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Wednesday, March 23, 2022

The Fairy Folklore in Pan's Labyrinth

 Continuing on with my series of fairy folklore in films and television let's look at the 2006 film Pan's Labyrinth, or 'El laberinto del fauno' [the labyrinth of the Faun]. This movie, much like Henson's Labyrinth, is full of folklore references which are worth discussing, as well as many references to classical literature and mythology which are beyond the purview of this blog. As with previous discussions we'll approach this bullet point style and talk about what we find in the movie versus what we'd expect in folklore. 
Spoilers ahead!

A very quick recap of the plot: a young girl named Ofelia and her pregnant mother go to live with her new stepfather who is a military officer trying to capture rebels fighting the government in Spain. Ofelia is led by a fairy into a labyrinth and meets a creature called the Faun who explains that she is the reincarnation of a princess who fled the world of fairy/underworld and was lost in the mortal realm. Ofelia is given three tasks to complete to return to the Underworld: retrieve a key, steal a knife, and (as is eventually revealed) spill a drop of innocent blood. She is initially given three fairies to help her accomplish this but when she tries to complete the second task she breaks a rule and eats some food after being told not to, resulting in the deaths of two of the fairies. In the midst of this her mother dies giving birth to Ofelia's brother. For the third task, which she hasn't been given in full yet, she is told to bring her infant brother to the labyrinth; when she does so - pursued by her furious stepfather - the Faun tells her to spill his blood. She refuses and her stepfather arrives, takes the baby, and shoots her. As she lays dying, her blood trickles into the labyrinth and the scene cuts to her in the Underworld where Ofelia is seen rejoining her mother and father who are sitting on thrones. The Faun acknowledges her as the princess.

   Let's look at the various points of folklore:

  • Ofelia initially sees a small fairy which appears as a stick bug but transforms into a fairy later. This is certainly playing into more recent (19th/20th century) folklore that has merged fairies with insects in various ways.
  • Ofelia is the only one who seems able to see the fairies. At various points in the film Ofelia is not the only one present when a fairy is near but she is the only one who can see them; even when her stepfather sees her talking to the Faun he sees only Ofelia. There is very old widespread folklore which tells us that the fairies can and do pass invisible to human sight but that some people, through natural affinity or through magic, may be able to see them. 
  • The number three shows up prominently in several important places. While not as widely noted in relation to fairies as the number 7 is we do see three being an important number across folklore as it is here with Ofelia's three tasks and three fairy helpers. 
  • Three tasks being required to win a prize or achieve a goal is something that in itself is sometimes found in fairylore or fairy stories. In some changeling folklore a person must do three things to retrieve a lost person, usually go to a fairy fort at night, grab the person off a fairy horse, and return all the way home without speaking (for example). 
  • Fairy prohibitions are a vital point to Ofelia's second task, which she nearly fails. She must steal a knife from a being called the Pale Man  who sleeps at the head of a table full of food and is warned not to touch any of the feast. However she gives in to temptation and  eats two grapes, which immediately wakes the Pale Man who attacks her - she escapes only because of her three fairy guides, two of which are killed. This is, to me, an obvious nod to the longstanding prohibition across fairy folklore not to eat fairy food. Although in folklore the punishment for eating such food is being trapped in Fairy in this case the punishment is literal death but both are strongly resonant of the idea of being trapped forever due to transgressing this prohibition. 
  • There is a strong connection in Pan's Labyrinth between the human dead and fairies. Ofelia is a human girl who is said to be the reincarnation of a fairy princess who died on earth; when the Ofelia is killed she reappears apparently as her fairy self in the world of fairy. When Ofelia is seen returning to the Underworld/Fairy her human mother, who had recently died, is there as her fairy mother. This is also reflected in the muddle between the Underworld and the Otherworld presented in the film. In folklore we see this same fluidity between concepts and the idea that human dead may become fairies and that some fairies were once human. 
  • Ofelia's final task is to spill innocent blood to open the way between the worlds. She refuses to harm her infant brother but when her own blood is spilled she is transported to the Underworld. While some have argued the end of the film is a metaphor for death it can be read more literally as it plays out, with her being allowed to return to her true home. Ofelia's father, the king of the Underworld, tells her she passed the final test and won her reward by refusing to harm her brother and choosing to sacrifice herself instead. While not exactly true to older folklore this is certainly resonant with many fairy stories where a person is presented with a task which is actually a test of character and only choosing the morally 'good' action wins. 
   Pan's Labyrinth is a complex and nuanced film which leads viewers into a very dark place and presents an end which is simultaneously triumphant and tragic. Fairy folklore is woven throughout the movie, intermixed with myth, literary references, and imagination. The result is a piece that isn't itself folklore but which feels folkloric in its tone and storytelling. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

Are Fairies Physical?

