What Is an Imp?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Imps can be found in folklore and children's stories.
Imps can be found in folklore and children's stories.

In Germanic folklore, an imp or sometimes daemon is a small demon who is more mischievous than harmful. Various versions of imps appear in the folklore of some other regions of the world as well, often as attendants to gods. The behavior of imps is said to be wild and often out of control, and many myths depict the creatures reveling in pranks and jokes, leading to the use of the word “impish” to describe people who are fond of mischief.

According to tradition, imps are often very small. Depictions of imps in art and sculpture tend to show them on a much smaller scale than other beings, and they are often not very attractive to look at. Some myths also describe imps as trapped inside objects, such as swords, books, and crystal balls. In some cultures, imps were believed to be the assistants of witches and warlocks. Witch hunts often sought familiar spirits such as imps in an attempt to condemn their victims.

In some cultures, fairies are analogous to imps. Both share the sense of being free spirited and fun loving, although some people associate fairies specifically with good, rather than malice, as is the case with imps. Imps and fairies are both fond of misleading people in the folklore of many traditions, and they may be involved with pranks, switches of infants, and similar activities. At times, these pranks may be harmless, but they can also be dangerous or upsetting, as in the case of an imp which leads people astray in marshes.

An imp is generally believed to be immortal, although the creatures may be subject to damage in the mythological traditions of some countries. Although they are immortal, imps are considered far less important than bigger demons and gods, and the relative unimportance of imps is sometimes an important point in folktales about imps in which an imp tries to prove itself. Imps are also often depicted as lonely and hungry for human attention. In some stories, an imp seeks out human companions through its jokes and tricks, while in others imps are depicted as more capricious, playing tricks on their human allies out of boredom or simply their impish nature.

Examples of carved imps can sometimes be found in architecture, especially complex architecture which features complex carvings and themes. Imps are generally carefully hidden, with patient or extremely interested observers being the sole people to spot them. Some works of art also include imps.

Imp Mythology 

The imp is a creature born in Germanic folklore as a type of lesser demon. However, unlike the monsters you might find in Christian stories, Germanic demons weren't always necessarily evil. In fact, imps are well-known for their mischievous nature that's less sinister and more aggravating than what one might expect from a demon.

The imps’ name derives from the Old English word impa, which means "offshoot of a tree." As an “offshoot” of a larger being, imps were seen as lesser demons controlled by higher beings, such as full-fledged demons or deities.

In most instances, imps are considered wild and uncontrollable creatures. They're generally described as small, with horns and sharp teeth and a bony, leathery appearance. They have large ears and bat-like wings with skin that’s been described as gray, reddish-brown, or purplish.

Fairies and Imps 

Fairies and imps are often seen as part of the same family of mythological beings. In past instances, the words "fairy" and "imp" were actually used interchangeably, implying some groups of people saw them as one and the same. However, the two beings have a lot of differences that are worth noting.

Origins

Imps originated in Germanic folklore as lesser beings who enjoyed wreaking havoc. However, when imp mythology is applied to Christianity, imps are considered a type of demon, even though their personalities don't necessarily align with that idea.

Conversely, fairies were prevalent across European folklore and many people often worshiped them just as they would a god. Ironically, fairies were more likely to show a sinister nature than imps. Whereas imps might be simple tricksters, fairies could be downright evil.

Appearance

Imps and fairies are wildly different in terms of appearance. Whereas imps are small, bony creatures with horns and sharp teeth, fairies more closely resemble humans in both stature and facial features.

Fairies also have beautiful wings, which are a stark contrast to the bat-like wings of an imp. A fairy’s beauty allowed them to become so revered in much the same way an imp’s unfavorable appearance contributed to their negative reputation.

Personality

Imps are mischievous creatures who enjoy playing pranks on the locals. They don't necessarily aim to cause harm, yet they thrive on havoc and chaos. They're frustrating creatures, but they aren’t necessarily sinister.

On the other hand, fairies could fall on either side of the line between good and evil. In fact, most mythology divides them into two courts: Seelie and Unseelie, or light and dark. An encounter with a fairy could lead to a favorable outcome just as easily as it could lead to a person being kidnapped or killed by one of these beautiful creatures.

Do Imps Have Powers?

Imps have a range of magical abilities, but they aren't nearly as powerful as some larger creatures, such as fairies. However, some of their magical powers are pretty impressive.

Most folklore presents imps as having the ability to shapeshift, which is a beneficial skill for their mischievous nature. In addition, they're also able to conjure up fire, and their large wings give them the ability to fly.

Their most impressive skill might be the ability to turn invisible. As mischief-makers, imps need to be excellent spies. Becoming invisible makes it easy for them to spy on the people they want to play pranks on. It also allows them to sneak around undetected more easily.

