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The Tommyknockers
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Tommyknockers: The Spirits of the Underground

by Carl Barna

Mining is an ancient profession. Odd sounds, darkness, and dangers are present underground. Almost without warning, a person can die or suffer serious injury underground. Mines provide fertile ground for the imagination. The work is done in a setting that supports the rise of legends and folklore. The stories let us peek into the life of miners.

One example of folklore about underground mining is the belief in Tommyknockers. They are the spirit creatures of the underground. No one knows exactly when or where these tales began. They were present by medieval times in the area that is now Germany and Austria.

Germans call them Berggeister or Bergmännlien. This means “mountain ghosts” or “little miners.” They watch over the earth’s precious ores and metals. They look like men, but are two feet tall or less. They wear the traditional miner’s outfit. They are believed to be active in gold, silver, and other metal mines. These spirits can be good or bad, helping or hurting miners. When they are good, they bring hard working miners favors and wealth. When they are bad, they hurt miners who doubt their power or do not believe in them. They can also bring misery, fear, and death when they are mad. Earthquakes were once believed to be their handiwork. Some mines have even been abandoned because of the miners’ fears of these spirits. 

Cornish people formed the core of America’s early western mining workforce. They called the mine spirits Tommyknockers. Tommyknockers were similar to the German Berggeists. The Tommyknockers watched over the mines, and could bring miners rewards or punishments. Some believed that the knocking noises they made would lead miners to a rich ore body. Others believed that the knocking was a warning of danger, but that the miner who first heard it would die.

Later, miners believed that the knockings were dead miners giving warnings of danger to the living. Working miners left clay dolls of these spirits at mine entrances. They left offerings of food and other items in order to secure their good graces and protection.

Today, the belief in the ’Knockers is long gone. Modern systems of education and scientific approaches to mining have replaced earlier superstition and belief. Electric lights make the mines less gloomy. Modern machinery makes the noises made by wooden timbers and rock walls impossible to hear. The folklore of the underground has lost some of its meaning but keeps its entertainment value.

Say, did you just hear an odd noise?

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Last updated: 10-23-2009