A Short History of the Gnomes: Part I

Wednesday , 29, May 2019 10 Comments


The first written mention of gnomes has been attributed to Theophrastus von Hohenheim, known as Paracelsus, a 16th century physician and alchemist, in his posthumously published (1566) book,  Ex Libro de Nymphis, Sylvanis, Pygmaeis, Salamandris et Gigantibus, etc..  Many web articles on gnomes mention the book and include brief excerpts on the nature of the little folk and gives credit to Paracelsus for creating the concept of the gnomes but it is more accurate to say that Paracelsus can be credited with the applying the word gnome (actually “gnomi”) to creatures already well known in myths and fables. He states that the common names for gnomi and the other spirit men described in his book “..have been given them by people who did not understand them”. That is, gnomes were already known by other names in contemporary mythology and folklore but Paracelsus’ gnomes were enlisted in service of a theological / scientific argument.

Born in the Swiss county of Schwyz in 1493, Theophrastus was the son of a physician who went on to study the arts, then medicine in Italy at the University of Ferrara. Dissatisfied with his education he traveled throughout Europe, practicing medicine and visiting mines and workshops to expand is knowledge of alchemy. His theories on the causes of disease and experiments in medicine were not well received and most of his books were suppressed. Despite this, he had a good reputation as a physician, especially in the treatment of syphilis, the subject of which became one of only two of his major works to be published in his lifetime. His writing only became well known from the late 16th and into the 17th centuries, especially his works on medicines and alchemy.  The titles of a couple of his writings give insight into his range of expertise to include “Diseases that Deprive Man of His Reason”and “On the Miners’ Sickness” so his treatise on the spirit people (nymphs, salamanders, pygmies/gnomes, etc.) is something of an outlier as it serves as an investigation into nature while attempting to bridge animistic explanations of natural phenomena with his theological beliefs.

When researching this piece, I wanted to go for the primary source but despite excerpts describing Paracelsus’ gnomes scattered here and there, I could not find an English translation. I did find a scan of an original copy online and even tried my hand at translation before a new search term led me to an anthology of four books by Paracelsus, translated into English, titled Four Treatises of Theophrastus Von Hohenheim Called Paracelsus.

Why Paracelsus wrote his treatise on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies and Salamanders.

Mythology and folklore evolved out of man’s need to understand the environment he found himself in. By the 16th century many theologians based their worldview on the Holy Scriptures and if something could not be found in them, it was either evil or did not exist. Creatures such as dwarves, nymphs and salamanders and others resident in folk beliefs were evil. Paracelsus argued that the Holy Scriptures purpose was not to describe everything encountered in the natural world but to provide guidance on humanity’s relationship with God. Since all things came from God the spirit people were placed on earth for specific reasons. First, God created the spirit people so humans would know and appreciate the works of God. Secondly, the spirit people served as guardians: a crude summary is that God scattered natural resources around the earth for use by man but only at a time and place of God’s choosing.  The spirit people would be guardians and sometimes creators of these resources and could be used as a guide.  For example, if people start encountering gnomes, then a source of valuable resources is bound to be close. Once the resource was allowed to be discovered the spirit people would move on (or disappear) as they were no longer needed.

There are evil monsters that are born from time to time.  Just as godly parents can give birth to evil offspring, the gnomes at times give birth to dwarfs: “And although it happens rarely, yet it happened so often and under such marvelous circumstances that their existence is well know and remembered.” As the spirit people serve as guardians of resources, monsters such as dwarfs, giants, sirens and will-o-the-wisps, signify that misfortune is threatening people. When the dwarfs appear this signifies “great poverty among the people, in many parts”.

This is an excellent essay on how Paracelsus’ spirit men tie in with his theology, the dominant theology, old animist beliefs and his medical studies.

The Nature of Paracelsus’ Gnomi

The gnomes are also referred to as mountain people, earth manikins and mountain manikins. They are created similar to man, but do not have a soul. They are clothed and have their own laws and similar institutions to man, but of a cruder nature. The gnomes live and breathe within the earth.  Earth is their medium (chaos) just as air is for humans and water for fish. Evidence of gnomes can be found underground, when humans discover an “attic, vaults, and similar structures, of the height of about a yard”.  They also live in caves and this is why “strange structures occur and are found in such places”. Any interaction between a human and a gnome would be more difficult than between a human and a fish.  One can still reach into the water but the earth serves as a barrier for humans. The treatise does not mention this scenario but Paracelsus’ gnomes could probably cross over into open space but would have to hold their breath, similar to humans diving under water.

Despite the difficulties there were interactions between humans and gnomes: “Thus also, the mountain people have not only been seen, but people saw them, and talked to them, and received money from them, and blows and similar things”.

Man is described as living at the conjunction between two spheres: earth and heaven. This conjunction is called “chaos” by Paracelsus and it is from the chaos that we receive our substance. For the gnomes, the earth is there chaos and water serves as their soil. Since water is the gnome’s soil then they must quench their thirst through other means but as Paracelsus explains: “..if water has been created for us, to quench our thirst, then another water must have been created for them, that we cannot see nor explore”. Drink they must, but drink that which in their world is a drink. Eat they must similarly, according to the contents of their world. One cannot find out more about these things, but only that their world has its own nature, just as ours has”.

Gnomes are small, “of about two spans”, or twice the distance from the tip of a thumb to a forefinger. They wear cloths and “cover their genitalia, but not in the way of our world, in their own way”.  They also have their own law and leaders “according to their inborn nature” and have their own day and night and need for sleep.  Finally, they live in caves and that is the reason why strange structures can be found in them.


