English author Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936 A.D.) once said, “I tell you naught for your comfort, Yea, naught for your desire, save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher,” which should serve as a mantra for sailors of the North and Baltic Seas, which has been generously referred to as a “thermally inhospitable environment for those working above or below the water, and for any unfortunate enough to be accidentally immersed in it. The low air temperatures coupled with high wind speeds make working conditions above the surface both unpleasant and hazardous, while the low water temperatures throughout the year make hypothermia and subsequent drowning inevitable to those immersed in the sea for any but short periods of time” (Golden, 1976, p85). More succinctly put, the North Sea is cold and will kill you quickly in the event of mistake or accident, even in this modern day and age, ever more so in the previous age of wooden ships and iron men. Climatically stressful environments tend to breed mythologies geared towards evening the odds, presumably because when you spend your day working in a region where the likelihood is that something random will result in your demise, it’s nice to think that a measure of control can be exerted over probability, say through the actions of a considerate supernatural creature. Hence we have the North Sea’s Der Klabautermann, a seagoing Teutonic kobold thought to have some influence over the fate of North Sea and Baltic sailors.
The Klabautermann was a ship-Brownie, who sat under the capstan, and in time of danger, warned the crew by running up and down the shrouds in great excitement. This eccentric Flying Dutchman had a fiery red head, and on it a steeple-like hat; his yellow breeches were tucked into heavy horseman’s boots (Guiney, 1888, p77).
Der Klabautermann is alternatively referred to as a Brownie, Nix, or Kobold, Brownie being the preferred English and Scottish term for a sort of household spirit (hence “ship-Brownie”), whereas Kobold is the German equivalent that comprises two subspecies, one of which is a household spirit analogous to the Brownie, and the other which is a spirit of the underworld of mines, closer to the Cornish “Knocker”. Nix is typically the catch-all term reserved for water spirits in Scandinavian, German, and Swiss folklore. Generally, the household spirit serves as sort of fairy godparent for the home, keeping things running smoothly, ensuring prosperity, picking up the slack when needed, and minding the fortunes of its chosen family, requiring little more than genuine respect, and occasional propitiation with gifts or a meal. As an oceangoing vessel is an ostensible home away from home, the extension of similar functions to a related spirit does not require too much additional elaboration, apart from the fact that your home on shore rarely sinks from underneath you, and far less frequently results in drowning incidents.
The Kobold, as a rule, likes to lend a helping hand in the field and stable; he feeds the cattle and threshes the grain, fetches water, and performs all manner of domestic duties. At the same time he is also capable of teasing, but, as a rule, only those who have deserved punishment. On account of the riches possessed by dwarfs, such domestic spirits, or Alraunen, as they are sometimes called, may bestow a blessing of money upon a particular house. What the Kobold is for the house the Klabautermann, or Kalfatermann, is for the ship (Chantepie de la Saussaye, 1902, p327).
The etymology of the term “Klabautermann” is the subject of conjecture, deriving either from the Low German verb klabastern, meaning “rumble” or “make noise”, or from kalfatern, “to caulk” (Der Klabautermann is sometimes depicted with a caulking hammer, and one of his positive services is said to be caulking between planks on the ship to keep things watertight). The physical description of Der Klabautermann is fairly consistent, including diminutive stature, big boots, yellow pants, a steeple-shaped hat, and red hair, although other elements including green teeth and pipe-smoking frequently creep in.
The Klabautermann sits under the ship’s capstan, and is a little fellow with yellow breeches, horseman’s boots, a large, fiery-red head, green teeth, and a steeple-crowned hat. If a ship is doomed to perish, the Klabautermann may be heard running up and down the shrouds in a state of disquietude, and making a noise among the rigging and in the hold; so that the crew leave the ship, and the sooner the better. When such a goblin is on board of a ship and on friendly terms with the crew, the vessel will not sink and every voyage will be prosperous; if he abandons it, things will go ill. Everything that is broken during the day in the ship he sets to rights in the night, and is therefore often called the Klutermann. He also prepares many things for the sailors, and even performs them. If he is in a bad humor, he makes an awful noise, throws about the firewood, spars, and other things, knocks on the ship’s sides, destroys many things, hinders those at work, and unseen gives the sailors violent cuffs on the head. From all this uproar it is supposed that he derives his name (Thorpe, 1852, p49-50).
Earlier depictions of Der Klabautermann emphasize his relative beneficence, generally emphasizing his overall helpfulness to the crew of his adopted ship, lending his command of good luck, acute nautical abilities, and knowledge of shipboard operations to assist the crew in keeping everything shipshape and Bristol fashion. He is also celebrated as something of a talented musician. Of course, like most household spirits in folklore he is considered a bit of a prankster, although not a malicious one. Similarly, those who are lazy, indolent, unskilled or disrespectful are singled out for the particularly nasty attentions of Der Klabautermann, but generally the unseen presence of Der Klabautermann is considered a good thing, and as long as nobody on the crew can actually report seeing him, good fortune and prosperity are thought to follow a vessel.
