Gnomeo and Juliet: From Fiction to Feri Tales

Gnomeo and Juliet.
Image from top10movie.net.

Having just seen the funny, cute, crazy movie, Gnomeo and Juliet, I was looking up the the history of garden gnomes.

Gnome from
the books.
Image from
Tolkien Gallery.

When I was a kid, we went to a huge used bookstore in Eugene, OR very often as we lived forty miles from Eugene.  In the Smith Family Bookstore, I stumbled upon some old books about gnomes.  The art fascinated me, and the books talked about the ecology and habits of gnomes.  Pure fantasy, of course, but ever since, when the word gnome is mentioned (or Nome, Alaska for that matter), those pictures are what I thought of, even when playing role playing games, where the gnomes are much different.  The books were GnomesSecrets of the Gnomes, The Secret Book of Gnomes and/or related books.  There were several there I looked at and I know Gnomes was one of them, but I’m unsure which other ones.  There was a cartoon series based on them as well, but I don’t think I actually say it, just saw clips.  When I saw the ads for the movie, I thought it was based off these books because the gnomes looked so much like the ones in the book.  I have never seen an actual garden gnome, in person or in a picture, just cartoon ones like the Travelocity “travelling gnome”.  But in the movie, they were definitely ceramic garden gnomes, not the living, breathing humanoids in the books.

Garden gnomes.
Image from The Artistic Garden.

Garden gnomes originally came from Germany, but spread from there.  They were very popular in the 19th century but went out of favour.  They made a comeback at the end of World War II and have been popular ever since, though the looks of them have changed.  In the 60s and 70s, they changed to be modeled more like the seven dwarfs in the Disney movie, but ended up modelling them after the books I remember.  No wonder they looked like those pictures to me.

Wikipedia describes the origins of “gnome” thus:

Paracelsus.
Image from Inky Fool blog.

The word comes from Renaissance Latin gnomus, which first appears in the works of 16th Century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. He is perhaps deriving the term from Latin gēnomos (itself representing a Greek γη-νομος, literally “earth-dweller”). In this case, the omission of the ē is, as the OED calls it, a blunder. Alternatively, the term may be an original invention of Paracelsus.

Paracelsus uses Gnomi as a synonym of Pygmæi, and classifies them as earth elementals. He describes them as two spans high, very reluctant to interact with humans, and able to move through solid earth as easily as humans move through air.

The chthonic spirit has precedents in numerous ancient and medieval mythologies, often guarding mines and precious underground treasures, notably in the Germanic dwarves and the Greek Chalybes, Telchines or Dactyls.

The description of them moving through earth as if through air brought to mind what Cora Anderson said about gnomes in Fifty Years in the Feri Tradition moving through earth like fish in water:

The realm of Fairy (Feri) exists in what we call the etheric region. The name Fairy applies here to certain well-defined classes of nature spirits. These include the Gnomes who live in the soil and within the body of the Earth. There are several races of these charming little people. I will describe one kind of Gnome here. They look like tiny brown human-shaped creatures with blunt pointed caps. These are not caps but the way their little heads are shaped. They are bisexual, but their sexuality is more like that of young boys with some female overtones. They are sexually very active with each other as they release life force into the soil. They seem never to fly about in the air as freely as the Sylphs and Peris, both of which are spirits of the air and look like a child’s idea of miniature angels. Gnomes do move about freely in the earth in all three dimensions like fish in water. The Gnome’s average life span is one hundred and sixty-two years. At the end of this time they shed their very earthy etheric bodies and enter into other Gnomes to be born or change into one of the kinds of water spirits. The Gnome’s body is very close to dense matter. They reproduce by fission and do not become pregnant through sex, which exists among them for its own sake and to vitalize the soil. This type of Gnome is about five inches tall, but there are other spirits. Gnomes take part in decay and recycling of organic matter, including the dead bodies of animals and even ourselves.

