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11 Miniature Mischief-Makers From World Folklore

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Humans have always looked for an excuse when something goes wrong, and traditionally, mythical creatures have often provided the perfect scapegoat. The milk has curdled? Must be a brownie. Tools gone missing? Blame the knockers. Someone drank all your wine? Cellar must be infested with clurichauns.

Folklore around the world provides us with a host of these small fairy-like creatures, frequently treading a fine line between the malevolent and benevolent, and worryingly quick to take offense. So next time you break a vase or lose your keys, here are a sampling of miniature mischief-makers to take the blame.

1. THE BROWNIES OF SCOTLAND AND ENGLAND

Brownies are small, usually helpful spirits originating in Scotland and northern England. They are generally male and reside in the house carrying out useful household tasks such as churning butter or polishing floors. Brownies are either clad in rags or naked, and some folktales say that if you offer clothes to a brownie they will leave your home, either because they now have nice new clothes or because they are affronted by the gift.

Be warned, however: Brownies are quick to anger, and if you irritate a brownie you may live to regret it, as these once-helpful household friends can turn into boggarts. Boggarts are brownies gone bad—they break things, throw things, and are generally terrible house guests.

2. CORNISH KNOCKERS AND WELSH COBLYNAU

Cornwall, one location of the knockers. Image credit: iStock

Knockers are small, mostly benevolent creatures said to inhabit the tin mines of Cornwall; Welsh miners had a similar character known as the coblynau. Some think the myth developed from the strange knocking sounds miners heard while down the mine, the mysterious noises being attributed to the dwarf-like creatures thought to inhabit the subterranean world.

Many believed the knockers were helpful, alerting miners to rich seams of ore or warning them away from areas liable to collapse. But like most fairy folk, the knockers were also seen as keen pranksters and blamed every time a piece of equipment went missing or someone got lost down the mine. To appease the knockers, miners would leave food offerings on the floors of the mine and ensured they always spoke respectfully of the little creatures, so as to not provoke their ire.

During the California gold rush Cornish miners were in high demand due to their excellent mining skills, and as a result these legendary creatures spread to the United States, where they were often called TommyKnockers.

3. TROW FROM THE ORKNEY AND SHETLAND ISLANDS

Trow are described as small, ugly, deformed creatures sometimes invisible to humans. At night the trow were thought to break into houses to warm themselves around the fire, while the terrified inhabitants cowered in their beds waiting for them to leave. In some folklore the trow were said to live in the ancient mounds called howes found across Orkney and Shetland; here they had lavish underground homes, where they hosted parties and sometimes kidnapped hapless humans who were forced to play endless jigs while the trow danced all night long. Trow also delight in causing mischief and so were generally blamed when the milk or ale went sour or something got lost; however, if a human managed to find an item belonging to a trow it was said to bestow its good luck on them.

4. GERMAN KOBOLD

A kobold by Willy Pogány via Wikipeda //  Public Domain

Kobolds are pointy-eared goblins found in German folklore. Rather like brownies, they are household sprites, making their homes in your home. Treat a kobold right and they will help out with chores, but annoy one (and let’s face it, most of these small folk are quite easily annoyed) and they will turn to mischief—toppling people over, hiding stuff, and generally causing trouble.

In German mythology there are three types of kobold: the household goblin, the kobold that inhabits mines (like the Cornish knocker), and a sea-faring kobold who lives aboard ships helping out with chores or causing mischief depending on his mood. Due to their unpredictable nature, the kobolds were often seen as undesirable house guests or bad omens—and is it any wonder when certain myths tell of angry kobolds chopping up the kitchen boy and adding him to the cooking pot?

5. ENGLISH PIXIES

Pixies (or piskys) are the classic miniature mischief-makers of English folklore. More commonly found in the West Country (Devon and Cornwall), pixies are said to be very small spirits, who wear natural colors such as greens and browns. Pixies love to play pranks and cause trouble and were traditionally blamed for all sorts of minor upsets, such as a blown-out candle, mysterious tapping, or an item getting lost. Pixies were said to be the scourge of travelers, as they have a habit of leading people astray, leaving them lost and disoriented. This gave rise to the word pixie-led, or pixilated, meaning bewildered or befuddled.

