Tales of fairies, elves and “little people” are common folklore around the world, but despite their ubiquity they are rarely seen. Their names differ, but beliefs passed across generations are rich with stories that feature these elusive beings.
South Africans talk of tikoloshe, evil dwarf-like spirits; Hawaiians have forest-dwelling menehune; the Irish speak of the mischievous leprechaun.
Senior Lecturer in Aboriginal Studies Dr Curtis Roman has examined the beliefs about little people from an Indigenous Australian perspective. Growing up in Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory, Dr Roman is a Larrakia man and first heard about little people when he was a young boy.
Indigenous people [are] known to avoid certain places, wipe their sweat on bushes, and not cook meat at night because of their intrinsic beliefs around little people.
“This is not new to me – it is part of who I am,” he said. He has been gathering stories of Indigenous people who live in Darwin and examining their beliefs, and the consistencies around the appearance of little people.
And their beliefs are diverse. Dr Roman said Indigenous people were known to avoid certain places, wipe their sweat on bushes, and not cook meat at night because of their intrinsic beliefs around little people. “It isn’t a ‘bogeyman’ story to frighten them,” he said. “Usually, these stories are told by parents and grandparents and other older relatives who have much credibility, so when people hear these stories they fully accept them.”
Little people have many local names, but the depiction conjured is strikingly consistent among Aboriginal cultures. They are described as standing knee high, pungent in smell and hairy in appearance. Little people are also inherently ugly.
“Research has shown little people don’t like to be looked in the face,” Dr Roman said. “They are very sensitive to how ugly they are and looking at them can make them angry.”
Despite the negative narrative, little people are not considered to be necessarily evil, or troublesome tricksters.
[Little people] are guardians or protectors of the land... they often take on different forms and are considered "shape-shifters"
“Some of the stories were scary encounters while others suggested that little people were guardian angels,” Dr Roman said. “A consistent belief is if you’re in your own country, they usually won’t bother you. But if you are harming or stealing from land then you may face the wrath of the little people. They are guardians or protectors of the land.”
To avoid being seen, Dr Roman said little people often took on different forms and were considered “shape-shifters”.
“There are stories about them changing into the human form of a deceased relative or into animals, rocks and trees,” he said. “I have also heard about them changing into small lights that move through the air.”
Tiwi Islander Elisabeth Heenan is one of many Indigenous people who has shared their beliefs and experiences with Dr Roman. “We call out to our ancestors to protect us. Little people can confuse you and make you lost in the mangroves. They can make you deaf and blind,” Ms Heenan said. “Little people can steal your soul.”
Tall tales – but true
Growing up off the coast of the Northern Territory on Galiwin'ku, or Elcho Island, Brenda Muthamuluwuy has lived a life full of stories about little people.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I believed in [little people]. In the Yolgnu world, little people are ‘walatha walatha’ and they protect us from bad things and people.
“It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I believed in them,” she said. “In the Yolgnu world, little people are ‘walatha walatha’ and they protect us from bad things and people.”
Now living in Darwin, Ms Muthamuluwuy said she experienced little people first-hand about 10 years ago when a sick relative was healed.
“Walatha walatha will sometimes appear as a person you were close to. They are very shy and don’t like to be seen. They will alert me to danger or warn me of unwelcome news. Little people are our guardian angels.”
Dr Roman will publish his findings in an international journal and use it as a basis for a wide ranging manuscript on Indigenous beliefs.
This article originally appeared in Origins (Edition 2, 2018) and has been re-published with permission.