Late last night and the night before,
knocking at the door.
I want to go out, don’t know if I can,
‘Cause I’m so afraid of the Tommyknocker man.
“Knock, knock,” begins the childhood joke. “Who’s there?”
In the mines of Cornwall and America, the answer might just be the Knockers or Tommyknockers. And their presence was hardly a joke. In America, miners would refuse to work unless given assurances of the Tommyknocker’s presence in a mine.
The older lore of a Knocker starts in Cornwall in the UK, dating back to the first tin and copper mines. Mining in Cornwall has been going on since the Bronze Age and continued into the 20th century. There was a thriving trade with Mediterranean civilizations.
The legend goes that the Knockers taught the ancient Britons how to mine for the tin underground. This was and is dangerous work. There are risks of poisonous gases, collapse, flooding, and injury. A collapse was probably the most feared and was heralded by the creaking, groaning, and "knocking" of support beams.
In some stories, the sounds are due to Knockers attacking the supports. This seems to be an older belief as the more recent legends have Knockers as more mischievous than malevolent. Sometimes the knocking is used to lead miners to rich veins of ore. In other stories, including the more recent legends, the knocking warns of imminent collapse. In addition to giving these warnings, Knockers may steal mining equipment and throw gravel at workers who were whistling in the mine. Miners left food as an offering to the Knockers to stay on their good side.
Yet another belief said that Knockers were actually souls of the dead. Specifically, deceased Jewish people who were responsible for the death and crucifixion of Jesus Christ. These souls were doomed to work in the mines until the resurrection. This view of Jewish people killing Jesus Christ is a long-held anti-Semitic idea.
The fairy Knockers were said to be small–no larger than 2 feet tall–and dressed as miners. They had a large head, long arms, and were wrinkled like old men. They also sported white hair on their chin and cheeks.
There are versions of the Knockers in other areas of the UK as well. In northern England, there are Blue-Caps, which are said to be fairies who also live deep in the mines. The Blue-Cap was a helpful fairy, pushing full mining carts as a ball of blue light. Unlike a Knocker, the Blue-Cap demanded a fair wage, not just the occasional offering. His wage was to be left in an unused corner of the mine and if it was ever short or too much, he would become offended and leave.
In Welsh lore, the coblynau was a fairy standing about a foot and a half tall, with copper skin and ugly features. Like the Knocker, he dressed as a miner. He was quite good-natured and could be seen carrying pails and tools. Generally, the coblynau always looked busy, but never finished his tasks. The coblynau could be heard working industriously in the mine and the sounds of their tools were thought to herald a rich ore deposit. If a miner was heard dismissing their existence, the coblynau was known to throw a rock at the miner, though it never hurt them.
During the 1820s, miners from the UK brought over their beliefs in the Knockers and other mining fairies to the mines of Pennsylvania and then others. They gained a new name in America, the Tommyknockers.
Some of you may recognize this name from the Stephen King novel, but the novel has little to do with the folklore. Tommyknockers were basically Knockers, just American. The legends spread from the coal mines of the northeast to the silver and gold mines of the west. Here they were also sometimes considered to be the ghosts of miners who died at work. In some areas, miners made small clay effigies honoring the Tommyknockers.
One anecdote was published in 1884 in a newspaper in Nevada:
“Last night two men, who were prowling around in the Baltimore mine at American Flat, got scared nearly out of the township by the queer sights in an old drift. They went into the mine for the purpose of seeing whether there was ore enough in sight to profitably extract on tribute. Climbing into a stop, they heard the click of hammers, and were much surprised, as they supposed no one had been there for years. Following up the sound, they were astonished to see two striking hammers work on the head of a rusty drill which was deftly turned by unseen hands and though not a soul was in sight except themselves, they heard a lively conversation, but could not make out no words. They looked and listened for some minutes, when fear took hold of them, and they ran out of the mine quickly. At the tool-house, they related their experience and were laughed at, but to prove that their heads were clear they conducted a couple of skeptics to the spot and found the hammers still at work. The men insisted that they did not deceive themselves, and those who went with them say that the above statements are facts.”