6. IRISH LEPRECHAUNS

Leprechauns are probably the most famous mischievous fairy folk, instantly recognizable by their red hair and beards, smart emerald-green suits, and quick-witted Irish charm. The word leprechaun is likely derived from the old Irish word Lú Chorpain, meaning small body, and is also associated with the Irish word for shoe maker—leath bhrógan (the creatures are frequently depicted as cobblers).

Stories of leprechauns have existed for hundreds of years, and human obsession with the devious little creatures has probably been stoked by tales of their legendary pots of gold. Many of the myths surrounding the leprechauns revolve around stories of a human’s greedy and avaricious nature, which the leprechauns expose. A typical story involves a man capturing a leprechaun and demanding to know where his pot of gold is buried. The leprechaun then indicates the tree, and the man ties a red handkerchief on the tree so he might return with a shovel. However, when the man returns he discovers the wily leprechaun has tied red handkerchiefs to all the surrounding trees, thus protecting his gold from discovery.

7. IRISH CLURICHAUNS

Like their fairy cousins the leprechauns, clurichauns are small red-headed chaps in smartly turned-out suits, but these sprites are the wild child of folklore, and love to get roaring drunk. Clurichauns inhabit wine cellars, and as their ruddy complexion attests, spend most of their time sampling the contents of the hapless publican's or homeowner’s alcohol store. However, if you keep your clurichaun happy (by keeping your wine cellar well-stocked), he will protect your wine casks from leaks; annoy him, however, and soon all your wine will go bad and chaos will descend. Clurichauns love nothing better than a jolly good party and after a drink or three will often strike up a rousing rendition of an Irish folk song while riding around your house on the pet dog—what could be more charming?

8. DUENDE OF THE SPANISH-SPEAKING WORLD

Duendes are small elf-like creatures originally from Iberian folklore, a tradition that later migrated to South America. Notably, they have no thumbs. They have been known to be both good and bad, but all duendes are prone to mischief-making and will exact revenge if they feel they have been wronged. Across the Spanish-speaking world, many parents use tales of the duende stealing naughty children to encourage their offspring to behave. Like many goblins, duende like to skulk in dark corners of bedrooms or under beds, and be warned if you like to sleep with your feet outside the covers—they have been known to accidentally take off a toe or two when trying to trim the unkempt toenails of unsuspecting children.

9. KOREAN DOKKAEBI

Dokkaebi are Korean goblins that come in many guises. They are created when a discarded household item, such as a broom or a wooden spoon, gains a spirit and becomes animate. Dokkaebi are said to be ugly and troll-like in appearance and some have just one leg. Keen tricksters, they enjoy taunting humans, using their powers of persuasion to convince people to carry out pointless tasks like wrestling all night long. These Korean goblins can also shape-shift, and some tales tell of them transforming into a beautiful woman in order to seduce guileless men. Some dokkabei possess a magic club that allows them to summon any item they like, but whenever they magically summon something, it disappears from its original home.

10. JAPANESE TSUKUMOGAMI

Boroboro-Tonas depicted by Toriyama Sekien via Wikipedia // Public Domain

Like the Korean dokkaebi, Japanese tsukumogami are possessed household objects. Tradition has it that any tool over 100 years old may become animated with a soul and come to life. Every year on the Japanese New Year, people toss out their old tools. Unfortunately the discarded tools are pretty bitter about being thrown away after all their hard work, and so return to their homes to wreak havoc.

The tsukumogami come in numerous forms, with many tales telling of their exploits. One especially fearsome tsukumogami is Boroboro-Ton, a tattered old futon that comes to life and attempts to suffocate any human who dares sleep upon it by wrapping its raggedy form around them. In order to try and prevent old objects transforming into malicious tsukumogami, some people take them to the temple to be burned in the hope that they will move happily on to the afterlife.

11. FRENCH LUTINS

Lutins originate in French folklore and have spread with French settlers to areas such as Quebec and Cajun territory. Lutins are hobgoblins whose main role in life is to cause strife for humans. They carry out all the usual fairy tricks, like making food go bad and stealing things, but their unique skill is hair-related mischief. Lutins love to create knots in the hair of horses or people and have been known to cut off the hair from unsuspecting sleeping humans. Some lutins have special magical objects such as a hat which bestows the power of invisibility, a very handy tool when playing pranks. But fear not, the naughty lutin can be frightened off with a thankfully plentiful resource—a liberal sprinkling of salt.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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17 Things to Know About René Descartes
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The French polymath René Descartes (1596-1650) lived after the Renaissance, but he personified that age's interest in mathematics, philosophy, art, and the nature of humanity. He made numerous discoveries and argued for ideas that people continue to grapple with. (His dualist distinction between mind and the brain, for example, continues to be debated by psychologists.) Get to know him better!

