“There are hedgehogs that roam, and little gnomes, in an English country garden”- An English Country Garden, Guyler/Griggs
Let’s talk about gnomes. Chances are that if someone said the words ‘garden ornament’ to you, the first image you would think of would be a little fellow with a red pointy hat and a long beard. Gnomes and gardens go together like strawberries and cream- but why gnomes, exactly? What is it about them which has led to their enduring popularity?
In folklore, the gnome has an association with the earth. Like dwarves, they are miners and guardians of subterranean treasures. Gnomes originate in German folktales, and have slowly tunnelled their way into gardens around the world. In the original stories they are characterised as grumpy and solitary creatures, but as time has gone on, they seem to have developed a bawdy sense of humour. These days it is not unknown to find one mooning you from the long grass.
The first ornamental garden gnomes as we understand them today were made in Germany in the early 19th century, and began to spread into French and English gardens by the mid 1800’s. However, garden gnomes go back much further than that.
The alchemist Paracelsus wrote about them in the 1400’s, describing the gnome as a type of Earth spirit. A thousand years before him, wealthy Romans might decorate their gardens with miniature statues of Priapus- a fertility deity most often depicted in classical art caught in the act of showing off his rather considerable endowments.
In fact, there is a fresco of Priapus in the ruins of Pompeii rendered in such magnificent detail and proportion that it has been known to make more sensitive visitors faint on sight. This may be the origin of some of the more anatomically detailed gnomes we find today.
It isn’t all about nudity though- our understanding of garden gnomes also owes a great deal to the Roman idea of the Genius Loci- the spirit of the place. Romans venerated the spirits of places they considered special in some way- those places were said to be the abode of nature spirits. We find the same idea in the Asian practice of making Spirit Houses- miniature dwellings intended as a home for the protective spirit of a specific place.
It seems like some of these traditional beliefs and ideas have survived into modern times- people still put statues of mythological characters in their gardens because somehow it feels right to do it. After all, every garden is a special place to someone, and every garden has a unique atmosphere and feel- the spirit of the place. Perhaps this is why you can still find a gnome peeping out of the greenery in so many gardens in the 21st century.
Find your ideal gnome at Stone Castings.