I is for Imp
The term “imp” is somewhat general and sometimes interchangeable with “fairy” or “demon” – depending on what you’re reading – which causes a lot of confusion as to what an imp really is. Especially since they appear in different tales with strikingly different behaviours, abilities and manifestations.
I firmly believe that Thumbelina by Hans Christian Andersen is an Imp.
“The woman kissed the bud and it opened instantly. There in the center of the red and yellow petals as a child – a little girl no taller than your thumb.”
“He asked her if she would like to be queen of the flowers…”
Perhaps I believe that she’s an imp because she can’t help but mislead others into believing that she’ll stay with them forever – from the woman who planted the seed she came from, to the frog, the mole and even the sparrow. And, of course, she’s tiny.
But let’s look at what folklore tells us about imps.
Folk Tales of Brittany, by Elsie Masson, 
IN the parish of Plaudren in Brittany there used to be a certain heath on which, amidst rows of towering stones, there was a village of elves. Here the mischievous imps danced every night and if you dared to venture on their domain they were sure to drag you into their carousal. They would make you whirl around and around in their fairy ring until the cock crew. That is why no one dared go near the heath after nightfall.
The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper
A mischievous sprite. Imps are creatures of small stature that are usually, though not always, male. The name may derive from ympe, meaning an “offshoot, graft, or cutting”. A ympe tree is one grown from a cutting and not from seed. Imps are sometimes described as being small demons, or “offshoots of the Devil”, and are often attendants to wizards, witches, or warlocks. However, they are generally mischief-makers rather than evil or seriously dangerous.
German fairies of the forest. Small and dressed in clothes of leaves, they are kind to those who treat them with respect. Hunters must offer them part of their catch to keep them appeased, and, as they are attracted to the smell of baking bread, cooks are advised to bake an extra loaf in case they pay a visit. They will pay the cook with sticks or woodchips that later turn to gold. Wood wives have a deep connection to the forest, and it is said that for every tree felled, a wood wife dies.
*More can be read in the book.
Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane
Anhanga was an ancient forest or vegetation fairy from the folklore of the Tupi people of Brazil; he guarded animals, field-game, and the forest; any who would hunt an animal with young ran the risk of being struck with fever or madness.
A nature spirit from the Tupi people of Brazil, the curupira is a guardian of the forest, protecting it from the devastation of man; this fairy will allow anyone who hunts for food to do so… will cause no end of trouble for those who hunt for pleasure. It has the ability to summon a hunter by calling out his name. Once the hunter is confused and lost in the jungle the curupira will lure him into the pitfalls and traps it has set throughout the jungle. Its high-pitched shrill whistle is enough to stun an adult, knocking him to his knees.
In Sweden the swor skogsfru (wood wives) are utterly beautiful and seductive fairy women; when viewed from behind these beings are revealed to be made of tree bark and are hollow as a log. The male equivalent of this fair is knon as the skogsman (forest man).
In Irish lore the lesidhe are tutelary guardian spirits of the forests; they typically disguise themselves as foliage. These Solitary Fairies are androgynous and will mimic the call of mockingbirds in order to confuse hikers and travellers. The lesidhe do not like humans, presumably because of their mistreatment of the land; although these fairies have never been accredited with hurting anyone they are said to play cruel pranks, foremost of which is luring people deep into the woods until they are lost.
*More can be read in the book.
The Forest in Folklore and Mythology by Alexander Porteous
In England at one time there was a belief in what was called an Ymp tree, although it does not seem quite clear whether this was a mythical tree, or an actual tree consecrated to the imps or fiends, as Sir Walter Scott suggests. It appears, however, to be generally accepted that the Ymp or Imp tree is simply a grafted tree, and the fact or process of grafting was considered to have imparted a peculiar character to the tree. As such it figures in some of the early fairy romances.
*More can be read in the book.
The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft by Judika Illes
Today, should someone suggest that you have an impish smile or impish charm, it’s probably a compliment. Most likely you’re being compared to a charmingly naughty child. Of course, today, should someone call you “little devil” or “little demon” that’s probably a compliment too, not intended to be taken literally or as a threatening, hostile statement.
Perhaps because some people needed to believe that they were inherently superior to animals, many witch-hunters had a hard time fathoming that witches’ familiars, their trusted allies and companions, were really animals. If they had superior powers, they couldn’t be mere animals; they must be little demons or devils in disguise.
Imps were small demons who, commonly disguised as animals, served as witches’ familiars. Because they were supernatural creatures they could be expected to perform services that no true animal ever could, like fly through the air, invisibly cause death and destruction, or mysteriously torment victims of witchcraft. In areas where witchcraft was intensely demonized, it was believed that when a new witch was initiated at her first sabbat, Satan personally gave her an imp, not so much to serve her but to act as her control, ensuring that the witch carried out her assigned quota of nefarious deeds.