1. NOBODY CALLED HIM RENÉ.

Descartes went by a nickname and often introduced himself as “Poitevin” and signed letters as “du Perron.” Sometimes, he went so far to call himself the “Lord of Perron.” That’s because he had inherited a farm from his mother’s family in Poitou, in western France.

2. SCHOOL MADE HIM FEEL DUMBER.

From the age of 11 to 18, Descartes attended one of the best schools in Europe, the Jesuit College of Henry IV in La Flèche, France. In his later work Discourse on the Method, Descartes wrote that, upon leaving school, “I found myself involved in so many doubts and errors, that I was convinced I had advanced no farther in all my attempts at learning, than the discovery at every turn of my own ignorance."

3. HIS DAD WANTED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

Descartes’s family was chock-full of lawyers, and the budding intellectual was expected to join them. He studied law at the University of Poitiers and even came home with a law degree in 1616. But he never entered the practice. In 1618, a 22-year-old Descartes enlisted as a mercenary in the Dutch States Army instead. There, he would study military engineering and become fascinated with math and physics.

4. HE CHANGED CAREER PATHS THANKS TO A SERIES OF DREAMS.

In 1618, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Ferdinand II, attempted to impose Catholicism on anybody living within his domain. The result of this policy would be the Thirty Years' War. It would also prompt Descartes, a Catholic, to switch allegiances to a Bavarian army fighting for the Catholic side. But on his travels, he stopped in the town of Ulm. There, on the night of November 10, he had three dreams that convinced him to change his life’s path. “Descartes took from them the message that he should set out to reform all knowledge,” philosopher Gary Hatfield writes in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

5. HE COULD BE EASILY DISTRACTED BY BRIGHT AND SHINY OBJECTS.

In 1628, Descartes moved to the Netherlands and spent nine months doggedly working on a theory of metaphysics. Then he got distracted. In 1629, a number of false suns—called parhelia, or “sun dogs”—were seen near Rome. Descartes put his beloved metaphysics treatise on the back burner and devoted his time to explaining the phenomenon. It was a lucky distraction: It led to his work The World, or Treatise on Light.

6. HE LAID THE GROUNDWORK FOR ANALYTIC GEOMETRY ...

In 1637, Descartes published his groundbreaking Discourse on the Method, where he took the revolutionary step of describing lines through mathematical equations. According to Hatfield, “[Descartes] considered his algebraic techniques to provide a powerful alternative to actual compass-and-ruler constructions when the latter became too intricate.” You might have encountered his system in high school algebra: They’re called Cartesian coordinates.

7. ... AND THE REST OF WESTERN PHILOSOPHY.

Everybody knows Descartes for his phrase Cogito, ergo sum (which originally appeared in French as "Je pense, donc je suis"), or "I think, therefore I am." The concept appeared in many of his texts. To understand what it means, some context is helpful: At the time, many philosophers claimed that truth was acquired through sense impressions. Descartes disagreed. He argued that our senses are unreliable. An ill person can hallucinate. An amputee can feel phantom limb pain. People are regularly deceived by their own eyes, dreams, and imaginations. Descartes, however, realized that his argument opened a door for "radical doubt": That is, what was stopping people from doubting the existence of, well, everything? The cogito argument is his remedy: Even if you doubt the existence of everything, you cannot doubt the existence of your own mind—because doubting indicates thinking, and thinking indicates existing. Descartes argued that self-evident truths like this—and not the senses—must be the foundation of philosophical investigations.

8. HE'S THE REASON YOUR MATH TEACHER MAKES YOU CHECK YOUR WORK.

Descartes was obsessed with certainty. In his book Rules for the Direction of the Mind, “he sought to generalize the methods of mathematics so as to provide a route to clear knowledge of everything that human beings can know,” Hatfield writes. His advice included this classic chestnut: To solve a big problem, break it up into small, easy-to-understand parts—and check each step often.

