Humans have always looked for an excuse when something goes wrong, and traditionally, mythical creatures have often provided the perfect scapegoat. The milk has curdled? Must be a brownie. Tools gone missing? Blame the knockers. Someone drank all your wine? Cellar must be infested with clurichauns.
Folklore around the world provides us with a host of these small, fairy-like creatures, frequently treading a fine line between the malevolent and benevolent, and worryingly quick to take offense. So next time you break a vase or lose your keys, here is a sampling of miniature mischief-makers to take the blame.
1. The Brownies // Scotland and England
Brownies are small, usually helpful spirits originating in Scotland and northern England. They are generally male and reside in the house, carrying out useful household tasks such as churning butter or polishing floors. Brownies are either clad in rags or naked, and some folktales say that if you offer clothes to a brownie they will leave your home—because they now have nice new clothes, or because they are affronted by the gift.
Be warned, however: Brownies are quick to anger, and if you irritate one you may live to regret it, as these once-helpful household friends can turn into boggarts. Boggarts are brownies gone bad—they break things, throw objects, and are generally terrible house guests.
2. Cornish Knockers and Welsh Coblynau // England and Wales
Knockers are small, mostly benevolent creatures said to inhabit the tin mines of Cornwall; Welsh miners had a similar character known as the coblynau. Some think the myth developed from the strange knocking sounds miners heard while down in the mine, the mysterious noises being attributed to the dwarf-like creatures thought to inhabit the subterranean world.
Many believed the knockers were helpful, alerting miners to rich seams of ore or warning them away from areas liable to collapse. But like most fairy folk, the knockers were also seen as keen pranksters and were blamed every time a piece of equipment went missing or someone got lost down the mine. To appease the knockers, miners would leave food offerings on the floors of the mine and ensured they always spoke respectfully of the little creatures, so as to not provoke their ire.
During the California gold rush, Cornish miners were in high demand due to their excellent mining skills, and as a result these legendary creatures spread to the United States, where they were often called TommyKnockers.
3. Trow // Scotland
Trow are described as small, ugly, deformed creatures sometimes invisible to humans. At night the trow were thought to break into houses to warm themselves around the fire, while the terrified inhabitants cowered in their beds waiting for them to leave. In some folklore the trow were said to live in the ancient mounds called howes found across Orkney and Shetland. They had lavish underground homes, where they hosted parties and sometimes kidnapped hapless humans who were forced to play endless jigs while the trow danced all night long. Trow also delight in causing mischief, and so were generally blamed when the milk or ale went sour or something got lost; however, if a human managed to find an item belonging to a trow it was said to bestow its good luck on them.
4. Kobold // Germany
Kobolds are pointy-eared goblins found in German folklore. Rather like brownies, they are household sprites, making their homes in your home. Treat a kobold right and they will help out with chores, but annoy one (and let’s face it, most of these small folk are quite easily annoyed) and they will turn to mischief—toppling people over, hiding stuff, and generally causing trouble.
In German mythology there are three types of kobold: the household goblin, the kobold that inhabits mines (like the Cornish knocker), and a sea-faring kobold who lives aboard ships helping out with chores or causing mischief depending on his mood. Due to their unpredictable nature, the kobolds were often seen as undesirable house guests or bad omens—and is it any wonder when certain myths tell of angry kobolds chopping up the kitchen boy and adding him to the cooking pot?
5. Pixies // England
Pixies (or piskys) are the classic miniature mischief-makers of English folklore. More commonly found in the West Country (Devon and Cornwall), pixies are said to be very small spirits, who wear natural colors such as greens and browns. Pixies love to play pranks and cause trouble and were traditionally blamed for all sorts of minor upsets, such as a blown-out candle, mysterious tapping, or an item getting lost. Pixies were said to be the scourge of travelers, as they have a habit of leading people astray, leaving them lost and disoriented. This gave rise to the word pixie-led, or pixilated, meaning bewildered or befuddled.
