Household Spirits, Ancestors, and the Fae
When Everything Had Consciousness...
Times have really changed since the times of our ancestors. What used to be a "simple" life has now grown complex, according to some. But if we were to look at the beliefs of our ancestors and the way they lived their daily lives, we would see perhaps it wasn't always so simple for them. In fact, many (if not most) of our ancestors once were what we call animists - they believed that everything in nature had a consciousness. Everything was thought to have a spirit. This would have made things a lot more interesting, right?
Much of their everyday routines and customs were centered around appeasing the spirits in nature and in their own homes. To them, the belief in spirits of trees, rivers, and even spirits of their homes was not just "silly superstition"...it was reality. From China to England and everywhere in between, every one of our ancestors believed in these spirits and took precautions not to upset or provoke them. Not such a simple life, was it? Nowadays the majority of people don't believe in spirits in the way our ancestors did. Sure, we might believe in a God or angels, but the belief in household spirits, revenants and fairies has all but faded.
In this article, I plan to examine the following:
- Household Spirits: their origins and customs surrounding them
- Ancestors: belief in appeasing and working with the ancestors
- The Fae: how the fairies could be helpful or even harmful as household spirits
Join me on an adventure into our past, to a world when our venerable ancestors lived alongside spritely and even vengeful household spirits.
Beliefs in Household Spirits
As mentioned, our ancestors believed everything in nature had consciousness, so when trees were cut down and other things from nature were used to build a home they believed these tree spirits were brought to the construction of their homes. Others believed that spirits from the natural landscape where a home was placed would become domestic household spirits. This is why there were many superstitions as to where a home should be built. For example, sometimes our ancestors would stay the night at the proposed site of a new home without shelter to see if any evil spirits would manifest. If the person made it through the night and slept soundly, this was a sign they could build their home there. There were all sorts of methods of testing for a suitable site, including checking to see if any of the ground or surrounding trees were previously burnt by fire. Fire was always a bad sign, and many people would refrain from building on a land where there had previously been a fire. This is because fire was often associated with malevolent spirits. If there were benevolent nature spirits on the site of the new home, the home-owners might petition these spirits to become their household spirits instead.
Other methods of acquiring a household spirit were a little more malicious and disturbing. You've been warned. In some areas of Eastern Europe and Asia, when a new home was built the people would literally sacrifice a human being and place him/her in the walls or bury him/her under the hearth, etc. They believed this person's spirit would be eternally tied to their home and become their household spirit. Along similar lines, when someone in the family died a violent death in the home via suicide or homicide etc. the windows were opened immediately so as to let the soul out. They didn't want a violent spirit lingering and wreaking havoc on the household. If a family/person moved into an already-established home, they might be inclined to believe the original owner of the home to be the household spirit. Some believed their own ancestors to be the household spirits or even types of fairies (the fae)...but more on the ancestors and the wee folk later in this article.
There were many, many names for household spirits, and these vary by continent, region and down to the individual family. The name for the household spirit will also differ depending on what kind of household spirit it is believed to be (its origins). They were also titled differently depending upon where in the house they were thought to reside. Some household spirits lingered on the thresholds (doorways, windows, chimneys), while some lived behind or beneath the hearth. The corners of a home were thought to harbor evil/malevolent spirits and so people would place incense or other means of cleansing in each corner to be rid of the malicious spirits.
But what did a household spirit do? Often they were thought to protect the family and to aid the family in times of illness. They were also believed to help in daily tasks and chores around the house, in the stable and on the farm. Some were even thought to bring their families riches and power. There are many stories of household spirits fetching gold and riches for a family without the family's knowing.
A huge difference between modern and Westernized people today is that we do not believe and honor our ancestors like we once did. Our ancestors believed so strongly in honoring their ancestors that it constituted much of their belief systems and religions. There are certain religions today that still honor and focus on ancestor-worship; however, this has all but diminished in places where it used to flourish in Europe and elsewhere. Surely here in the United States there are not that many people incorporating ancestral beliefs into their everyday lives. This is for reasons we will discuss in detail later.
