Gnom mit Zeitung und Tabakspfeife (English: Gnome with newspaper and tobacco pipe) by Heinrich Schlitt (1923)
GroupingDiminutive spirit
First attested16th century

A gnome (/nm/[1]) is a mythological creature and diminutive spirit in Renaissance magic and alchemy, introduced by Paracelsus in the 16th century and widely adopted by authors including those of modern fantasy literature. Typically small humanoids who live underground, gnome characteristics are reinterpreted to suit various storytellers and artists.[2]

Lawn ornaments crafted as gnomes were introduced during the 19th century, growing in popularity during the 20th century as garden gnomes.



The word comes from Renaissance Latin gnomus, which first appears in A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits by Paracelsus, published posthumously in Nysa in 1566 (and again in the Johannes Huser edition of 1589–1591 from an autograph by Paracelsus).[3][4]

The term may be an original invention of Paracelsus, possibly deriving the term from Latin gēnomos (itself representing a Greek γη-νομος, approximately "gē-nomos", literally "earth-dweller"). In this case, the omission of the ē is referred to as a blunder by the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). 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.[5]

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 dwarfs and the Greek Chalybes, Telchines or Dactyls.[2] The gnomes of Swiss folklore follow this template, as they are said to have caused the landslide that destroyed the Swiss village of Plurs in 1618 - the villagers had become wealthy from a local gold mine created by the gnomes, who poured liquid gold down into a vein for the benefit of humans, and were corrupted by this newfound prosperity, which greatly offended the gnomes.[6]

Cultural references

In Romanticism and modern fairy tales

Gnome Watching Railway Train, Carl Spitzweg, 1848

The English word is attested from the early 18th century. Gnomes are used in Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock". The creatures from this mock-epic are small, celestial creatures that were prudish women in their past lives, and now spend all of eternity looking out for prudish women (in parallel to the guardian angels in Catholic belief). Other uses of the term gnome remain obscure until the early 19th century, when it is taken up by authors of Romanticist collections of fairy tales and becomes mostly synonymous with the older word goblin.

Pope's stated source, the 1670 French satire Comte de Gabalis by Nicolas-Pierre-Henri de Montfaucon de Villars, the abbot of Villars, describes gnomes as such:

The Earth is filled almost to the center with Gnomes or Pharyes, a people of small stature, the guardians of treasures, of mines, and of precious stones. They are ingenious, friends of men, and easie to be commandded. They furnish the children of the Sages with as much money, as they have need of; and never ask any other reward of their services, than the glory of being commanded. The Gnomides or wives of these Gnomes or Pharyes, are little, but very handsom; and their habit marvellously curious.[7]

De Villars used the term gnomide to refer to female gnomes (often "gnomid" in English translations).[8] Modern fiction instead uses the word "gnomess" to refer to female gnomes.[9][10]

In 19th-century fiction, the chthonic gnome became a sort of antithesis to the more airy or luminous fairy. Nathaniel Hawthorne in Twice-Told Tales (1837) contrasts the two in "Small enough to be king of the fairies, and ugly enough to be king of the gnomes" (cited after OED). Similarly, gnomes are contrasted to elves, as in William Cullen Bryant's Little People of the Snow (1877), which has "let us have a tale of elves that ride by night, with jingling reins, or gnomes of the mine" (cited after OED).

The Russian composer Mussorgsky produced a movement in his work Pictures at an Exhibition, (1874) named "Gnomus" (Latin for "The Gnome"). It is written to sound as if a gnome is moving about.

Franz Hartmann in 1895 satirized materialism in an allegorical tale entitled Unter den Gnomen im Untersberg. The English translation appeared in 1896 as Among the Gnomes: An Occult Tale of Adventure in the Untersberg. In this story, the Gnomes are still clearly subterranean creatures, guarding treasures of gold within the Untersberg mountain.

As a figure of 19th-century fairy tales, the term gnome became largely synonymous with other terms for "little people" by the 20th century, such as goblin, brownie, leprechaun and other instances of the household spirit type, losing its strict association with earth or the underground world.

Modern fantasy literature




TV Shows

Derivative uses

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Garden gnomes

Main article: Garden gnome

Historic garden gnomes on display at the Gnome Reserve in Devon, UK. The ornament on the left of the image was produced by Eckardt and Mentz in the late nineteenth-century,
By the late twentieth century the garden gnome had come to be stylised as an elderly man with a full white beard and a pointed hat.

