“We have a task before us which must be speedily performed. We know that it will be ruinous to make delay. The most important crisis of our life calls, trumpet-tongued, for immediate energy and action. … It must, it shall be undertaken to-day, and yet we put it off until to-morrow, and why? There is no answer, except that we feel perverse, using the word with no comprehension of the principle. … [Then] The clock strikes, and is the knell of our welfare. At the same time, it is the chanticleer note to the ghost that has so long overawed us. It flies—disappears—we are free. The old energy returns. We will labor now. Alas, it is too late!”
–Edgar Allan Poe
The Imp of the Perverse is a metaphor for the urge to do exactly the wrong thing in a given situation for the sole reason that it is possible for wrong to be done. The impulse is compared to an imp which leads an otherwise decent person into mischief. So to further understand these creatures, let us explore the definition of them:
imp noun \ˈimp\
: a small creature that plays harmful tricks in children’s stories
: a child who causes trouble in a playful way : a mischievous child
Full Definition of IMP
1.obsolete : shoot, bud; also : graft
2. a : a small demon : fiend
2.b : a mischievous child : urchin
Middle English impe, from Old English impa, from impian to imp
First Known Use: before 12th century
“The creature known as an Imp is a sentient beast not more than two fores tall that is said to resemble a thin lizard-like goblin with wings. Additionally, the Imp has an unusual looking face that resembles a smooth, bone-like mask with glowing red eyes. Imps have been favoured as intelligent and loyal familiars among many archmages over the centuries…” -Santharia
Originating from Germanic folklore, the imp was a small lesser demon.
It should also be noted that demons in Germanic legends were not necessarily always evil. Imps were often mischievous rather than evil or harmful, and in some regions, they were portrayed as attendants of the gods. Imps are often shown as small and not very attractive creatures. Their behavior is described as being wild and uncontrollable, much the same as fairies, and in some cultures, they were considered the same beings, both sharing the same sense of free spirit and enjoyment of all things fun. It was later in history that people began to associate fairies with being good and imps with being malicious and evil. However, both creatures were fond of pranks and misleading people. Most of the time, the pranks were harmless fun, but some could be upsetting and harmful, such as switching babies or leading travelers astray in places with which they were not familiar. Though imps are often thought of as being immortal, many cultures believed that they could be damaged or harmed by certain weapons and enchantments, or be kept out of people’s homes by the use of wards.
Imps were often portrayed as lonely little creatures, always in search of human attention. They often used jokes and pranks as a means of
attracting human friendship, which often backfired when people became tired or annoyed of the imp’s endeavors, usually driving it away.
Even if the imp was successful in getting the friendship it sought, it often still played pranks and jokes on its friend, either out of boredom or simply because this was the nature of the imp. This trait gave way to using the term “impish” for someone who loves pranks and practical jokes. Being associated with hell and fire, imps take a particular pleasure from playing with temperatures.
To this end, it came to be believed that imps were the familiar spirit servants of witches and warlocks, where the little demons served as spies and informants. During the time of the witch hunts, supernatural creatures such as imps were sought out as proof of witchcraft, though often, the so-called “imp” was typically a black cat, lizard, toad, or some other form of uncommon pet.
Imps have also been described as being “bound” or contained in some sort of object, such as a sword or crystal ball. In other cases, imps were simply kept in a certain object and summoned only when their masters had need of them. Some even had the ability to grant their owners wishes, much like a genie. This was the object of the 1891 story The Bottle Imp by Robert Louis Stevenson, which told of an imp contained in a bottle that would grant the owner their every wish, the catch being that the owner’s soul would be sent to hell if they didn’t sell the bottle to a new owner before their death.
Imps can be found in art and architecture throughout the world, usually carefully and painstakingly hidden under the eaves of a church or the foot of a ceramic cup, so they can only be found by the most interested and observant of people.
Imps may be described as an evil spirit or demon. They frequently appear in children’s stories such as ‘Silvia’ in which she is followed by a black Imp. Since their time, they have become more overlooked as not many people actually know what they are.