Today on Lurking Beyond, we’re talking about brownies.
No, not those brownies! Although they look really good right now…
The brownies we’re talking about come from the English folklore tradition. They’re the reason that old wives’ tales say to leave milk or cream, along with a little fresh bread, on your back porch.
Brownies are household spirits that, although rarely seen, could be a valued asset to your home. Or they could completely destroy it if you insult them. It could go either way.
If you offer them a small reward of fresh milk and bread, they’ll be happy to watch over your home and even clean it while you sleep. However, if you fail to thank them properly or take advantage of their kindness, they will act out like a toddler on meth.
Editor’s Note: Lurking Beyond does not endorse giving methamphetamines to children.
In many stories, brownies are small, hairy creatures that are on the “ugly-cute” end of the spectrum. And yes, the rank in the Girl Scouts/Girl Guides is named after these little guys.
The best way to offend a brownie is to offer it clothes. If you give them clothing, the creature will leave the home and refuse to work for you ever again. Hey, that sounds a lot like the house elves in Harry Potter! Yet another example of J.K. Rowling’s deep delve into British folklore for inspiration. You can read more about the cryptids she co-opted here.
You should watch the Netflix cartoon Hilda for a bunch of reasons, but relevant to this discussion is the episode “The Nisse.” The show introduces the Danish folklore figure by the same name. Incidentally, there’s a joke in the episode that all nisse are named “Tonttu,” which is the Finnish word for the same creature. The more you know!
If you picture a garden gnome, then you’ve got a pretty good idea of what a nisse looks like. They serve a similar role to English brownies or hobgoblins. If you treat them well, they’ll protect the home, help out with chores, and generally serve as guardians. But these creatures are verily easily offended, and once they’re mad at you, they’ll steal your stuff and wreak havoc in your house.
It’s fascinating how many cultures have a similar type of figure in their folklore or religious traditions. There’s the Slavic Domovoy (which, incidentally, Eoin Colfer borrowed for the name of the bodyguard in the Artemis Fowl books) or the Gasin of Korean shamanism. In the Roman world, the Lares served as protective spirits that blessed the families that worshipped them.
So, should you leave a saucer of milk out on the back porch, just in case? To be honest, you’re more likely to attract one of these guys than a brownie or house spirit.
But hey, possums are actually really helpful little guys! They might not clean your house, but they will eat all the ticks in your yard.