"The Name of the Helper" is the title assigned to the Aarne-Thompson type 500 family of fairytales. The main character is usually a young woman, confronted with an impossible task of spinning. She must produce a ridiculous amount of thread, or even spin it into gold. There’s no way for her to do it, until she receives otherworldly help from a strange being. However, she must now guess this creature’s name (hence the title of the tale type). Rumpelstiltskin is the most famous example, but there are many others, usually nonsense names, perhaps with a rhyme or repetitive rhythm. In Celtic countries, the helper’s name nearly always includes the syllable “tot” or “trot.” I have a theory on where this syllable came from, but first, the list:
Habetrot is interesting in that she has a whole group of associates, one of whom has the name Scantlie Mab (harkening to Queen Mab). There's a possibly connection from Habetrot to Holle, Perchta and other European goddesses associated with spinning. This goddess, who appears in many variants with hundreds of names, can be benevolent or fearsome. She usually travels at night with a group of attendants, entering houses where offerings of food should be waiting. She might be a tutelary guardian who helps women spin, or a bogeywoman who punishes them for spinning on the wrong day. The very word "fairy" might be tied to "fata" or "fate," beings in mythology who spun the thread of life.
In French, a related character bore the name Dame Abonde or Lady Habundia, meaning "abundance." She and her attendants, the good ladies, entered houses at night.
Follow this, and a character like Habetrot must be a deity associated with textiles, who leads a group of otherworldly ladies, and watches over young women.
However, the majority of the Tot/Trot family is male. They cannot be tutelary goddesses. They also tend to be malevolent. Habetrot's name may be a later addition to the Habetrot story, which is less related to Rumpelstiltskin and instead belongs to the family of "The Three Aunts" (Norway) and "The Three Spinning Women" (Germany). In these stories, rather than any baby-stealing plot, several strange-looking but kind old women (three of them, just like the Fates in Greek myth) help the heroine attain a happy marriage and a leisurely life. They ask nothing in return for their help, and remain unnamed, as there is no need to find out their names. There is a scene where the girl overhears Habetrot's name, but it's really not important to the story. Incidentally, "Habetrot" resembles "Habundia" with the "trot" sound added on, and both are benevolent fairy ladies who lead a train of followers.
Plenty of people have already looked at the "tot/trot" family. W. B. Yeats' "Even Trot" (who, like Habetrot, is benevolent) gives a very literal and moralizing translation: "Go steadily along, but let your step be even; stop little; keep always advancing; and you'll never have cause to rue the day that you first saw Even Trot."
Sir John Rhys, inspecting Welsh variants, connected Sili go Dwyt to seily or seely - happy or blessed - connected with the Seelie Court or seely wights, old fairy names. Although "go Dwyt" could literally mean tidy, Rhys suggests that the dwt came from twt or tot. Although Trwtyn-Tratyn is a masculine name, Rhys finds the word trwtan or trwdlan to mean a deformed serving maid. From Gwarwyn-a-throt, he translated gwarwyn as "white-necked" and throt as connected to trot. Trot and twt, says Rhys, are not native Welsh words - but I don't think he offers any real theory on what they do mean.
R. Morton Nance did have at theory. Based on Mollyndroat possibly meaning a druid's servant, Nance suggested that the Icelandic Gillitrut means "druid's gillie" (a ghillie being a servant). So a droat, trot or trut is a druid.
I would take a different approach. Going back to England, the Denham Tracts list of monsters and bogeys includes two intriguing names: gally-trots and tutgots.
A gally-trot is a frightening apparition in Suffolk folklore. Edward Moor wrote that it was an apparition known in Woodbridge, which sometimes appeared as a white dog as big as a bullock, and chased people. It especially haunted a place called Bathslough. Moor declares that he "can make nothing of the name; nor much of the story." (Suffolk Words and Phrases, 1823). "Gally" means to scare or worry (hence the word gally-beggar, or scarecrow). The “trot” part is less clear – perhaps because it runs at people. One English bogey-spirit of the “black dog” family is called Padfoot for the sound of its walk, so maybe this is a common idea.
Could there be a connection from the gally-trot to Gilitrutt?
As for tutgots: Tut-gut, along with tut and tom-tit, were Lincolnshire words for a hobgoblin. Tutgot may be interpreted as tut-gotten, or taken away by the fairies and goblins. (Brogden, Provincial Words and Expressions current in Lincolnshire.) (So if a tom-tit is a goblin, is Tom Tit Tot literally named "Goblin" by this reckoning? That seems a bit on-the-nose for a story about an impossible guessing game.)