 One of the most common questions I'm asked is if fairies have physicality, if they are tangible beings. This is rooted I think in the common idea perpetuated especially in new age and post-Victorian fairy belief that these beings are entirely energy or thoughtforms, creatures that can be perceived by the mind but lack physical reality in this world. So let's dig into this shall we?

Arthur Rackham

The simple answer is: yes, no, and maybe. 
Because, really, nothing with fairies is simple.

The longer answer is that yes we have many accounts across mythology, folklore, and anecdotes that establish fairies are (or can be) physical in the human world but we also have stories were they are decidedly not. And that's the part we need to dig into. 

In the oldest Irish myth featuring the Good Folk, the Echtra Condla, we see a woman of fairy appearing to Connla, son of the king of Ireland, and interacting with him in a physical way by giving him an apple and eventually taking him - physically - off in a boat. But she is also invisible and imperceivable to the other people around Connla. In the same way when we encounter a man of the sidhe in the Táin Bó Cuiligne he passes unseen and apparently intangibly through the army of Connacht but then is seen and interacts with Cu Chulain and his charioteer Laeg. Stories like that of Sadb and Fionn show the physicality of these beings as well, with Sadb - a woman of the sidhe - being rescued by Fionn and eventually giving him a son. In fact we have many stories across the entire corpus of material and across western European cultures of fairies of various kinds reproducing with humans. 
There are also an array of stories that features predatory fairies that physically kill a human, such as the kelpie or each uisce who appear in the form of a horse, tempt a human to ride them, and then run off with the human and drown them before eating them. The Scottish Baobhan Sithe are beautiful women who tempt young hunters to dance with them only to kill them, and by all accounts they are physical beings. And of course selkies - well known across areas from Scotland to Iceland - are very physical beings who may be encountered as saviors of sailors in storms or may be trapped into unwilling marriages when their sealskins are stolen.

In contrast however we do find a few stories of fairy encounters where the beings seem intangible or able to do things beyond the normal limitations of our physical world. The Slua Sidhe flying unseen in whirlwinds may be one example. Will o the Wisps could be another, where lights are seen moving in trees, leading travellers astray, but appear and disappear without any connection to physical reality. There are also many anecdotal accounts of people experiencing fairies in non-physical ways which must be considered and of fairies seeming to vanish at will. This area is a bit muddier as some of this may be understood as invisibility rather than intangibility, but I'll still offer it for consideration here. 

This may seem contradictory but its worth keeping in mind that the answer here doesn't have to be a simple yes or no. Reverend Robert Kirk writing about fairies in 1691 described their physicality as fluid and compared their nature to a condensed cloud, saying they could choose to be physical or choose to be intangible at their own will. Jacob Grimm relates a story of a German elf woman who passed through the knothole in a door as if she were smoke but once inside was fully physical, married and had children with the man who lived there, before leaving the same way she'd entered. He also described a method to capture Maran, or Mares, who were also known to enter through knotholes by blocking the knothole after they'd come in because while they could turn into something like smoke to pass through that small opening if it were blocked they would be trapped in their physical form. All of this seems to imply that physicality is a choice for the Good Folk, something that they can have or not have at will. 

Are fairies physically real? Yes, according to the bulk of folklore, and no according to a few stories, and maybe both if we listen to Kirk and Grimm. Like everything else with this subject the answer is complex and ultimately nuanced. 

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Baobhan Sìth in Folklore vs my Fiction

 I recently gave a presentation 'Elves After Dark 2' in which I discussed several specific types of folkloric beings known to directly and intimately interact with humans. This included the Scottish Baobhan Sìth a being that I also include in my fiction and in the Q&A after the presentation I was asked about how the folklore differed from my interpretation in my Between the Worlds series. I answered the question then but thought this was a good topic to get into here as well, to offer an illustration of the way that fiction based in folklore differs from that folklore and why. 

main characters of Between the Worlds, art by Valerie Herron

To start I want to be clear that while there is very good fiction out there based on fairy folklore, no fiction that I have ever seen is 100% accurate to that folklore. Its just a fact that writing fiction means fitting the plot and that often means altering things. Some books alter the folklore so far that its basically only the folklore in the names beings used while others stay largely true to the source material. 
I have always endeavored in my fiction to be the second sort and stay as true as possible to the folklore I'm drawing on in my work which is heavily based on fairylore, however that said certain adjustments were made, so let's look at that here. 

