Klabautermann: Sea Sprites of Maritime Folklore
Superstition at Sea
There is no shortage of superstition and lore associated with seafaring. The significance of ocean travel, ship building, and fishing in the evolution of humanity, culture, and society overall cannot be overstated. Humanity has thrived along waterways since prehistory, and our connection to the water has evolved along with us. This makes it no surprise that there are countless gods, demons, and other supernatural entities associated with the ocean and with seafaring. Among these entities is one particularly well recognized creature referred to as the Klabautermann.
The Klabautermann is recognized as one of the three types of kobold. Kobolds are a type of sprite originating from Germanic mythology. Kobolds are usually beings that live in peoples’ homes and act as house spirits who help to maintain the home and protect it from misfortune. When they are not provided gifts for their hard work however, they can grow angry and will often play malicious pranks on the family within the home. There are also kobolds who dwell in mines and other underground places, who serve the same function in a different environment. This is the same for Klabautermann, but he dwells upon ships and looks after them and the crew aboard instead of a mine or home on land. Klabautermann is often referred to as a brownie or a nix as well. A brownie is essentially the same thing as a kobold, but with a different name because the region of origin is Britain or Scotland rather than Germany. Nix is a term that tends to refer to all water spirits in Scandinavian, German, and Swiss folklore.
Life at sea is often unpredictable and comes with long periods of isolation and uncertainty. When spending a great deal of time far away from land, at the mercy of the vast and mighty ocean with only your own skills and the skills of your crew mates to keep yourself alive and moving forward, you are likely to turn to less practical means of comfort and hope. This sort of thinking is likely what gave birth to the Klabautermann among sailors of the North and Baltic seas, where the water is even more dangerous than it is in other areas of the world. The mercurial nature of water-based entities in folklore and superstition is considered a reflection of the ambiguity and unpredictable nature of the ocean itself, and this is clear in the understanding of these ship sprites. The name comes from either the low German word “klabastern,” which means, “rumble” or “make a noise,” or from the word “kalften,” which means “to caulk.” Either of these words could have led to the name, because they both reflect the behavior of this kobold.
Nature and Depictions
Belief in this ambivalent little creature dates back centuries, at least to the 1700’s, but kobolds have been a part of dominant folklore since the 13th century or earlier. Like other kobolds and brownies, Klabautermann is small in stature and tends to hide out in little areas of ships until nightfall. It is said that while the crew is in his good graces, he will wander about the ship at night and fix things that had been broken throughout the day. He replaces items that have been lost, mends bits of rigging and equipment, and prepares things for the sailors. His presence on board a ship brings the vessel and its crew good fortune. He is a very helpful little creature and he is well respected and appreciated among sailors. As a show of respect, many boats have a carving or sculpture of the Klabautermann secured to one of the masts. In these depictions, he is shown in a yellow outfit, holding a tobacco pipe, wearing boots and a wool hat. This is the generally accepted description of these sprites and reflects their kinship with sailors and mariners in their shared fashion sense.
According to the lore surrounding the Klabautermann, he is invisible like many other sprites and fey found in folklore. As long as he remains invisible, the crew and the ship that he lives upon is safe from danger and will experience good fortune. These kobolds also act as omens of disaster however, and if he appears to someone aboard the ship, the boat or that sailor will meet their end very soon. If he is spotted, great care must be taken to avoid whatever misfortune he has foretold. When the ship is in grave danger, the Klabautermann will run wildly across the boat, making horrible noises, shaking the rigging, making loud knocking sounds in the hold, and causing a general ruckus. This is his attempt to warn the crew that danger is near, and to chase them off of the boat and away to safety.
Earlier descriptions found of these beings focus on their benevolent nature and highlight their helpfulness aboard seagoing vessels. They are said to be master sailors and talented musicians who bring joy and good fortune aboard whatever vessel they bless with their presence. Within later accounts however, their ambiguous nature is more often noted. While they are helpful entities when the crew is in their good graces, they can become troublesome when they feel they have been disrespected. If they receive no recognition for their hard work, they may feel inclined to move things around and play pranks on the crew, sabotage parts of the ship, or even leave the ship altogether. It is said that if they grow too upset with the crew, they can abandon them when the ship is docked. When a Klabautermann abandons his ship, its luck disappears, and the ship is doomed from that point on.
Some say that when boats are docked together, the Klabautermann from different ships will go ashore and meet. They like to spend some time together sharing stories and comparing their experiences, which often leads to arguments among them concerning which of them worked harder. They will often grow aggravated with one another as they try tirelessly to one-up each other, claiming that their journey was more difficult or that their boat was in need of greater care. This is an amusing part of the lore because it reflects common attitudes and interactions between human sailors who meet while at dock.
Origins and Relevance in Culture
Most of the time, it is assumed that Klabautermann choose the ships that they live aboard based on their own judgement. They either like the boat, the crew, or the captain and decide to bring them the good luck that comes with their presence. There are other explanations for which boats receive which sprites, however. One notable belief is that they become a part of the boat because their spirit is tied to the tree from which the ship was constructed. For several cultures in the northern regions of Europe, the spirit or soul of the tree is believed to carry on through the lumber and become the spirit of a ship itself. It is possible that these kobolds are really the spirits of the trees that we were used to build the vessel. Another belief persists in this region that if an unbaptized child is dying, it can be placed at the foot of a tree and the child’s spirit will pass into that tree. Some believe that the Klabautermann is what has become of these children’s souls after their tree has been used to build a ship.
Klabautermann is not a particularly popular folklore entity, but they have found some recognition in popular culture in recent decades. For example, they are mentioned in the well-loved anime One Piece, which involves a lot of maritime folklore and legends. They also found a short-lived bit of fame when Nazi Germany planned and executed an operation by the same name, during which they attempted to interfere with Soviet traffic on Lake Ladoga. Aside from those instances, these interesting helpers have gone widely unnoticed by popular culture. Next time you find yourself on a ship, try to remember to thank the kobold for the good fortune. They deserve a little bit more credit.