The English Dialect Dictionary quotes a story where a man was spooked on the road by a glimpse of something white, and remarked, "I thowt I'd happened of a tut" - or, "I thought I'd run into a tut." Pishey Thompson, in The History and Antiquities of Boston, mentions a "hobgoblin, or sprite" known as the "Spittal Hill tut" who took the form of a horse, and would harass and chase away anyone who passed by Spittal Hill. It might have been the site of a murder, or maybe the creature was guarding treasure.
So then, a tut or trot is a bogey-beast, a white apparition which takes animal form and chases people. In the case of both the gally-trot and the Spittal Hill tut, there is a particular place which it likes to haunt. The Spittal Hill tut in particular lives at a hill where either a body or treasure could be buried, like a burial mound.
You might say that the Rumpelstiltskin fairy also has a particular haunt; the hero must find out the name by following the fairy back to his or her home, usually out in a forsaken wild place and often subterranean. Habetrot lives in a cavern and Titty Tod beneath a fairy mound. Was the tut or the trot a hobgoblin which inspired these characters?
Is this a fairy name with a forgotten root? Where does the shared ancestor lie in all these names? Two suggestions appear to me.
One is that it is derived from "tot," a word for a little child, which may come from Scottish. Maybe it is related to the Icelandic word tottr, or dwarf. Compare also the Danish name Tommeltot, used for the Danish thumbling. (In England, Tom Thumb and the possibly related Tom Tumbler appear as monsters in Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), and Tom Thumb in his earliest appearances is associated with fairyish and demonic traits.)
Tom Tit Tot is close to the bird name tomtit, which itself is a shortened version of "tom titmouse." One sense of the word "tit," like "tot," is used for anything small, and is a common name for small birds. So then, perhaps, Tom Tit Tot means Tom Little Little. The character in question is "a small little black thing with a long tail." That would fit, as would the frequent description of Rumpelstiltskin characters as little men and little women.
But in some cases, like Mollyndroat's, the Rumpelstiltskin figure is a giant. That doesn't fit.
Maybe trot is the way to go instead. "Totter" also means an uneven walk, bringing "tot" back in. Could this be a reference to the fairy having a strange walk?
There are many different types of otherworldly creatures in folklore and myth, but there is a consistent thing about their feet. They have deformed legs, backwards feet, or inverted knees. The Brazilian Curupira and Ghanaian mmoatia are described with feet affixed backward. The henkies of Shetland and the Orkney Islands were trolls who would "henk," or limp, when they danced. Fauns of Greek mythology were goat-legged and hoofed. They lent this trait to Puck and to popular depictions of the Devil. Also from Greek myth, sirens were depicted as everything from human-headed birds to women with bird feet. This is another surviving trait. Jacob Grimm mentioned a group of dwarfs who wore long cloaks covering their feet; when someone sprinkled ashes on the ground to catch their footprints, it was discovered that the dwarves had the feet of ducks and geese.
Jacob Grimm, seeking evidence of a Germanic goddess named Berhta or Perchta, found many variants on the name "Bertha with the foot" - "Berte as grans pies," "Baerte met ten breden voeten," as well as the idea of a goddess-like figure with a bird's foot. The goddess Perchta is often described with one mismatched foot - either too large, or the foot of a goose. Grimm decided that "It is apparently a swan maiden's foot, which as a mark of her higher nature she cannot lay aside (any more than... the devil his horse hoof) and at the same time the spinning-woman's splayfoot that worked the treadle."
A god or goddess associated with spinning might very well have odd feet and an unusual gait. Rumpelstiltskin types are often described to walk around or pedal at a wheel when spinning. Dancing is also a frequent activity for them. Rumpelstiltskin is caught saying his name while "jumping about as if on one leg." Terrytop and his friends dance with a clattering noise "as if they had on each foot a pewter platter." The kindlier Habetrot is found "walking backwards and forwards" spinning with her distaff. She and all of her attendants are deformed from the work of spinning nonstop all their lives.
In "The Three Spinning Women," “[t]he first [woman] had a broad flat foot, the second one had such a large lower lip that it hung down over her chin, and the third one had a broad thumb.” They attribute these traits to peddling, licking and twisting thread.
So the name might be based on "tot," for a little creature, a dwarf ("tottr"). Or it could be "trot" or "totter," meaning that the creature is an otherworldly being with strange feet or one splayfoot. Or something entirely different! Somehow I doubt that it is derived from "druid," but I could be wrong. There's also a German nightmare spirit named a "drude" or "trute." The word "trot" has been used to mean old woman.
