“Fear has many eyes and can see things underground” – Miguel de Cervantes
Upright posture isn’t just for runway models. It’s kind of an ancestral hominid thing minus the keen fashion sense. Once we came down from the trees and started loitering about on the veldt, it behooved us to stand up straight and keep an eye on the horizon, lest some four-footed apex predator be lurking at our sensory periphery. Like the roots of most of our fears, it has to do with not being eaten. Fear of the dark? Stuff in the dark might eat you. Fear of reptiles? Historically, there were probably some sizable ones looking to swallow you whole. Fear of water? Well, that’s where things that eat you live and you can’t see them until it’s too late. The crazy neighbour who licks his lips every time he sees you? He’s no doubt considering whether or not to serve you with fava beans and a nice Chianti. We’ve gotten all civilized and thus avoiding being eaten is likely not high on our lists of life goals, but perhaps it should be. Self-esteem always suffers when something else categorizes you as “snack food”.
Given the evolutionary origin of our species in prancing around the prairies away from the safety of nice high trees, confident in our ability to spot danger at a distance and hotfoot it to safety, it is unsurprising that we have a generalized speluncaphobia (“fear of caves”). Caves are dark and tend to be inhabited by things with teeth and bad attitudes. Plus, there’s that whole underworld, passage to the “land of the dead” thing that gives us the willies, and generally explains the rise of Chthonic religions that we used to ward off the fear, and assert that we might be able to appeal to an otherworldly critter to protect us from the things that go bump in the night. Or bump in the cave, as the case may be.
Our lack of adequate rain gear eventually overcame our fear, and we got into the caveman vibe. “There can, however, be little doubt that extreme caution must still have been necessary, for we know that beasts of prey also lived in them contemporaneously. There would therefore survive a habit of careful investigation before entry, prompted by an instinct of punctilious curiosity which would only be satisfied by this exhaustive preliminary examination of dark nooks and crannies” (Crawford, 1921, p179). When we finally got around to basic carpentry skills, and realized we could build our own little portable caves anywhere we wanted, the bottom dropped out of the cave-dwelling market, and we moved out quick as could be. And apart from a few extreme sports enthusiasts, we’ve since opted to stay out of caves when possible. This means that cave tours are kind of like horror movies for the vestigial hominid brain. The one exception is miners. Miners willingly descend into the bowels of the earth in search of shiny stuff, combustible stuff, and any number of other valuable commodities that require digging a deep hole.
A deep hole in the ground is a liminal place for our monkey brains. By descending into the murky darkness that lays beneath our feat, we are entering an underworld, both literally and figuratively. And while we don’t run into many sabretooth tigers or prehistoric cave bears anymore, it’s still a bit like walking into one’s own grave. That’s why miners are usually such tough dudes. They have to simultaneously overcome the evolutionary claustrophobia of our australopithecine ancestors, a few millennia of people telling them that everything evil and monstrous resides beneath us, as well as the rather straightforward danger of hundreds of tons of rock burying you alive.
It’s no wonder that mines are populated with a menagerie of preternatural critters as we can only presume that whenever we step over the threshold, the liminal threats multiply. One particular creature, emerging from Teutonic mythology is a curious beastie in that he is the miner’s Charon, the ferryman on the River Styx, whose passage must be paid to gain admittance to the nether realms below. This dweller in the darkness is called Bergmönch (“The Mountain Monk”) or in another incarnation, Meister Hämmerling (“Mister Hammering Guy”). He is alternatively a trickster, fiend, savior, and chthonic diety for those who brave the terrors of the subterranean, most especially in the Harz Mountains that stretch across parts of Lower Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia in northern Germany.