Baobhan Sìth in folklore are somewhat obscure beings. The name itself means something close to 'dangerous female fairy'. We have one main thread of stories which are all almost identical, varying only slightly in the details. In these stories a small group of men goes out hunting in the woods and finds a small group of women just as the men have decided to seek shelter for the oncoming night. The group shelters together and one of the men provides some kind of music - singing or playing an instrument - while the rest dance with the strange women; one of the women lurks near the musician. At some point the musician notices his friends have gone oddly quiet or in some versions looks up and sees a bit of blood on one of his friends shirts and realizing the other men are dead or dying he flees. The women pursue him until he takes shelter among some horses whose iron clad hooves ward the fairies off. The next morning, the women having fled, the man goes to his town or village and gathers a group to seek out the now missing men; they find them all dead in the shelter. In most versions they have been drained of blood while in some their hearts have been removed. 
That is all quite consistent across the stories we do have. Now we also have some Victorian, Edwardian, and post-Edwardian era folklorists material that elaborates on these stories by adding detail. Particularly Mackenzie's 'Scottish Folk-lore and Folk Life' which more directly equates Baobhan Sìth to classic demons and eastern European vampires and also adds details more usually found with the Glastig, such as the wearing of a green dress to cover animal feet (goat hooves in the Glastig's case, deer hooves in the Baobhan sìth's) as well as claiming the Baobhan Sìth could take the form of a crow or raven. This has further been greatly elaborated in 21st century material which may or may not be pulling from Scottish folklore. 

Now in my fiction I do include a Baobhan Sìth, but I based her character on the older stories of these beings not the folklorists descriptions - so no green dress, or deer hooves*, or shapeshifting. She is, arguably, dangerous and in my fictional world Baobhan Sìth (under a phonetic spelling of that term) have a bad reputation because of the danger they present to everyone around them. I did take creative liberties, which I admit, in making my Baobhan Sìth something closer to a modern psychic vampire, feeding on emotions, rather than a traditional blood drinking vampire. I made this decision in part because it worked better with the story I was telling and also because the ambiguity of the older folklore, while implying a vampiric nature, doesn't explicitly state that the Baobhan Sìth drink blood rather than just kill their prey. I wanted a being that fit the broad strokes and worked within the framework of the folklore but also worked in the wider narrative I was telling so while I feel she is still strongly reminiscent of Scottish Baobhan Sìth folklore she isn't a template for that folklore or an exact replica of it. And while I generally make a lot of effort with my fiction to stay as true as possible to the source folklore there will always be places where things have to be nudged slightly one way or another to fit the wider story I am telling. 

When we have folklore in fiction it is always going to be along a spectrum of accuracy to that folklore. Some material will be much closer and some will be much further and many times how close or far the material is will be a matter of personal opinion. Anyone reading fairy folklore inspired fiction is best to remember though that it isn't folklore and shouldn't be treated as actual folk belief though and just enjoy it for the fiction that it is. 

*I do have a Glastig that shows up in one story which fits that folklore with the dress, hooves, and all. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Its Time To Talk About The Anti-Irish Issues in That Popular Series

 I've said I would write this blog for a while, after discussing the subject in bits and pieces on social media so here we are. I want to preface this by saying though that this isn't an indictment of the author in question personally nor am I saying she did this consciously nor intentionally. This isn't me trying to bash the series; I'm picking it as one example out of many because its popular and because we need to have this conversation. This is me trying to get people to be more aware of a particularly insidious aspect of anti-Irish propaganda that has been around for centuries and continues because its almost a trope now, as much as the idea of Irish and Irish folklore as inherently fantastic (which Orla ní Dhúill discusses in depth in her article 'Do Fantasy Writers Think Irish Is Discount Elvish?).

So. Let's talk about the anti-Irishness of A Court of Thorns and Roses series.

