Goblins, Hobs and Brownies


In the lands of Britain, Scandinavia, Ireland and Germany the goblin is an evil creature of legend who dwells in caves, woodlands, the chinks of trees as well as within private houses and homes. As familiar demonic spirits they are regarded as illiterate and mischievous phantom-like entities with a grotesque appearance, and who are related to brownies and gnomes. In fairy lore the goblin is possibly the “…most ambiguous of all fairies…. are generally agreed to be mischievous and ugly.” (Edwards, 1974).

In folklore and fairy tale they are often depicted as small dwarfish individuals. In size they are believed to be only a few inches tall with a love of money, a greedy outlook, and possessed of magical abilities. The characteristics of goblins depend upon their country of origin and they are ascribed with various conflicting temperaments and abilities. Despite their prankish and erratic temperament they are known to be fond of children and like horses.

Etymologically of uncertain origin as European sprites the word goblin may derive from the Greek kobalos meaning a roguish spirit. As European demonic and  impudent sprites they may be related be related to the German kobold. In some circumstances goblins are portrayed as bogeys of a malevolent nature used to frighten children. Indeed, some goblins are deemed to be night terrors whereas others are more benignly akin to bugs or brownies (Edwards, 1974).


A kobold.

As nursery bogeys they are perceived as child-guzzlers or kinderfresser and kindershrecker or child-frighteners. Their malicious activities often extend to creating night-time household havoc that includes breaking dishes and knocking on walls.

Goblins, as wandering malicious forms are common in English and French folklore, and occur as alternatives including gobblin, gobeline, goblyn, gobbelin, as well as the Welsh coblyn, a type of knocker. In Wales the tribe of the goblins is ruled over by Gwyn ap Nudd. In French the word gobelin is reputedly a derivative of the surname Gobel which is in turn connected to the Greek kobalos or kobaloi. The English or Anglo-Norman goblin has been borrowed from the Old French gobelin from the gobelinus of medieval Latin. During the 17th century in France goblins were classified as demons, along with cacodemons, the incubi, the succubi, and gobelins, and thus wicked spirits. Classifying goblins as ‘demons of the night’ merely adds to the mystery and is not helpful to view them as demons and tormentors of mankind. This classifies them as  boggarty lutins, of Normandy, from the original nuiton suggesting a derivation from nuit because lutins are also night demons. The French connection can also be seen in terms of the Old Saxon word luttel meaning little in English or small in stature.

Of interest are the hobyah who are cannabalistic goblins found in Scotland and in New England. As nursery bogeys they skip and run about on their toes. In the folklore and tales of America and Scotland they are reputed to carry off old women. There is a tradition of the goblin in Hinduism. There is an original reference in the Bhagavata Purana where goblins are attendants and servants of the god Hara-Bhava – lord of a sub-region. This sub-region is referred to as Vitala one of the  seven sub-regions comprising Patala – the physical underworld and the spiritual netherworld.

The hobgoblins or ‘hobs’ are not actual members of the fairy world. Seen as hairy dwarfish men they are regarded as ugly, impish and misshapen creatures related to Brownies and Robin Goodfellows. The hobgoblin or hob in one context is in fact “…a familiar or rustic variation of the Christian name Robert or Robin…” (Edwards, 1974). In this sense they are a variation of Rob-goblin or goblin robin. Robin Goodfellow is commonly known as Puck, a meddlesome member of the fairy Seelie Court and mischievous folkloric spirit. A puck that supposedly haunted the countryside during the England of the 16th and 17th centuries. Best known of all the hobs Robin Goodfellow is a singular and ubiquitous character who, in common with the devil, can appear anytime and anywhere. In the witchcraft tradition of old Britain the name Robin Goodfellow’ has an association with the devil which emphasises “…the demonic or malicious side of his nature…” (Edwards, 1974).

Hobgoblins are not demons, bogeys or goblins but comprise a genera of capricious and volatile types of brownies and pucks. Fond of practical jokes they are much friendlier and more benevolent and amenable than goblins. Hobgoblins, or hobs due to their traditional attachment to the household hearth or hob, are often found within the home. In the home the hobgoblin is wont to stretch out by the hob or fireplace when the night’s work is done. In such circumstances they carry out household tasks and chores and odd jobs while the family sleeps.

A hobgoblin is therefore often attached to a particular family who in English is regarded as the goblin of the hob, a household fairy who tends and makes up the fire. For their efforts they expect compensatory feeding. However, even though by nature they are characteristically good-humoured they can be destructive if offended or vexed. In such a mood they will spoil crops, set cows and animals loose, sour or spill  the milk, as well break dishes and pots.

In folklore the brownie, all of which are male, is similar to the hobgoblin or hob who but who belongs to no society. Even though they do have attachments to mortals they supposedly inhabit ancient dwellings preferably attached to farms. In common with the hob they help with the household chores during the night and are inhabitants of the home. A feature of the Brownie is that they do attach themselves to particular families to who they will render service for centuries – including corn threshing, house cleaning, tending the hearth, as well as agricultural pursuits.

The location and distribution of the Brownie is restricted to Scotland and the north of England. A relative of the French gobelin they have a brother or cousin called the Bwbach, a type of the bug, in Wales. Even though the Brownie is not a Celtic sprite they do seem to have found their way into Cornish folklore. In Lowland Scotland they are known as brownies, as well as urisks , brunaidh and uruisg. In Scottish Gaelic they occur as gruagach. The uruisg tend to be solitary and live near or in streams and waterfalls, in tree hollows, the dwellings of men and even abandoned castles.  Seasonally they help in farmyards and stables at harvest time.

Of diminutive size with an aged and wrinkled appearance they are called ‘Brownies’ because of their tawny and swarthy countenance. They are also covered in short curly hair and garbed in a brown hood and mantle.

References and Sources Consulted.

Atkinson, J. C.  (1891).  The Hob and Other Matters… In: Forty Years in a Moorland Parish.  Macmillan, London.

Briggs, K.  (1976).  An Encyclopaedia of Fairies.  London.

Campbell.  (1900).  Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. J. MacLehone.

Edwards, G. (1974).  Hobgoblin and Sweet Puck.  Geoffrey Bles, London.

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