Dense ancient forests left the Harz sparsely settled, but when we find shiny objects, we don’t let such natural obstacles get in our way. In 968 A.D. silver deposits were discovered near the town of Goslar, and the rush was on. As we started chopping holes in the hills looking for lucre, we noticed that a lot of the caves were probably once occupied by Neanderthals, who archaeologists believe were displaced about 40,000 years ago during the Upper Palaeolithic Revolution, as Homo sapiens moved in. We always ruin the neighbourhood for our furry forefathers. Of course, the Neanderthals probably ousted the remnants of Homo erectus that had inhabited the region for 700,000 years. That’s hominid history in a nutshell. One set of primates moves in, pushes another out, only to later find themselves displaced by the new kid on the block with sharper spears, superior cooking skills, or better looks. In the caves and mines of the Harz resides our Bergmönch a.k.a. Meister Hämmerling.
There are numerous traditions of the Bergmönch in the mining districts. He is always seen in the dress of a master-miner, with a silver mine-lamp in his hand. It is said he was a master-miner, and begged to be permitted to inspect the mines until the Judgement Day. The Monk’s valley Monchsthal near Clausthal, was his favourite retreat. In St. Andreasberg the tradition is, he was a monk who sought to open the mines there, but failed. According to this tradition, he completed nearly the entire canal at the base of the Rehberg, called the Rehberger Graben, which conveys all the water to St. Andreasberg for the working of the Samson mine, but became bankrupt through the undertaking. Many wild tales are told of his bringing aid to the miners, and to the poor and distressed, and of his severity towards the wrong-doer (Lauder, 1885, p217).
One questions the sanity of a master miner who loves inspecting mines so much that he requests assignment until the Apocalypse comes, but some folks just exhibit that kind of commitment to their work. In much of the folklore surrounding his appearances he seems to offer succour or assistance to ill-fated or oppressed miners. At some point, he took on a more fearsome countenance and was reputed to stand at the entrance of the mines, and if one to not proffer the appropriate obeisance to him, you risked a gruesome death underground.
In the mines about Clausthal and Andreasberg a spectre was formerly seen who went by the name of the ‘Bergmönch.’ He was clad as a monk, but was of gigantic stature, and always carried in his hand a large tallow candle, which never went out. “When the miners entered in the morning, he would stand at the aperture with his light, letting them pass under it. It appears that the Bergmönch was formerly a burgomaster or if director, who took such delight in mining that, when at the point of death, he prayed that instead of resting in heaven, he might wander about till the last day, over hill and dale, in pits and shafts, and superintend the mining. To those towards whom he is well disposed he renders many a kind service, and appears to them in a human form and of ordinary stature; while to others he appears in his true form. His eyes sprout forth flames, and are like coach-wheels; his legs are like spiders’ webs (Dyer, 1893, p269-270).
Bergmönch thus was more a spirit of the threshold, although of frightening countenance, and as a former superintendent of mines had a little more simpatico with miners. This of course distinguished him from the more malicious monstrosities that inhabited mines across Europe, from the tommy-knockers to the kobolds. Those guys are just jerks.
The belief that mines are haunted is an ancient and universal one, probably arising from the many weird sounds and echoes which are heard in them, and the perpetual gloom. Sometimes the haunting spectres are gigantic creatures with frightful fiery eyes. Such was the German “Bergmönch, a terrible figure in the garb of a monk, who could, however, appear in ordinary human shape to those towards whom he was well-disposed.” Frequently weird knockings are heard in the mines. In Germany these are attributed to the Kobolds, small black beings of a malicious disposition. White hares or rabbits are also seen at times. The continual danger attending the life underground is productive of many supernatural “warnings,” which generally take the form of mysterious voices (Spence, 1920, p277).
