Gnow Your Gnomes

Monster bedtime stories

We have grown up with tales told at bedtime that include all sorts of wonderful and scary creatures, some are warm and furry, others are ugly and mean, and still others defy imagination. Some of them are tricksters, others are mischievous, some are helpful and others are not very nice at all. We did meet some of the scary creatures of the night last month; so maybe it is nice to meet some creatures that are not so scary that we should be wary.

One of the interesting things that you find when you start looking at our wonderful ancient knowledge, left to us from the rich cultures of times past, are all the over-laps and similarities. Not only are the story-lines similar, but, also the qualities of the characters involved seem to resemble one another. Several of the creatures included in the ancient stories are very similar to us in appearance. Some of the creatures that resemble us include giants, elves, fairies, leprechauns and gnomes, just to name some.

For now, let’s take a look at those creatures found in lore and myth that are known, more commonly today, as Gnomes.

via Gnomes

Most of us have seen these whimsical creatures in the gardens and yards of many a green-thumb. But have you ever wondered why? According to modern folk-lorists, the gnome is a fairly recent fantasy creature. The credit for the first use of the term gnome goes to the Swiss Alchemist Paracelsus. Paracelsus uses the word in his discussion of Elementals; describing gnomes as earth spirits, whom lived underground and could walk through solid soil as easily as we walk through air. He describes them as two spans high and shy of humans. Some thought that Paracelsus used the word gnomes from the New Latin genomos meaning earth-dweller or others that he was referencing the Greek gnosis which means knowledge, considering the qualities attributed to gnomes it seems that he might have used both words knowingly.


In hunting for these shy small creatures in the scenes of our lores and myths we come across many beings that are too similar in their appearance and features to truly be different entities. There are Germanic dwarfs, as well as, Greek chthonics. There are also Chalybes, Telchines and Dactyls whom possess characteristics in common with our gnomes. There is the belief that gnomes and dwarfs have the same origins and that goblins are an off-shoot of gnomes and dwarfs.

So what do our gnomes look like if we search the world over…..just like us. Just as people dress or have some different features from location to location so do our gnomes, but look beneath that and common features are what you find. First the creatures are always small, they are mostly males and appear old with beards. They dwell in the earth. While they are rarely seen, in most cases they are benevolent to man. It is believed that they protect treasure, either mines or things buried deep in the earth, or the treasure of good crops and healthy livestock. They are considered to have supernatural strength and speed. While they seem to be spread far and wide, they do not possess global features; though the most common include, red hats and simple clothing, possessing human intelligence and personalities, and the Sun’s rays turning them to stone. Other sources say that they spend the day as toads, instead of turning to stone. While older sources give descriptions that are uglier and more akin to today’s view of goblins. They are also, many cases that considered them to be creatures of the night, thus any or all help they provided was preformed at night. So let us travel the legends of the world and see what surprises we find!

tomte_by_Jenny_Nystrom-thumb (
1881 Jenny Nystrom

The strongest beliefs in our gnomes seem to be broadest and longest lasting in Northern Europe, from the Alps to the North Pole and from Prussia to Iceland. While the name varies from the kaukis of Prussia and nisse of Denmark and Norway to the tomte of Scandinavia and the vættir of Iceland, the gnome has been part of life and lore for all memory. So honored are then in Iceland that roads are routed around areas that are believed to be the dwelling places of vættir.  The Scandinavian gnomes, seem to be more centered around farms, hence their name of tomte from tomt or farm. The tomte are believed to be the first dweller of the farm and it is believed that the tomte has their dwelling place located within the burial mound of the farm. The name tomte is credited to St. Birgitta of the 14th Century, which is tonttu in Finish. It is believed that they lived for 400 years and that the females only gave birth once and usually to twins. The Danish nisse is clean shaven wearing grey and red woolen clothes, about 1840 he became the ‘Julenisse‘ bearing Christmas gifts. The new tradition spread across the north and in 1881 Swedish painter Jenny Nystrom gave the image for the ‘Jultomte‘. The Finish ‘Joulupukki‘ identified the Joul-tonttu with his goat companion, although other sources include a horse or cat and sled. This new job for the Scandinavian gnome compliments the older practice of leaving out a gift such as a bowl of porridge on Christmas night to thank the tomte, else he leave the farm or cause mischief.


In the Netherlands our gnome is known as kabouter. And supposedly they taught a shoemaker how to make wooden shoes and could be household spirits instead of just underground dwellers. Yet, in Germany, it is believed that the mythological German dwarfs gave rise to gnomes with the incursion of Nordic culture. Rubezal, the lord of the underworld, was sometimes said to be a mountain gnome. Therefore, it is not surprising that it was German ingenuity that gave rise to the modern popularity of the garden gnome statues, by Phillip Griebel from Grafenroda in Thuringa. Continuing south to the Alps between France and Switzerland the gnome has retreated to remote caves high above the tree-line. These, barbegazi, ancient French from ‘barbe‘ and ‘glacee‘ meaning frozenbeard, are dormant in the summer and come out to enjoy the snow in the winter. Due to their winter activities, the barbegazi are said to be covered with long white hair and have huge feet that are perfect for the snow, acting as snowshoes or skis. The gnomes, just like their northern cousins are very human shy, yet benevolent as they have been known to warn people of avalanches or to round up lost sheep and return them to their shepherds. Their warning is said to be a whistle that could be mistaken for the wind; this would support other stories that claim that gnomes have magical songs as well as having invisibility and shape-shifting abilities.

Not all the gnomes in the stories are nice, the Spanish Duende (Duwende, in the Philippines), which appears in stories from Spain and Portugal to Central and South America seems to be more goblin than their Northern European counterpart. The prime commonality is in its name, which originates from dueno meaning the real owner of the house. Duende are short, ranging from 1’3″ to 4’6″ in height, ugly, hairy with long teeth and arms wearing big hats and animal skins or red and green clothes. One of their unique features is that their feet are reversed with pointed heels. The behavior of the duende appears similar to the British hob or boggle. Living primarily in houses and causing mischief or harm to people.

If you would like to learn more about the gnome or other mythical creatures please check out the links below.

Related Resources:

Encyclopedia Mythica

New World Encyclopedia

The Nordic Culture Spot

Mythical Creatures List

Thelemapedia – The Free Encyclopedia of Thelema


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