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Spirits of the Forest: The Moss People

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Folklore is filled with creatures who haunt and dwell in natural spaces and within the in-between, residing on the edges of boundaries between the wild and the more civilized. One such group of creatures are known as moss people or forest folk.

While the moss people are commonly categorized into elf-like beings, they are largely described as having their own habits and preferences that place them firmly into their own group. Descriptions of them include being gray, bedraggled, enchanting, and even completely covered in hair. Moss people are depicted as normally being of various statures, about the size of a small human child or even quite tall, sometimes able to change shape at will.

European legends that feature the moss people include various regional stories detailing how these beings of the forest might emerge to assist farmers and homesteads by completing chores, healing sick animals, and leaving small gifts for the landowner. Despite their primary residence being in the wild, as with many Germanic spirits, there is not always an easy distinction made between house spirits that are domesticated and those that are part of the rest of the genius loci. In stories of moss people, they are known to come and go, interacting with a homestead while still inhabiting the wild. If the gifts they leave behind are refused they may become hostile or disruptive and are said to be able to bring sickness as well as ill fortune to both livestock and humans. In return for their assistance, homesteaders leave bowls of porridge or plates of bread– the exception being anything containing caraway which is said to be loathed.

We are presented with an element of ritual here in that many contemporary heathens continue to make both propitiatory and expiatory offerings to the spirits of the land and place. Offerings of a propitiative nature include those that are made to solicit the favor, or even protection in the case of farms or homesteads, from spirits who may otherwise cause distress if left unattended. There is an expectation that offerings made will be enough to induce these spirits to be compliant or perform certain duties. Expiatory offerings are made to spirits in cases most times relegated to making amends. In the example of caraway being abhorred by the moss people, specifically, to offer caraway bread or other food products would be considered taboo. Because offerings are made to the forest folk most often by lay people, farmers, and homesteaders, these particular forms of offerings would be considered to fall within the third function of ritual (the first reserved for those made by priests and the second by warrior classes, respectively).

Further, Claude Lecouteux writes about the nature of localized spirits of place and land in The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices:

“A fable by Marie de France informs us that the beings called by this name are naturally unsociable and shy, and detest being seen.”

It is a common motif throughout Germanic lore to see similar personal and anthropomorphic characteristics in dwarves, elves, and other similar creatures who primarily are said to be beings of the outer, more wild, boundaries. While they can and do, become participatory in the lives of humans, it is undertaken with a degree of separation and caution on their own terms. There are times in certain stories where a wild being becomes more domesticated, but still, there are prescribed measures for making suitable offerings to them that will ensure they remain placated and not become problematic.

In Bengt of Klintberg’s, The Types of the Swedish Folk Legends, there is a particular chapter that focuses specifically on making sure the types of offerings made are of the best quality and performed routinely even after they have become domesticated:

“The Domestic Spirit is helpful and takes care of livestock, feeds the cows, etc. He has a favorite animal and treats the badly the others, and doesn’t tolerate a horse of a certain color. He must have the right food, and when the farmer forgets butter in his porridge, he becomes furious and kills a cow or throws out all the hay in the barn. He punishes bad behavior by burning down the house or throwing a farmhand over the roof. The noise of the farmhands disturb him and he shows his anger by lifting a horse up to the hayloft.”

As we can clearly see, the assistance of a domesticated spirit who has been brought into the hearth or homestead can be quite disruptive if not attended to in accordance with carefully minded measures. However, their presence can be a welcome help. During times of serious illness or epidemics, Holzfräulein (or “wood ladies”) were said to emerge from the woods and forested areas. These ladies would show the people how to prepare and use certain herbs and plants in order to alleviate symptoms and cure sickness.

German writer, Ludwig Bechstein (1801-1860) cautiously described these wild women of the woods and forests as Moosfräuleins (Moss ladies), who are presided over by an older female figure known as Buschgroßmutter (Shrub Grandmother), whom he compares to Hulda or the Wild Huntress, Bertha. However, these particular forest spirits do not play a role in accounts of the wild hunt, separating them from some of the more prominent legends that feature Hulda or a huntress at a certain time of year. Moss people are said to intentionally avoid participating in such processions by taking refuge inside of trees.

Spirits of time and place, carved from historical perspectives, continue to make their way into our living history. Elements of animism and early ritual are often depicted in folklore. These stories offer insight into bridging ancient worldview with modern praxis and can serve as indicators for forming a contemporary mindset that retains a certain purposefulness when making offerings to what dwells within, as well as to that which is known to cross boundaries between the hearth and the wild.

 


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