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Imps are often described as mischievous more than seriously threatening, and as lesser beings rather than more important supernatural beings. The attendants of the devil are sometimes described as imps. They are usually described as lively and having small stature.
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'.
Originating from Germanic folklore the imp was a small lesser demon. It should also be noted that unlike the Christian faith and stories, demons in Germanic legends were not necessarily always evil. Imps were often mischievous rather than evil or harmful and in some regions they were attendants of the gods.
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.
They are often shown as small in stature and not very attractive creatures. Their behavior is described as being wild and uncontrollable much the same as fairies and in some cultures they are often considered the same beings both sharing the same sense of being free spirited and enjoyment of all things fun loving. It was later in history that people began to associate fairies as being good and imps as 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 the switching babies or leading travelers astray in places they were not familiar with. Though imps are often thought of as being immortal, they can be damaged or harmed by certain weapons and enchants or be kept out of peoples 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. 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 merely a 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 but their soul would be sent to Hell if they didn't sell the bottle to a new owner before their death.
Imps can be found in art and architecture through out the world most of the time carefully and painstakingly hidden only being found by the most interested and observant of people.
The dictionary definition of imp at Wiktionary
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). 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.