There is a theme that I found in several folk tales from Ireland to Russia - although mostly in Irish/Celtic stories. It is where a house has supernatural helpers, who do work overnight. However, the rule is to not give them clothes, or they will go away.
(And yes, we find that back in Harry Potter, with the house elves).

Since this seems to be a recurring theme in cultures separated by long distances, I figure it has a hidden meaning - a warning conveyed in somewhat cryptic terms.

My best guess is that it is a warning to not spoil your servants, or else it may go to their heads. Is that right, or is there another meaning?


2 Answers 2


The following quotes are taken from Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns and Goblins - An Encyclopedia, by Carol Rose (highly recommended).

In the entry for Brownies:

Families were proud of their Brownies as they brought good fortune; to lose one was disastrous. [...] In general, the Brownie was the most industrious of the household spirits, ploughing, reaping, grinding grain, cleaning the house and barns, churning butter - in fact, most of the tedious jobs he would gladly do. In return the Brownie was entitled to a bowl of the best cream and new baked cake or bread, to be put within his reach. To offer the Brownie any form of payment other than this, especially to take pity and to give him new clothes, was an insult, and he would vanish immediately.

In the entry for Tomtar:

Tomtar are the Little People in the folklore of Sweden.... They enjoy a bowl of porridge, and some bread and tobacco, but only on Christmas morning. To give the Tomtar any better gift during the year would be sure to offend him, and he would do no more work.

In essence, then, your theory is correct - it is a warning not to spoil your servants. However, I'm not sure that this is because it will "go to their heads". My impression is that brownies, and similar beings, want to work on their own terms. To turn it into a payment, or transaction, was highly insulting to them, particularly if they wanted to do the jobs they want because they enjoyed it, or liked the family. To take pity on them, implying that they are lesser beings relegated to housework, causes offence, and this is the reason they leave - not that their newfound power has gone to their heads. Beings such as Tomtar and Brownies, then, seem to like appreciation, but not payment.

  • 1
    Voting up. I'd like to wait a bit before accepting an answer, but I think you set a high bar for competing answers! Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 4:37
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    I'm Irish and I can confirm that this is all fact. 👍
    – Daft
    Commented Apr 29, 2015 at 7:26

These spirits are known as Domovoi. They watch over the house and are not harmful unless you neglect the house.

Offering them clothes would anger them because they would feel as if they are unwanted the way they are and leave the household.

While stories and books (such as the Harry Potter series) have taken a spin off of the Domovoi there is no link between the two.

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    Do you have quotes, or a source, to back this up?
    – user62
    Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 19:59
  • @Christofian I do not have a source this is just what I think is the reason. Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 20:00
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    I'm sorry, but just using your own opinion without any quotes or outside sources is neither good practice nor helpful to anyone else (we can't independently verify your claims).
    – user62
    Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 20:08
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    @Christofian I found some evidence, let me work it into the answer. Commented Apr 28, 2015 at 20:12

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