B M and L W

(Investigator 8, 1989 September)

Garden gnomes were first manufactured in Germany in the 1880s. A rough estimate for Adelaide suggests that at least 1% of gardens have one or more gnomes.

According to old superstitions gnomes were earth elemental spirits. The other three elemental spirits were:

Fairies – Air elemental spirits.
Undines – Water elemental spirits.
Salamanders – Fire elemental spirits.

Everyman's Encyclopaedia, p. 548 says:

Gnomes (Fr. Gnomes, Ger. Gnomen).
In folklore, are spirits of the earth and mountain, who are supposed to conceal treasure in their subterranean dwellings. The word is supposed to have originated with Paracelsus, who uses it as synonymous with Pygmani, and derives it from Greek gromei, intelligence. They are of both sexes. The male G. is generally represented as a tiny, semi-deformed, bearded creature, clothed in a tight-brown tunic with a peaky wool hood. They are impish and mischievous, but not malignant sprites. It is probable that the fanciful idea of Gs. really originated among Teutonic tribes of normal stature with regard to some dwarfish neighbours. The aborigines of Transylvania were a swarthy race, largely inhabiting caves, and the suggestion is that they may have given rise to the imaginative superstitions. The Transylvanian gypsies fear an ‘earthman’ whom they call pluvush, and who is supposed to steal unbaptised children. (Volume 6, 1931, Dent & Sons, London)

Gnomes were popularly believed in until the 18th century enlightenment. Although invisible they supposedly appeared to children and youths. And many reports of sightings and meetings were indeed made.

Photos of a gnome made in 1917 at Cottingley Glen (England) by teenage girls convinced Sir Williams Crookes (inventor of the cathode ray tube), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (scientist & novelist) and other intelligent men. It seems that people who want to believe the unbelievable will readily suppress their own common sense, skepticism and scientific training.

Recently James Randi (American buster of ghosts, quackery and so on) proved the photos to be fraudulent. The gnome was actually a cut out from a popular, children’s storybook. At last hearing, the girls who perpetrated the hoax were still alive and still lying that the gnome was genuine.

Few people now believe in gnomes. For one thing gnomes were thought to aid the growth of vegetation. But nowadays the growth process of plants is explained by science. Some Fundamentalist Christians still believe in gnomes but relate them to appearances of "the Demons". In general, beliefs tend to slowly die when for generation after generation the only evidence is hearsay, rumor, hoax and lies.

Gnomes used to be believed in throughout Europe. Other continents had variations of the gnome fairytale. If something so popular can decline for mere lack of hard evidence then what about other things that lack hard evidence? Ghosts? Aliens in Flying Saucers? Reincarnation? Clairvoyance? Astrology?

Most householders have no idea as to what their garden gnomes represent. A recent edition of a woman's magazine has this quote: "Most people who love gnomes have a fairyland imagination."

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