First, establishing the Irish connection as it were, and no its not the folklore that may or may not have been used in the series. Or the use of Morrigan as a name for one of the secondary characters. Maas tells a tale of a world that has both mortal lands and lands of fairy and offers a map in the books which shows what the main areas of the story look like and are called. The map is basically a slightly reworked Ireland and Great Britain. Its not subtle:

my actual face contemplating the side by side comparison of these maps

Prythian is where the 7 fairy courts of Maas's story are, roughly everything north of Cornwall in Britain. Hybern is also ruled by the fae, but as we'll get to in a moment of a very different nature. Prythian seems to be a form of the Welsh Prydain, an old word for Britain; Hybern is obviously based on Hibernia, the Latin name for Ireland. Like the map this isn't particularly subtle and I am not the first person to make this connection. So we have a map that is basically Ireland and Britain and a name for those places that is also, basically, Ireland and Britain. Further to the Irish aspect of this the king of Hybern (who is never named) has a nephew named Dagdan, one letter off from the Irish god the Dagda, and a niece named Brannagh, a name that is often said to be from the Irish word for raven. The warriors of the Hybern king are called Ravens, a bird that features prominently in Irish mythology.
So this gives us, effectively, fantasy pseudo-Ireland, which isn't a bad thing in and of itself.

However, then we get into the backstory and story of Hybern and its people. To recap the series: At one time humans were enslaved to the fae, but there was a war to free them. Hybern was adamantly against freeing the humans and when the king of Hybern was forced to sign a treaty agreeing to do so he and all his people killed every human in Hybern instead. They were subsequently cut off from the rest of the world, plunging their people into centuries of  poverty and misery during which they became convinced that the whole human slavery thing was a golden age that had to be brought back to restore their kingdom. To this end the king of Hybern first sent out an emissary who enslaved the Prythian Lords (Prythian being ruled by a group of lords rather than a monarch) and when she eventually failed he sent out his niece and nephew to reconnoiter the area where a wall separated the fairy lands from mortals - because he had a plan to enslave humans again. His emissary was cruel and vicious; his niece and nephew (twins who were in an incestuous relationship by the way) were equally so. All three end badly because of their bloodlust. The king uses a primordial cauldron to both remake people and to break through that wall but (of course) is ultimately foiled and prevented from enslaving humans again. 
Generally speaking the Hybernians are depicted as violent, vicious, amoral, and evil. They use poison as a weapon against other fae, use torture, delight in killing humans, and want to subjugate not only humans but the other fae who sided with humans in the war.

So at this point we have fantasy pseudo-Ireland that is full of people who are backwards thinking, stuck in the past, cruel, and stuck in poverty because they lost their slaves. Which, for scholars of history, is awfully similar to anti-Irish propaganda since the 18th century, except the poverty was blamed on laziness - although I'd argue that's a fine line here since ultimately its the implied laziness of the Hybernians that keeps them from doing the work the human slaves did previously. Anti-Irish material often featured the Irish as animalistic, lacking self control, drunk, lazy, and dangerous. This is so persistent and so ingrained in popular consciousness that anti-Irish stereotypes often don't even get a notice from people today and still appear in various forms in tv shows and movies (I'm looking at you Wild Mountain Thyme). The king of Hybern is even physically described as less beautiful and less regal than the Prythian fairy lords, which is inline with older anti-Irish stereotypes. While Tamsin and Rhysand, main fairy lord characters, are described as heartbreakingly beautiful and well dressed, the king of Hybern is described in A Court of Mist and Fury as 'ruddy', dressed more practically, average height, and 'blandly handsome'.

What we end up with then is a very popular series like A Court of Thorns and Roses where the fantasy pseudo-Irish are all the bad things in the world and everything that has to be fought against, the ultimate antagonists. 

I'm not saying any of this anti-Irish coding was intentional but the thing is its undeniably there and it reflects a long history of seeing Ireland and the Irish as backwards, primitive, violent, and dangerous. Its the same thing we see with Harry Potter's Irish character having a penchant for blowing things up or American Gods Mad Sweeney perpetually suffering and fighting. Its a reflection of the way that many people have internalized a perception of the Irish based on stereotypes that are inherently anti-Irish. 
At best its very sloppy, lazy world building with cringey results. At worst its leaning into hibernophobia to intentionally bring those things to mind with readers. We can and must do better.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Folklore in Hilda

 As part of my ongoing series on folklore found in mass media I'm going to take on the popular Netflix show Hilda. This is an animated series based on an existing comic/graphic novel that pulls heavily from Icelandic and related folklore. It is aimed at children and features a main character who is a child and so we go into this understanding that the folklore within the show has been softened for modern views on what is appropriate for children. 

