The two most prominent physical characteristics of these humanoid creatures are their short height and long beards.
The word "gnome" may come from "genomoi," a Greek word that means "earth-dwellers."
These little men begin showing up in texts in a book written by Paracelsus that was first published in 1566. Paracelsus wrote an entire book on elemental creatures and he interchangeably used "gnome" and "pygmy" to refer to a type of earth elemental.
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.
- The "Harry Potter" books reduce these creatures to little more than little potato-headed garden pests within the "Wizarding World." The Weasley family are shown to be kinder to them than most wizards, preferring to toss them out into the garden instead of killing them.
- 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.
- 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.