After World War II (with early references, in ironic use, from the late 1930s) the diminutive figurines introduced as lawn ornaments during the 19th century came to be known as garden gnomes. The image of the gnome changed further during the 1960s to 1970s, when the first plastic garden gnomes were manufactured. These gnomes followed the style of the 1937 depiction of the seven dwarves in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Disney. This "Disneyfied" image of the gnome was built upon[citation needed] by the illustrated children's book classic Gnomes (1976), in the original Dutch Leven en werken van de Kabouter, by author Wil Huygen and artist Rien Poortvliet, followed in 1981 by The Secret Book of Gnomes. Garden gnomes share a resemblance to the Scandinavian tomte and nisse, and the Swedish term "tomte" can be translated as "gnome" in English.

Gnome-themed parks

Gnome garden at the Wieliczka Salt Mine, Poland

Several gnome themed entertainment parks exist. Notable ones are:

Gnome parades

Gnome parades are held annually at Atlanta's Inman Park Festival.[16] Numerous one-off gnome parades have been held, including in Savannah, Georgia (April 2012)[17] and Cleveland, Ohio (May 2011).[18]

Metaphorical uses

See also


  1. ^ "Gnome". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. ^ a b "Gnome". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Archived from the original on 17 April 2008. Retrieved 12 March 2008.
  3. ^ Paracelsus (1566). Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris et Gigantibus, etc. Nissae Silesiorum: Ioannes Cruciger.
  4. ^ Hall, Manly P. (1997, 1964). Paracelsus: His Mystical and Medical Philosophy. Philosophical Research Society. pp. 53, 69–72, 74, 77–78. ISBN 0-89314-808-3.
  5. ^ Lewis, C. S. (1964). The Discarded Image - An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Cambridge University Press. p. 135. ISBN 0-521-47735-2.
  6. ^ Guerber, H. A. (1899). Legends of Switzerland. Dodd, Mead & Co. pp. 289–290.
  7. ^ Montfaucon de Villars, Nicolas-Pierre-Henri (1680). The Count of Gabalis: Or, The Extravagant Mysteries of the Cabalists, Exposed in Five Pleasant Discourses on the Secret Sciences. Translated by Gent, P. A. London: B. M. Printer. pp. 29–30. OCLC 992499594.
  8. ^ de Montfaucon de Villars, N.-P.-H. (1913) [1670]. Comte de Gabalis. London: The Brothers, Old Bourne Press. OCLC 6624965. Archived from the original on 13 May 2015.
  9. ^ 2007: Shadow on the Land, page 115
  10. ^ 2013: Gnomes and Haflings, page 120
  11. ^ Clute, John; Grant, John (1999). "Elemental". The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York: St. Martin's Griffin. pp. 313–314. ISBN 0-312-19869-8.
  12. ^ Mizuno, Ryou (2019). Sorcerous Stabber Orphen Anthology. Commentary (in Japanese). TO Books. p. 238. ISBN 9784864728799.
  13. ^ Tweet, Jonathan (July 2003). Player's Handbook Core Rulebook I v.3.5. Renton WA: Wizards of the Coast.[verification needed]
  14. ^ Rossi, Matthew (23 April 2014). "Know Your Lore: Gnomes, the inheritors of the future". Engadget. Archived from the original on 31 July 2016. Retrieved 4 July 2016.
  15. ^ "Sherlock Gnomes". Box Office Mojo. Retrieved 5 December 2020.
  16. ^ Paul, Péralte (16 April 2012). "Creating A World Record, One Gnome At A Time". East Atlanta Patch. Archived from the original on 24 September 2012. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  17. ^ "Best Dressed Gnome Parade & Contest (adults & kids), Savannah". Southern Mamas. 2012. Archived from the original on 16 March 2013. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  18. ^ Neff, Martha Mueller (18 May 2011). "5 ways for families to get close to birds". Archived from the original on 17 October 2013. Retrieved 22 May 2012.
  19. ^ Schiff, Stacy (31 July 2006). "Know It All, Can Wikipedia conquer expertise?". The New Yorker. Archived from the original on 30 September 2014. Retrieved 9 October 2016.