Cora Anderson, Grandmaster of Feri
Image from Harpy Books
Taken by Valerie Walker

I doubt Cora took her description from Wil Huygen’s books I saw as a kid, nor from garden gnome designs.  The impression I got reading the book was that she had actually seen them.  The passage below from her book Childhood Memories reinforces this.  The pointed head is the part that makes me wonder on the source of the garden gnomes and Gnome books.  The Greek descriptions of the Pygmæi don’t seem to say anything about the shape of their head.  Cora’s description is much shorter than the Greek description and the description in the Gnome books, though.  Maybe the other descriptions are on of the other types of gnomes she mentions.

A True Fairy Tale by Cora Anderson (excerpt from Childhood Memories copyright 2007 Cora Anderson and Victor E. Anderson)

For most of my childhood, I lived on a small farm in Alabama. My father worked in the coal mines, and we grew corn and vegetables to help make a living. We were very poor and seldom saw any money. Everyday on my way to school, I talked to the flowers, watched the birds build their nests, and played leapfrog over the stones in the small streams. I became so close to nature that I could see the elemental spirits. The fairies and gnomes were my favorites.

We had long conversations. One of my favorite questions was, “Where do you live?” The answer was always the same, “Out of the air, into the air and everywhere.” I played games with them, too. They told me to look for a special stone or flower. Most of the time I found them, but once in a while I heard a thin sweet laugh and the words “April fool”.

At school, I returned to reality and the cold world about me. The children teased me. The teachers ignored me because I had no books or school supplies. Lunchtime was the hardest to bear. Most of the children brought a good lunch. If I had any, it would be cold biscuits without butter or jam. I wished that I had a good lunch. Some of the children had candy they had bought at the general store. The candy looked so delicious—peppermint sticks, all-day suckers, and jawbreakers—all were bright colored and made my mouth water with envy. Once I asked for a bite, and all the children teased me. One girl asked me why my mother didn’t buy me some. This really hurt.

One day when everything went wrong at school, I was especially sad. All the way home from school, I wished for a nickel so I could buy some candy.

That night I had a very strange experience. I lay on my bed, half-awake and half-asleep. I glanced toward the window and saw a most delightful sight—there was the most beautiful creature I had ever seen. Before me was a real fairy. She was about a foot tall and very slender. She looked like a tiny golden girl with blond hair and sparkling blue eyes. I asked her where her wand was, and it appeared in her hand. She spoke in a clear high voice, “Tonight I am your special fairy. Listen carefully to what I say. On your way to school tomorrow, look under the big rock bluff. There you will find a nickel. Take it, buy some candy, and enjoy it.” She smiled and was gone before I could say a word.

The next morning, I remembered the fairy visit. I hurried to the rock bluff. I looked and sure enough, there was the nickel. I felt the presence of my fairy and knew she was smiling. I blew her a kiss and said, “Thank you with all the love a little girl can give.”

An artist’s interpretation
of the four worlds
of Kabbalah and the elements.
Image from Ann Skea’s website.

I find it interesting that Cora talks about how at the end of gnomes’ lifespans, they are reborn as water spirits. She goes on to mention the “order of the elements” and lists them as earth, water, air, and fire.  The order makes sense, since each one is less “physical” than the last.  Also I find it interesting that in Kabbalah, earth is only found in our world, the World of Action, in combination with the other three, but as you go to the upper worlds, the World of Forms is water, the World of Creation is air, and the World of Emanations is fire.  The same order.  Anyway, the mention of the earth spirits (gnomes) being reborn into water spirits right before the mention of the order of the elements made me wonder if it’s a progression or a cycle, though I’m leaning towards progression because she says gnomes reproduce asexually.  So we have gnomes coming from fission from other gnomes, then water spirits being gnomes reborn.  But there’s no mention of where air spirits or fire spirits come from.  I wonder if water spirits are reborn as air spirits and air spirits as fire spirits?

FFF,
~Muninn’s Kiss