Hilda is an entertaining series, so far having two seasons and movie which follow the adventures of the eponymous Hilda who is something of an expert in the magical and unusual. Where most people in Hilda's world fear the supernatural its Hilda's main focus and many of her adventures occur because she engages with something other people avoid. 
So that all said, let's dive into some of the folklore we find in the series:

  • Elves -  Elves are one of the more important groups of folkloric beings found in Hilda, with the elf Alfar (literally named elves, which to be honest is a bit confusing) as an important secondary character. The elves of Hilda are extremely small, only a few inches tall, and effectively powerless (lacking magic); this is at odds with elves in wider folklore, even the places where they are described as small they are seen as powerful magically and able to protect themselves. However inline with folklore the elves are invisible to mortals unless they choose to be seen - and in Hilda's world the human signs paperwork. 
  • Giants - Giants are a common being found within folklore and another which appears in Hilda as a blend of actual folklore elements and creative license. In folklore giants are usually dangerous and often described as somewhere around 12 to 13 feet tall. Hilda's versions are truly gigantic - one sleeping giant being mistaken for a mountain - but are only dangerous in that their size means they often unwittingly cause destruction. 
  • Trolls - Trolls exist across a range of folk belief  sometimes as outright dangerous beings and sometimes as a sort of rough mannered fairy being. In most folklore its agreed that they turn to stone in the sunlight, with this transformation understood to be permanent. They sometimes steal human children and their characters can range across stories from vicious to very human-like. Hilda's versions of trolls follow some of this folklore, in that they are rough and dangerous creatures who turn to stone during the day, but they are different in that the stone transformation is temporary. Hilda's trolls initially appear almost animalistic but they are later shown to be intelligent beings with a society and relationships.
  • Mara -  Folkloric Maran or Mare are night hags that cause sleep paralysis, night terrors, and sometimes death. Since this would obviously be a bit intense for a children's show the Mara in Hilda are mean teenage girls imbued with supernatural powers who cause nightmares and torment sleepers with their worst fears. 
  • Nisse -  Nisse is the Danish and Norwegian term for a type of spirit that helps around a home or farm. Described as male and usually appearing with a beard and wearing a hat they live in the house and protect the home. Hilda's versions, as usual, follow the broad strokes of the folklore but with differences: there are female Nisse for one thing, and while folkloric Nisse will leave if offended in Hilda Nisse can be thrown out of a home by an angry homeowner. Also in Hilda all the Nisse are named Tontu, which is just the Finnish word for Nisse.
  • Barghest -  In northern English folklore a type of giant monstrous dog which sometimes is said to kill people and other times is an omen of death. Hilda plays with this idea, featuring a gigantic black dog which is terrorizing the area but is eventually found to be friendly when reunited with its original owner. 
  • Lindworm -  Lindworms are beings found across centuries of folk belief, specifically Norse, and are usually depicted as what we might understand as a sort of wingless dragon. They could be dangerous or malefic but were also connected to knowledge of medicine and the natural world. Hilda stays true to this idea although her Lindworm is friendlier than the usual run. 
  • Changelings - showing up in the recent Hilda movie is the concept of changelings, something found widely across folk belief. In traditional folklore a changeling is a fairy or object exchanged for a stolen human; this is also what it is in Hilda. The main difference in Hilda's depiction of changelings is the method used to get the human back (usually very brutal in folklore) and the motivation behind the change. In stories a fairy is swapped for a human because the fairies want the human for various reasons, while in Hilda the swap occurs because of a supernatural being that decides her own child will be safer among humans.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Recommended 'Celtic' Resources

 So I am occasionally asked for good places to start studying Celtic culture or otherwise learn about the Celts. This would seem like a pretty straightforward request but actually its a really complicated topic; what I usually suggest is that people start with a specific culture rather than going to the wider, older idea of 'Celtic'. What many people mean when they say Celtic is a single homogenous or unified culture which they think is a monolith and therefore easy to study. However Celtic is actually a loose term for a constellation of cultures related by language, art, and mythic motifs which were at one point influenced by or grew out of a single source culture - that source culture is understood via archaeology and commentary from outside sources like the Greeks and Romans. Even that older source culture however wasn't actually a cohesive group but an array of groups that shared a root language. Historically there were a multitude of cultures labelled Celtic; currently there are 6 that are referred to as Celtic nations: Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, the Isle of Man, and Brittany. So studying this becomes a bit difficult. 