6. Leprechauns // Ireland
Leprechauns are probably the most famous mischievous fairy folk, instantly recognizable by their red hair and beards, smart emerald-green suits, and quick-witted Irish charm. The word leprechaun is likely derived from the old Irish word Lú Chorpain, meaning “small body,” and is also associated with the Irish word for shoe maker—leath bhrógan (the creatures are frequently depicted as cobblers). In 2019, however, a group of scholars claimed the word actually has Latin roots.
Stories of leprechauns have existed for hundreds of years, and human obsession with the devious little creatures has probably been stoked by tales of their legendary pots of gold. Many of the myths surrounding the leprechauns revolve around stories of a human’s greedy and avaricious nature, which the leprechauns expose. A typical story involves a man capturing a leprechaun and demanding to know where his pot of gold is buried. The leprechaun then indicates the tree, and the man ties a red handkerchief on the tree so he might return with a shovel. However, when the man returns he discovers the wily leprechaun has tied red handkerchiefs to all the surrounding trees, thus protecting his gold from discovery.
7. Clurichauns // Ireland
Like their fairy cousins the leprechauns, clurichauns are small red-headed chaps in smartly turned-out suits, but these sprites are the wild child of folklore, and love to get roaring drunk. Clurichauns inhabit wine cellars, and as their ruddy complexion attests, spend most of their time sampling the contents of the hapless publican's or homeowner’s alcohol store. However, if you keep your clurichaun happy (by keeping your wine cellar well-stocked), he will protect your wine casks from leaks; annoy him, however, and soon all your wine will go bad and chaos will descend. Clurichauns love nothing better than a jolly good party, and after a drink or three, will often strike up a rousing rendition of an Irish folk song while riding around your house on the pet dog—what could be more charming?
8. Duende // Spain and Latin America
Duendes are small elf-like creatures originally from Iberian folklore, a tradition that later migrated to Central and South America. Notably, they have no thumbs. They have been known to be both good and bad, but all duendes are prone to mischief-making and will exact revenge if they feel they have been wronged. Across the Spanish-speaking world, many parents use tales of the duende stealing naughty children to encourage their offspring to behave. Like many goblins, duende like to skulk in dark corners of bedrooms or under beds, and be warned if you like to sleep with your feet outside the covers—they have been known to accidentally take off a toe or two when trying to trim the unkempt toenails of unsuspecting children.
9. Dokkaebi // South Korea
Dokkaebi are Korean goblins that come in many guises. They are created when a discarded household item, such as a broom or a wooden spoon, gains a spirit and becomes animate. Dokkaebi are said to be ugly and troll-like in appearance and some have just one leg. Keen tricksters, they enjoy taunting humans, using their powers of persuasion to convince people to carry out pointless tasks like wrestling all night long. These Korean goblins can also shape-shift, and some tales tell of them transforming into a beautiful woman in order to seduce guileless men. Some dokkabei possess a magic club that allows them to summon any item they like, but whenever they magically summon something, it disappears from its original home.
10. Tsukumogami // Japan
Like the Korean dokkaebi, Japanese tsukumogami are possessed household objects. Tradition has it that any tool over 100 years old may become animated with a soul and come to life. Every year on the Japanese New Year, people toss out their old tools. Unfortunately the discarded tools are pretty bitter about being thrown away after all their hard work, and so return to their homes to wreak havoc.
The tsukumogami come in numerous forms, with many tales telling of their exploits. One especially fearsome tsukumogami is Boroboro-Ton, a tattered old futon that comes to life and attempts to suffocate any human who dares sleep upon it by wrapping its raggedy form around them. To prevent old objects transforming into malicious tsukumogami, some people take them to the temple to be burned in the hope that they will move happily on to the afterlife.
11. Lutins // France
Lutins originate in French folklore and have spread with French settlers to areas such as Quebec and Cajun territory. Lutins are hobgoblins whose main role in life is to cause strife for humans. They carry out all the usual fairy tricks, like making food go bad and stealing things, but their unique skill is hair-related mischief. Lutins love to create knots in the hair of horses or people and have been known to cut the hair of unsuspecting sleeping humans. Some lutins have special magical objects such as a hat that bestows the power of invisibility, a very handy tool when playing pranks. But fear not, the naughty lutin can be frightened off with a thankfully plentiful resource—a liberal sprinkling of salt.
A version of this story originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.