Further afield, and apparently unrelated to the Cornish Knockers, we find haus-schmiedlein in the area of Bohemia, dwarves of Germanic lore, the muki in the Central Andes of Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, and the Karzełek of Slavic folklore.
Haus-schmiedlein are the “little house smiths” and live underground in the mines of the region of the Czech Republic known as Bohemia. They are so named due to making sounds like a smith hard at work at their anvil. They were said to knock three times upon the wall of the mine should a death be imminent. Just before an accident, they would imitate the sounds of the workers.
Dwarves are probably familiar to most of you. They are found in many modern fantasy settings, most famously Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons. In folklore, dwarves are associated with the earth and mountains and more specifically smithing, mining, and crafting. They are described as short and ugly in later stories, but the earliest Nordic mythology does not provide descriptions, though they are thought to be the same as the Dark Elves.
The muki is described in various ways, but always as a creature living deep in the mines. Some stories say he is a small man, no taller than 2 feet tall. He is a strong creature with his head directly attached to his body with no neck between. His hair is bright blonde and he has white facial hair, with eyes that are said to reflect the light like metal. He also may have horns. The muki wears mining gear and may carry either a lantern or flashlight, depending on the time frame.
Stories of the muki often involve miners making a deal. Just like their European fairy counterparts, making a deal with a muki rarely goes well. The muki offers to do the miner’s work in exchange for coca, alcohol, or the company of a woman. The deal also usually requires some discretion on the part of the miner. In these stories, the miner is not able to uphold his end of the bargain and is killed by the muki.
Karzełek are very similar to the Cornish Knockers and American Tommyknockers. They live in the mines and are the guardians of gems, crystals, and precious metals. They will lead lost miners out of the mines or to veins of ore. Like many other mining and subterranean fairies, they are vicious to those that insult them or do not pay them their due. Things like hurling rocks, whistling, or covering ones head are considered disrespectful and the Karzełek will warn trespassers by throwing soil before taking more drastic measures.
In Slavic regions, miners have a patron spirit called the Mistress of Copper Mountain, also known as the Malachite Maid. Malachite is a mineral with deep green crystals. Her “Copper Mountain” is a copper mine located in the Ural Mountains.
She is depicted as a beautiful green-eyed and dark-haired maiden in a malachite gown. She is also described as having strings of copper braided into her hair. The Malachite Maid is often surrounded by her servants, brilliantly colored lizards. And she may also appear as a lizard herself and is thus also known as the Lizard Queen.
She is the patron of miners and those young men seeking her patronage should not marry. It was also said that because the mines were her domain, women should never venture there. The Maid also disliked loud noises, so children were taught not to shout around the mines. Breaking any of these rules would result in harsh punishment, but she would show kindness to good people by showing them where to find gold and jewels.
From Wikipedia, a summary of the fairy-tale where the Mistress of Copper Mountain is featured prominently:
“A young factory worker named Stepan meets a woman in the unusual clothing. He realizes that the woman is the legendary Mistress of the Copper Mountain. She orders Stepan to tell his bailiff, the ‘stinking goat’, to get out of the Krasnogorsk mine. Stepan does as he is told and pays the price: he is flogged and sent to a mine face. He is then saved by the Mistress herself. She brings Stepan to her domain, shows him her riches and proposes marriage. Stepan honestly replies that he has already promised to marry another girl, Nastyona. The Mistress is delighted by his reply and reveals that her proposal was a test of Stepan's honesty and integrity. She presents a malachite casket filled with jewelry for Nastyona and lets Stepan go, making a final request that Stepan forgets about her. However, Stepan finds that cannot forget her. He marries Nastyona and lives with her for many years, but he is unhappy. One day he goes away and doesn't come back. His body is later found lying by a rock. The tale concludes with the words: ‘It's a chancy thing to meet her, it brings woe for a bad man, and for a good one there's little joy comes of it’.”
Not far away in Ukraine, there exists the Shubin, or spirit of the mines. The Shubin appears as an old miner, gray-haired and with brightly burning eyes. He is also said to have hooves instead of feet. He is a mischievous spirit and likes to joke around, bursting into laughter and frightening the miners. Like many spirits, he is beneficial to kind people and hard workers, but cruel to the greedy and arrogant, especially oppressors. The Shubin is unequivocally the owner of the mine and all its riches.
