‘Midsummer tomte’ from The Midsummer Tomte & the Little Rabbits by Ulf Stark & Eva Eriksson
I’m going to start controversially. The theme of this post is gnomes, but the fact is that gnomes don’t exist. The word ‘gnome’ was made up by the sixteenth century German physician Paracelsus to describe a concept of his own invention, an earth dwelling nature spirit. It wasn’t quite like the dwarves or kobolds of his native Germanic folklore and it isn’t really related to anything in the folklore of the British Isles either. A substitute term from English might be ‘goblin’ or (even better) the word ‘mannikin’ which was adopted by Geoffrey Hodson in the 1920s.
Who’s a gnome?
Arguments about terminology aside, its very clear that people see gnome-like beings all the time and that they are closely tied to nature. The book Seeing Fairies by Marjorie Johnson and the Fairy Census 2017 are both full of sightings which give us a very good idea of their appearance and habits.
I should start with a word of warning. Some of the modern accounts give rise to a suspicion that preconceptions about the appearance and conduct of gnomes, derived from literature and popular art, have shaped people’s perception of what they witnessed. For example, a mother’s toddler saw a “funny little man” in their Nottinghamshire garden; she questioned him as to what exactly he had seen and he gave “a fair description with what she associated with a dwarf or gnome.” What the very young infant experienced is channelled through an adult’s interpretation, therefore (Johnson p.17). The mother, and possibly the child too, will have had their vision pre-formed by Enid Blyton, Walt Disney and other such powerful influences. In another instance, the figures seen wore “the recognised garb of gnomes”- as if there is some sort of supernatural uniform (Johnson p.185).
At the same time, though, many people struggle to label what they have witnessed, so that I have sorted out the accounts on the basis of my own prejudices applied to their descriptions and perhaps included some examples that were not gnomic. Some of the beings sighted were called ‘gnomes,’ in one case the witness wasn’t sure whether to best call them gnomes or brownies and a few people resorted to Hodson’s term ‘mannikin’ (Johnson pp.45, 169 & 177).
Brian Froud, a gnome
What’s a gnome?
Whilst we may have doubts about classification, we can be rather more definite in describing the ‘typical’ gnome. They are likely to be seen wearing jackets and trousers, very often hats and boots. The clothes are predominantly green, though often brown. Red is sometimes seen and a variety of other colours have been reported from time to time: grey, blue, yellow and even mauve. As we might anticipate, gnomes’ hats are very frequently pointed and most commonly red. Green brown, yellow and blue headgear have also been seen and hats may also resemble mushrooms and acorns or be broad brimmed or peaked.
Gnomes don’t tend to be tall. About half of those sighted were under twelve inches in height; roughly equal numbers measured between twelve and eighteen inches high, between eighteen and twenty-four inches and taller than that, up to about five feet high in just two examples. Beards were quite frequently reported; white hair or aged features were not uncommon.
Given the total number of cases recorded in the Census, Seeing fairies and a few other sources I used, gnomes don’t seem to constitute a large part of the fairy population. They represent about 13% of the total sightings.
To summarise this information so far: gnomes look like gnomes. They tend to be small, bearded, in tall pointy caps. One witness in Liverpool saw a little being “of the tubby sort;” two others described what they saw as being like ‘traditional gnomes.’ I assume once again that they are comparing the creatures seen to an image of an ‘archetypal gnome’ that they held in their imaginations (Johnson pp.323, 172 & 261).
Given their habitual association with gardens and greenery, we have to add that gnomes may well smell distinctively of loam and damp vegetation. Witnesses in Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies report gnomes with “an odour like fungus” or a “strange earthy smell;” there seems to be a particular association with mushrooms and fungus. (Johnson pp.33, 36 & 186)
Where were gnomes seen? This analysis is actually far more interesting than the information on appearance, which in the main is quite stereotypical. Surprisingly, 37% of the beings labelled as gnomes by those who saw them were seen inside houses. That means that the majority, 67%, were seen outside (as we might expect), but the locations varied. Not quite half the gnomes were seen in gardens, but they were also spotted in woods (some even apparently living in trees), in open grassy areas and, in three cases, walking along a road.
What were these gnomes up to? Many did fit with our conventional view of gnomes as gardeners and cultivators. They have been seen busily engaged in a range of garden tasks, including working with green beans in a vegetable patch, tending fruit and flowers- both outside and in greenhouses and the like- sawing and chopping wood, moving plants around and carrying horticultural implements like wheelbarrows, baskets, buckets, brooms, forks, rakes and spades. For example, in 1940 a Mrs Small living in Nottingham had accidentally pruned away the main shoots of some tomatoes. She saw some gnomes, who were about twelve inches high, looking very concerned about the condition of the plants. A little later they came to her carrying a basket filled with green tomatoes and conveyed to her (without words) that she should put them to ripen in a dark place. The same witness also saw a gnome in her garden looking very cross about a piece of rope tied around a tree: it seems that gnomes may be quite possessive about the places they live, or at least have very clear ideas about good and bad horticulture.
The gnomes don’t always need tools to do their work of cultivation and propagation. In one instance that took place at Stapleford in Nottinghamshire, a woman was struggling to weed and hoe a very parched patch of earth. She spotted a gnome watching her with amusement and, when she challenged him for laughing at her instead of lending a hand, he dived beneath the ground surface and very quickly turned over the soil. Gnomes have also been seen in gardens acting as general ‘protectors’ to the plants, for example guiding people towards the best times to pick plants.
Other gnomes are just as busy, but with more general tasks. A couple were seen carrying a heavy bundle; in another encounter, that took place in a snowy Devon lane, a car driver saw six little figures, about eight inches high, transporting a ladder along the road. His appearance led to a hurried scramble to haul the ladder through the hedge and out of sight. Cobbler gnomes in leather aprons and carrying their tools and materials were met by one person. Some gnomes are seen just taking their leisure: in one instance they were dancing, in another doing gymnastics; in a third sighting about a dozen were witnessed racing tiny ponies and traps around a field in rural Derbyshire.
The domestic gnomes are possibly the most surprising: they are quite at home in human houses (and flats)- sitting on the stove, for example, and they seem particularly fascinated by machinery such as sewing machines. One gnome encountered by Geoffrey Hodson quite reasonably spent the summer in his garden in Letchworth, but moved inside the house as winter came on.
We end with a conundrum, then. Our ancestors would not have seen gnomes, because they had never heard of them. They might very well have seen goblins, imps, and even dwarves (duergars) in the North-East of England and the Scottish Borders; they might very well have seen fairies and elves hard at work in their vegetable patches, but it seems to have been a far more recent development that these sightings came to be labelled using Paracelsus’ invented term. This received widespread diffusion through the Theosophists and related groups from the late nineteenth century onwards and the word has become embedded in our language- very possibly because it met a need and provided a convenient term to describe a class of supernatural beings.