Cofgodas: Glossy New Penates for the 21st Century
The Classical School of Interpretation
In the 21st century, a new orthopraxy has emerged in the pagan movement, self-identifying as “Hearth Cults”, In the Germanic sphere, this practice is commonly centered around the German Kobold, said to be closely akin, if not identical to the Anglo-Saxon cofgodas, defined as “gods of the room.” This new understanding dominates pagan thinking in regard to the kobold and cofgodas, in the first quarter of the 21st century, having arisen from scholarly theory to cult status within the last two decades.
The idea that cofgodas were Anglo-Saxon house-spirits synonymous with German kobolds, “a race many people have come to love” as one blogger expresses it, dominates discussions of these words today in pagan circles. Alaric Albertsson, for example, in Travels through Middle Earth: The Path of the Saxon Pagan (2009) writes, “one type of spirit that a Saxon Pagan always tries to develop a good relationship with is the house elf. These elves were also known to the Anglo- Saxons as cofgodas, or ‘chamber gods.’" Theresa Bane, author of Encyclopedia of Spirits and Ghosts in World Mythology (2016), concurs, “originally a household god in ancient Anglo-Saxon beliefs, ... he became a species of household spirit similar to the Lares and Penates from ancient Roman folklore.” (p. 40). In How Religion Evolved (2017), author Brian McVeigh also agrees, stating “we might note that Penates were similar in function to the Anglo-Saxon cofgodas (“household deities”; more literally, “room gods”), German kobolds, Prussian coltky (who live in the hidden parts of the house), the English hobs, and the Scottish brownies.” Other works also connect these cofgodas with the dead, such as Yvonne Aburrow’s Dark Mirror: The Inner Work of Witchcraft (2018), which states: “several cultures have domestic spirits, often associated with ancestors, such as the Cofgodas (cove-gods) of Anglo-Saxon paganism.” While Daniel Conway, the author of Demonology and Devil-Lore, Volume 1 (2018), sums up this new understanding in this way,
“Here, then, in the recesses of the household, among the least enlightened of its members— the menials, who still often neutralize the rational people to dispel the delusions of their children — the discredited deities and demons of the past found refuge, and through a little baptismal change of names are familiars of millions unto this day.”
This relatively recent redefinition and attempted “reconstruction” of the Germanic Hearth-Cult can be directly traced to mainstream scholarship, published primarily after the turn of the century, and can be linked to two specific academics: the Classicist Ken Dowden and French scholar Claude Lecouteux, a former professor of medieval studies who has authored numerous books and articles on pagan belief, who promulgated Dowden’s theory, reinforced by sources presented by and observations made by Jacob Grimm in the first half of the 19th century. Grimm’s evidence and more nuanced conclusion doesn’t support this new understanding, which has elevated the kobold of medieval German legend from its historical status as a “house-spirit” (haus-geist) to that of a “house-god”, by association with an unrelated Anglo-Saxon gloss. The German kobolds are not the Roman Penates, and Grimm does not equate them, as Lecouteux has done. The latter is pan-European syncretism based on superficial similarities between two disparate cultures and misrepresents the true nature and purpose of these post-Christian figures, reduced by demonization.
In his popular paperback Ancestral Lore and Practices (2013), former French professor and prolific author, Claude Lecouteux states that “in the twelfth century, we begin seeing kobold, which means ‘the one who rules over the room,’ a creature who in the Old English glosses appears in the plural form Cofgodas, ‘the gods of the room’ with ‘room’ referring to all parts of the house (cellar, mainroom, and so forth).” In his Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic (2016), Lecouteux, states his premise that “In folk beliefs and mythology every dwelling is supposed to be under the protection of a spirit. This could be a land spirit whose good will was earned by inviting it to take up residence, or a dead ancestor since the good dead were once buried inside the house”, then concludes, “we thus find among the Germanic peoples a notion similar to that of the Roman manes, pentates and lares. These household spirits are called cofgodas in Old English, which means ‘gods of the house’. The available evidence, however, does not support that sentiment. Similarities and notions do not establish identity cross-culturally between these religious concepts.
