showered with gratitude. If they felt kindly toward a human, they would appear before him at night but never when the sun was shining. They did work for those they favored and it was always perfectly executed, much better than if human hands had performed the task. But woe to the man who offended them! He could be certain that the insulted dwarves would never forgive the misdeed and would seek revenge at every opportunity. They would milk the cows until their udders were dry and at night destroy all the work their enemies had finished the day before. Whatever they could steal, they carried off, including the baby in the cradle. When a human slept who had fallen from their graces, they sat on his chest and weighed down the unsuspecting slumberer like a stone. It was then said the goblin had been pressing again last night. People did everything in their power to ward off the vengeful gnomes, but this was an impossible thing to do. It was best not to kindle their wrath, but to submit to their will. There were many types of gnomes: so-called Heinzel-men, Wichtel-men, Klabauter-men (protective spirits of a ship) and Poltergeist.

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