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.

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.

A tall ship in Lake Superior

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.

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History degree, freelance writer, novice metal worker and mechanic, adventure and horror enthusiast. https://www.patreon.com/YamunaHrodvitnir

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Yamuna Hrodvitnir

History degree, freelance writer, novice metal worker and mechanic, adventure and horror enthusiast. https://www.patreon.com/YamunaHrodvitnir