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Ever since people first began to put seeds in the ground,
they have brought images of wood, stone, metal, ivory, and bone
to their gardens – sculptures, hanging decorations, utilitarian
scarecrows of one sort and another, images of gods and
and heroes whose roles have been to protect as well as please.
Today our gardens are home to Saints Frances, Phocus, and Fiachre, as
well as to the heroes, gods, and angels of diverse traditions. One of the
most popular members of the 21st century garden pantheon is the
gnome -- a little man (or, more rarely, woman), often bearded,
with a peaked hat and old fashioned clothing.
The word gnome, from the Latin genomos,
"earth-dweller," was first used in the 1500s by Paracelsus, a
Swiss alchemist, astrologer, botanist, and occultist who came to
be known as the "Father of Toxicology."
Paracelsus’ gnomes were one of four "elementals," nature
spirits having a special affinity with one of the four elements -- earth, air, fire, or water --
believed to make up everything in the universe. Gnomes were
the elemental spirits associated with earth.
Paracelsus, shown at right, believed that gnomes were “two
spans” tall (about 20 inches), lived
underground, and could move through
the solid earth as easily as humans move through air.
Over time, the concept of the gnome has become synonymous with a range of solitary
domestic fairies whose ranks include the dwarf,
brownie, hob, goblin, nisse, and tomte -- little people whose
presence brings luck to the
farmsteads they inhabit, including its gardens.
All are diminutive
figures, supernatural dwarves who were the antecedents for
the garden figures we now call gnomes. Folklore variously identifies these
as gods, supernatural miners and farm workers, and spirits of
the ancestors. However defined, their role is to protect the
homestead. One of the earliest examples is an Egyptian dwarf god
The ancient Egyptians developed a form of courtyard garden
that made optimal use of plants, water features, and trees to
provide a cool oasis of comfort. Associated
with these gardens was Bes, a god of fertility and the special
guardian of households, mothers, and children.
Bes is portrayed as a dwarf, small and short-legged. He has a
full beard, big ears, and a broad nose. On his head he wears
ostrich plumes. Over time, he came to be viewed as the protector of
and a warrior against evil.
His image is found in temples and homes, in the form of amulets, frescos, statues, and stelae.
Unlike the other Egyptian deities, who are often shown in
profile in paintings, Bes is seen face to face – and his
pleasant and reassuring face at that.
The worship of Bes spread throughout
the Mediterranean region; a small statue of him was even found in the
Pompeian garden of Octavius Quartio. North of Italy, other small
supernatural guardians of home and garden similar to Bes can be
found in many mythologies.
In the area known today as Sweden and Finland, stories
are told of apotropaic
called tomte, tonttu, or tomtenisse, from tomte, a
toft or farmyard.
Tomte look after children, and bring luck to
the farm that is their home. They are helpful so long as you are
courteous, neat, and kind to your animals. Looking like small, elderly men, many tomte have full beards. They
wear farm clothes and red caps. They are very strong,
and very easy to offend – and once offended, they can blight
your crops, dry up the milk of your cows, and allow illness to
strike your stock or your children. It makes sense to have a
good relationship with this little guardian spirit; for as poet Viktor Rydberg
Månen vandrar sin tysta ban,
snön lyser vit på fur och gran,
snön lyser vit på taken.
Endast tomten är
The moon wanders pale and white;
snow gleams white on fir and pine;
snow gleams white on the roofs;
only tomten are awake.
Norway and Denmark have similar guardians,
nisse – a nickname for Nils (from the folk
god dräng who is similar to Robin Goodfellow). Nisse are
often bearded, dress in grey and red clothing, and wear tall, pointed red caps.
They protect the family from harm, bring good fortune, and are
very fond of horses.
Tomte and nisse alike are crafty and quick-moving, so that it
is rare to get a good look at them. Some believe the nisse are
supernatural demigods; others, that they are the spirits of
the first farmers to clear the land that is now the toft.
Neither tomte nor nisse were popular with the Christian establishment, and in
the 1300s St. Birgitta warned against worshipping these tompta
gudhi, "tomte gods." Nonetheless, at Midwinter it
still is the custom to place a bowl of warm porridge, topped with butter and accompanied by a glass of beer, outside for the tomte.
On the continent, Georgius Agricola, German author of several
important scientific works, wrote in the 1400s of “goblins who
labor in the mines." In those days, a miner wore a long shirt,
breeches, a leather apron, and a pointed hat – a costume seen
two centuries later on the German Garten Zwerg, garden dwarves.
A Gobbi by
In Italy, garden figures called Gobbi (Italian for dwarf or
hunchback) first appear in the early 1600s. Jacques Callot created 21 designs for
garden Gobbi in 1616.
Part of the
Italian Commedia dell arte tradition, these little people
are not portrayed as miners, but as musicians, dancers, and artistes.
