The Origins of Garden Gnomes

Just a few questions as the introduction for today’s post.

What do you know about gnomes?   How are they different to dwarves?  Elves? Goblins? Pixies? Leprechauns, Boggarts? Or any of the other small folk who live in our imagination and stories…and maybe are out there in real life too if only we knew where to look?

How big are they?  Where do they live? What do they do all day long? Why haven’t I ever seen one?

How did they ever get into our gardens? And  how did they become such popular garden ornaments?

Well that’s a lot of  difficult questions to answer… but in this post  I’ll attempt to answer at least some of them…and in the process probably  tell you more than you  ever wanted to know about the origin of garden gnomes….

First of all… lets be clear…. small, humanlike creatures are common in many cultures from ancient times, and they are often endowed with strange and mysterious magical powers.

In some cultures these little people live almost domestic lives alongside us humans,  while in others they live  in the countryside or in the mountains and forests or even in toadstools…. BUT its rare these days to see any reference to where gnomes were first thought to live – which is underground.

There are dwarfish gods and supernatural beings in ancient Egypt for example such as the popular God Bes, who is usually portrayed as a fat, bandy-legged miniature person often in a leopardskin with a feather stuck in his hair and sticking his tongue out as a gesture to keep away the evil spirits.

The Greeks meanwhile had a craftsman God named Hephaestus, who was also connected with the fire of erupting volcanoes so that the Romans called him Vulcan.  He was short, stunted, ugly, with the brawny arms of the blacksmith and he was credited with magical powers in forging and smithing metal: skills that were later attributed to gnomes too.

 

Or what about these massive stone heads at Nemrut Dagi in Turkey representing Greek gods and heroes… don’t they have something gnome-like about them especially with those tall hats?

Although there are plenty of books about gnomes and such-like creatures there is surprisingly little serious research about their origin. But the most likely source of OUR little creatures is the northern European ie Scandinavian/Germanic tradition.   They appear  as dwarves in Norse & Icelandic sagas where  they are skilled craftsmen who made marvellous things for the various gods. 

The cover of Huygen and Poortvliet’s Gnomes

This idea was picked up by  Wil  Huygen, a Dutch author who specialised in books about gnomes. His most famous one Gnomes was first published in 1977 and reached the top of the bestseller list of the New York Times where it stayed for over a year, I’m sure because of the wonderful illustrations by fellow Dutchman Rien Poortvliet.

The statue in Uppsala from Huygen and Poortvliet’s Gnomes

Huygen  tells us that around 1200 AD Frederick Ugarph found a miniature wooden statue near Trondheim in what is now Norway, which has been tested and found to be about 2000 year old.  It bears the inscription NISSE Riktig Størrelse which he says translates as “Gnome actual height”, and the statue is now in a museum in Uppsala in Sweden. He even includes a drawing of it.

He then cites a description written in 470AD by a retired Roman soldier living in the Netherlands who claimed  he had seen “a miniature person with my own eyes. He wore a red cap and blue shirt  and had a white beard.”  Outlining other examples of early gnome history he argued  that gnomes were well established in Western Europe by the time of Charlemagne.  Being initially fairly credulous I went to check these “facts”  out, but I should have guessed  that Huygen had a good sense of humour, and that all his books are somewhat tongue in cheek to put it mildly!

 

 

 

However while there might not be any statues of Nisse/gnomes there is a genuine early carving on a hearth stone dated to around 1000AD which depicts Loki, the Norse god of mischief.

The Nisse of  Norse & Icelandic sagas are, like Loki,   skilled craftsmen who made marvellous things for the various gods.

The most famous of the Icelandic saga tellers, Snorri  Sturluson who lived in the 13thc, bears,  perhaps unsurprisingly, at least a  passing resemblance to our idea of a garden gnome – even though he lacks the pointy hat!   An even closer resemblance is shown in this  18thc Icelandic drawing of Loki.  But overall there are very few early depictions of “little people”.

 

 

 

 

This begins to change by the time we reach the  19thc  but at the same time images of the various sorts of folk figures were then often  “blended” together, confusing  their different  appearances,  and attributes and with their names  often being interchangeable.

xxx

By the 20thc that confusion becomes worse.  For example, dwarves traditionally live above ground mainly  in forests,  but in the Lord of the Rings they are said to be underground dwellers and miners…. whereas that is the traditional place of Gnomes.  

