Gnomes are a type of little people that are often found in earthen environments such as forests, caves and gardens. They are similar to elves, dwarfs and pixies in many ways. They also have a number of differences.
Gnomes have found a niche of enthusiasts and aficionados in modern culture. Many people decorate their gardens with ceramic gnomes, or put them in their yards. It is believed that doing so can bring good fortune to their house, or protect it from bad luck or evil spirits.
While these adorable little people may not have risen to the popularity of elves and fairies, they have gained a significant following over the years. Read on to find out more about their characteristics, myths and stories.
Quick Facts about Gnomes
- They can often be distinguished from other types of little people by their red, pointed, cone-shaped hats.
- They were first described in a text by an alchemist in the 16th century named Paracelsus.
- Gnomes are said to be very adept at moving through earth.
- They can be cheerful and helpful or devious and mean.
- They are highly associated with forests, nature and gardens.
- Paracelsus described adult gnomes as being just over a foot tall in height.
- The "g" in the word "gnome" is silent.
As mentioned above, gnomes are similar to elves and dwarfs in many ways. They are small and can hide easily. They like to hide in nature. But what makes them different?
Gnomes are often pictured wearing pointed, cone-shaped red or orange hats. These hats may be one of the easiest ways to identify a gnome. They are often portrayed as being older, with male gnomes often depicted as having long, gray beards. They may at times be portrayed as wearing small spectacles, too.
You may often see one of these little beings carrying tools, such as a pick-ax or a shovel. They do quite a bit of work for little people after all!
As you can now properly identify a gnome when you see one scampering behind a shrub, let's take a look at their mystical origins.
According to various sources, the word "gnome" may come from "genomoi", or "genomos", a Greek word that means "earth-dwellers".1
These little people began showing up in texts in a book written by a man of many talents named Paracelsus. Paracelsus was a Swiss physician that made many medical advancements during the 16th century. He was a true Renaissance man, and combined alchemy, chemistry, physics and medicine to come up with new treatments.
Paracelsus also had a belief system that strayed far from common religious beliefs in Europe at that time and modern times.2 He stated that the universe was based on four building blocks called elementals. These elementals were, in a sense, creatures. Air elementals were called Sylphs. Fire elementals were Salamanders. Water elementals were Undines. And Earth elementals were Gnomes.
This particular book was first published in 1566. The book was devoted to these elemental creatures and he interchangeably used "gnome" and "pygmy" to refer to the earth elementals.
Paracelsus describes gnomes as:
- Standing two "spans" tall. A span was the distance between two opposing parts of the same hand, like from the fully-extended pinkie and thumb.
- Extremely cautious with humans.
- Practically able to swim through earth and stone.
- Gnomes are hardly the first instance of earth-bound spirits in mythology. Their roles as guardians and overseers of mines and treasures greatly overlaps with dwarves from German folklore. By the 19th Century, gnomes are swept under the same category as goblins, sprites and other "domestic spirits" and said to do various things for upstanding members of the community.
Powers and Abilities
Gnomes are so closely associated with earth that they can move about soil and rock better than any burrowing mammal. Stories fail to mention if gnomes leave a trails behind when they move through such materials.
While being incredibly tiny might not seem like much of a power, it does make them harder for humans to notice. A gnome could just hide in the shadow of a modest-sized rock, if not right behind it, until a human loses or changes attention. It also means that they could easily dislodge gemstones without damaging their value-smaller hands mean more precise strikes with a mining pick.
Stories or Fairy Tales Featuring Gnomes
- 1670's "Comte de Gabalis" claims the planet is saturated with gnomes who watch over gems and treasures buried within. It goes on to mention their high intellect, willingness to help humans and that they are easy to control. These gnomes are said to provide sages with coins in time of need in exchange for the glory of helping people. It also mentions "gnomides," little, rugged-looking female gnomes known to wear fascinating hats.
- The "Oz" books, by L. Frank Baum have "Nomes," later changed to "Gnomes," as their primary antagonists. These creatures are subterranean immortals, without beauty or calm, with squat bodies, long beards and a deep concern for amassing gems and precious metals.
- 1942's "The Little Grey Men" tells of England's last-surviving gnomes, squat creatures who live out in the wilderness and survive as hunter-gatherers.
- Wil Huygen's "Gnomes" and "The Secret Book of Gnomes" serve as glimpses of what life is like for these creatures whom live in all of the secret corners of the world, work in harmony with nature and do their best to avoid trolls. These books were compelling enough to serve as the inspiration for "The World of David the Gnome," a cartoon.
- "Gnomeland, An Introduction to the Little People" is a fun book by Margaret Egleton about the various ways that people use gnomes in their daily lives.
- Terry Brooks' "Shannara" books introduce gnomes as a consequence of "the Great Wars." While these gnomes come in several varieties, they are universally the smallest race in the setting. They are characterized as tribal, combative and easily swayed by villainous forces like the "Warlock Lord" and "Mord Wraiths."
- Terry Pratchett's "Discworld" books have gnome height locked in at six inches but the are also exceptionally strong. "Feet of Clay" features the gnome "pest terminator" Wee Wad Arthur and "Jingo" features Buggy Swires as a gnome police officer for the city of Ankh-Morpork.
- Two fun kids movies have been released over the last decade that have featured gnomes. The first was Gnomeo and Juliet, in 2011 by Walt Disney Studios, and the second was Sherlock Gnomes in 2018.
- A lesser known Disney movie titled "The Gnome Mobile" features the two children from Mary Poppins. In the movie, the children and their grandfather discover that gnomes are real, and save their forest homes from devastation.
- The knocker and goric of Celtic tales and the koropokkuru of Japan's Ainu indigenous people are comparable to gnomes.
- Gnome is a common player race in several fantasy games. These sorts of characters tend to be predisposed to wielding picks and hammers in combat, competent inventors and tinkerers and able to communicate with burrowing animals and/or earth elementals.
- The common interpretation of having gnomes being gifted with scientific pursuits may come from their creator's own pursuit of alchemy.
- Swiss bankers used to be known as the "Gnomes of Zürich" due to their job overseeing collections of gold stored deep underground.