Unlike traditional familiars, which behaved like the regular animals that they were, eating and sleeping in the manner appropriate to their species, imps had special needs. Because imps were vampiric, witches were obliged to feed them using their own body fluids, milk if they were mothers, blood if not. (What type of blood imps fed upon is not entirely clear.) Witches were believed to grow an extra nipple just to feed their little imp. The search for supernumerary nipples became a common feature of later witch-trials, although it might be “found” in odd parts of the body and in odd forms.
Should the witch’s own fluids be insufficient, the imp might go and milk neighboring livestock completely dry. These imps would travel in the form of familiar animals like bats, hedgehogs, ferrets or cats leading to strange, implausible fears about certain animals being harmful to cattle. Hedgehogs are still commonly believed to steal cow’s milk, as are bats; of course the old stories never referred to real animals—thefts were caused by supernatural imps in masquerade.
The root concept of the imp may derive from small shape-shifting spirits previously understood as friendly and helpful. Pagan European households, from Italy to Lithuania, once cherished snake-spirit household helpers. Some spirits weren’t exclusively tied to one animal form: Finland’s para, for instance, are domestic spirits known to assume the forms of cats, frogs or snakes. Attached to a person or family, they magically increase supplies of butter, milk, grain, and cash. (In later folklore, para are classified as goblins.)
As the witch-trials faded from memory, the older pagan conception of animal-shaped, mischievous domestic spirits re-emerged. Imps, those little devils, became figures of fun, mischief, and humor, albeit sometimes with a nasty edge. Imps entered the lexicon of Halloween via Victorian postcards, where they are not depicted as animals but as bright red devils, an image borrowed from the Central European “devil,” Krampus, who starred in his own postcard series. This type of imp, fun, lascivious, and joyful, is drawn to perfection in Kipling West’s The Halloween Tarot.
*More can be read in the book.
The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca by Rosemary Ellen Guiley
imp A small demon, often kept inside a bottle or ring and used for magical purposes. Imps are evoked and commanded to carry out tasks and spells.
Witches were said to keep imps that assumed different forms, such as toads, rodents and especially flies, spiders and other insects. When accused witches were imprisoned, they were watched closely for any appearances of their imps. Prisons were full of insects and rodents, so it was rare that a cell would not have such visitors. Guards would pounce on them, and if they were killed, it meant they were harmless animals or bugs. But if a fly or spider escaped, it was taken as a sure sign of the witch’s imp.
Witches were accused of using imps to carry out evil deeds upon innocent people, such as bewitchment, ill fortune, accidents and even death. In return, the witches suckled the imps with their own blood, using their fingers or protuberances on the body. Witch hunters searched bodies for witch’s marks, usually warts, discoloured skin, and unnatural lumps believed to serve as teats or paps.
In some witch trials, the term “imp” was used interchangeably with familiar.
*More can be read in the book.
- Puck (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
- Puck (folklore)
- Ten Types of Goblins
- Bad Fairy Case File #310: The Imp
Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel
Imps, such as Bogeys, are tiny and evanescent when you actually encounter them. They are usually pitch black and live in dark spaces such as cupboards, closets, attics, and basements. Their choice of dwelling helps Bogeys in their favourite exploit against humans: popping out of their hiding places and scaring people. This is where the term “bogeyman” or “boogieman” came from.
In Germanic folklore, imps are small, ugly, often be-winged and horned. They excel at playing tricks. These wild and mischievous creatures tend to assist witches. There are stories of them getting trapped inside objects such as swords and crystals, in need of rescuing.
It is believed that Puck from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is also an imp. He’s certainly mischievous enough to be one.
Imps are usually shown as being small in stature and unattractive. They always play pranks and are in search of human companionship. Even when they secure the friendship they sought, they’ll still play pranks on their friend as it is in their nature – this is where the term “impish” to describe someone who loves pranks and practical jokes came from.
Clearly, imps appear in different sizes and shapes, and their magical abilities vary from nation to nation. In fiction, they have been twisted to fit the story they have to play in. Just remember: real imps are tricky, mischievous and sometimes malicious.
Imps in Modern Culture
I found this when doing a quick search of imps in movies:
Goblins, elves, fairies and imps, and their misadventures sparked by the battle over a powerful potion.
I’ve played too many video games, but the Imps in the Harry Potter games immediately came to mind.
The Imp was a magical beast found only in Britain and Ireland, notable for its sense of slapstick humour. Imps delighted in tripping and pushing anybody they could get their hands on, as well as lobbing Wizard Crackers and other small projectiles at anybody that they wished to torment.Learn more about Imps in this world here.
