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Elements of Fantasy: Brownies

Hidden in the forgotten rooms of a house and in cluttered corners are little supernatural children who perform chores in exchange for food and treats. Even though they are personable and happy on their good days, they are considered to be evil spirits called brownies.

Brownies aren’t just the girls who knock on your door selling delicious cookies. Long ago, brownies were considered to be household gods, known as cofgodas in Old England. As a matter of fact, brownies are related to the household spirits of the hob species, under the leprechaun order. They work diligently for farmers and also within houses.

Goblin Family Tree by Robert IngpenBrownies work only after dark and stop when the sun rises. According to folklorist, John Gregorson Campbell, English brownies live inside homes, while most Scottish brownies reside in waterways, such as streams and behind waterfalls. The Scottish brownies prefer farming over household chores. In exchange for their tireless labor, they expect gifts of food, such as porridge and honey. If they are treated well and given a small dish of cream, they will enthusiastically perform whatever work the peasants are too tired to complete. They don’t consider their gifts as payment, but simply tokens of appreciation.

Brownies are introverts, preferring alone time. During the months preceding the harvest seasons they avoid contact with others. After the harvest, they socialize in the stables, barns and fields. Even though brownies rarely associate with humans, they are always polite when entering the house in the night. Humans trust the wisdom and judgment of the brownies.

Only humans with extrasensory perception, the ability to sense supernatural elements, can see them. Brownies sometimes give old women sight of them to make it easier to care for their needs. They gravitate toward milkmaids and coax the girls into giving them some milk or cream. Brownies have been described by witnesses as sturdy fairies. These two-foot tall creatures have bright hair. They wear blue bonnets and carry walking staffs.

Tradition in Scotland calls for every large home to leave an unoccupied chair beside the fire or stove in the kitchen where their brownie can rest and warm himself. Brownies mark the place at the table where they preferred to sit. His spot gives good luck to the homeowner and if they sit in the brownie’s chair during a board game or card game, he was sure to win. Some homeowners leave an entire room unoccupied for their helpful brownies to reside in.

While brownies are peaceable creatures, they are easily offended. Never criticize their work. Leaving too much food out for them is considered an insult. When they become displeased with their homeowners, they transform into mischievous boggarts. Their alter-ego plays tricks by causing milk to sour, injuring pets, pulling blankets off sleeping children and giving people the chills by placing their clammy hands on their cheeks. They despise laziness and will torment anyone who doesn’t put in their fair share of help around the house. When homeowners overtly misuse them, they relocate to a different home.

Not all brownies are meticulous with their work efforts. Some are clumsy, breaking dishes and equipment, while others have sloppy workmanship. A tablecloth might become torn during ironing, crumbs swept off a table might be left on the floor, peeled potatoes might have rotten spouts remaining uncut. A few brownies are loud while they scrub and sweep, keeping up the family through the night. Others rearrange the furniture and leave behind mounds of clutter.

Dobby from Harry PotterIf a brownie becomes too much of a nuisance to bother with, there are ways to clear the house and property of them. The most common method is to give them a new outfit. Not just the sock, as depicted by J.K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series, but the whole ensemble will motivate the creature to leave on his own free will. According to the Grimm fairytale, The Elves and the Shoemaker, brownies vanish the instant they put on new clothes given to them by their homeowners. The most difficult brownies are stubborn and practically nothing will prompt their leaving.

Based on their name, brownies likely evolved in the Lowlands of Scotland. The Brown clan has a family tartan in a dark red plaid and a crest sanctified by Lord Lyon King at Arms. They hold a position under the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. Brown is the second most common name in Scotland, and the fourth most common name in the United States, with a high ranking in England, as well.

Brown Crest and TartanBroun is an earlier spelling of Brown and likewise, brounie is an earlier spelling of brownie. Because the Brown clan is located on the southern coast of Scotland, it is believed they were named for the Frenchmen with the surname Le Brun who sailed across the channel and settled in England during the 7th century when they broke away from royalty. The Brouns arrived in the Lowlands during the 12th century after refusing to bow to King Edward I. Brun is the French form of Brown, which translates into dark red, which was the shade of their skin and hair.