But what do ancestors have to do with household spirits? Our ancestors believed their ancestors could be their very own household spirits; this was especially true if the home itself had been passed down from generation to generation. If an ancestor built, lived and died within a home, he or she was most likely to occupy that home even after death in order to protect it and the subsequent descendants. You would often see ancestor shrines and altars set up around the home to honor the ancestors present. This gave the occupants a sacred place to meet and give thanks to their household spirits/ancestors for protection, abundance, health, etc.
In certain places in Northern and Eastern Europe, a place at the dinner table was set for the household spirits to enjoy offerings of food and drink. If the ancestors were not honored, they would leave or become angered spirits/ghosts. So it was important to provide them their own space and respect them.
The Fae - Brownies, Elves, Etc.
In addition to the origins of household spirits discussed above, quite a few of the folk tales from all over Europe include the wee folk (fairies) as being a part of the household spirit phenomenon. In Scotland there was the Brownie - a small man who lived and worked in a household at night. He was said to help the lady of the house with the chores she could not finish, as long as she was a hard worker and pure of heart. The Brownie could shapeshift into the form of a rooster, and there are rhymes about this in Scotland. It was said to never offer the Brownie clothing as appreciation, as this will prompt him to leave your home for good. Folk tales from other parts in Europe share this belief of never thanking the household spirits with clothing.
Have you seen the Harry Potter movies or read the books? The household spirit is represented cleverly in the form of the "house elves" called Dobby and Creature. JK Rowling used many folk tales as inspiration for various parts of her book series. And yes, when Harry Potter gives a sock to Dobby, Dobby is then free from servitude to the Malfoy house (an obvious play on the custom previously mentioned of never giving clothing to a household spirit).
The wee folk as household spirits very rarely revealed themselves to the household family. If you saw one of them it was said to never look directly at them or address them but to go about your way lest you drive them off. Sometimes the household spirit would show up in the form of a child or a wee man, sometimes as a full-grown adult with red hair. Again, depending on the region and family the household spirit could take many different shapes - even that of animals or everyday objects such as a tea kettle or fire poker, etc.
In Italy there is a household spirit known as the monaciello (little monk). The monaciello resembles the Irish leprechaun, but he does not watch over a pot of gold or grant wishes. His main job is to guard and protect the family's wine cellar. Stories of the monaciello talk of him getting drunk on the family's wine from time to time. Also, don't anger him or your entire stock might go bad or be overturned!
Other household spirits in the form of the fae include sprites and imps. Some say these household fairies were not fairies at all but actually demons or familiars in the disguise of the good folk, as demons had the ability to shapeshift into whatever form they chose.
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Where Have the Household Spirits Gone?
If our ancestors were so adamant about these household spirits, wouldn't we still have household spirits today? Where have all these household spirits gone?
One theory is that these household spirits are gone because most people in the Western hemisphere and elsewhere just don't believe in them anymore. We generally don't believe in "spirits" like we used to, and so why would these spirits stick around to help us out if we don't even acknowledge their existence? With disbelief comes disappearance. We don't believe in our ancestors, so they aren't going to stick around. We don't believe in fairies so they're not going to help us out if they exist.
Another problem came with industrialization. When things were more wild and people lived amongst the animals and trees, the spirits abounded. Now that we live in little man-made boxes in suburban areas where the trees have been cut down and the wildlife pushed out, the natural spirits of the land no longer inhabit our property nor do they want to come and inhabit our homes. Houses are also built out of more man-made materials now than they were back then, i.e. less natural woods and stones which leads to less natural spirits inhabiting our homes. Plus many of us live in new homes that haven't been passed down from generation to generation, so there is no ancestral history at our homes...and no household spirits being passed down to us.
Or is it that these household spirits were actually pagan gods that most of us no longer believe in? The largest religion in the Western hemisphere is Christianity, and Christianity does not allow for belief in the old pagan gods (mostly), so why would these gods inhabit our homes?
Or perhaps the reality is the household spirits never really existed to begin with. Perhaps it was all just silly superstition or just religious aspects of our ancestors' lives. But whatever the case, it is hard to deny that the household spirits played such a large part of our ancestors' lives once. What do you think?
© 2015 Nicole Canfield
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