Who says that?   It was the first person to ever talk specifically about gnomes rather than dwarves or other magical spirits.  He was a pioneering Swiss doctor in the 16thc who had the marvellous name of Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, but who is more commonly called Paracelsus.

Paracelsus may have been one of the founders of modern scientific medicine, but he was also a man very much of his time and he  believed in  earth spirits. 

Two Scholars in a Cabinet: Paracelsus (?) and a Traditional Philosopher Examining a Flask
unknown artist, late 17thc, Wellcome Collection

 

Paracelsus called these spirits, pygmies or gnomes a word he seems to have invented, and which he probably derived from the Greek word for earth dweller genomus.  He even gave an account of  them in some detail.

The gnomes, he said, had minds, but no souls, so were incapable of spiritual development.  They stood about 2 feet tall, but that they could expand themselves to huge size, at will. They were adapted to live underground and  could  breathe, see and move as easily underground as fish did in water.  Like humans gnomes had bodies made of flesh and blood. They could  speak and reason. They could eat, sleep and propagate their species,  and just like humans they could fall ill and would  die.  He also thought that while Gnomes sometimes took a liking to certain human beings,  and were sometimes even prepared to enter their service,  generally they were hostile to humans.

 

Pietro Barbino,
court dwarf of Cosimo the First
Grand Duke of Tuscany

Around the same time that Paracelsus  was  writing his description of gnomes  all sorts of jokey – and grotesque – things were happening in gardens.   This was the time of the Renaissance where people returned with great enthusiasm to ideas from ancient Greece and ancient Rome, and of course descriptions of Roman gardens included lots of statues.   

Sir Jeffrey  Hudson

For example in the 16th and 17th centuries the Medici family laid out the famous Boboli Gardens in Florence where the statues included figures of peasants, musicians and  animals as well as classical gods.  Amongst them, riding a tortoise,  is the naked  figure of Pietro Barbino, the fat little court dwarf of Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany.

Court dwarves were another feature of aristocratic life in Renaissance Europe a combination of domestic pet and jester.  Almost every ruling or elite family would have one or more at court. In Britain Charles I had Sir Jeffrey Hudson who at  the age of nine was only 18 inches tall.

It led to a whole genre of prints and engravings based on mocking dwarfs and using them to satirise contemporary fashions. Jacques Callot produced 21 designs for gobbi, engraved and printed in 1616 Though of course in theory they have nothing to do with the dwarfs of folk tradition or our garden gnomes, but the resemblance is noticeable.

Callot’s work is thought to have inspired artisans  at Crown Derby porcelain works to create a range of figures, which are somewhat more sympathetic in appearance. They were modelled on real-life dwarves who were hired to stand outside of the Mansion House in London wearing advertisements on their large hats. They are still being produced today.

 

 

 

 

 

Court dwarves may well have been the inspiration  behind an 18th-century fashion in northern Italy and southern Germany for rather grotesque garden statues known by the Italian word for hunchback’s which is gobbi.   The best surviving example of these are the 16 figures in the gardens at Weikersheim in Bavaria which date from 1711.

By this point,  with the rise of modern science, Paracelsus’ gnomes along with many  of his medical ideas  had all but vanished from most educated people’s picture of the real world.  However  the long-established European folk beliefs about  little people  survived in literature and in oral tradition. It was from there that they remerged, re-invented,  in the early 19thc allied to  a rise in nation building.

For example in the early 1800s in Germany, then a jigsaw of small independent states, people started collecting folk songs together to create a sense of shared”germanness”. They were often “improved” and embellished, with invented additions  such as the Rhine maiden, the Lorelei to make them more interesting.

It wasn’t long before these tales and myths were picked up by the Brothers Grimm, who are today regarded as the founders of the modern study of folklore.  

In 1812 they began publishing their books which were later to gain fame as Grimm’s Fairytales. They  included versions of what are now familiar favourites such as Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, Rapunzel, and the Frog Prince.