That said, the imps' most significant strength is their ability to manipulate. They'll switch babies in cradles, lead travelers astray, and perform other elaborate pranks that are often complex but impulsive. However, despite their impulsive nature, imps are one of the most fascinating and complex creatures in mythology.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a LanguageHumanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

anon1006026

Imps are demons. I would not let the folklore around to explain them or sugar coat them as somehow anything less than that or make me more accepting of their presence.

If you have them toying with you in any way, you need to stand against that. They may be in some way low ranking, but no demonic activity should not be taken lightly. It escalates as you allow it access into your life.

They will present themselves as ‘angels of light’ to teach you. What they teach is deceptive doctrines of demons. There will be ‘dark demons’, which of course make the light ones seem like they are good and for you. Don’t underestimate their cunning.

I won’t go into what I did to open the door or what all I experienced, but I will say that I am concerned for you. If you want to know the truth, ask Jesus to show you.

If you can say from your heart, “Lord, I don’t want this if it is not of you.. show me.” In my case, I was blown away by what He did at my invitation. I learned quickly that even though I really didn’t know who Jesus was, they did! And it was clear that He was powerfully in charge. They knew exactly who He was and they were terrified of Him and scattered like cockroaches. I saw immediately that He was not only real, but He was in authority, powerful and for me. He totally delivered me and literally ripped off the connection they had with me.

There is a story in the Bible in Acts 16 about Paul casting a familiar spirit out of a young woman who was following them around for days declaring that ‘they were the servants of the most high God’. She was actually telling the truth, but he recognized this was demonic activity and cast the spirit out of her. This took far more discernment than most people possess. Demons are skilled at deception, and lying is their very nature.

Don’t play in their pool thinking you can outwit them. You are not supposed to mess with them at all. It is far more serious than many people realize. It is a crazy serious sin.

anon993004

I think I've seen what you might call imps a few times. They do things like walk across my inner eyelid when I'm meditating. They take forms like toys, cartoons or skeletons and try to creep you out in a jokey way (by doing thing like turning and smiling at you).

I think they could be analogous to McKenna's machine elves. I don't think they are nice and are best ignored. I think they are evil but not extremely so; they are more mischievously malevolent. I don't think imps have a physical existence. They are spirits or transdimensional beings.

TheGraham

Miriam98, David09, thank you -- you've given me some food for thought. Never once have I heard people compare imps and space aliens before, and it sounds like a great plot for some creative fiction story! As for them being real, I don't think it's any more fantastic to believe in imps and space aliens than it is to believe in angels. Angels are just more widely accepted due to religion.

nony

@David09 - I watched the movie Fairy Tale some time ago. Supposedly it was based on a true story. This girl sees fairies in her backyard, and of course her parents and their friends are skeptical at first. Then something happens. An adult winds up with a photo of a Fairy.

They take the photo to the Kodak company to confirm if something like this could have been faked, and with some embarrassment, the Kodak people are forced to admit that it’s a genuine article.

This was in England, many years ago, before the dawn of the Internet and Photoshopping. It was an interesting movie, but I always wondered about the “true story” part. It may have been a hoax in real life. Hollywood didn’t play that angle (that would spoil the fun I suppose).

David09

@miriam98 - Yes, that ancient alien theory gets a lot of air time on some cable channels from time to time. I think it started years ago with that book Chariots of the Gods.

The basic thesis is the same: the imps and angels of lore are nothing but space aliens, and the ancients didn’t know any better. I always ask, with a grain of salt, what if today’s “aliens” are in fact nothing but imps, and we’re all being hoodwinked?

miriam98

@NathanG- In the Dark Ages there were stories, supposedly true and recounted by the ecclesiastical authorities of the time, that some imps married humans and produced strange offspring as their breed.

Many versions of these tales have imps and elves and even angels interbreeding to produce what we now call “aliens” or what the ancients thought were their demi-gods, descended from the skies to perform amazing exploits.

NathanG

I learned about imps way back in sixth grade. It was a spelling word and the teacher would jokingly refer to us mischievous boys as imps, the way we made so much trouble. Later I would discover that imps were a fixture of mythology.

What’s strange is that some people believe these creatures exist, more their fairy tale counterparts, living in the subterranean regions of the Earth. Some people believe entire societies of these and other creatures live beneath the Earth, doing so much hocus-pocus and playing tricks on us mere mortals.

How anyone could believe these things is beyond me, but I’m not going to pass judgment. I think we all have our share of strange beliefs.

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    • Imps can be found in folklore and children's stories.
      By: Ella
      Imps can be found in folklore and children's stories.