Its important to note several things here as well:
1. This is a field which is constantly changing and in which theories come and go. Scholarship is fluid not fixed, for the most part, and there are several perpetual fierce debates about things. A theory that may have been widespread 50 years ago may still be seen as valid or may have been entirely refuted - or may be argued over today. Bias is a factor that must be kept in mind in this field and new information must be incorporated regularly. 
2. Despite the way it is often discussed there is no 'Celtic pantheon' per se. The group of deities labelled as Celtic represent an array of beings from across the various Celtic cultures: only a few are pan-Celtic (ie found across all or most of the groups) and most of the cross cultural ones weren't historically worshipped together in the way that the idea of a Celtic pantheon. Its also vital to note that the handful of pan-Celtic deities were not cohesive between cultures - the Irish Lugh isn't identical to the Welsh Llew even if they likely share a common root and are seen as cognates. 
3. Celtic doesn't equal Irish. I often see people treating Celtic and Irish interchangeably and that is inaccurate. Ireland is one culture that falls under that Celtic language speaking cultural umbrella but not the only one.
4. There is a huge amount of romanticism around this subject, some of it harmless and some of it manipulated for nationalist, fascist, and supremacist ends. When studying this subject and especially when vetting sources extra discernment and caution is needed in my opinion because of this, particularly when considering sources outside academia. 

That all said I will offer a few recommendations here, with the caveat that these are based on my opinion of good places to start with the subject and my own interest in this is tangential. 

  1. Rees and Rees - Celtic Heritage. A bit dated at this point, but a solid resource. 
  2. Simon James - Exploring the World of the Celts. this isn't what I'd call an academic text but is a great intro to the subject and includes a large number of illustrations and photos. 
  3. Koch and Carey - The Celtic Heroic Age. Focusing on literary sources across Europe, Ireland, and Wales this is a good book to get an idea of many of the sources people pull from.
  4. Barry Cunliffe - The Ancient Celts. A wide overview of the subject. I would also suggest Cunliffe's work on 'Celtic from the West' with the understanding that is a debated theory. 
  5. Sjoestedt - Celtic Gods and Heroes - definitely dated (originally published in 1949) but an easy accessible introduction to the subject and it covers all the highlights. Definitely don't rely on this one alone. 
  6. MacKillop - A Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. Caveat on this one, MacKillop doesn't clearly cite his sources in the text and some of his material can't be verified outside his own book. So take this one with a grain of salt but it can be a good starting point and a good quick reference. 
  7. Miranda Green - assorted titles. Green has written extensively about various aspects of Celtic culture. As with MacKillop she requires a caveat in that she is primarily an archaeologist and her material focused on that is strong but when she theorizes outside of that always double check her assertions which can be creative. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022


 One of the more well-known types of fairy, by name at least, are goblins but many people are vague on what exactly goblins are. So today lets take a look at goblins, what they are, and some folklore surrounding them. The following is an excerpt from my book 'A New Dictionary of Fairies'

The word goblin itself dates back to about the 14th century and is believed to possibly come from the Latin Gobelinus, and to be related to the German Kobold; the meaning is given as an ugly fairy or devil (Goblin, 2016). Originally the word goblin was not applied to a specific type of fairy being but rather was used as a generic term, in line with the older uses of fairy and elf, to indicate a more general type of being. In Scots, for example, we can see more than a half dozen kinds of fairies which are described as goblins, from Gunnies to Whaups (SLD, 2016). The name goblin was used in earlier periods as a synonym for other negative types of fairies, such as thurs and shuck, both of which had connotations of maliciousness and evil (Williams, 1991). The prefix 'hob' was added in front of the word goblin, giving us hobgoblin, to indicate a goblin type spirit which was less negative and more benevolent; hobgoblins were inclined to mischief but also known to be helpful to people where goblins were not (Briggs, 1976). MacKillop posits that the word as well as the being were borrowed into Celtic belief from outsiders, likely from Germanic folk belief probably of the Kobold (MacKillop, 1998). The Irish Púca is sometimes described as a goblin, and goblins are often seen as equivalent to bogies. An array of subgruops of fairies are considered goblins or hobgoblins including the aforementioned Púca (and more general Puck), Bogies, the Fuath - themselves a general term inclusive of specific types - Boggarts* and Bogles, who are usually considered the more evil sort of goblins, the Welsh Coblynau, and Irish Clauricaun and Dullahan (Briggs, 1976; MacKillop, 1998). Even the usually benevolent Brownie is sometimes considered a goblin, or perhaps more properly a hobgoblin (SLD, 2016; Briggs, 1976).