While rather nonthreatening, an Imp could nonetheless be dispatched rather easily by anyone, by throwing back Wizard Crackers that it had thrown, or by using a Knockback Jinx to daze it, and then dropping it into the nearest cage, hole, or bottomless pit.
Imps in books
Samantha Martin is an imp, enjoying an extended vacation from Hel. All she wants to do is drink beer by the pool, play mischievous pranks on the humans, and get her hot neighbor in the sack. It’s a relaxing break from her infernal home, as long as she manages to avoid the angels, who won’t hesitate to execute her on sight.
But when her naughty hellhound lands her in trouble with the local werewolf pack, Sam is blackmailed into helping track and catch a killer. The steps she must take to appease the werewolves will put her right in the crosshairs of the angels. And with angels, there is no second chance.
Check it out on Goodreads.
She made a new friend…with a summoning circle.
Charlotte Azoria has no need for an imp. She’s awkward enough without throwing a tiny troublemaker into the mix. But after royally mucking up a spell, that’s exactly what she got, as well as a reunion with her best friend’s sexy brother. The last thing she wants is someone else all up in her business, but she needs Brandon. For his help, and for the future she’s always wanted.
Brandon Cole loves very few people, but his sister is one of them. So when she asks him to check on her bestie, he begrudgingly goes. Charlotte is different than he remembers. The same hot mess but in a lush tiny package. After being trapped, chased, and shoved out a window, what he really wants is to tuck her safely into bed. Next to him. Too bad the imp has other ideas.
Charlotte and her imp might be more trouble than they’re worth, but Brandon can’t help wondering if trouble is exactly what he needs.
Check it out on Goodreads.
Imps in My Writing
When I was a little girl there was this awesome TV show called Dawie die Kabouter (Dave the Gnome).
Anyhow, it was a great story about these faeries living in the forest and taking care of it and the animals who live there. Of course they had enemies in the form of trolls.
When you translate “kabouter” from Afrikaans to English, you get “brownie, elf, gnome, goblin, hobgoblin, imp, puck, pixie, pixy”. Yeah, talk about confusing.
In my Saphira the Faery Dog stories, I use “huiskabouter” for brownie. So when I needed something to describe the “kabouters” I saw in the forest, I went for “imp”. Out of the list of words “kabouter” translated into, it was the most accurate for what I was seeing these faeries doing. Oh, yeah. I wrote stories about nature-loving faeries called imps.
Origin of the Fae: Imps
Imps are the caretakers of the forests.
They can easily be mistaken for leaves or twigs. They have big glowing eyes that are as light green as plant sap; sharp, pointy teeth; pointy ears. The older they get, the more bark grows on them. While they’re young, they look more like green leaves. You can tell their relative age by their colouring: the greener the younger, and how browner they get the older they are. They live in trees.
They tend the Faery Rings growing in the forests. Faery Rings are made up of rocks, moss and white flowers. The Imps use these to change the size of their guests.
Imps have powerful magic. Not only do they use the Faery Rings to change the size of their guests in the forest, they also have the power to change Summoning Spells in such a way that not even Faery Dogs can break it.
Imps also have power over the forest itself. They can make ferns move in such a way that it’s almost like riding on waves. Tree branches move to accommodate them. They even have houses inside plants without harming the host.
Imps travel all over the forest every day, taking care of every plant. It’s what they do.
Being the caretakers of the forests, they have their own greenhouses to grow new trees and other plants. That allows them to plant new trees and other plants in the forest faster. They have various creatures of the forest work for them. Slugs help seeds germinate by keeping them moist. Spiders make sure that the saplings aren’t eaten by hungry critters. Earthworms do all the composting. And in the Knysna forest, the Imps have trained the Knysna louries to fly them wherever they wish to go.
Imps are extremely happy. When they wish to show support, they’ll cheer loudly. They love mischief like most Fae. They enjoy their lives, their work and see only the good in the world. Even when humans destroy their forest, they do not become dark and vindictive. They leave revenge to the other Fae living there while they regrow the forest.
Unfortunately, being plant Faeries, they get eaten by animals by mistake. A lot.
Though they have an elder who leads their group, they take the words of the oldest tree inhabited by a Tree Nymph in their forest very seriously. They believe that this old Tree Nymph isn’t just wise, but knows a lot about the past and the future.
Imps are the size of an adult’s thumb. Though they can be any size they need to be to protect their forest.
Part of keeping the forest clean is to eat whatever dies there. Imps only eat what’s already dead. Whether animal or plant doesn’t really matter to them. They’ll even eat the corpses of other Fae or humans.
Where did you encounter imps for the first time? Do you like stories with imps in it? How do you imagine imps to be? Any imp folklore you’d like to share? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to the subject.
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