I, for one, enjoy the idea that the tot or tut was a now-forgotten English hobgoblin, and that was how people came up with the names of Tom Tit Tot, Habetrot, the gally-trot, and others. Being "tutgot," or taken by tuts, was a worrying prospect, and indeed, Terrytop and Tom Tit Tot are eager to carry off young maidens for dark purposes. Tut or trot would be a root word, much like Puck with Puck-hairy and nisse-puk, and Hob with Hobgoblin, hobby-lantern and hobbit. Incidentally, the roots of both Puck and Hob are mysterious, too ancient to truly determine.
However, I try to be wary of tying words together based on a surface resemblance, so I'll leave it at the basics. There is a widespread folktale type where a fairy's name must be uncovered. In Celtic countries that name usually includes the stem "tot," "trot," "top," "tod," or something similar, to the point where this concept has merged into other stories - like Habetrot, who is quite different from Rumpelstiltskin, and Gwarwyn a Throt, whose story is otherwise just random antics of a brownie-like house fairy.
Despite the fact that this fairy is associated with spinning - traditionally a feminine activity - he is generally male. He is also generally evil, wanting to steal away human women and children. If female, the character is slightly more likely to be benevolent—perhaps bleeding into the archetype of Perchta and Holle—but that's not a hard and fast rule.
The Three Little Pixies
The Three Little Pigs is one of the most iconic fairytales, instantly recognizable in any list. But where did it come from? In fact, the earliest known version of the story actually features not pigs, but pixies.
This story, Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 124, resembles tales like "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids" (ATU 123) and "Little Red Riding Hood" (ATU 333) where a predator tries to gain access to its prey's home through trickery or force. The listener identifies with a child like Red Riding Hood, or a domesticated animal like the goats or pigs. Sometimes the victim escapes with a clever trick. In other versions, he or she is gobbled up whole, and may or may not escape the wolf's belly.
However, the three pigs are sort of latecomers.
In 1853, an untitled story about a fox stalking a group of pixies was published in English forests and forest trees, historical, legendary, and descriptive. The story was also recorded in “The Folk-Lore of Devonshire” in Fraser's Magazine vol. 8 (1873). The pixies in the fox story live in an oddly domestic colony; two who dwell in wooden and stone houses are eaten. The fox, in search of prey, knocks at each door and calls "Let me in, let me in" before breaking the house open. However, a clever third pixie lives in an iron house which the fox can't break into. At the end, the fox finally captures the pixy in a box. However, the pixy uses a magical charm to trick him into switching places, and the fox dies.
This is the earliest known version of the story. So how did we get to pigs?
[Edit 3/23/21: J. F. Campbell's Popular Tales of the West Highlands, first published around 1860, mentions the pig story. "There is a long and tragic story which has been current amongst at least three generations of my own family regarding a lot of little pigs who had a wise mother, who told them where they were to build their houses, and how, so as to avoid the fox. Some of the little pigs would not follow their mother's counsel, and built houses of leaves, and the fox got in and said, "I will gallop, and I'll trample, and I'll knock down your house," and he ate the foolish, little, proud pigs; but the youngest was a wise little pig, and, after many adventures, she put an end to the wicked fox when she was almost vanquished, bidding him look into the caldron to see if the dinner was ready, and then tilting him in headforemost."]
In 1877, Lippincott's Monthly Magazine featured William Owens' article "Folk-Lore of the Southern Negroes," including the story of "Tiny Pig." Seven pigs are hunted by a fox, who goes to each of their houses and asks entrance. The pigs each reply in rhyme, "No, no, Mr. Fox, by the beard on my chin! You may say what you will, but I'll not let you in." The fox proceeds to blow down each house and eat the occupant. Only the seventh one, Tiny Pig, has built a strong stone house, and the fox finds that he cannot blow it or tear it down. The fox attempts to enter through the chimney, but Tiny Pig has a fire waiting for him.
In an odd note, Owens compares "Tiny Pig" to an Anglo-Saxon tale called "The Three Blue Pigs." He implies that this was the source for the African-American tale. He gives no source for this story, but it seems he expected his readers to recognize it. However, Thomas Frederick Crane, a collector of Italian tales, seemed baffled by the reference and wrote that he was unable to find the tale.
The tale seems to have been strongly present in African-American folklore of the time. In addition to this appearance in Lippincott's Magazine, Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation by Joel Chandler Harris (1883) featured "The Story of the Pigs." Five build houses for themselves from "bresh," sticks, mud, planks, and rock. Brer Wolf sweet-talks and lures each one, coaxing them to open the doors of their respective homes. In this way, he devours them one by one. Only the Runt sees through his deception. In a scene reminiscent of both Red Riding Hood's dialogue with a disguised wolf, and the Seven Kids' protests that the wolf doesn't resemble their mother, Runt sees through each of Brer Wolf's claims that he's one of her siblings. Again, there is the ending with the chimney and the pig's waiting fire. A Harris story published later, "The Awful Fate of Mr. Wolf," told a similar narrative with Brer Rabbit as the protagonist.
