Friday, April 13, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

Working underground in general and mining in particular has always been a dangerous undertaking.  I doubt that very many people would argue with that given that to this day we still have cave-ins that trap miners, if not kill them, around the world far too regularly.  Given the stress under which miners have always worked, it is probably not surprising that tales of underground creatures working alongside their human companions – unseen but certainly heard – has become ingrained in the lore of the profession.

The most pervasive of these stories concerns variously named little men, comparable to the more familiar gnome, who have been present in the shafts of mines from Germany to California at any given time in history.  Their names vary, depending on their country of origin.  In Germany they have been called kobolds and in France coblyn whereas the Welsh call them coblynau or bucca.  In Cornwall they are known as knockers or knackers and when they finally migrated to California during the gold rush, they began to be called tommyknockers, a name that will be familiar to readers of Stephen King.

The knockers seem to wear two faces.  Dressed in imitations of miner’s clothing and wearing candles on their hats just like their human counterparts, they either descend into the bowels of the earth or live there all the time.  Some stories, particularly in Germany, say that they live in the very rocks themselves.  On the one hand, the knockers are thought to be mischievous but helpful.  They will “borrow” tools and food left unattended, but their picking and drilling when heard by men is a sure sign of a rich vein.  On the other hand, stories warn against heeding the siren song of the knocking kobolds; their noises are a sure sign that a cave-in is only moments away.

In Cornwall, the knockers were sometimes believed to be the spirits of long-dead miners who had returned to help their brethren.  An ongoing story circulated about a miner and his son who offered to help the knockers in their digging for a cut of their typically tremendous haul.  The knockers agreed and took a few years off while the father and son team did their work for them.  Eventually, the old man grew very wealthy but when he died his son began to short the knockers on their share of the mineral – usually tin – being pulled from the ground.  Almost immediately the vein dried up and the knockers left for another mine.  The son, unable to find work as all the other miners in the county knew what he had done, died debauched and penniless.

In Germany, however, kobolds would repay kindness with spite.  Even if offerings of food or tools were left in the mine shafts, the kobolds would maliciously lead miners to veins of ores that seemed like silver or gold, but were actually found to be poisonous when they were refined.  These ores were called cobalt by the German miners, which will of course be familiar to modern chemists.  In 1735 the Swedish scientist Georg Brandt managed to isolate the bane of German miners; fifty years later the new element was christened cobalt.

Immigrants to the Americas brought their tales of kobolds and knockers with them to new shores.  In Pennsylvania, where many coal miners are of German ancestry, tales of the little kobolds continued into the 20th century and perhaps even to this day.  The Welsh and Cornish miners took their mine-dwelling sprites all the way to California where knockers, for some reason, became tommyknockers.  As late as 1954, a feature in The Sacramento Bee recounted the story of old miners petitioning that the sealed shafts of certain mines be opened so that the knockers could find a way out and move on to active mines.

Our chthonian spirits tend to die very, very hard.

Header: Le Porteur de Charbon (The Coal Carrier) by Henri Gervex c 1892 via Old Paint


Timmy! said...

Very cool, Pauline. I like the painting too...

But no naked bat people?

Pauline said...

Those little underground guys are creepier than lawn gnomes, in my opinion. And if I run into any stories of naked bat people, you'll be the first to know.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Well, "knockers" + "Tommy", a slang name for a Britisher.... sounds reasonable, no? :-D Fascinating reading, Pauline, and thank you.