Stories of mermaids and mermen continued in German histories, songs and poetry into the 18th century. A strange belief was in the presence on board a ship of a beneficent being known as the Klabautermann, Klabatermann, Klafatermann or Klettermann, who was akind of house spirit. It was believed that if a child dying unbaptized were laid at the foot of an oak, or other tree, its soul would enter the trunk, and if the wood were used for the building of a ship, the spirit would live in the vessel and bring it good fortune. Inevitably not every ship enjoyed this advantage (Society for Nautical Research, 1922, p54)
Of course, should anyone actually discern the physical embodiment of Der Klabautermann, all bets are off. It is though that the only time anyone actually sees him, it portends bad omens, that is when a vessel is doomed, Der Klabautermann will become visible to all those who will perish. Got that? You don’t see Der Klabautermann and everything is kosher, fortunate even. If you see Der Klabautermann, you are pretty much screwed. The connection of Der Klabautermann to wood spirits is interesting as it signifies a broader, regional and persistent animist belief with shipbuilding, as observed by Bronner, “The path of dissemination is often traced from the North Seas area eastward to the Baltic Sea. The common underlying belief in this region is in tree souls (human soul that enter a tree) and tree life (in the Baltics, non-human spirits inhabiting a tree). The connection to seagoing vessels is the widely held belief that the spirits enter wood used in shipbuilding. As with other signs at sea, the Klabautermann is seen, according to oral tradition, at times of danger and can be heard, when invisible, making knocking sounds related to his entrapment in wood. The theme of entrapment may indeed be a projection of sailors’ isolation at sea on the wooden ship and fear of watery doom on to the mythological figure. Like the initiatory narrative of equator crossing, Klabautermann revolves around the fate of travelers far away from home, in mysterious waters or surroundings” (Bronner, 2006, p28).
When ships are moored in a harbor, the Klabautermen get together and talk about their voyages. One conversation between two Klabautermen went like this: “Yes,” said the one, “My last trip was a hard one. One of the side planks came tore loose and I had to hold it in place for the rest of the voyage to keep the water from rushing into the hold”. “Oh,” countered the other one, “I had harder work than that. Shortly after we sailed, a storm blew up and the mainmast broke off at its foot. I had to hold it up for the whole trip”. The first one wouldn’t concede that the second one had worked harder, so they got into an argument that finally ended in blows. Once, a ship sailed into harbor after a long voyage. That evening, a sailor on the deck suddenly heard a high little voice talking to someone on a ship that was moored nearby. “Did you have a successful trip?” a similar voice from the other ship called back. Yes, but what a lot of work I had! Without me, the ship would have sunk. But I don’t like it here anymore—the captain and sailors take all the credit for our quick and successful voyage and forget about me. Tonight I am leaving the ship.” The sailor realized that he had heard two ship’s Klabautermen talking and that the luck was about to leave his ship. The next morning he went ashore and looked for a new berth. The ship eventually sailed again, but it never reached its destination (Excerpt from German folktale “Klabautermen”, variations in Pommern, Rugen, and Schleswig-Holstein—translated in Altmann, 2006, p231-232).
On a side note, Der Klabautermann clearly persisted in modern consciousness as he had the dubious distinction of having a Nazi WW2 operation named in his honor, that is in the spirit of harassment, Hitler planned to interfere with Soviet boats on Lake Ladoga.
Operation KLABAUTERMANN, which the German Navy and Air Force conducted from Finnish bases on the shore of Lake Ladoga. The idea of using small boats to interdict Soviet traffic on Lake Ladoga had occurred to Hitler in the fall of 1941, too late to be put into effect. It was revived in the spring of 1942 after Finnish reports indicated that the Russians were evacuating Leningrad. Hitler feared that the Russians might pull out of Leningrad entirely; in that case, the northern sector of the front would no longer be important to them, and they would be able to transfer troops to another part of the front (US Department of the Army DA Pam, 1959, p230).
Seagoing spirits tend to be a mercurial lot, reflecting the chancy life of a sailor, but more often than not, they help and hinder in equal measure, focusing their wrath on the deserving and benevolence on the meritorious. On land, where entire communities are unlikely to disappear from the face of the earth (and when they do so, we’re looking at serious act of god sorts of cataclysms – see Sodom and Gomorrah), you can usually bet that your home will be there tomorrow. An ocean-going vessel represents an entire self-contained community that can vanish beneath the waves in an instant, condemning the entire ship’s company to Davy Jones Locker. In the age of sailing ships, this not only could happen, but did so with alarming frequency, despite the skill of a Captain, or the best efforts of a committed crew. Good or bad fortune takes on monstrous proportions. As Hunter Thompson said, “It was the Law of the Sea, they said. Civilization ends at the waterline. Beyond that, we all enter the food chain, and not always right at the top.” It’s always nice to know that as you ply the fearsome North Sea far from civilization, Der Klabautermann may be looking out for you.
Altmann, Anna E. The Seven Swabians and Other German Folktales. Libraries Unlimited, 2006.
Bronner, Simon J. Crossing the Line: Violence, Play, and Drama in Naval Equator Traditions. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
Golden, Surgeon Cmdr. Frank. “Hypothermia: A Problem for North Sea Industries”. Occupational Medicine 26(3), p85-88, 1976.
Guiney, Louise Imogen, 1861-1920. Brownies and Bogles. Boston: D. Lothrop Company, 1888.
Laughton, Leonard George Carr, 1871-, Roger Charles Anderson, William Gordon Perrin, and England) Society for Nautical Research (London. The Mariner’s Mirror: the Journal of the Society for Nautical Research. London: Society for Nautical Research, 1922.
Chantepie de la Saussaye, P. D. 1848-1920. The Religion of the Teutons. Boston: Ginn, 1902.
Thorpe, Benjamin, 1782-1870. Northern Mythology: Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, and the Netherlands. London: E. Lumley, 1852.
United States. Dept. of the Army. DA Pam 169-1; 19. Washington, DC: U.S. Directorate for Armed Forces Information and Education, 1959.