Tracing their origins back to the fascination with magic and alchemy that coincided with the Renaissance, gnomes have become a staple of both fantasy and folklore, although their exact description varies significantly. The only real consistency across all accounts is that gnomes are diminutive humanoids that live underground.
The term ‘gnome’ comes from the Latin gnomus, an invention of the 16th century physician Paracelsus. A noted pioneer of renaissance medicine, Paracelsus was also an enthusiastic diviner, astrologer and alchemist. It was here that he first described gnomes, identifying them as one of the four elemental beings that represented each of the Empedoclean elements of earth, fire, water and air. Gnomes represented earth, alongside undine (water), sylph (air) and salamanders (fire). While modern parlance would call these beings elementals, Paracelsus did not use that term, instead describing them as something part way between an animal and a spirit.
Invisible to humans, they otherwise were physical beings, possessing humanoid bodies and eating, sleeping and wearing clothes like a human would. Each can move through their own element freely, allowing gnomes to pass through rocks, walls and soil effortlessly. They would remain healthy when surrounded by their particular element, but would sicken and die when exposed to others.
The description of each elemental appears to have drawn on older mythologies for inspiration, with gnomes seemingly influenced by the pygmies of Greek mythology. Featuring in the Iliad, the pygmies were described as being short (less than three spans, or around 27 inches, in height) and living in a remote mountainous region, where they were frequently beset by cranes. The pygmies would raid the clifftop homes of the cranes, armed with bows and riding rams or goats, devouring eggs and chicks so that they could not grow into adult birds to further plague them. This ongoing feud was said to have been triggered by the queen of the pygmies, Gerana, foolishly boasting that she was more beautiful than the goddess Hera, who turned her into a crane in retaliation. The battle between the pygmies and the birds was a popular topic for artists and appears frequently on red-figure pottery.
Following their creation in Renaissance Latin, gnomes became a popular subject for 18th century fairy tales and romanticism, their traits often changing to suit the needs of the writer but maintaining their diminutive stature and close association with earth. The English poet Alexander Pope described them in his mock-heroic epic poem The Rape of the Lock as having been prudish women in a former life, now cursed to spend eternity watching over other prudish women. In many other Romanticist stories gnomes are largely synonymous with goblins.
By the 19th century, gnomes were a staple of fantasy and fairy tale fiction, often described as a chthonic antithesis to fairies, ugly, slow and associated with darkness and underground places as opposed to fairies and their associations with nature, lights and beauty. As they became more frequently featured in fairy tales the term gnome became blurred, often meaning simply ‘little people’ and frequently similar in description to what had previously been distinct beings such as hobgoblins, kobolds, brownies and domestic spirits.
Few people consider gnomes a real phenomenon, but that hasn’t stopped reported sightings over the years. One of the most well-documented cases in the UK comes from 1979, where a group of children reported witnessing a bizarre procession of beings in the grounds of Wollaton Park, Nottingham. The group claimed to have seen a column of thirty tiny blue cars, each carrying a gnomish driver and a passenger wearing yellow tights, blue clothes and bobble hats. The story received significant media coverage, but no further sightings were ever reported. A ‘Fairy Census’, carried out by the Faery Investigation Society in 2014, received over 450 responses, a portion of which described sightings of gnomes.
Accounts of creatures resembling gnomes are also relatively frequent in Central America, where they are known as duendes. Standing 2-3 feet in height and wearing wide-brimmed, pointed hats and animal pelt clothing, they are believed to possess a number of magical abilities, including invisibility and shape-changing. While the gnomes of European folklore are generally benevolent, duendes are considered malicious tricksters at best, violent thieves and murderers at worst.
Duendes received significant media coverage in 2008 after a video reportedly showing one was circulated online after it was shot by a group of teenagers in the town of Güemes, Argentina. The grainy footage shows what appears to be a small, humanoid creature walking with a strange, sideways gait. There remains significant controversy regarding what the footage really depicts, or whether it was a simple hoax. To judge for yourself, the clip can be viewed below.
Similar sightings were reported in 2011 in the town of Suncho Corral, also in Argentina. A creature believed by locals to be a duende was blamed for a wave of vicious attacks on children and the elderly, often seeking out victims that were walking alone at night. They would be violently shoved to the ground before undergoing a violent beating from the gnome, sometimes to the point of unconsciousness. The similarity to the likely modus operandi of a human attacker shouldn’t be understated, and there is a clear possibility of mistaken identity coupled with public hysteria being responsible for reports of a duende.
A third case from Argentina, also in 2011, came from a woman in the town of Santa Fe after she noticed her infant son had begun acting strangely, talking to and playing with an apparent imaginary friend. While recording some of this behaviour, a small, humanoid creature can be seen running from behind her son and disappearing behind furniture. The woman described the creature as emitting a foul smell and causing electric interference which can be seen in the footage (although another explanation is that the interference is as a result of doctoring the footage). She claimed that multiple gnomes inhabited their house and regularly interacted with her son, seemingly overall benign other than emitting horrible screams late at night. Many viewers (including myself) consider the footage to be clearly hoaxed, but you can see for yourself below.
A different version of this article appeared on folklorethursday.com in October 2019.