While is true that the Roman Pentates and Lares are rendered as cofgodas in an Old English gloss, we don’t find any Old English text that glosses German kobold(s) as Cofgod or Cofgodas; thus Lecouteux’s statement that “in the twelfth century, we begin seeing kobold, which means ‘the one who rules over the room,’ a creature who in the Old English glosses appears in the plural form Cofgodas” is factually incorrect. We cannot assume these names are synonymous; nor are these words related etymologically. In fact, we do not find any sort of Germanic household spirits called cofgodas in Old English literature at all; instead, the term cofgodas is used exclusively as a transliteration or ‘gloss’ for the Latin Penates or “gods of the cupboard” found in Roman sources. As in other instances where an Old English term merely glosses a Latin word, but does not otherwise appear in Old English literature, it’s probable that the term cof-godas was coined to represent the foreign concept it glosses. As it stands, the unique term cofgodas only appears as a replacement for the Latin “Di Penates” and only in the plural form, Cofgodas, never Cofgod. That said, the current header on the Wikipedia article which declares “Cofgod, plural Cofgodas ("cove-gods") was an Old English term for a household god in Anglo-Saxon paganism,” citing Joseph Boswell’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (1838) as its source, is also factually incorrect. Boswell simply defines Cofgodas as “household gods” without discussing its meaning or source. Without question, Cofgodas (plural) is exclusively an Old English term for the Latin Penates, household gods in Roman paganism. The term does not appear in the singular and has no foundation in Anglo-Saxon paganism whatsoever. It is merely a post-Christian gloss for a Roman concept, as academic scholars readily acknowledge. There is no additional information or lore concerning Cofgodas.
According to Joseph Boswell’s Dictionary of the Anglo-Saxon Language (1838), the prefix cof- in cofgodas refers to “a cove, cave, repository, inner room, a cubile” rather than the whole house, even though he renders cofgodas more ambiguously as “household-gods”. The meaning of the name indicates their domain, the inner storerooms and repositories, the so-called ‘secret places of the house.’ Thus, according to the etymology of the word, cofgodas are “pantry-gods.” This distinction is important to understand the origin and function of the term. The Roman Penates were specifically gods of the kitchen pantries, the provision rooms, rather than general gods of the house. Sarah Iles Johnston in Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide (2004), remarks,
“There may be more substance in the view that Penates are the gods of the inner house (connected with the Latin penus [household provisions or store cupboard]). This is usually thought of in modern times as the larder, but may imply no more than something hidden deep in the fabric of the house, to judge by Old English cofgodas (room gods) or Prussian coltky (who live in the hidden parts of the house.) Penates, like goblins, are an indiscriminate class of beings and lack a theology of their own. They do not have names unless the goddess Vesta (Hearth) is to be counted as one.” (p. 435).
Vesta, Goddess of hearth and home, the divine representative of sacred fire, was among the Dii Consentes (also Dii Complices), the twelve most honored gods of the Roman pantheon according to an epigram by the poet Ennius about the 3rd Century, BC. Vesta was Saturn and Ops daughter, as well as sister of Jupiter, Neptune, Pluto, Juno and Ceres. She is equivalent to the Greek Hestia. In the ancient Roman religion, Di Penates or Penates were among several of the dii familiares, or household deities, invoked most often in domestic rituals. When the family had a meal, they threw a bit of it into the fire on the hearth for the Penates. [Servius, note to Aeneid 1.730, as cited by Robert Schilling, "The Penates," in Roman and European Mythologies (1981, reprinted 1992), p. 138.] An etymological interpretation of Penates further identifies them, in origin, as deities of the storeroom, Latin penus, the innermost part of the house, where they guarded the household's food, wine, oil, and other supplies. [Celia Schutz, Women's Religious Activity in the Roman Republic (2007), p. 123; Sarah Iles Johnston, Religions of the Ancient World (2004), p. 435 ]
In origin, Penates are specifically gods of the kitchen cupboards, the pantries where food is kept. They were always worshipped in close connection with other domestic deities, such as Vesta and the Lares, with whom their names were sometimes interchanged. Penates thus describes a specific group of domestic deities, and, on occasion, the whole lot, but their number and individual identities were a mystery even to the ancients. Unlike kobolds, these ‘cofgodas’ never appeared individually or had distinctions made among them. The German kobolds, like the Roman Penates and Lars are simply different kinds of supernatural beings that may operate in domestic spaces. The Roman Lares, in particular, were considered to be spirits of the dead who guarded homes, crossroads, and the city. They too were distinguished as individuals. Every Roman family had its own guardian known as the Lar familiaris, which the household prayed and made offerings to daily at the family shrine to protect the household and ensure that the family line would go on. In contrast, the main function of the Penates was to ensure the family's welfare and prosperity. Outside the home, Penates publici or Public Penates, served as guardians of the state and the object of Roman patriotism. According to legend, they were once the household gods of Aeneas, the mythical founder of the Roman Empire. Kobolds, in comparison, never performed this wider, communal function.
