One of the best things about playing with alchemy is the constant reminder that you are part of a tradition that has persisted through millennia, and there are books to prove it. This morning I was perfecting and vetting a formula for an herb-based cream, and as part of my research I ended up browsing through several medieval works to see what they had to say about the matter. The one that prompted this post was Hildegard von Bingen’s “Physica.”
Hildegard (1098-1179) was one boss lady, a medieval genius who established and ran several important (meaning incredibly wealthy) abbeys, wrote music that people perform to this day, argued with and persuaded kings, bishops and Popes over theology and politics, dictated uplifting and illuminating visions of God that were the medieval equivalent of bestsellers, knocked out biographies of saints and Gospel commentaries on a weekly basis, and wrote a kickass medieval medicine textbook in her spare time. That last is the “Physica,” and it covers a lot more than herbal medicine. She meticulously documents the essences and uses not only of plants, but also of trees, elements, stones, fish, birds, animals, reptiles and metals. But what captivated me on this reading was triggered by her description of lavender:
Lavender is hot and dry, having very little moisture. It is not effective for a person to eat, but it does have a strong odor. If a person with many lice frequently smells lavender, the lice will die. Its odor clears the eyes [since it possesses the power of the strongest aromas and the usefulness of the most bitter ones. It curbs many evil things and, because of it, malign spirits are terrified.]
Now any serious discussion of malign spirits can drive your train of thought completely off into the (nonmedicinal) weeds, no matter what millennium it is. I ended up going through not only the Physica but also a really nifty book I’ve neglected for some time — “Magic in the Middle Ages” by professor Richard Kieckhefer — to find out a little more about them. Not only were malign spirits, imps, and other potential hostiles like fairies and elves viewed as a real threat for most of documented history, they’re still around in modern culture: for example, soapmakers frequently blame the “soap gremlins” whenever a batch seizes, rots or explodes for absolutely no reason, and pretty much everyone recognizes when a gremlin gets into a car engine or an airplane (see, e.g., the Twilight Zone’s “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”).
Given this kind of record, I found myself thinking about malign spirits that house gods were intended to intimidate way back in the day. I came up with the following list because I’ve hosted all of them at one time or another.
DRAGGLE: Imp specializing in unpredictably intermittent, unusual and unexplainable noises. Exclusively nocturnal. Distinguish from “Plynk.”
PHNU: Water-dwelling imp that clogs drains. A particularly venomous subspecies backs up toilets, usually during dinner parties when you’re trying to impress someone.
PIFFT: Deflates things that need to stay inflated. Subspecies pokes holes in beanbag chairs. See also “Shrip.”
SKRITCH: Dries out pens, and returns them to desks and countertops after you’ve thrown them away.
OHFOR: Produces reoccurring and inexplicable carpet stains. Researchers dispute about whether it’s an imp or an actual gremlin, considering the cost of replacing carpet once you’ve given up trying to remove that disturbing, did-somebody-die-here splurtch.
PLYNK: Gremlin residing in plumbing systems, particularly water mains, irrigation pipes, and tank heaters. When bored will produce tantalizingly irreproducible faucet drips. Almost always seen only during weekends, holidays, or other “overtime” plumber scheduling.
SHRIP: Herds, hoards and hides dust-bunnies, -buffaloes, and -brachiosaurs. Regional subspecies known to disable vacuum cleaners; evidence is Lego, penny, and string spoor that have completely mangled your expensive Dyson. Check for nests under large, heavy objects.
GAH: Knocks over containers of liquids; first signs of infestation are water rings on wood surfaces with no obvious glass in evidence. Subspecies known to colonize refrigerators.
MINCH: Kills houseplants.
Finally, there’s the PURSE WEASEL, the only imp for which I have an actual, though poorly-realized, image. Every woman is familiar with this one. It removes and hides keys as its specialization, but also conceals credit cards and other important documentation while replacing them with crumpled receipts, outdated coupons, grocery lists from 2008, and useless change. Subspecies are the “Backpack Weasel,” which hides and/or destroys homework, and the “Mail Weasel,” which piles junk mail on every available flat surface of the home while dragging important letters such as bills and legal notices into unpredictable areas.
I’m sure there are a lot more of them out there. Which ones have you hosted?