There was once a general belief that spirits or fairies dwell in human homes, guard them, and occasionally undertake domestic tasks in return for a small reward, such as a bowl of cream or a warm place by the hearth. Such spirits are found throughout the world, from the Hawaiian menahune to the Scottish brownie, the Spanish duende, the German hausmänner, the Russian igosha, the Finnish kodin-haltia, the North American shvod and the Cambodian àràk. There are hundreds- if not thousands- of other examples world-wide. Recorded folklore tells us that house fairies were once a common feature of English domestic life. In the twelfth century a spirit called Malekincaused a commotion in the Suffolk home of Sir Osborn de Bradwell by discoursing learnedly in Latin on scriptural subjects. A Danish kobold even became clerk to an archbishop.
House fairies often have a mischievous side and like to play tricks on the human inhabitants of a dwelling. Such pranks might include rattling the fire irons, smashing crockery, hiding objects, or making a mess. House fairies are notoriously hard to please, capricious and easily offended. Some house fairies object to the presence of a cat or a dog, and most of them will disappear for good if given a suit of clothes.
A belief in house spirits is very ancient. In Persia and China it was always the custom to make offerings to the house spirit before entering a dwelling, while a similar custom in northern Europe involved taking bread and salt when visiting a home. In modern Indonesia elaborate ceremonies are performed to protect people entering a new home and to propitiate the spirits within it. In times past, in many parts of the world, blood sacrifices were made to the spirit of the place whenever foundations were laid for a building. Animals or even human victims were buried alive under the cornerstones to provide protective spirits- it is still thought lucky to live in a corner house. Animal and human skulls were embedded in the walls to placate the household deities. In Bolivia llama foetuses are sometimes still buried under the foundations of a house.
Fairies are much associated with the domestic hearth. They often try to gain access to a house in order to warm themselves by it and are much angered if they are kept out. They like to dance on the hearth and often enter by flying down the chimney or exit by flying up it. A discovered changeling will make its escape up the chimney. Some fairy homes lie beneath human hearths, and the hearthstones are their doors. Sometimes the fairies living there will reach up and steal cakes baking on the hearth.
The hearth was once the central focus of the home, providing warmth and food. It was the place of the fire, which meant the difference between freezing and surviving, eating and starving. As such it was sacred and the focus of many customs. The fire had to be kept burning, and was only put out at certain times of year, to be re-lit from a sacred flame. Because the smoke rose to the sky, it was a message rising to the spirits or gods, while below the hearthstone lay the underworld. Therefore the hearth was also a domestic axis mundi via which the gods or spirits could enter the home and a shaman’s spirit could travel out. This is possibly why Father Christmas enters the house via the chimney. House fairies, such as brownies, may be derived from ancient belief in household gods or spirits that protected the home. The hearth was their means of entrance and egress, their shrine and altar flame.
The ancient Romans honoured protective brownie-like spirits called Laresand Penates. The best known is theLar Familiaris [‘household lar’], which protected the home. It was given monthly offerings of garlands on the hearth as well as daily offerings at mealtimes. The lar protected the house and its wealth and was invoked on family occasions. Though there was a single lar to each house, lares were usually depicted in pairs. According to Ovid a small dog was often portrayed with a Lar, as both stood for watchfulness. He said that both guard the house, both are faithful to their masters, and lares are as wakeful as dogs. He adds that crossroads were dear to the lares and dogs alike. 
The Penates dwelt with particular families to help and protect them. Images of the Penates were made of wax or ivory and had special shrines in the house. They were worshipped along with the domestic goddess Vesta and were responsible for the house’s food supply and the success of the harvest. A fire was kept burning in their honour and they were given salt and the first portion of each meal. They were once gods of the storeroom, but were later demoted to fairy status. They were connected with the lares; the spirits of the dead or ancestors and the terms are sometimes interchangeable.
As well as domestic spirits, the lares and penates played a wider role. The Penates Publici were the protectors of the Roman state and were worshipped in a state cult. The Lares Grundules[‘Grunting Lares’] are named after the traditional sacrifice of a pig to the lares. They are thirty in number and protected the thirty civil divisions of ancient Rome. The Lares Praestites protected the citizens of ancient Rome. The Lares Semitales were venerated for their protection of paths [semitae], the Lares Viales protected highways [viae].
There was a public cult of the Lares Vicinales [‘Neighborhood Lares’]. Freedmen mayors and slave attendants supervised their regular worship in each district. Augustus Caesar converted the cult of the lares vicinales into the worship of Lares Augusti, Lares of ‘Increase’ associated with the worship of his genius, his personal creative force.
The Lares Compitales guard boundaries [a compita is the marker of a boundary]. At important intersections marble altars stood, with temples housing statues of two lares accompanied by a Genius Loci. At small intersections there might be an altar of stuccoed brick against a wall, on which would be a painting of two lares, dressed as Greeks with goblets, together with a toga clad genius, holding a sacrificial saucer and cornucopia. Many boundaries run along a path or road and the lares compitales were worshipped at both rural and urban crossroads. Sometimes they were the chief deities of a hamlet. At the junction of two roads two lares would be worshipped. The title ‘lar’was also applied to some gods such as Silvanus, god of the forest.
The annual feast of the lares was the Compitalia, celebrated soon after the winter solstice, when merrymaking accompanied the performance of theatrical farces. Some other elements of the festivals gave rise to later Christmas customs. The Compitalia called for the use of artificial light, and the lares traditional sacrificial victim was the pig, traditional Christmas fare for centuries. Slaves and freedmen especially venerated the lares, as it was one of the few state cults to which people of all stations were admitted.
Though some Victorian writers claimed that the concept of household spirits may have spread with the Roman empire, there is enough evidence to prove that a belief in such spirits evolved independently in places as far apart as China, Western Europe and South America. In later ages this creed dwindled to a superstition about naughty fairies and today is reduced to belief in good or bad atmosphere in a house.
© Anna Franklin
Illustration Paul Mason
 Eric Maple, ‘The House’, Man, Myth and Magic,
 Eric Maple, ‘The House’, Man, Myth and Magic,
 W.W. Gill
 Ovid, Fasti translation J.G.Frazer