The Wee folk: Forest Trolls, Wild Women And The Heinzelmännchen

The Wee folk: Strictly Fantasy,  Or Was there a Basis in fact? (Part 7: Forest Trolls, Wild Women, The Heinzelmännchen & The Ondine — Getting Closer)


It seems, in fact, that the closer ones got to one of these kinds of creatures, the more benign their disposition became – most of the vicious ones tended to be reported from a distance. An example is the Forest Trolls (left) who become wise and helpful when one actually met them.  Another is the Heinzelmännchen (depicted in the featured picture).

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 knHeinzelmännchenows.” (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 (see illustration, right), who feed 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.

HeinzelmännchenDid the Wee Folk 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 aren’t an isolated story.

There are the Elle-maidens in Scandinavia, the more diminutive, 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 (depicted, left, in an 1843 painting by Jean-Laurant Agasse) throughout central Europe, particularly German-speaking portions.

The Ondine 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 descendants of mixed unions between little people and the normal-sized, less hirsute people they took in and protected? Did these mixed descendants interbreed with one another until their offspring approximated size and appearance of the people of the outside world?

Was such a premium placed on their appearance by the wee-folk population (or at least the mixed-blood part of it), or did such pressure arise to maintain it, that these mixed-blood descendants took to kidnapping children from the outside world, or its women to seducing outside world men?

The possibility is raised when one considers tales like the Uruisg, said to be a mixture of the brownies of England and mortal men, who, like 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”). They who were larger and better looking than brownies, again, with long, flowing blonde hair. Ùruisg, to perhaps no great surprise, are often sighted – like the Ondine – alongside forest pools, streams, waterfalls, riversHeinzelmännchen 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, right).

Is this an attempt to describe some of the mixed blood descendants of little people and the normal sized fugitives who intermarried and bred with them – descendants who have the appearance of the normal-sized people, but were like little people in terms of their stature (even if the size comparison became rather exaggerated in the narrative)?

Is the transformation no more than one of the little people appearing in the clear for a moment, to hide again in the next to be replaced by a mixed-blood descendant?

There are other permutations – ones perhaps a little 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.

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G. H. McCallum

G. H. McCallum is author of the Reggie Stone series, the first of which, Walking Backwards for Christmas: A Tale of Woe from Soggyhall, was released on 12 December 2014; look for the second, The Bluebottle Boys, in late spring of 2016. He blogs principally on the 1960s, Victoriana and magic realism.