"The Three Goslings" appeared in Thomas Frederick Crane's Italian Popular Tales in 1885. This is another close variation on the story, but with geese rather than pigs. Here we find the wolf blowing down houses. Ultimately, the third gosling pours boiling water into the wolf's mouth to kill him, and then cuts open his stomach to free her sisters. (I'm not sure why the boiling water didn't hurt them.) Crane collected this from Tradizioni popolari veneziane raccolte by Dom. Giuseppe Bernoni, vol. 3 (c. 1875-77). He also included a story called "The Cock," which similarly featured a wolf blowing down animals' houses (in this case built of feathers).
Our modern famous trio of pigs can be traced back to James Orchard Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes of England (1886). The tale was titled "The Story of the Three Little Pigs." Here is the final pig living in a brick house. Here are the rhyming couplets with the wolf calling out, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in" and huffing and puffing houses in. A few scenes, such as the wolf trying to lure out the pig and the pig duping him, are identical to scenes in the pixie story. As in the Italian stories, the wolf blows down the houses, and as in the African-American versions, the ending has the wolf's descent through the chimney. (However, the pig boils him and eats him, reminding one of the Italian gosling's boiling pot of water.) The British version featuring the pigs gained popularity through Joseph Jacobs' English Fairy Tales (1890), which cited Halliwell. Another version showed up in Andrew Lang's Green Fairy Book (1906).
Some African and Middle-Eastern versions tell the same story with different animals, such as sheep or goats. In some areas, human main characters seem more popular, as in the Moroccan tale of Nciç (Scellés-Millie, Paraboles et contes d’Afrique du Nord, 1982). A sultan and his seven sons travel to Mecca, but one by one the sons lose courage and build houses - one with walls of honey, another with walls of date paste. The seventh and smallest son Nciç builds an iron house and faces off against a ghoul.
The story of the fox and the pixies remains an outlier. It is the first known tale to introduce the now-familiar framework of the Three Little Pigs. However, it is also oddly rare. Pigs, fowl, goats, and humans all star in similar tales, but I've never encountered another version with pixies.
And what exactly makes foxes a natural enemy of pixies? The 1873 article in Fraser's Magazine remarks that "There is a very curious connection between the pixies and the wild animals of the moor, especially with the fox, which features in many local stories. These turn frequently on a struggle in craft and cunning between the fox and the pixie." However, the only story cited is this one - not exactly a large sample size - and the author admits that the story of the pixies living in individual houses of iron, etc., is atypical.
Meanwhile, in the other stories recorded in English Forests, pixies are "merry wicked sprites" who torment horses, lead humans astray in the woods, and steal babies. These are not cute winged fairies. They appear as "large bundles of rags," or occasionally tiny sprites dressed in filthy rags. Rather than being harmed by iron like some folkloric fae, they are miners and metalworkers. In one story, they are apparently immune to gunfire ("they were not to be harmed by weapon of 'middle earth'").
In the fox story, however, they are hapless creatures easily devoured by a woodland animal. The only pixy-ish thing they do is at the very end, when the final survivor uses an unspecified "charm" to entrap the fox.
I believe the answer is lies in a confusion between similar words. The word "pixy" is close to "pig" - and that's before you get into related words like puck or pug. One variation is pigsies or pigseys.
Pigsie is a Devonshire term for pixie. The story of the fox and the pixies is from Dartmoor, in Devon.
The pixie version could have arisen through a misinterpretation of the animal pig (or piggie) as the supernatural creature pigsie. If it was originally about pigs, that would explain why similar tales frequently feature animal heroes, and the same tale was widespread with pig protagonists even on the other side of an ocean. It would also explain why the Dartmoor tale's pixies act so unpixylike and helpless, with only one mention of magic thrown in at the end almost as an afterthought.
I can only think of a couple of versions of The Three Little Pigs which feature fairies as protagonists, and they are modern take-offs. In 1996, a book titled Feminist Fairy Tales by Barbara Walker featured a parody of the Three Little Pigs as "The Three Little Pinks." In this fable about girl power, a misogynistic gardener named Wolf comes at odds with three flower fairies who share the task of painting flowers pink. I found this parody less than impressive. But it's still intriguing in how it cycles - perhaps unknowingly - back to one of the earliest published versions of the tale.
Oh, and there was an early 20th century version of "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids" which featured a goblin and seven little breeze spirits. That was "The Gradual Fairy" by Alice Brown, published in 1911.
I do wonder about the "Three Blue Pigs" tale mentioned by William Owens, which could potentially date back before the tale of the fox and the pixies. Perhaps it didn't survive. That would be a fascinating find, though.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.