The Housewight

I have had opportunities to think about what is generally called ‘housewight’ in heathen circles, and I remembered a book I read last year from German scholar Erika Lindig.[1] She wrote her doctoral thesis about written and oral traditions of tales and beliefs in the Hausgeist/housewight in Germany, based on tales printed and published in the 19th and 20th century. Which of course means that those tales document a young  development of housewight belief before it died out.

What is a housewight? It is an entitity noticed by people as living in a house and homestead, usually as benevolent, but also sometimes as being full of mischief and malevolence. They do stick to families, but they’re usually connected to older houses and homesteads in a rural environment.

Hausgeist is a scholarly term, the folkloristic name used by common people was Kobold which is a noa term from the 13th century, another, older OHG term was ‚ingesid‘ or ‚ingoumo‘ meaning ‚something which can be discerned in the house‘. There is a great variety in their personal names, which can be derived from the look of the housewight, or are simply human names.

Housewights are usually depicted as solitary beings (meaning there is only one per family/homestead), but they also appear in groups like the Heinzelmännchen. They are usually anthropomorphous, male, of small height and ancient looking. Sometimes they resemble dead persons, in which feature we can discern an echo of an ancient Totenglaube. On the other hand, people seemed to have believed that the dead would just be looking like they did when they died, so recognizing housewights  in dwarf-size shows a late development, a diminuation.

Sometimes housewights take on animal forms or come as dolls and straw bundles, but most of them have a human form.

They stick to a place or homestead but can move with the family or even get thrown out. Or even get bought at the market (which shows a serious loss of power). They usually work in the house, stable or workshop, but sometimes on the whole homestead, rarely on fields. Most of them lived on farms or homesteads, but there are a few housewight tales from castles or noble residences. Note that those housewights which dwell in castles usually are fully sized, not small.

Housewights have equal rights with all family members and are seen as possessing the place along with the family. They are sometimes quiet and friendly, sometimes moody and loners, but most often they have a sense of humour and like being with their family, however, their relationship to humans is ambivalent. If they are treated with respect and given their due, they are wise and share their wisdom, give advice, find lost things or give warnings. In addition they help with the homestead chores and make work go more smoothly.

The vast majority of housewights are regarded as protective spirits for the homestead and all who live there. They protect by giving warnings and advice or scare away suspicious or bad visitors. They bring about prosperity and luck, but they also control social and moral norms, their help mirrors human achievements, so the welfare of the house really lies in the hands of the people who live and work there, the housewight seems to act like a catalysator. If the housewight feels the need to punish, the range of punishments goes from playing tricks or making noise to bodily punishments or the death of animals, to leaving the house and inevitably taking luck and affluence with them which means the ruin of the family.

Housewights are ambivalent figures – essential for luck and mischivous  as well as threatening. This points to a pre-christian tradition, tales where housewights are simply diabolical are usually a secondary and christianized development.

Housewights act out of their own and by their own might, through presence and support. They are „mächtige, übernatürliche Hauswalter mit unbenommener numinoser Autorität.“[2] Housewights require the observance of quite a few taboos, in general they like quiet and order in the house, the require respect, politeness and good food. Preferred food is milk, grain porridge with butter, bread, or what the family eats. This is their due reward, but on the other hand the giving of food has sacrificial character but cannot seen as sacrifice in itself because it isn’t given within a ritual context and with a magical, quasireligious awareness. We have surviving tales where giving of food clearly has a cultic character , recognizable with the giving of the first bite or the last (which in German is called Primitialopfer, respectively Restopfer), or the food is being put in front of the hearth, the hearth being one of the preferred sleeping spaces of the housewight.

Milk and grain products have always been preferred as sacrifices for the dead/ancestors, their use points to a genuine relationship of housewight lore to a dead/ancestor cult (as problematic as this is term is in itself).

There are also taboos connected to watching them work, and sighting them in general, addressing them in the correct way or not at all, and having them stay at the same place. Taboo violations were punished severely, and usually housewights don’t want to be seen.

Housewights are Kollektivschutzgeister, they protect intact families, sometimes for generations. They bring luck, which is central to housewight lore. The more industrious and responsible the humans work and act as a family, the more luck the housewight brings, in this way, he is performing as protector of social norms, which are supposed to guarantee continuity.

The body of folk tales shows clearly that housewights were perceieved as real in the past, but the tales are reported in a tone which suggests that belief is past, housewights have lost power in very young tales and ritual encounters or detailed food offerings are missing in them, often showing a lack of respect.

The root of housewight belief is disputed. Some scholars seem to recognize and prove that the housewights were genii loci, some point out clear parallels to ancestor belief, and it is not possible to recognize at this moment which roots are historically older or more genuine. It is common opinion that both fields of perception (as a genius loci or an ancestor) already conglomerated in pre-christian times, and that the Totenseelen– idea layered over the idea of genius loci.

Belief in housewights in German speaking regions went through a distinct development, housewights suffered a loss of function, demonization or disempowerment, first and foremost because Martin Luther and the Protestants fought what they called superstitions, and because of  structural changes in society, like giving up a rural lifestyles with homesteads and small villages and urbanization.


Nowadays, belief in housewights and offering to them has died out in Germany, despite the success of picture books like ‘Tomte Tummetott’ by Astrid Lindgren and Harald Wiberg. It looks like, as usual, Scandinavian traditions are being regarded as much more appealing as local ones, even when they’re not that different from each other. It would really be nice to compare the Nisse and the Kobold, and also think about the álfar and Alben.


– German version next week –



[1] Lindig, Erika: Hausgeister. Die Vorstellung übernatürlicher Schützer und Helfer in der deutschen Sagenüberlieferung. Zugl.: Freiburg i. Br., Univ., Diss., 1986. Frankfurt am Main: Lang (Artes populares, 14).


[2] Lindig S. 110

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