Mining for Mischief – Frank McNally on the curious connection between goblins and cobalt

In their element

Further to the phrase “goblin mode” being voted word of the year in an Oxford Dictionaries poll (Diary, Wednesday), I am indebted to a scholarly reader for this fascinating piece of trivia.

The word goblin and the name of the chemical element cobalt, he points out, are essentially the same thing. Why? Because of an old European tradition whereby dwarves and other miniature labourers of myth often worked in the mining industry.

Snow White’s friends are the best-known examples. But Wagnerians among you will also be familiar with the Nibelung, a German dwarf whose goldmining and jewellery interests are central to the epic Ring Cycle.

Meanwhile, back in reality, real-life German miners of the 16th century had, while digging for silver, found a new metallic ore that behaved like none previously known.


It wouldn’t smelt properly and the arsenic fumes it gave off had noticeably bad effects on their health. So they called it Kobold, “the demon of the mines”, a name derived from the same Greek root as goblin. And the name stuck.

Mischievous sprites have not always confined themselves to digging for precious metals. They’re found in coal-mines too on occasion. They may even be implicated in the decision of the British government to approve that new one in Yorkshire this week, a move that has baffled most human observers.

Either way, in the Welsh county of Cardiganshire, according to the Brewer’s Dictionary section on goblins, miners traditionally credited all strange noises heard underground to a related race of mischief makers called “Knockers”.

Even among miners, cobalt is an essential element in the human body. It is central to the vitamin B12, which is in turn central to all animal life. But its reputation for mischief has also extended to it being used as an ingredient in beer, with less healthy results.

Some 20th-century brewers resorted to adding cobalt sulfate to provide a stable head. Unfortunately, this caused more than usual instability in their consumers. After a case in Quebec in 1965, a heart condition known as cobalt-beer cardiomyopathy was diagnosed among drinkers in the US and Belgium.

Happier uses of cobalt include the blue pigment of the same name, much favoured by the French Impressionists and their successors. Although expensive, Cobalt Blue was a staple of Vincent van Gogh, who called it “a divine colour” than which there “nothing so fine [. . .] for putting space around things”. Along with Prussian Blue and Ultramarine, it is a crucial element in A Starry Night.

Its controversial reputation resurfaced in the work of at least one 20th-century Dutch painter, however. The artist was Henricus Antonius (aka “Han”) van Meegeren (1889–1947), who was also an art dealer but is now best-known to posterity as a master forger.

Partly because he needed the money and partly as a revenge against galleries that didn’t appreciate his work, he took to painting brilliant forgeries of such artists as Vermeer, being careful to confine himself – most of the time – to historically accurate materials.

One of his unwitting admirers was Hermann Goering, who traded more than 100 looted paintings to acquire a single “Vermeer” masterpiece entitled “Christ with the Woman Taken in Adultery”.

After the war, this led to van Meegeren being accused of collaborating with the Nazis, a charge he eventually disproved be revealing himself to be the picture’s actual author.

His story was eventually corroborated by analysis showing that, as well as the (even more expensive) ultramarine Vermeer would have had, the painting also featured Cobalt Blue, not be invented until more than a century later.

Instead of being a collaborator, van Meegeren now became a Dutch hero for having fooled Goering. On learning of the deceit, the latter is said to have “looked as if for the first time, he had discovered there was evil in the world”.

As for the master forger, alas, he still faced charges of fraud and died before he could serve his sentence.

A few years later, the mining goblins may have been at work in one of the more notorious episodes of modern Irish history. Certainly, cobalt was central to the international crisis in the Congo, which supplied 60 per cent of the world’s demand and into which an Irish peace-keeping force stumbled fatally in November 1960.

The Niemba Ambush was the product of a local civil war, vested mining interests, and cultural misunderstanding. Whatever about goblins, there were plenty of other candidates to share the blame subsequently: Belgian colonialism, mercenaries, the UN, and even Conor Cruise O’Brien.

But the immediate villains were the tribesmen who carried out the attack. In the process, they gave Ireland a late word of the year entry for 1960, and a term that would far exceed goblin in its notoriety for a time: “Baluba”.