9. HE LIKED TO HIDE.

Descartes had a motto, which he took from Ovid: “Who lives well hidden, lives well.” When he moved to the Netherlands, he regularly changed apartments and deliberately kept his address a secret. Some say it's because he simply desired privacy for his philosophical work, or that he was avoiding his disapproving family. In his book titled Descartes, philosopher A. C. Grayling makes another suggestion: "Descartes was a spy."

10. HE WASN'T AFRAID OF CRITICS. IN FACT, HE RE-PUBLISHED THEM.

When Descartes was revising his Meditations on First Philosophy [PDF], he planned to send the manuscript to “the 20 or 30 most learned theologians” for criticism—a sort of proto-peer review. He collected seven objections and published them in the work. (Descartes, of course, had the last word: He responded to each criticism.)

11. HE COULD THROW SHADE WITH THE BEST OF THEM.

In the 1640s, Descartes’s pupil and friend Henricus Regius published a broadsheet that distorted Descartes’s theory of the mind. (Which, put briefly, posits that the material body and immaterial mind are separate and distinct.) The two men had a falling out, and Descartes wrote a rebuttal with a barbed title that refused to even acknowledge Regius’s manifesto by name: It was simply called “Comments on a Certain Broadsheet.”

12. HE NEVER BELIEVED MONKEYS COULD TALK.

There’s a “fun fact” parading around that suggests Descartes believed monkeys and apes could talk. He believed no such thing. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes denied that animals were even conscious, let alone capable of speech. The factoid comes from a misreading of a letter Descartes had written in 1646, in which he attributed the belief to “savages.”

13. HE TOTALLY HAD THE HOTS FOR CROSS-EYED WOMEN.

In a letter to Queen Christina of Sweden, Descartes explained that he had a cross-eyed playmate as a child. “I loved a girl of my own age ... who was slightly cross-eyed; by which means, the impression made in my brain when I looked at her wandering eyes was joined so much to that which also occurred when the passion of love moved me, that for a long time afterward, in seeing cross-eyed women, I felt more inclined to love them than others.”

14. WHEN HE MET BLAISE PASCAL, THEY GOT INTO AN ARGUMENT ... ABOUT VACUUMS.

In 1647, a 51-year-old Descartes visited the 24-year-old prodigy and physicist Blaise Pascal. Their meeting quickly devolved into a heated argument over the concept of a vacuum—that is, the idea that air pressure could ever be reduced to zero. (Descartes said it was impossible; Pascal disagreed.) Later, Descartes wrote a letter that, depending on your translation, said that Pascal had “too much vacuum in his head.”

15. HIS WORK WAS BANNED BY THE CATHOLIC CHURCH.

Back in the late 1630s, the theologian Gisbert Voetius had convinced the academic senate of the University of Utrecht to condemn the philosopher’s work. (Descartes was Catholic, but his suggestion that the universe began as a “chaotic soup of particles in motion,” in Hatfield's words, was contrary to orthodox theology.) In the 1660s, his works were placed on the church’s Index of Prohibited Books.

16. HE REGULARLY SLEPT UNTIL NOON (AND TRYING TO BREAK THE HABIT MIGHT HAVE KILLED HIM).

Descartes was not a morning person. He often snoozed 12 hours a night, from midnight until lunchtime. In fact, he worked in bed. (Sleep, he wisely wrote, was a time of “nourishment for the brain.”) But according to the Journal of Historical Neuroscience, he may have had a sleep disorder that helped end his life. A year before his death, Descartes had moved to Stockholm to take a job tutoring Queen Christina, a devoted early-riser who forced Descartes to change his sleep schedule. Some believe the resulting sleep deprivation weakened his immune system and eventually killed him.

17. HIS SKELETON HAS TRAVELED FAR AND WIDE.

Descartes died in Stockholm in 1650 and was buried outside the city. Sixteen years later, his corpse was exhumed and taken to Paris. During the French Revolution, his bones were moved to an Egyptian sarcophagus at the Museum of French Monuments. Decades later, when plans were made to rebury Descartes in an abbey, officials discovered that most of his bones—including his skull—were missing. Shortly after, a Swedish scientist discovered a newspaper advertisement attempting to sell the polymath’s noggin [PDF]. Today, his head is in a collection at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris.

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