In the mid-1700s, Viennese porcelain manufacturer Meissen began producing ceramic Zwerge, dwarves, for display in the houses or
in the “dwarf galleries” in the gardens of the wealthy.
A Meissen dwarf
Dresden manufacturers Baehr and Maresch may have produced the
first true Garten Zwerge, made of painted terracotta or other ceramics,
in Germany, in about 1840. They were
followed two decades later by Philip Griebel, whose garden
figures were based on local myths about the willingness of
dwarves to help in the garden at night. In 1872, August
Heissner began producing garden dwarves in the German town of
By the mid-1800s, estate and castle gardens were home to life-sized garden dwarves, such as those seen below from the
"dwarf garden," Zwergerlgarten, of Schloss Mirabell in
These garden dwarves were made of concrete, and of terracotta and
other fired clays; many were glazed or painted. Garden dwarves
had become a popular tradition, so much so that today there are some 25 million garden
gnomes in Germany.
In Switzerland, dwarfs were made of
terracotta as well as white clay, and kept as good luck charms.
Near Interlaken and Lucerne, there was also a tradition of
carving wooden dwarves that were believed to bring luck to the
homes they decorated.
Dutch tradition we have the kabouter, secretive little
men with full beards and red caps who look after humans and
animals, and make their homes beneath the ground. The world has come to know the kabouter through a
book, Leven en Werken van de Kabouter (retitled Gnomes
for English-speaking readers). Published in the late 1970s by Rien Poortvliet and Wil Huygen,
it is this portrayal of
the garden gnome that is best known in the USA.
In Britain, one
of the earliest mentions of dwarves is in the
Leechbook, written in the 900s,
whose lists of medicinal plants include dweorgedwostle,
more familiar today as pennyroyal.
Dweorge is Old English for
dwarf; dwostle appears to be related to the Swedish
perhaps in the sense of laying to rest an illness caused by an offended
In the same century, Ælfric writes in his
Dweorg pygmaeus vel nanus vel pumilio
Dwarf -- pygmy or little one or dwarf
The earliest description of these little people in British folklore
comes from 12th century author Gervase of Tilbury, who calls them portunes.
He describes them as being very small
but strong; good helpers on the farm who come inside
at night to sit by the fire and roast frogs for dinner. They
look like little old men, and wear patched
Later British folklore
recounts the stories of a number of helpful solitary supernaturals whose names vary from region to region.
These names include:
Brownies, who are domestic fairies, 3 feet tall with brown
faces, brown clothes, and shaggy hair. Like the tomte and
the nisse, they are responsible for well-being of the farm where
they live. They do chores, play tricks, and expect to be fed
in return for their labor.
Hobs, lobs, and hobgoblins, like brownies, are helpful
around the farm. In Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream,
a character says to Puck,
On the Isle of Man, the Fenoderee are small, very hairy and
ugly, but very strong, and a great help with farm work.
Those that Hob-goblin call
and sweet Puck;
you do their work,
and they shall have good
Yet another name for the supernatural farmhand is, in the
Highlands, grogan or gruagach. He is “hairy, with
broad shoulders… and an unco wee body, terrible strong.” (Briggs, 206)
Other guardians who watch over their realms with
territorial protectiveness include:
Oakmen, short and dwarf-like with red toadstool caps and red
noses, they guard oak thickets and the animals who shelter there.
Lunantishee guard blackthorn bushes.
Melsh Dick and Churnmilk Peg
Appletree Man, the spirit of the oldest tree in the
orchard, guards fruit trees.
Hylde-Moer, Elder Mother, protects
All of these solitary fairies value generosity, honesty,
courtesy, neatness, and fair dealing – and are
quick to punish miserliness, lying, rudeness, cruelty, slovenliness, and
Garden gnomes were introduced to England in
1847 by Sir Charles Isham, an eccentric garden enthusiast who
brought 21 terracotta figures back from a trip to Germany and
placed them in his enormous rock garden at Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire. One of these figures still survives, and is known as Lampy.
Lampy (a replica),
from Lamport Hall
Gnomes in the
Gnomes in the garden today
By the mid
1800s, Germany had emerged as the leading producer of garden
gnomes and dwarves, and little Deutsch Gartenzwerge were found in
ornamental gardens throughout Europe and North America. It may
be this association with Germany that led to their decline in
popularity after World Wars I and II.
Today the return
to popularity of gnomes is probably due to Walt Disney's
seven dwarves, Poortvliet's kabouter, and Travelocity's
"traveling gnome" ad campaign. Whatever the reasons,
gnomes are making a comeback, in a wide variety of materials --
wood, metal, ceramics, cement, and resin. Most continue to be
male, though a few female gnomes have made an appearance.
Ranging in size from a few inches tall to a few feet, they bring
a bit of whimsy to our gardens.
Encyclopedia of Fairies, by Katherine Briggs
Garden Gnomes - A History,
by Twigs Way
The Roman Garden: Space, Sense, and Society,
by K. von Stackelberg
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