When they appear in folklore goblins are generally described as wizened or smaller than the average human and unattractive in their features, ranging from grotesque to animalistic. In Rossetti's poem 'The Goblin Market' the depiction of the goblins directly relates them to animals describing them with whiskers, tails, and with fur (Rossetti, 1862). Dickens described them as small, with long arms and legs, and rounded bodies (Silver, 1999). These descriptions are typical of those found in older folklore as well where goblins are usually referred to as grotesque and ugly. Generally goblins are male and their physical descriptions reflect ideas closer to imps or devils than the usual fairies who appear fair on the outside no matter how dangerous they may be on the inside. This may reflect a belief that goblins, although a type or kind of fairy, were closer to or on the border of being demonic; this is muddy water at best as there was often a fine line between fairies and demons in the medieval period especially among the literati. Briggs suggests that it was particularly the influence of Protestant belief which edged the goblins into the category of the demonic as they directly equated them to 'imps from Hell' (Briggs, 1967). In fact imp is often given as a synonym for goblin, further confusing the issue. Specific types of goblins, such as the bogies, were known as shapeshifters as well and could alter their appearance at will in order to more easily deceive people. Because of their fearsome reputation many people were afraid of goblins, and even the generally more benevolent hobgoblins (Evans-Wentz, 1911).

Goblins were known to favor specific locations and might set up residence in a home; in one story a bogey takes over a farmer's field and had to be tricked into leaving (Evans-Wentz, 1911; Briggs, 1976). In Rossetti's poem they have their own market and a well worn path which is taken to and from it each dawn and dusk. Like many Fey goblins are usually considered nocturnal and are most likely to be encountered at night (Evans-Wentz, 1911). Goblins of various sorts might also be associated with wilder locations and with the ruins of former human habitations and were known to lead people astray, either as part of a frustrating but ultimately harmless joke or to the person's eventual death (Briggs, 1967). By modern reckoning goblins fall under the dominion of the Unseelie court and may be either solitary or trooping fairies, depending on what kind of goblin is being discussed (Briggs, 1976). Hobgoblins, however, are harder to be certain of as they are usually seen as more benign and can be associated with helpful spirits like Brownies.

There is at least one well known piece of more modern literature which refers to goblins, Rossetti's poem 'The Goblin Market' which I have written about previously. In the poem the goblins appear in a fairly typical form being deceptive, malicious, and grotesque in appearance. They play the usual role of a group of fairies trying to trick mortals, in this case by getting them to eat dangerous fruit. In the poem when the person the goblins are seeking to trick resists they become violent, which is also inline with the general temperament normally seen with them. Goblins play a prominent role in the film 'Labyrinth' where they are depicted more as hobgoblins, being somewhat dangerous and set against the story's heroine but overall more mischievous than actually malicious. 

Ultimately goblins are a difficult group of fairies to define, both a specific type of being and also a class of being. The word itself is just as ambiguous, the etymology uncertain beyond the 12th century, and the ultimate root unknown. The term goblin can be used to indicate a specific being which is small, grotesque and malicious or a broader category of beings that were generally described as 'imps' and ran a gamut from devilish to mischievous. When the prefix hob is added it indicates a more benign nature to the creature being discussed; Shakespeare's Puck is referred to as a hobgoblin in the play A Midsummer Night's Dream. However Protestant influence did add a darker reputation even to the hobgoblin who were considered out-right demonic in some places. The only way to be certain of the usage of goblin or hobgoblin is to look at the context of the reference, however one can safely say that goblins were generally viewed as dangerous and to be feared, whatever sort of goblin was being discussed.

*boggarts may also be angered brownies and there is a somewhat fine semantic line at times between a hobgoblin and a brownie.

Goblin (2016) Online Etymology Dictionary
SLD (2016) Dictionary of the Scots Langauge: Goblins
Williams, N., (1991). The Semantics of the Word Fairy: Making meaning out of thin air
Briggs, K., (1976). A Dictionary of Fairies
Silver, C., (1999) The Strange and Secret Peoples: fairies and the Victorian consciousness
Rossetti, C., (1862) The Goblin Market
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
MacKillop, J., (1998). Dictionary of Celtic Mythology
Briggs, K., (1967) The Fairies in Tradition and Literature