As a beneficial spirit, the Shubin will warn of impending collapse or methane gas. One story says that a man was once lost in the darkness when his light was extinguished. He despaired until he spotted a light in the distance. It was the Shubin, holding a flashing beacon. The man was afraid, but obediently followed the light and found the exit of the mine.
In his malevolent nature, the Shubin may bring ruin to a mine with methane explosions, landslides, and floods. These types of accidents would cause the death of dozens if not hundreds of miners. For this reason, some stories state that meeting the Shubin was bad luck.
There was a whispering in my hearth,
A sigh of the coal,
Grown wistful of a former earth
It might recall.
I listened for a tale of leaves
And smothered ferns,
Frond-forests, and the low sly lives
Before the fawns.
My fire might show steam-phantoms simmer
From Time's old cauldron,
Before the birds made nests in summer,
Or men had children.
But the coals were murmuring of their mine,
And moans down there
Of boys that slept wry sleep, and men
Writhing for air.
I saw white bones in the cinder-shard,
Bones without number.
For many hearts with coal are charred,
And few remember.
I thought of all that worked dark pits
Of war, and died
Digging the rock where Death reputes
Peace lies indeed:
Comforted years will sit soft-chaired,
In rooms of amber,
The years will stretch their hands, well-cheered
By our life's ember;
The centuries will burn rich loads
With which we groaned,
Whose warmth shall lull their dreaming lids,
While songs are crooned;
But they will not dream of us poor lads
Lost in the ground.
Miners, by Wilfred Owen
In 1890 in Wales there was a particular mining disaster that was said to have been heralded by many supernatural activities. The Morfa Pit Disaster occurred on March 10, 1890, and was due to a gas explosion most likely caused by an unsecured lantern. A total of 87 were killed. It is perhaps, unsurprising, that Morfa became known as the Pit of Ghosts.
Preceding the disaster, miners reported hearing shouting, knocks, and other inexplicable noises. These were reported not only by individuals but by groups as well. One story even tells of a miner returning to the surface accompanied by an unseen presence. Yet another story tells of a man dressed in oilskins who appeared in the cage to be lowered into the mine, then vanished. There were noises of rock falls prior to any falls taking place and an eerie scent of roses pervaded the mine.
Crank Caverns is another mine that is reportedly the residence of supernatural beings. This is actually an old quarry that began to be mined instead, resulting in a labyrinth of tunnels. In the late 1700s several children went to explore the caverns and tunnels and all but one vanished. The survivor told a story about small old men with beards who chased them and killed his friends.
It was a concerning tale, as a number of people had gone missing around the area. The authorities took the child seriously and launched a search of the cave. According to stories, they found a pile of human bones and the remains of an unknown church deep beneath the ground. Throughout, the searchers said they felt like they were being watched and could hear strange voices speaking in an unknown language.
Each day as we rise, Lord, we know all too well
We face only one thing, a pit filled with hell.
To scratch out a living the best that we can,
But deep in the heart lies the soul of a man.
With black-covered faces and hard calloused hands,
We work the dark tunnels unable to stand.
To labor and toil as we harvest the coals,
We silently pray, “Lord please harvest our souls.”
A coal miner’s prayer
The first recommendation for season two is a book! Jolene by Mercedes Lackey is a beautiful retelling of The Mistress of Copper Mountain, set in the Appalachias of America.
Anna May Jones is the daughter of a coal miner. When her father succumbs to Black Lung, the coal company wastes no time in turning the family out of their home. In desperation, Anna May's mother sends her to live with her Aunt Jinny, a witchy-woman and an Elemental Master, in a holler outside of Ducktown.
As she settles into her new life, Anna May finds herself falling for a stonemason with such a talent for stone carving that people come all the way from Memphis to commission statues and tombstones from him. But he's not content with his current skill—he wants to learn to carve stone so well it looks real.
When the stonemason disappears on a quest to fulfill his ambition, it is up to Anna May to follow and find him, armed with the new abilities Aunt Jinny has taught her. To save the man she loves, Anna May must journey into the mountain—and confront the horrors that lurk in the darkness of the mine.