The Elves of Cologne -The story of the Heinzelmännchen of Köln
Once upon a time, so the legend goes, the city of Cologne was helped along by a little race of creatures called Heinzelmännchen. It began simply enough… when the humans went to bed, the Heinzelmännchen came along and finished up all the work that had been left undone. The idea of Elves or Gnomes doing work while humans sleep has a long history in German and Nordic Mythology (and is still VERY much alive in Iceland). Still… Elves don’t work for free. Find out what happens when the people of Cologne forget their part of the bargain!
My old Copy… a bit worn, but the pictures are still crisp
The Elves of Cologne
Stories about elves have long tradition in Germany, and were passed along orally for generations. Industrious Elves performed household chores and farm chores, made shoes and made sausages, basically doing all the things that humans need to get done, but at night, without anyone seeing them. This side by side relationship is an unspoken agreement. But, just because it’s unspoken, doesn’t mean you can break it!
Elves love keeping busy, and they enjoy learning new trades. And while they don’t want money, it’s important to leave a bowl of dinner for them, to keep their tummies satisfied (hungry elves can’t get anything done). And it’s essential that you never mock or neglect them, or worse, play tricks on them. And in Cologne, mistakes were made….
August Kopisch, a Silesian poet and painter, wrote the poetry based on legends and Fairy Tales. His simple style made the poems easy to read, and they were perfect for children’s books. In 1826, he wrote the poem about the Cologne Elves, die Heinzelmännchen. This rhyming story explains why you don’t mess with Heinzelmännchen!
Time for a Bedtime Story
The Heinzelmännchen (The Elves of Cologne) is a bedtime story that I always loved as a child. I loved having mama read it to me, and by day, I would read the book over and over. Compared with other German stories, it was all quite sweet; little elves come in to do work while you are sleeping. No one got lost in the woods or eaten, and no one had their thumbs cut off. Sometimes I would lie awake wondering if the elves would come visit my room, and maybe tidy up a game that got left out.
I’ve always loved the illustrations in my old copy of the book… The colors and the happy moon!
The Heinzelmännchen come into Cologne by night.
Of course, in true German fashion, the Heinzelmännchen is a cautionary tale.
You see, it didn’t take long for the people of Cologne to realize that they no longer HAD to finish their work… because it would always be finished for them. No one ever saw the Heinzelmännchen, all they knew is SOMEONE or SOMETHING was doing it… and they didn’t really care how it was happening. So they got lazy. And before you know it, the people were hardly doing ANY of the work. The Heinzelmännchen went on cleaning the houses and making clothes for the people.
Heinzelmännchen did all the work!
But then, the Tailor’s wife got nosy.
She scattered peas across the floor to catch the workers in the act. (As a child, I had no idea how peas would alert anyone. To me, peas were soft green veggies that Mama served when she made a roast chicken… I see now that the Tailor’s wife used the hard ones!). The Heinzelmännchen came in at night after everyone went to bed, like they always did, but when they crossed the floor to get to work, they slipped and slid on those hard peas!
They slipped on the Peas!
Oh my they were ANGRY! So they all ran away, and the people of Cologne had to do all of their own work from then on!
And then, the Heinzelmännchen ran away……
The Moral of the Story?
Keep your Heinzelmännchen happy, or you will work alone!
Heinzelmännchen Fountain in Cologne, Germany
Today, in Cologne, there is a fountain to commemorate these industrious elves. It its right across the square from Colognes oldest Brewery, Cölner Hofbräu P. Josef Früh.
One of the dioramas on the fountain showing the Heinzelmännchen doing work
Die Heinzelmännchen zu Köln
Wie war zu Cölln es doch vordemMit Heinzelmännchen so bequem!
(Once upon a time in Cologne,how comfortable it was with the Heinzelmen!)
For the full text of the poem ——-> Heinzelmannchen Gedicht
The Heinzelmännchen in German AND English