I don’t know about you, but I think the creepiest thing on the list are the phantom white rabbits. Way too Alice in Wonderland. But perhaps this is apt, as “Meister Hämmerling has two meanings literally, in German: Jack Ketch, and The Devil. Without the Meister, Hämmerling has many definitions; it is Puck; clown; Merry Andrew (Jack Pudding—Hansumrst). Kobold; demon; devil; it enters into the myth of mine and mountain, as a personified evil power in Nature, represented as a hateful and powerful gnome. A kobold is a gnome that hammers underground; he is Hämmerling, as is whatever looks like him—in zany dress or awkward play, and it may be, in vindictive power of harm. Of course, Hammer, in German, is hammer in English; but Hammer in German is also bully. The “kingly cognomen,” “Karl der Hammer,” was, I suspect, not given to Charles Martel without a touch and twist of Teuton humor and irony (Doughty, 1922, p330). It’s hard to get a handle on Bergmönch and Meister Hämmerling. How he is regarded seems to depend on who is telling the story, but fulfils all the qualities of the traditional trickster, somewhat indifferent to our plight, occasionally outright nasty, helpful when it suits him, but never to be trusted.
A hundred tales are told of this subterranean demon. In some of them he is represented as a being wholly and entirely evil; others describe him as composed altogether of admirable attributes; a third class of fictions seems to fix the character of complete indifference on every one of his proceedings; while a fourth makes him more like a mere man—a tolerably equal compound of good and bad — inoffensive and harmless, unless when thwarted or displeased — beneficent by fits and starts — capriciously kind, but never at any time to be implicitly trusted. The form in which he most commonly appears, according to the popular belief, is that of a monk of gigantic proportions, enveloped in long, flowing, black garments; but he occasionally—indeed frequently assumes several other shapes, some of them of a very different description. For instance, in one case recorded by tradition, he is stated to have become visible to a company of miners in the shape of a huge horse, with a most extraordinarily long neck, and one fiery eye protruding from the centre of his forehead; in another he is represented as a monstrous bear; while a third makes him assume the sinister aspect of a hideously deformed dwarf. His actions are as multiform as his changes of shape; like them, too, they are marked by great inexplicability. In one shaft he is employed in the task of tormenting the miners by undoing, in their presence, what they have done—without any assignable cause—maltreating them when they express their anger at this objectionable proceeding on his part, and even killing a couple of the most active and refractory outright: in another, on the contrary, he appears as the protector of these poor simple people; taking upon himself to assert their just rights, and punishing the overseer of the works for extortions and oppressions practised on them (Snowe, 1839, p313-314).
If you find yourself in a dark and claustrophobic place, don’t panic. Tell your modern brain, that it’s just your ancient monkey brain looking for cave bears. Tell this to yourself. If you say it out loud, people will think you are nuts, and surely the other miners will make fun of you. Pour a little schnapps on the cave floor for Meister Hämmerling, just in case. When your job requires you to live in the liminal, you have to approach the netherworld with respect and a good sense of humor to avoid existential terror, or as Quentin Crisp said, “Life was a funny thing that happened to me on the way to the grave”.
Crawford, O.G.S. “Our Prehistoric Instincts”. The Living Age v308. Boston, Mass.: E. Littell & Co., 1921.
Doughty, Leonard. “Notes on Translating Heine: Part II”. University of Texas. Texas Review 7:4 (July). [Austin]: University of Texas,
Dyer, T. F. Thiselton 1848-. The Ghost World. London: Ward & Downey, 1893.
Guerber, H. A. 1859-1929. Legends of the Rhine. New York: A. S. Barnes & Co., 1895.
Lauder, Maria Elise Turner. Legends and Tales of the Harz Mountains, North Germany. 2d ed. Toronto: Briggs, 1885.
Snowe, Joseph. The Rhine, Legends, Traditions, History, From Cologne to Mainz. London: F. C. Westley [etc.], 1839.
Spence, Lewis, 1874-1955. An Encyclopædia of Occultism: A Compendium of Information on the Occult Sciences, Occult Personalities, Psychic Science, Magic, Demonology, Spiritism And Mysticism. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1920.
Thorpe, Benjamin, 1782-1870. Northern Mythology: Comprising the Principal Popular Traditions and Superstitions of Scandinavia, North Germany, And the Netherlands. London: E. Lumley, 1851.