Jacob Grimm, one half of the Brothers Grimm, famous for their collections of fairytales (hausmärchen), appears to have been the first to have drawn a conceptual connection between the lowly German kobold, a spirit most often associated with domestic mischief and mining activity, and the more dignified Roman Penates. Within the larger context of a discussion on “Wights and Elves” (Teutonic Mythology, Vol. II, Chapter XVII), covering over 70 printed pages, including much source material for Germanic belief in elves, dwarves, pilwiz, bilwiz, boogie-men, corm-mammies, schrat, wood-folk, nixies, water-sprites, home-sprites and a host of other lessor kindred spirits, Grimm devotes 2 pages to the kobold, one of many wights (wiche) he comments upon in the expansive chapter. Establishing a point of reference for his readers to introduce the subchapter on hausgeistes, literally “house-spirits” [rendered as “home-sprites” in the English translation of James Stalleybrass], Grimm draws a general comparison between the Roman Penates and the Germanic domestic-spirits he catalogues, but does not equate them as recent authors have done without foundation in the sources. Before discussing any attested “house-spirits”, Grimm begins his discussion with a number of German gloss words for the Roman Penates and Lars, found in Notker Labeo’s commentary on the Latin author Martianus Capella (c 410-420 AD)’s De nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii. Grimm writes:
“In Notker’s Capella 51, what the Romans called lar, (120) lar familiaris (see the prologue to Plautus’s Aulularia) and penas, is named in our older speech hûsing or stetigot (genius loci); conf. ‘hûsinga (penates)’. In Cap. 142 N. renders lares by ‘ingoumen (hiusero alde burgo)’; the literal meaning of ingoumo would be guard of the interior. In Cap. 50 he uses ingesîde for penates, i.e., our ingesind, inmates, domestics.”
Once again, these are merely glosses for Latin concepts, not the names of beings found in any source of Germanic folk belief. Claude Lecouteux in his Encyclopedia of Norse and Germanic Folklore, Mythology, and Magic (2016), plainly states that “tenth century glosses in Old High German have given us the names ingoumo and ingsind as translations of the Latin penates and lares.” And in The Tradition of Household Spirits (2013), he also openly acknowledges that “these are not so much names as circumlocutions intended to convey the idea of a numinous power (numimosum)”, adding: “collections of glosses prior to the year 1000 translate genius with ‘place god’ (stetigot) or ‘domestic god’ (húsgot) and even ‘habitant’ (husing).” Nevertheless, that doesn’t prevent Lecouteux from mitigating this lack of evidence with the misleading statement that “in the folk beliefs to which Notker refers people refrain from uttering the name of the supernatural beings for fear of causing it to appear” Notker, as a commentator on the works of Latin author Martianus Capella, of course is commenting on Roman folk belief in Penates and Lares, and not “Germanic house-gods.” Lecouteux then piles on with the statement that “starting in the twelfth century, we begin seeing kobold, which means ‘the one who rules over the room’, a creature who in Old English glosses appears in the plural form cofgodas”. However, as shown above Lecouteux’s statement here is incorrect. Cofgodas is only used as a gloss for Penates, not kobold.
So in agreement with his own premise that “every dwelling is supposed to be under the protection of a spirit”, Lecouteux has effectively erased any distinctions between specific domestic spirits whether they be Roman or Germanic, glosses of foreign concepts or actual references. This marks the fundamental differences between historic scholarship and more recent scholarship on this topic. Grimm, like all scholars of the 19th century, was educated in the Roman Classics due to the cultural dominance of the Christian Church in educational institutions at the time. Therefore, Grimm framed his discussion of Germanic household spirits in terms familiar to his contemporary audience— leading with a discussion of the Roman Pentates and Lares for comparison. He did not conflate the cross-cultural concepts. Instead, Grimm provides the oldest and best sources for a host of Germanic domestic spirits, including kobolds, within a greater discussion of Germanic Elves and Wights. None of the sources Grimm cites actually identify kobolds as “gods of the home” in the manner Lecouteux suggests. Lecouteux, in contrast seems to consider, all house-spirits, no matter their origin, one great syncretic conglomeration of nameless “house-gods”; e pluribus unum.
Whereas Claude Lecouteux (2016) matter of factly states: “In folk beliefs and mythology every dwelling is supposed to be under the protection of a spirit,” Ken Dowden (2000) more circumspectively observes: “Though household worship rarely reaches the historical record, it probably occurs as standard in all paganisms.” Drawing from knowledge in his own field, Classicist Ken Dowden begins with evidence from the ancient Roman and Greek traditions. Of these domestic-cults, he remarks “best known is the Roman cult of little figurines of Lares (minor gods of the property) and Penates (‘cupboard’ -gods, gods of the house and its supplies), especially from the excavation of real houses at Pompeii.” But, remarkably, he finds very little in Greece; opining “Greek homes, too, had their worship of ‘Zeus of the courtyard’, (Zeus Herkeios), but for so well evidenced a culture, remarkably little is known of this more intimate form of worship.” He then freely admits that “elsewhere we are largely dealing with hints, like the Anglo-Saxon cofgodas, ‘room-gods’, apparently the equivalent of the Roman Penates.
- William P Reaves, 2021