Tuesday, April 11, 2023

Gnome Mythology

I have a much longer article about the gnomes or zwerg as they are called in Germany in my discussion on Snow White.  Also, I answer some of the most common internet questions about gnomes at the end of this article.

“Once a woman was suffering through a difficult labor alone, when the zwerg that lived underneath her home appeared and served as her midwife, easing her pain and helping her give birth.  (Franz Leibing, 1868)” 

This little memorate of a fairy living underneath a German lady’s home, who has clearly come to care about her, illustrates perhaps the most important thing about the fairies, they are humanities neighbors. Garden gnomes or Gartenzwerge, as they are known in Germany from which they came, were named such because they didn’t live in some distant land, but because they frequently inhabited our gardens. Here these zwerg could bless the crops to grow in abundance or could steal the peas, as they so frequently did.

The German folklorist Grasse (1868) noted that in Wilstermarsch Germany: "Every morning, the housemaids would spill milk for the underground people. Beer and crumbs from the table were also offered to them in a similar way. If the milk wasn't offered, the underground people would steal it. 

People wanted them happy, for everywhere they went they caused the beer brewed better. In Alversdorf, the underground people would steal pots and kettles, and cause other mischiefs. Yet they also blessed people's cattle to never become sick [cattle were a primary means of wealth, so this mattered a lot]. They also left magical pots for people which caused the seeds held in them to grow faster, milk gathered into them to churn richer, and water held in them to make those who drank from them healthier" 

It makes sense that humans would share their food with the zwerg, for fairies needed human food in many tales, or at least food prepared using human ovens and or utensils. 

These zwerg were mischievous to be certain, and could even be dangerous, for as with all fairies and humans there was a contrast between individuals. On the whole, however, they were helpful creatures, not just of the woods, but of the more beautiful lands around our homes and villages. 

the Zwerg were constantly seeking out human food and cooking tools. This connection through food helped to form strong bonds between the humans and the fairies. In one story;  


A zwerg would frequently borrow a pot from a farmer. Once when she came to borrow the pot to boil some potatoes the farmer noticed that she was pregnant and mentioned he would be interested in standing godfather for the baby. Later the zwerg’s husband came and formally asked the farmer to be the godfather to his and his wife’s child. 

Later the farmer grew nervous about the prospect of being a fairy’s godfather and went to the pastor for council. The pastor told him that he had to stand godfather, since one couldn’t rescind the offer to do so. So the farmer went to the baptism of the baby zwerg and the feast in the mountain. As he was leaving the zwerg asked him to look behind the door, where he found garbage, which they asked him to sweep up and carry home with him. Annoyed he did so, but to his joy he discovered that the garbage had turned to gold when he got home. 

Zwerg gave people blessings in return for the food and drink that they shared. Yet, because they were our neighbors they might also share their food with people. It was common for a man to be plowing at the edge of his field, in the middle of nowhere, when he smelled some delicious cakes being cooked. He commented on how much he would enjoy those cakes, and when he’d plowed back to the same spot he found a plate with an offering of the cakes upon them, which he ate and thanked the zwerg for the meal. 

I find these tales of humans interacting with the fairies like neighbors absolutely enchanting. 

A few final notes

In addition to gnome zwerg is often translated into dwarf in English. As in Snow White and the Seven Zwerg. 

The zwerg’s red hats are what they use to turn invisible, so when they stole people’s peas, the people would use sticks to try to knock their hats off so they could see them.

Breaking these zwerg down is more complex than we have time for, and so it will need to be done in a future video, along with the darker side of zwerg and dwarves. 

Learn more about Snow White and the Seven Zwerg

What are gnomes? - Gnomes are zwerg in German fairy tales, the same as the 'dwarves' who helped Snow White. They are a synchronization of Norse dwarves and Celtic fairies. 

What do gnomes do? - Gnomes obviously do a lot of things, although they love dancing and celebrating. Indeed, they seemed to have so much fun most of the time that some people wished to marry a gnome and be happy, and some people even did marry gnomes. They would often give good presents to their nieces and nephews after this. Some gnomes liked to mine, many would bless gardens, or on occasion steal from them. Because of the diversity of the things they did it is difficult to come up with a comprehensive answer for "what do gnomes do?"

What is the story behind gnomes? - If you are wondering about garden gnomes, the story is that gnomes or zwerg as they were called, could bless gardens to grow better, but also might steal form them. If you are wondering about the Dungeons and Dragons and World of Warcraft gnomes, the story behind gnomes is that they were spirits created by alchemists. It is this connection with alchemists that makes them tinkers and researchers in these games. Keep in mind that garden gnome is actually a bad translation of zwerg, so the alchemical gnomes and the garden or fairy gnomes have nothing to do with each other in mythology. 

What is the meaning behind gnomes? There are many, as the zwerg that gnome was translated from could be tutelary spirits of the land, they could be a separate set of magical people, they could be semi-divine beings in old pagan religions. 

Gnomes what are they? I feel like I've answered this already.

What is the meaning of garden gnomes? It is difficult to say what the original meaning was. They started being made in the 17th century, a time when many people began to amuse themselves by writing stories of fairies and decorating with fairy related items. So it may just be that someone thought they were fun decorations, a call back to the folklore of creatures that helped people in their homes, gardens, and farms.