A gnome is a diminutive spirit in Renaissance magic and alchemy, first introduced by Paracelsus and later adopted by more recent authors including those of modern fantasy literature. Its characteristics have been reinterpreted to suit the needs of various story-tellers, but it is typically said to be a small, humanoid creature that lives underground.
The word comes from Renaissance Latin gnomus, which first appears in the works of 16th century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. He is perhaps deriving the term from Latin gēnomos (itself representing a Greek γη-νομος, literally "earth-dweller"). In this case, the omission of the ē is, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) calls it, a blunder. Alternatively, the term may be an original invention of Paracelsus.
Paracelsus uses Gnomi as a synonym of Pygmæi, and classifies them as earth elementals. He describes them as two spans high, very reluctant to interact with humans, and able to move through solid earth as easily as humans move through air.
The chthonic, or earth-dwelling, spirit has precedents in numerous ancient and medieval mythologies, often guarding mines and precious underground treasures, notably in the Germanic dwarves and the Greek Chalybes, Telchines or Dactyls.
The word gnome is said to derive from the New Latin gnomus and ultimately from the Greek gnosis, meaning knowledge. According to myth, gnomes hoarded secret knowledge just as they hoarded treasure.
A gnome is also called a "Cassie" in a fictitious book written by E.G. Khrenson in 1925.
Some confusion arises as the gnome is one of many similar but subtly different creatures in European folklore; mythical creatures such as goblins and dwarves are often represented as gnomes, and vice versa. In other traditions, they are simply small, misshapen, mischievous sprites or goblins (with pointy caps).
Gnomes feature in the legends of many of central, northern and eastern European lands by other names: a kaukis is a Prussian gnome, and barbegazi are gnome-like creatures with big feet in the traditions of France and Switzerland. In Iceland, gnomes (vættir) are so respected that roads are re-routed around areas said to be inhabited by them. Further east, tengu are sometimes referred to as winged gnomes.
According to Wil Huygen's books, "Gnomes, Secrets of the Gnomes and The Complete Gnomes", Gnomes consist of a number of different types. The most common is the Forest Gnome who rarely comes into contact with man. The Garden Gnome lives in old gardens and enjoys telling melancoly tales. Dune Gnomes are slightly larger than their woodland breathren and choose remarkably drab clothing. House Gnomes have the most knowledge of man, often speaking his language. It is from this family that Gnome Kings are chosen. Farm Gnomes resemble their House brethen, but are more conservative in manner and dress. Siberian Gnomes have been more interbred than other Gnomes and associate freely with trolls. They are much larger than the other types and have an infinately more nasty nature. It is best never to evoke the ire of such Gnomes for they delight in revenge.
- Andorra — Gnom, Follet
- Belgium — Gnome, Kabouter
- Bosnia and Herzegovina — Gnom, Patuljak
- Bulgaria — Гном
- Croatia — Patuljak, Gnom, Polutan
- Czech Republic — Skřítek
- Denmark — Nisse
- England — Gnome or Hob
- Finland — Maahinen or menninkäinen
- Germany — Gnom or Wichtel, though K(l)abauter is a known term as well. Gartenzwerg refers to a Garden Gnome
- Greece — Gnomos, Gnomiko
- Hungary — Manó
- Iceland — Álfur or Dvergur
- Ireland — Gnome, Goblin
- Italy — Gnomo
- Malta — Nanu
- The Netherlands — Kabouter
- Norway — Nisse
- Poland — Krasnoludek, Skrzat
- Portugal — Gnomo, Duende
- Russia — Гном (Gnom)
- Serbia — Патуљак (Patuljak), Гном (Gnom), Полушан (Polušan)
- Slovakia — Škriatok
- Slovenia — Kepec, Gnom
- Spain — Gnomo, Duende
- Sweden — Tomtenisse, Hustomte, Tomte or Småtomte
Often featured in Germanic fairy tales, including those by the Brothers Grimm, the gnome often resembles a gnarled old man living deep underground who guards buried treasure. Modern sources often depict gnomes as diminutive, stout humanoids who wear tall, pointed conical caps and dress in solid colors such as blue, red or green; in this depiction, the male gnome always has a long white beard.
Gnomes are usually an average of 15 centimeters tall, but with its cap on it appears much taller. Their feet are somewhat pigeon toed which gives them an extra edge on speed and agility through the wood and grass. The males weigh 300 grams, and female is 250-275 grams.
The male wears a peaked red cap, a blue brown-green pants, and ether felt boots, birch shoes, or wooden clogs. Around his waist is a belt with a tool kit attached, holding a knife, hammer, etc. They are fair of face, though the boast rosy red cheeks. Long beards adorn their faces and turn gray far sooner than their hair.
The female wears gray or khaki clothing, consisting of a blouse and skirt (to ankles). She also has black-gray knee socks and high shoes or slippers. Before she is married, she dons a green cap.
Prior to marriage her hair in hanging down, the outfit is complemented by a green cap and braids with which later disappear under a scarf while the green cap is replaced by more somber tones after she marries.
Paracelsus includes gnomes in his list of elementals, as earth elementals. He describes them as two spans high, and very taciturn. (C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, p135 ISBN 0-521-47735-2)
Like dwarves, the sun's rays turn them into stone. Some sources claim they spend the daytime as toads instead of in stone and they are also said to have magical powers that make people feel sad or happy.
Most Gnomes are 7 times stronger than a man, can run at speeds of 35 miles per hour, and have better sight than a hawk. These abilities help the Gnome to do many things, such as find wounded, dying animals for which they feel they are responsible for. Because of their love for animals, all the animals of the forest are the Gnome's friends and are willing to help him at any time. Many people say that gnomes have elevated practical jokes to an art form. But most especially they love gems and jewelry and are considered by many to be the best gem cutters and jewelers in existence
Males are the guardians of animal kind and show little preference for their animal friends, not withstanding their aversion to cats both wild and domesticated. They are known for freeing wildlife from man's traps and for operating on farm animals whose owners have neglected them or who are simply to poor to afford a vetrinarian. Their enemies are mainly Trolls, and other beings who would try to destroy them or their homes. Otherwise, they are mostly peaceful beings.
They are generally vegetarian and never worry. The main meal consists of: Nuts (hazelnuts, walnuts, beechnuts, etc), mushrooms, peas, beans, a small potato, applesauce, fruit, berries (all kinds), tubers, spices, vegetables, and preserves for dessert. As a beverage, the gnome drinks mead dew (fermented honey), fermented raspberries (which have a very high alcohol content), and spiced gin as a nightcap. The gnome eats no meat, so often consumes the nectar of the high rotein plant called 'Vicia Sepuim'. fluffy willow catkins, dressing them up like dolls.
Gnomes tend to live in hilly meadows and rocky woodlands. In Huygen's book, it says they live in three trees, the house itself, with a hidden entrance from another tree, and then a third is the supply room, with grains, beans, potatoes and everything else the gnomes may need during the winter.
Individual gnomes are not very often detailed or featured as characters in stories, but in Germanic folklore, Rübezahl, the lord over the underworld, was sometimes referred to as a mountain gnome. According to some traditions, the gnome king is called Gob.
Theories and analysis
According to the alchemist Paracelsus, gnomes are the most important of the elemental spirits of the classical element of Earth;
Rudolf Steiner, and other theosophists before him, lectured at length on gnomes, and especially their supportive role in the development of plant life (and biodynamic agriculture).