March 27, 2019

Word of the Month - G is for Gnome

        My theme for this year’s April A-Z Blog Challenge is fantastical creatures, celebrating my upcoming book, On the Virtues of Beasts of the Realms of Imagination, which will be released by the end of the year.  Please check out my Kickstarter Campaign for the project!

        Gnomes are a bit difficult to define, since they began as elementals of earth but have since morphed into guardians of gardens.  For that reason I wouldn’t have deliberately chosen gnomes to feature in my bestiary, but I had this illustration of a little being, and the question is, what is he?  Not an elf; he’s too stolid and earthy.  Not a dwarf; he’s clearly a denizen of the forest, not a miner and mechanic.  Not a brownie or tomte; he’s in nature, not domestic.  Not a goblin; he’s clearly benign.  Not a pixie, or a fairy, or exactly anything else that sprang to mind.  I imagined him in the illustration without knowing what he was, only that there should be lots of varied creatures going about their business in a magical forest by a magical tree.  And so the best identity I could come up with for him was a gnome, even though gnomes, as I said, are a bit hard to define.  Maybe that’s really precisely why he is a gnome: because he’s a bit hard to define, too.
        He’s not a bad illustration of one of the primary characteristics of European fantasy folk: they tend to morph and blend and shift traits over the centuries, so that the entire population of elves, fairies, farm and household spirits, little folk, and non-human-humanoids gets pretty hard to tease out.  That’s okay.  If you ever meet one you can try asking, politely, what it is, but unless you get a clear answer, you’ll just have to make your best guess.  And hope it doesn’t get offended.

        The other creature representing G in my bestiary is the much easier to define griffin.  But the alphabet of mythical creatures doesn’t stop there.  You have to click the link to read 
Then click through further to read more about the griffin.

        Although this is not quite the last post of the month,  the Word of the Month for March is gnome, which has a very interesting history.  The word gnomus, meaning an elemental spirit of earth, was coined in the early sixteenth century by Paracelsus, in a work that was not published until 1566, after his death.  Paracelsus was the Swiss alchemist who gave names to the elementals of earth, water, fire, and air, and he imagined earth elementals as being about a foot tall and able to move through earth as humans move through air.  The word gnome entered English around 1712, by way of French.  It is generally accepted that Paracelsus came up with the word gnomus under the inspiration of the Greek genomos, meaning “earth-dweller.”  Many scholars believe he left out the E by mistake, but it’s possible that he was also influenced by the Greek gnome, which meant “judgement, the opinion of wise men.”
        That Greek root is related to the English words know and knowledge, as well as uncouth, which originally meant something “unknown”.  The Latin version from the same root gave us notify (“letting someone know”), and notorious (“well-known”), as well as ignorant (“not knowing”) and ignore ("choosing not to know”).  As for gnome, it has another English
definition which you never run into any more: “aphorism”, which is clearly “the opinion of wise men” just as it should be.  You may sometimes encounter the adjectival form gnomic, and gnomes, if they aren’t just a typo by Paracelsus, are also related to the knowledge of the gnostic and the uncertainty of the agnostic.
        I may not have known what my little person is, but clearly he knows plenty.

[Picture: detail and full image of Tree Palace, rubber block print by AEGN, 2010 (sold out).]


Anne Young said...

Visiting from A to Z. I am quite convinced you illustrated a gnome :)


Kristin said...

Whatever you do don't ask him (are gnomes always male?) He will surely b offended.

Antoinette said...

So interesting. I enjoy my little gnomes in the garden.

Liz Brownlee said...

this is an interesting theme! He definitely looks like a little old gnome going home!

Deborah Weber said...

Oh dear, clearly there is more to these humanoid beings than I thought. I'm likely to be one of those bumbling fools misidentifying the gnome and inadvertently offending everyone. Best just to nod hello, smile, and withdraw quietly if I can.

I loved delving into your collection of knowledge about griffins. I think they're one of my favorite creatures and am always drawn to those medieval manuscript illustrations, but I had absolutely no idea their existence is credited to 3000 BCE.

I love your carving - utterly delightful.

Beth Lapin said...

Ah, I remember a gnome from my childhood, hand-carved and painted that someone brought back from a trip to somewhere...



Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Anne, I'm relieved to have my hunch corroborated!

Kristin, that's a very interesting question about whether gnomes are always male. I think not, but maybe the females are just of a more shy and retiring nature so that we don't see them as often.

Antoinette, thanks for commenting. I don't have gnomes in my garden. I actually favor little frog sculptures. =)

Liz, I see what you did there, you incorrigible poet, you: a gnome going home...

Deborah, it's almost impossible to get the correct etiquette with Little People. Some are offended if you acknowledge them at all, while others are offended if you don't. Some are offended if you don't offer them gifts, while others are offended if you do. So I reckon you just do the best you can with common courtesy and hope it's enough... good thing the occasion has never actually arisen! I'm glad you enjoyed the griffins. They're one of my favorites, too.

Beth, your hand-carved gnome was probably from Scandinavia, I bet. I've seen some really charming ones from there.

Vidya Sury said...

I have definitely wondered why gnomes are not female. I love your description though and I did not know the other meaning for the word gnome! Interesting. Nice to meet you Anne (thank you for visiting my blog at