The dark red coloring of the skin on brownies is also a result of their exposure to extreme weather conditions. They were originally believed to have a rare shade of reddish brown hair, which stood out from the physical characteristics of others. Humans in Scotland and England tend to have lighter colored hair and fair skin, while the Northern Frenchmen have darker hair and skin. Brownies contrasted both cultures with ruddy tones in their complexions.

In the late 1500s, King James of England recorded in his Demonology a sighting of a brownie. The little man creature haunted the workers’ homes. Without causing any mischief, the brownie tuned up the houses and performed necessary chores.

Old history links brownies as descendants of robbers and evil doers. During the era brownies were considered to be thieves, morals were weak. Ethics were at an all time low. The world was overcrowded with poachers, moss-troopers, and plunderers. It is unlikely were descended from vagabonds because no matter how harsh the weather was – snow, freezing temperatures, humid nights, hard rain – they showed up on time and diligently performed their tasks. They helped the weary and overworked. Scotsmen and Englishmen loved and respected their brownies.

Elves and the Shoemaker by George CruikshankIn 1645, the poet, John Milton, published L’Allegro, wherein he described brownies as creatures who sweated and drudged through work to earn a small bowl of cream. At that time, townspeople made offerings of milk every Sunday at a brownie stone located beside a local chapel as an act of good will.

Another theory about the origins of brownies takes place in Scotland around the 1680s. Covenanters, Christians who read the Bible and sang Psalms, were accused of teaching false and evil doctrines. To avoid being persecuted, Covenanters lived in caves and hidden places. Sympathizers smuggled supplies and food to their hideouts.

A Covenanter leader with the surname Brown happened to have a hunchback. John Brown was short and wiry, perfect for sneaking out after dark with energetic children to find the food and supplies left by the sympathizers. They wore outlandish outfits and in the night they resembled supernatural fairies. The locals referred to all of the Covenanters in that group as brownies. Members traveled during the night to secretly meet at his house, until he was executed in his front yard in 1685 on grounds for his refusing to swear not to bear arms against the king.

Prior to Brown leading a band of Covenanters, legends told of brownies with red-hair and Danish ancestry that aided well-deserving peasants. All families housed evil spirits called brownies. The belief in them was so strong, they were a major part of everyone’s lifestyle. Not all people could read at the time, and brownies were viewed as holding supernatural powers because they could decipher black marks on white paper.

John Brand’s 1703 depiction of a proper Scottish household in Shetland, stated that homeowners gave sacrifices to their brownies for services rendered. The owners churned extra milk to leave out for them. They poured brew into a hole in a stone, which was also referred to as the brownie’s stone. Corn was left unbound and stacked for them, known as brownie stacks.

In 1870, Juliana Horatia Ewing published a story about some lazy boys who went in search of brownies to help their father with the household chores. When the boys discover they are the only two remaining brownies, they learn the importance of children being kind and helpful.

Around the 1890s, Palmer Cox, an artist and author, made brownies popular in his poems and drawings. His stories were about brownies that disrupted a town throughout the nights until they found a toy store to keep them occupied. His poems resulted in dolls of his characters being manufactured and sold.

Brownine from Feefo, Tuppeny, and JinksLord Baden Powell applied the concept of helpful brownies to his ideals of do-good, honest, hardworking girls called brownies in 1918. From the 1940s through the 1960s, British author Enid Blyton, aka Mary Pollock, portrays brownies as happy-go-lucky, adventurous little people in Tuppeny, Feefo, and Jinks, her Noddy series, and also, Book of Brownies. From 1946 to around 1965, the Cleveland Browns portray a brownie as their mascot. Their mascot was reinvented as a brownie in 1999. The Brownie Browns is a game company with a brownie logo. Ron Howard’s 1988 film, Willow, includes the characters of two brownies that assist a baby girl prophesized to overthrow an evil sorceress. The two brownies, Franjean and Rool, are in novels that continue the story: Shadow Moon, Shadow Dawn, Shadow Star.