Attempt at Translation

Below is a screen shot of a print out that I used to take notes during my translation attempt. At first, it was difficult to decipher much of the old Fraktur script (in use for all printed material in Germany up to 1941). I had issues identifying some Fraktur letters then encountered problems translating terms from 16th Century German and even some Latin into modern English.

My attempted translation below the picture:


Fraktur script


Chapter III

How They Come to Us and Become Visible

How God makes all things is revealed to men that read as the devils and other spirits also search for, so the angels seek to touch man’s heart and such apparitions happen seldom.  But so much is to be believed and to be considered to include these beings also. Not all of us say there are angels or these people will be revealed but in this time, we know of 1. 2. 3. Angels.  Also with the people also God has also presented about with the people too God has also strangled with whom you live to talk,  let’s walk.  And even remind them to talk cattle with each other.

Doesn’t make much sense to me either.

Here is Sigerest’s translation:

Tractatus III

How They Come to Us and Become Visible to Us

All that God has created, he reveals to man and lets come before him, so that man has and attains knowledge of all happenings of the creatures. Thus God has revealed the Devil to man, so that man knows about the Devil, and he has presented the spirits and other matters still more impossible for man to perceive.  The angels in the heaven he has also sent down to man, so that man may really see that God has angles who serve him. Such revelations do occur, but rarely, only as often as is needed to believe and have faith in them.


Over at the WW Blog a couple of maps on a gnome / orc battle concept / story I’m working on.


  • John E. Boyle says:

    Fascinating stuff, Scott. I don’t know much about Paracelsus beyond the name and his prominence as an alchemist. He was more accomplished than I had thought.

    • Scott Cole says:

      It was the combination of trying to understand medical conditions of mine workers and his interest in creating medicines that drove his studies as an alchemist. Fascinating guy. Also saw service as a military surgeon for Venice.

  • TruOcker says:

    Always wondered how gnomes and alchemy were tied in.

  • DmL says:

    Wow. I had not encountered the idea of the earth being the medium of certain creatures. Use that in some of my own works. Nothing new under the sun. Fascinating article!

    • Scott Cole says:

      His spirit people are divided by the elements:

      “Those in the water are nymphs, those in the air are sylphs, those in the earth are pygmies (gnomi), those in the fire salamanders.”

      Here’s an excerpt from the book as he explains his unusual and unique (to this day I would say) concept of creatures dwelling in different mediums:

      “You know that there are four elements: air, water, earth and fire; and you also know that we, men from Adam, stand and walk in air and are surrounded by it as fish by water. As the fish has its abode in water, where water takes for it the place of the air in which it lives, so air takes for man the place of water, in relation to the fish. Thus everything has been created in its element, to walk therein. From this example you understand that the undinae (nymphs) have their abode in water, and the water is given to them as to us the air, and just as we are astonished that they should live in water, they are astonished about our being in the air. Now, the earth is not more than mere chaos to the mountain manikins. For they walk through solid walls, through rock and stones, like a spirit; that is why these things are all mere chaos to them, that is, nothing.”

      In a following paragraph:

      “As in the water, so in the earth: the earth is air to the gnomi; hence they do not suffocate. They do not require our air, we do not theirs. Thus also with the salamanders; fire is their air, as our air our air is. And the sylvestres are closest to us, for they too maintain themselves in our air, and they are exposed to the same kind of death as we, namely: they burn in fire, and we too; they drown in water, and we too; they suffocate in the earth, and we too. For, each remains healthy in his chaos; in the others he dies.”

      And for those that don’t believe in the spirit people:

      “Therefore, you must not be astonished about things that seem incredible to us; to God everything is possible”.

      Also, thank God I didn’t have to try and translate all that….

  • Eric M says:

    Does he mention what salamanders eat?

  • Alastair M says:

    Delighted to find this translation! I stumbled upon the Paracelsus reference to gnomes only a few days ago, in connection with J R R Tolkien’s use of the term “gnome” as referring to someone possessing great knowledge for some of his elves in the earlier of his writings (published only posthumously).

    What especially intrigued me is that Paracelsus’ conception seems reflected in a short story from “Thrilling Wonder Stories” for October 1936 by Paul Ernst, “The Microscopic Giants”. Ernst calls his beings only “little men” and “mannikins”, “a foot and a half high”, which were capable of walking through solid softer rocks and concrete, leaving footprints in the rock. His explanation for this ability was because of their incredible physical density, which meant they passed through the soft rock as if it was akin to deep water, leaving no empty space behind them, however, which is clearly not what Paracelsus believed about “his” gnomes. Ernst did though say his creatures appeared to have no souls, if perhaps only to increase their undoubted menace in his tale.

    • Scott Cole says:

      Thanks for letting us know about Paul Ernst’s story. From your comment I’d say Ernst definitely had Paracelsus’ gnomes in mind. I would argue that the example of Ernst’s mannikins passing through rocks like water is similar to Paracelsus’ concept in which the earth is the gnome’s “chaos” and compares it to air for humans.

      No souls for Paracelsus’ spirit people though he discusses at length their desire to be in “union with man”. Only in this way can they get a soul. Unfortunately, “One must also know that not all of them may be married to us. The water people come first; they are the closest to us. Next after them come the forest people, then the mountain and earth manikins who, however, rarely marry humans and are only obliged to serve them. The vulcans never attempt to enter in union with humans”. He goes on to say that that manikins and vulcans “are considered spirits and not creatures, being looked upon as a mirage only, or as ghosts”. I wonder how much the seemingly impossible thought of spirit people living in and passing through earth and fire as we do air influenced the outcome that they could not be creatures but spirits?

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