A Germanic trickster and household spirit, inevitably chthonic in origin, who variously helps and punishes his human hosts. The name derives from the old German Kobel (a stall for household animals, a sty) and Holde (a poltergeist, malicious spirit, or elf). Rarely visible to men, they are said to be hideous, with pitted, gnarled faces, hairy tails and bald, bare feet, the look of the rocks and trees from which they sprang. Much like the Lares of ancient Rome, they serve and protect their household; according to Jacob Grimm:
In certain places, every farmer, wife, son, and daughter has his personal kobold, who performs all sort of household tasks, carries water to the kitchen, chops wood, provides beer, cooks, cares for the horses in the stalls, cleans the stalls, and similar tasks. Where there is a Kobold, the animals will increase, and all things will fare well. Even today, there is a saying that a girl who finishes her work too quickely "has a kobold".
A household with a kobold is obliged only to leave a bit of food and beer at a particular place every night, and thus guarantees that the spirit will remain appeased; there is evidence that at one time, in the later dark ages, families made kobold images of wax or wood and left offerings at its altar. Should the farmer's wife just once forget to feed the kobold, she will be cursed, will break her dishes, spill food, and burn herself in the kitchen, each time hearing the maniacal laughter of the kobold behind her. Another story compiled by Jacob Grimm suggests a more violent result, summarised here:
There were two travelling students who stopped one night at the house of a farmer. They arrived late, and though the kitchen was closed, the hearth off, saw some bread and beer laid out on the table. They pleaded with the farmer for just a bit of the food, offering to pay for it, but he refused, explaining that this belonged to the house's kobold, warning them not to touch it. During the night, one of the students became so hungry, he crept from his bed and ate all the food. Soon, the kobold arrived, making a dreadful noise. When he came to the table, he overthrew the empty bread-bowl, turned over the pot of beer, cursing, and began his chores, cleaning the kitchen. When he finally came to the benches where the two students slept, he ignored the one completely, but seized hold of the other, the one who had eaten the food, dragged him from the bench, and threw him about the room before returning into the wall behind the hearth. He repeated this twice during the night. When the farmer finally found the two frightened students in the morning, he became angry, saying that only with luck had they survived the night at all.
These were the spirits that haunted the woods and fields of medieval Germany, of the older Germanic sagas. Originally, the kobold was just a type of elf, and like the elf, began as a malicious poltergeist, a spirit of the restless dead. Often the kobold appears to his family with a knife in his back, or otherwise deformed and mangled, the wandering ghost of the murdered previous inhabitants. Heinrich Heine describes these tales as the darkest, most gruesome part of German folklore, telling the following tale:
A girl for several years kept company with an invisible house spirit, who every night sat at the hearth and talked to her. One night, the girl asked whether he might reveal himself to her in his true form; though he refused at first, he eventually relented, and told her to go down to the cellar, where she might see him. She took with her a light, climbed down into the cellar, and there, in a barrel of water, saw the ghost of a dead child, swimming in blood. It was the spirit of the child she herself had born out of wedlock and drowned in the water, years before.
There are few named kobolds in german mythology; part of their character is that they are nameless, anonymous beasts. On one occasion, however, the kobold finds notoriety in the legends. Heine, again, tells the tale of Hüdeken:
This was a kobold who lived in the 12th century in Hildesheim. In the year 1132, in the bishopric of Hildesheim, appeared an evil spirit, in the guise of a farmer with a cap on his head; for this reason, he was called Hüdeken. This spirit took delight in living among men, occasionally visible, most often invisible, in posing questions and answering them in turn. When the duke Burchard de Luka was murdered by Hermann von Wiesenburg, and the land fell into the latter's possession, Huedeken woke the Bishop Bernhard von Hildesheim and convinced him to take the throne, thereafter warning him occasionally of dangers to his rule. A kitchen boy once insulted him, and when the cook refused to punish him, the kobold seized the kitchen boy while he was sleeping, threw him around the room, tore him asunder, and threw him into the kettle. When the cook uncovered the murder, he began cursing the spirit, and on the next day, the kobold spoiled all the meat by pouring over it the blood and entrails of toads. When again the cook, cursed the kobold, he caused the cook later that night to cross a faulty bridge and fall to his death.
Malicious, dangerous, and carefully portrayed exacting his vengeance only when mistreated. The more violent elements of the kobold's mythology were soon forgotten over time, and he began to represent only a prankster, kicking careless farmers who bent over or spilling the milk. For Goethe, in his poem, Der Zauberlehrling, about a wizard's apprentice made famous by Mickey Mouse in Fantasia, the animating spirit of the brooms is called a kobold. In his Faust, the kobold becomes a generic name for an earth-spirit, opposite the salamander, sylph, and undene. By the end of the 19th century, these romanticisms lefts their remnants in folksongs; one speaks of a comical hunter, running away from a rabbit because he mistakes it's bright eyes and long ears for a kobold lurking in the brush.