When brownies are angered as a result of being unappreciated or criticized, they transform into boggarts. In the form of boggarts, they sometimes live under bridges or steep, wooded valleys. As recently as the 19th century, boggarts have been accused of kidnapping travelers who wandered into their territory. In Burnley, Lancashire, England, the toll for crossing a bridge is one living animal in exchange for the boggarts allowing travelers to keep their souls.

According to legend, which later became the fable, The Farmer and the Devil, in the Lincolnshire countryside of England in a village called, Mumby, a farmer angered a boggart by plowing his field. This particular boggart was stout and hairy and smelled horribly. After arguing about the farmer invading the boggart’s land, they agreed to farm together and split the profits yielded from the crop. The farmer tricked the boggart by claiming the revenue earned from the top half of the crop when they grew barley and the bottom half when they grew potatoes. Both times the boggart was left with nothing. He eventually left the farmer alone.

Throughout the Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis often referenced boggles, which is slang for boggarts. Author Susan Cooper wrote a fictional book called, The Boggart and another entitled, The Boggart and the Monster. Joseph Delaney includes boggarts in his Wardstone Chronicles, and Mark Del Franco tells of brownies that convert into boggarts in his Convergent World.

The British Children’s Independent Television shows The Treacle People about furry mischievous boggarts from the Treacle Mines. The supernatural creatures can walk up walls because their feet are similar to plungers. They annoy the community.

Boggart from Spiderwick ChroniclesThe contemporary portrayal of brownies shows them as unattractive and feisty. Their fingers are long and thin, while their ears are long and pointed. Usually, they are old men with wrinkled skin. Their new millennia wardrobe includes torn suits and felt caps, all in drab shades of green, blue and brown.

During the 2000s, the novels, Spiderwick by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, and Fablehaven, book 2, by Brandon Mull introduce combative brownies. The brownies tend to live isolated and dislike the quest they participate in with humans.

Despite their more recent transition to being portrayed as aging grumps, back in the day, brownies held power within their households. Peasants and farm owners didn’t have enough hours in each day to perform all the tasks necessary to survive the harsh conditions that existed before modern conveniences. They appreciated their household brownies and keeping the little creatures happy was a natural part of their daily rituals.

This article was originally posted on March 25, 2012.

Title image by Carolina-Eade.

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Elements of Fantasy: Brownies, 9.0 out of 10 based on 11 ratings
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6 Comments

  1. Great article, Janie. I seem to recall that, according to Latharine Briggs, it’s not just clothes that will make a brownie disappear. Any gift overtly left or offered to the brownie would be deemed an insult. Such gifts would have to be left out, almost as if everyone was pretending that they weren’t intended for the brownie!

    • Janie Bill says:

      I appreciate the clarification, James. When researching, I sometimes find conflicting information and go with the details that remain consistent throughout the various sources. It seemed to me, legends about fairies and goblins were mixed in with brownie folklore. I tried to distinguish the differences between them. I am sure a true brownie would be equally offended despite the type of gift. Although food was definitely appreciated, as well as some other trinkets.

      • Absolutely, one of the great things about folklore is that there are so many differing and even conflicting beliefs! Each area applied its own flavour and prejudice to the figure. I shared that ond because the image of someone leaving a bowl of milk out “for no-one and no reason” tickled me.

        And I meant Katharine, not Latharine. There’s obviously a fay in my keyboard!

  2. L.A. Winter says:

    What an accurate yet extremly enjoyable artical on one of my faviorate fantasy creatures of all time. Personally, I would be blessed in the presence of a Brownie and as I child I used to leave a small box of cornflakes and a candle for the Brownies that I thought lived in my house. I used to leave a tub of warm soapy water out too, So they could wash themselfs after they finnished their work. I Love the Artical 🙂

    • Janie Bill says:

      Thanks, LA Winter. I certainly can hear Brownies bump around during the night while doing their chores. You had a magical childhood. I bet your home was blessed.

  3. B says:

    This is funny. My family are Scottish and our name is Brownie.

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