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The Imp’s appearance certainly doesn’t help him ingratiate himself with others. By all accounts, Imps are small, bony, unattractive creatures. Their faces are like masks of thin stone, which are frequently twisted into a smirk or a grimace. Oversized ears and horns sprout from their heads, just as leathery, bat-like wings sprout from their shoulders. Their skin, ranging in color from purple to red-brown to gray, may be scaly or stone-like, and they walk with an unpleasant hunch.
Some of these unpleasant creatures more closely resemble monkeys or cats than humans. Their noses are elongated into snouts, and they prefer to move on four paw-like hands rather than walking on their hind legs.
Occasionally, an Imp might be magically bound to an object, like a bottle, a crystal ball, or a staff. They may take a corporeal form when summoned from this object, or they may lose their corporeal form altogether and exist only as a spirit in the object.
Imps are talented pranksters. Switching babies in a cradle or leading someone astray in the wilderness is child’s play for them. Still, they don’t design elaborate, malicious schemes by themselves. Their pranks are nothing more than the impulse of a moment, and if an Imp is found engaged in a more nefarious plan, someone else is probably the mastermind.
Some folktales credit Imps with magical power, but all of them acknowledge that these little creatures are minor in comparison to other magical beings. The Imp does have a knack for shapeshifting, and many are good at conjuring up fire as well. They make excellent spies, as they can sneak along quietly and disguise themselves or disappear when necessary.
The Old English noun impa meant a young shoot or scion of a plant or tree, and later came to mean the scion of a noble house, or a child in general. Starting in the 16th century, it was often used in expressions like "imps of serpents", "imp of hell", "imp of the devil", and so on; and by the 17th century, it came to mean a small demon, a familiar of a witch. The Old English noun and associated verb impian appear to come from an unattested Late Latin term *emputa (impotus is attested in the Salic law), the neuter plural of Greek ἔμϕυτος 'natural, implanted, grafted'.
In British folklore, the term came to be applied to fairy people in service to the devil.
The Lincoln Imp
A legend in Lincolnshire dating to the 14th-century recounts that the devil, being annoyed with the completion of the cathedral, paid a visit, accompanied by two imps who proceeded to wreak havoc in the building. An angel appeared and ordered them to stop. One turned to throw a rock at the angel and was instantly petrified.
For the tiniest angel, with amethyst eyes,
And hair spun like gold, 'fore the alter [sic] did rise,
Pronouncing these words in a dignified tone
"O impious imp, be ye turned to stone!"
While his companion fled, the unfortunate imp remains at the Angel Choir at the east end of the cathedral.
The Imp King
The Legend of the Imp King dates back to the 12th century Scotland and talks about how the devil stole a child and placed an imp in the cradle. The Imp grew up with a hateful grudge against the devil and eventually returned to hell where he started a revolution. He called upon all of the other imps and hell hounds and all other minor beasts to join his fight for revenge. Calling him self the Imp king, he grew a crown of horns and led the largest army of demi-demons into the throne room of hell where he was ultimately victorious in which the other side surrendered and volunteered to be his slaves for life. A mission began to retrieve his stolen siblings and give them pleasant lives in his newly conquered lands; finally being awoken from their long, long slumbers.
Imps are often shown as small and not very attractive creatures. Their behavior is described as being wild and uncontrollable, much the same as fairies, and in some cultures, they were considered the same beings, both sharing the same sense of free spirit and enjoyment of all things fun. It was later in history that people began to associate fairies with being good and imps with being malicious and evil. However, both creatures were fond of pranks and misleading people. Most of the time, the pranks were harmless fun, but some could be upsetting and harmful, such as switching babies or leading travellers astray in places with which they were not familiar. Though imps are often thought of as being immortal, many cultures believed that they could be damaged or harmed by certain weapons and enchantments, or be kept out of people's homes by the use of wards. Imps were often portrayed as lonely little creatures, always in search of human attention. They often used jokes and pranks as a means of attracting human friendship, which often backfired when people became tired or annoyed of the imp's endeavors, usually driving it away.
Even if the imp was successful in getting the friendship it sought, it often still played pranks and jokes on its friend, either out of boredom or simply because this was the nature of the imp. This trait gave way to using the term "impish" for someone who loves pranks and practical jokes. Being associated with Hell and fire, imps take a particular pleasure from playing with temperatures.
To this end, it came to be believed that imps were the familiar spirit servants of witches and warlocks, where the little demons served as spies and informants. During the time of the witch hunts, supernatural creatures such as imps were sought out as proof of witchcraft, though often, the so-called "imp" was typically a black dog, black cat, lizard, toad, or some other form of uncommon pet.
Imps have also been described as being "bound" or contained in some sort of object, such as a sword or crystal ball. In other cases, imps were simply kept in a certain object and summoned only when their masters had need of them. Some even had the ability to grant their owners wishes, much like a genie. This was the object of the 1891 story "The Bottle Imp" by Robert Louis Stevenson, which told of an imp contained in a bottle that would grant the owner their every wish, the catch being that the owner's soul would be sent to Hell if he or she did not sell the bottle to a new owner before dying.
Imps can be found in art and architecture throughout the world, often hidden under the eaves of a church or the foot of a ceramic cup, so they can only be found by the most interested and observant of people. They frequently appear in children's stories, such as Silvia in which the protagonist is followed by a black imp.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the word imp or 'imps,' as is used in the local dialect, gives a description of something that is either small and ugly, cowardly, low ranking or of lower status and is considered a serious insult when referring to a person. It is commonly used to challenge a person by spurring a violent verbal or physical reaction. Example: 'You is ah imps boy!'
Oxford-based improvised comedy troupe the Oxford Imps take their name from these mischievous creatures. The name is a pun on ‘imp’ and the first syllable of ‘improvisation.’ Their logo takes the form of a stylised imp head.
The dictionary definition of imp at Wiktionary
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Imp". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Oxford English Dictionary, 1st edition, 1899, s.v. 'imp'
- Monaghan, Patricia. "Imp", The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, Infobase Publishing, 2014, p.250 ISBN 9781438110370
- O'Neill, Susan. Folklore of Lincolnshire, The History Press, 2012 ISBN 9780752482392
- "The Lincoln Imp". Lincolnshire - Unexplained Myths. BBC.
- William Godwin (1876). "Lives of the Necromancers". p. 17.