If you’ve been to Köln, you may have seen the famous sculpture in the city center known as the Heinzelmännchen. Who are the Heinzelmännchen and why is this sculpture so important? I recently spoke to someone from Koeln Tourismus and they gave me some insight.
Heinzelmännchen (aka, the hobgoblins)
The story goes like this. Years ago, just like today, people would have to actually do their work to finish the job. This was everywhere but the city of Köln. See, while the people of this city slept, the Heinzelmännchen would sneak out to complete their work for them. The Heinzelmännchen remained a mystery.
The citizens loved this. Eventually, the locals stopped working altogether. They lived a life of leisure knowing the work would get done anyway.
As expected, this was a fine arrangement for every one. As expected, there was one person who wanted to see these Heinzelmännchen. That person was the tailor’s wife. She devised a plan which included putting peas on her stairs — and then she waited. That night the Heinzelmännchen showed up as usual. They tripped over the peas and fell. They were not happy. When the tailor’s wife turned on the light to see them, they vanished. They haven’t returned since.
Now the people of Köln have to do their own work.
Where did the story come from?
The Heinzelmännchen first appeared in writing in 1826. Ernst Weyden, a writer born and educated in Köln, penned this first mention.
It wasn’t, however, until 1836 when the story became popular. Poet August Kopisch wrote the ballad credited for making the story famous Germany-wide. (I have the translated version at the bottom of this post, please read it, it’s really cute.)
And the sculpture?
Because of the popularity of August Kopisch’s poem, E. and H. Renard built the sculpture near the Köln Cathedral in 1899. It depicts the story as told in the poem and includes the original version of the poem on carved on the side.
To us, the whole thing seems somewhat trivial or even kitschy and few would care to argue about its artistic value. Several years ago, it was restored and simplified. Its real importance stems from its connection with the fable immortalised in August Kopisch’s charming ballad. Both the ballad and the fountain belong to the romantic period of the l9th century.
Personally, I don’t think it’s trivial or kitschy. It’s a story strongly connected to the city. It’s one layer of individually, that when combined with everything else, helps give the city charm and history.
Other interesting facts about the Heinzelmännchen
- Composer Johann Matthias Firmenich set the poem to music in 1843.
- Prior to Kopisch’s version of the story, the Heinzelmännchen were considered “mischievous and evil spirits” (via Adam Wrede.)
- Kopisch had various things attributed to him. He discovered the famous Blue Grotto in Capri and invented the Berlin furnace.
- A famous saying in Köln, “this must have been done by the Heinzelmännchen,” refers to any job completed quickly.
Thanks again Koeln Tourismus for all of the great insight into this Köln tradition!
The Little People of Cologne (The English version of the Die Heinzelmännchen zu Köln)
Here in Cologne life used to be
With little people calm and free,
For were you lazy it was best
To go to bed and take a rest.
In the dark of the night
To keep out of sight
The dwarfs came out swarming
And clapping and storming
And trotting and rubbing
And skipping and scrubbing.
And ere a new day had begun
A loafer’s daily task was done.
On shavings lying ankle deep
The carpenters stretched out to sleep.
The band of gnomes appeared anon
To see what kind of work was on:
In haste from the racks
Took chisel and axe;
Sawing and whacking
And cutting and thwacking
The hawk eyed team
Set up the beams. All of a sudden, solid and fair
Clap! the house stood finished there.
The baker lived in plenty yet,
The little people baked his bread.
His lazy prentice lay down dizzy
The little people were now busy.
Dragging and groaning
Under sacks and moaning
And kneading correctly
And weighing exactly
And sweeping and tapping
And baking and rapping.
The lads were snoring still in chorus
When bread, fresh baked, was placed before us.
A similar life the butcher led
When the apprentice was in bed
The little people came awhile
Chopping pork in excellent style.
Work would proceed
At lightning speed:
Cleavers were clapping
And fingers were tapping
And wiping and mixing
And stuffing and fixing.
In the morning, without fail,
Wop! the sausage was ready for sale.
In the wine vault often drank
The cooper until down he sank.
He fell asleep at the hollow cask,
To care for the wine was the little men’s task.
They sulphured in style
All the casks from the pile
And rolled and shifted,
With winches they lifted
And watered and poured
And mixed and stored.
And while the cooper was snoring behind
The wine was already sugared and fined.
With fear a tailor one day shivered:
The frock coat had to be delivered.
Threw down the tools, took off his cap,
He went to bed and had a nap.
On his table’s full length
They slipped with new strength
And cut and brushed
And stitched and rushed
And smoothed and fetched
And tugged and stretched.
And in the morning bright and fair
The mayor’s coat lay finished there.
Inquisitive was the tailor’s wife
Thus seeks she to enjoy her life:
Spreads peas about the other night.
The little men’s trad is soft and light;
One slips and slides
Falls flat and clides
They tumble down stairs
Fall over in pairs
Resound On the ground
They shriek and cry out
And curse and shout.
She hurries down into the hall
With a light: and whoosh! and whoosh! they vanish all.
Alas, they all have gone away,
And none of them is here to stay.
You cannot rest your weary bone
You have to do your work alone.
Must work and run
And scrape and scratch
And race and snatch
And spruce up
And knock and hammer
And bake and simmer.
Oh, that’s the time for which we yearn,
But those good old days will ne’er return.