The Mysterious Mythology of Garden Gnomes

With their pointed hats and bushy, white beards, just about everyone recognizes a garden gnome when they see one. Gnomes are one of the oldest surviving gardening trends, yet few of us know why. As it turns out, your neighbour’s bizarre, little garden troll has a story steeped in tradition and controversy. Whether you adore these little guys, or you’re in the “gnome-means-no” camp, the history behind them is undeniably interesting.

What the Heck is a Gnome?

Gnomes—those miniature folks with the billy-goat beards—are mythical beings with a strange and interesting background. The word “gnome” comes from the Latin ‘gnomus’ or Greek ‘gnosis’, which have roots in the ancient Greek words for ‘knowledge of hidden treasure’ and ‘earth dweller’. The traditional gnome is closely linked to the mythology of the classical elements (Earth, Fire, Water, and Air) and were said to be the nocturnal protectors of the Earth. Legend has it that gnomes live underground, where they guard the nearby plant life (as well as their personal stashes of buried treasure). Supposedly, rays of sunshine could turn a gnome to stone.

Most folklore that refers to gnome-like beings originate primarily in European countries, like Germany (gnom), Iceland (voettir), Ireland (leprechauns), Switzerland, and France (barbegazi), as well as the countries of Scandinavia (tomte or nisse). However, there are also some references in Japanese culture of a similar being to the European gnome, known as yokai.

According to tradition, gnomes were responsible for a lot of the hidden processes of plant life, and were important symbols to Northern European farmers. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that they become a popular garden ornament in Germany during the mid-1800s, when Phillip Giebel made the first garden gnome from terracotta clay. 

the mysterious mythology of garden gnomes folklore

Rise of the Garden Gnome

Sightings of garden gnomes in Edmonton are relatively rare today, but in their heyday, they were the “must-have” garden accessory. Their popularity spread across Europe and into the United States, where they became highly fashionable for gardening enthusiasts.

Of course, like all trends, the garden gnome has cycled in and out of favour. Garden gnome styles have varied massively from traditional-style clay statuary to made-in-China resin gnomes emblazoned with football team logos. In the popular 2001 French film Amélie, the titular character steals a neighbour’s garden gnome and sends him photographs and postcards of the ornament’s travels “around the world” (this storyline alone is a good enough reason to watch the film, if you haven’t already!).

Gnome Controversies

It’s hard to believe that an innocent-looking gnome could incite strong feelings, but the world is a weird place. While avid collectors of garden gnomes have been around for decades, there have been a few periods in history when stealing gnomes has been a popular pastime for teenage pranksters. There are even subcultures—I wish I was kidding about this—dedicated to “releasing” gnomes into the wild, like the French group Front de Liberation des Nains de Jardins (Garden Gnome Liberation Front) and its Italian counterpart, MALAG. Yes, I’m serious. There is an international conspiracy to return garden gnomes to nature. However, with respect to local garden gnomes, Edmonton appears to be neutral territory.

Gnomes have also been at the centre of class disputes. The Chelsea Flower Show is a highly prestigious English gardening event that went so far as to ban garden gnomes. Organizers reasoned that the gnomes are “a distraction” from the garden designs. In response, pro-gnome activists argued that the rule was “classist snobbery”, as garden gnomes are most popular among working-class gardeners.

the mysterious mythology of garden gnomes

A Gnome for Your Home

Garden gnomes have somehow stuck around, despite many surprising obstacles. Personally, I’ve found that the more I know about them, the more I like them.

If you’re on Team Gnome, your options are endless. You can find a gnome made from solid stone that blends into traditional designs, contemporary fibreglass gnomes engaged in silly activities, even custom garden gnomes for those with specific tastes. 

Ultimately, provided your garden gnome makes you smile, it has served its purpose. While I wouldn’t count on your gnome to work any real magic in your garden, they do bring a charming presence to your outdoor decor. With their stranger-than-fiction history, who knows—you might end up finding some of that buried treasure after all!

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