As far as I can see the early editions were unillustrated but by the end of the century there was a plethora of different versions and images.   But there two important story which include “little people”.  Rumpelstiltskin  who could spin straw into gold  embodies the meaner side of fairy folk, when in return for his help he demands the the miller’s daughter’s baby, before he finally gets his comeuppance.  As you can see in these early imaginings he has some of the attributes of the gnome.

 

The other story takes a  kinder turn. Wandering through the forest  to escape from the wicked Queen,  Snow White encounters the seven dwarves who spend their days busily digging in the mountains for gemstones and ore.     There’s definite confusion here as most portrayals of the dwarves, especially those of Disney,  make them  look much more like our idea of gnomes and as Paracelsus said its gnomes not dwarves who lived underground and do mining the traditional role of gnomes.

Incidentally there was another  Grimm story which has similarities: the Three Little Gnomes in the Forest which was illustrated later by Arthur Rackham.

Old folk tales were picked up, retold and elaborated on, in other countries such as Norway and Ireland  as well, where nationalist movements wanted to create a distinctive identity and national spirit in their present folk traditions.  This led all sorts of inspirations from Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark to Wagner’s Alberich in Gotterdammerung.  These tales all gave “Little people” a new importance.  You didn’t have to believe in them literally to see them as symbolic of an ancient and profound understanding of the world, preserved in the traditions of ordinary people living close to the land and nature.  This helps create the atmosphere in which the garden gnome was to make a spectacular entrance.

19th wooden carvings from Brienz

Another form of revival that was happening at the same time was in the arts and crafts. In  Switzerland  and the Black Forest one of the local traditions  was woodcarving and in one town, Brienz, a company decided to take these new “national” history ideas and try and turn them into ornaments.   The figures they created  were based on a long standing  Teutonic tradition of  “House Dwarves”.  Often portrayed as  earth-dwellers and miners and so potentially guardians of buried treasure these house dwarves, like the Roman house gods,  were thought to bring good fortune.   Portrayed in their trademark hats, and brandishing tools and backpacks, these  wooden figures quickly became  popular souvenirs with the burgeoning tourist trade. They were brought back to Britain in increasing numbers.

 

It is believed the dwarves first morphed into gnomes and moved from the house to the garden when Alfred Baehr and Johann Maresch in Dresden, Germany started producing their own take on the dwarves  not in wood but in ceramics around 1841.   The earliest catalogues refer to them as   zwergen-figuren or dwarf figures,  but later they became known as gnomen-figuren.  The gnomes were seen engaged in a wide range of work including lots of gardening work.  [Unfortuantely their catalogues were, at one point,  available somewhere on-line but they seem to have disappeared except as clips on other websites]. Baehr & Maresch were joined by other makers and there is now a thriving market in not only these early gnomes which are now antiques, but in their restoration in facsimiles and new models.

 

The first Gnomen-figuren known to have arrived in England came courtesy of thanks to Sir Charles Isham of Lamport Hall in Northamptonshire who I have already written about, so to follow the story of the gnome how the gnome arrived in the British garden click on this link, and follow that up with a look at the other great gnomaholic of the late Victorian/Edwardian era, Sir Frank Crisp and his family of gnomes who lived under a mountain in Oxfordshire, and were rescued by one of the Beatles.

Don’t laugh too much!

There are lots of books and websites dedicated to gnomes. Most of them are unfortunately rather repetitive copy and paste jobs. BUT there are a few exceptions including Twigs Way Garden Gnomes  Shire Books 2009 (replete with the mystery of the windmill addition!).     Otherwise Will Huysum wrote several books on gnomes, inventing whole new worlds for them to inhabit and interact with humans. They are mostly easily available.    There lots of images and some useful information on historic gnomes  and their restoration at https://gardengnome.jimdo.com which is the English version of https://www.gartenzwerg-karl.de

About The Gardens Trust

Email - education@thegardenstrust.org Website - www.thegardenstrust.org
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2 Responses to The Origins of Garden Gnomes

  1. Ian Duggan published an article on the history of garden gnomes in New Zealand, which he provided some highlights of in a blog for us, which makes for a good read:

    https://gardenhistoryresearchfoundation.com/2021/01/27/the-history-of-garden-gnomes-in-new-zealand/

  2. dianaed14 says:

    Thank you so much – a wealth of information

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