What is an Imp?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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.

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

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.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

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

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Discussion Comments


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.


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.


@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).


@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?


@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.


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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