Tall stoneware pot with pink foxglove


OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312



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Nisse, by J. N. Lafargue, Wiki CommonsGarden Guardians
From Garten Zwerg to
Garden Gnome



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 saints 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.

Paracelsus, Wiki CommonsThe 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 dwarves 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 called Bes.


Nebamun's garden, Wiki CommonsEgypt
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.



Antiquité égyptienne du musée du Louvre, photo by G. BlanchardBes, from Dendera Temple, Egypt, photo by HajorBes 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 yhe good, 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 is 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.


Swedish tomte, Wiki CommonsScandinavia
In the area known today as Sweden and Finland, stories are told of apotropaic little people 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 writes:


Månen vandrar sin tysta ban,
snön lyser vit på fur och gran,
snön lyser vit på taken.
Endast tomten är vaken.
The moon wanders pale and white;
snow gleams white on fir and pine;
snow gleams white on the roofs;
only tomten are awake.


Nisse, by Danish artist J.T. LundbyeNorway and Denmark have similar guardians, known as nisse – a nickname for Nils (from the folk character Nisse 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.


Continental dwarves
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 Callot, Wiki Commons
A Gobbi by Jacques Callot

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.

Meissen zwerg, Wiki CommonsIn 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 Gräfenroda.

Maresch Gartenzwerg, Wiki Commons

Maresch dwarf

Griebel Gartenzwerg, Wiki Commons

Griebel dwarf

Heissner Gartenzwerg, Wiki Commons

Heissner dwarf

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 Salzburg.

Garden dwarf, photo by Mathias Kabel, Wiki Commons      Garden dwarf, photo by Mathias Kabel, Wiki Commons         Garden dwarf, photo by Mathias Kabel, Wiki Commons         Garden dwarf, photo by Mathias Kabel, Wiki Commons         Garden dwarf, photo by Mathias Kabel, Wiki Commons


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.

Swiss hauszwerg, Wiki CommonsSwiss zwergalt=Switzerland
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.

From the 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.


Iffley Priory gnome, Wiki CommonsBritain
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 dvale, dvala, "sleep," perhaps in the sense of laying to rest an illness caused by an offended dwarf.


In the same century, Ælfric writes in his glossary,

Dweorg pygmaeus vel nanus vel pumilio

Dwarf -- pygmy or little one or dwarfFrom Celtic Fairy Tales, Wiki Commons



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 clothing.

Wickimedia Commons, drawing by RackhamLater 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,

Those that Hob-goblin call you,
and sweet Puck;
you do their work,
and they shall have good luck.

On the Isle of Man, the Fenoderee are small, very hairy and ugly, but very strong, and a great help with farm work.

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 watch over hazelnut thickets.

  • Appletree Man, the spirit of the oldest tree in the orchard, guards fruit trees.

  • Hylde-Moer, Elder Mother, protects elderberry trees.

All of these solitary fairies value generosity, honesty, courtesy, neatness, and fair dealing – and are quick to punish miserliness, lying, rudeness, cruelty, slovenliness, and injustice.

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, from Gardener's Chronicle 1897, Wiki Commons
Lampy (a replica),
from Lamport Hall

Gnomes in the rock garden at Lamport Hall, Wiki Commons

Gnomes in the Lamport Hall
rock garden

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, garden 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.

Gartenzwerg, by Eddy DD, Wiki Commons

Reclining garden gnome, Wiki Commons

Garden gnome with wheelbarrow, by Baptista, Wiki Commons

Swingng garden gnome, by KF, Wiki Commons

Gartenzwerg als Teichwächter, by Martin, Wiki Commons



  • An Encyclopedia of Fairies, by Katherine Briggs

  • Garden Gnomes - A History, by Twigs Way

  • The Roman Garden: Space, Sense, and Society, by K. von Stackelberg

Back to garden folklore


Garden Folklore

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