A Short History of the Gnomes: Part II

Tuesday , 11, June 2019 3 Comments

Part I discussed Paracelsus’ gnomes and this post details my attempt to find the underlying myths that influenced his gnome concept.  His statement in A Book on Nymphs, Sylphs, Pygmies, and Salamanders, and on the Other Spirits* that he didn’t like the name “pygmie” for earth dwellers as the name had “been given them by people who did not understand them” reveals that his gnomes were not wholly original.

The difficulty in researching Paracelsus’ influences is the lack of written documentation on the old beliefs. Paracelsus lived, learned and wrote in the century after Gutenburg developed the printing press and books were a rare luxury for a small literate population. My guess is the thought of publishing low brow fairy tales and commoner’s myths did not cross anyone’s mind and the relatively limited runs of books were reserved for religion, the classics and popular plays.

I had two avenues of research. Initially, I tried the primary sources searching for clues in Paracelsus’ own writings (this post). When this proved fruitless, I turned towards 19th century documentation of the old fairy tales. Over time, tales that were passed down verbally would change to suit the storyteller’s preferences which were molded by the culture in a certain time and place. Despite that the general essence of fairy tales / myths remains showing a remarkable resilience . Example is Snow White and other popular tales such as Jack and the Beanstalk. My assumption is that description of dwarfs, elves and other mysterious folk captured in the 19th century retained essential characteristics of these folk over the centuries and these essential characteristics predated Paracelsus. I’ll explore that in Part III.

* Information about this book in Part I. An English translation can be found as one of the four treatises in this book.

Primary Sources –

On the Minder’s Sickness and Other Minter’s Diseases

I was fortunate in that the Four Treatises book mentioned above contains Theopharastus von Hohenheim’s (Paracelsus) On the Miner’s Sickness and Other Miner’s Diseases. I dove into it searching for references to gnomes, pygmies or earth mannikins. A significant portion of the text explores the causes of miner’s illnesses in which much of the blame can be laid on the various “spirits” found underground.  It turns out that these spirits are not non-material entities with malicious intent but a gas or essence emitted by the various ores that proved harmful to human beings. There is a little ambiguity in the definition of spirits and this was probably purposeful. There was a strong religious belief that many maladies were caused by demons or malicious entities. Paracelsus was exploring the boundaries between his religious beliefs, the dominant religion of the time, and his personal observations.

This doesn’t help in trying to find what influenced his thinking on gnomes but it does give insight into his “spirit men”.  Originally, I was in error in thinking of spirit in a mystical sense. His spirit men were obviously elemental representations so their spirit designation is more physical than mystical. Of all the spirit people only the salamander gets a mention:

“Therefore know that the transient corpora make a peculiar air in the element fire, with which one can also maintain oneself, just as with the ordinary air which we receive. This is proven by the salamander, which does not maintain itself with the air by means of which man lives, but by the air which is peculiar to the fire. In the power of the element the salamander has its breath, and outside f the fire it has no life.” 

There is a chance I missed a reference to earth dwellers in the text and will keep looking but in the meantime I found another passage that sounded promising:

“The one body is that of the inhabitants of the earth; for this I recommend the Archidoxa and the books Paramiris.” 

Off topic but of interest that Paracelsus believed the different minerals in the earth grew in a manner similar to plants. “The seeds of the metals and the minerals have been sowed in the earth” and “They have their fall and their harvest in order to sprout sooner or later according to the arrangement of the godly order“.



Inhabitants of the earth sounded promising and I started the search for the Archidoxa and the Paramiris books. It turns out that Paracelsus was referencing his own works.  An online English translation from an early 17th century book can be found here.  The book description from the 1660 copy:

Paracelsus, his Archidoxis comprised in ten books : disclosing the genuine way of making quintessences, arcanums, magisteries, elixirs, &c : together with his books of renovation & restauration, of the tincture of the philsophers, of the manual of the philosophical medicinal stone, of the virtues of the members, of the three principles, and finally his seven books of the degrees and compositions, of receipts and natural things / faithfully and plainly Englished, and published by J.H., Oxon

At this time I cannot find references to the spirit people as the Archidoxa is concerned with alchemy. As with his use of the word “spirits” I believe that in his quote “the one body is that of the inhabitants of the earth” inhabitants does not refer to spirit people but was used more in line with “composition”.  A modern translation of the meaning (vice literal translation) may read “the one body that is of the minerals of the earth“.


Textus Paramiri

Detailed references on the “books Paramiris” can be found in The Hermetic and Alchemical Writings of Aureolus Philippus Theophrastus Bombast of Hohenheim, Called Paracelsus the Great, translated by Arthur Edward Waite and printed in the 1890s. The Paramiri were an ongoing series of essays and books concerning the composition of the human body which Paracelsus summarizes here:

 "First, however, it had to be pointed out how man derived his origin from sulphur, mercury, and salt, regarded as metals. This I have sufficiently indicated in 
the Paramirum.."

No mention of gnomes I can find.



Paracelsus was influenced by existing folk lore but it is hard to pinpoint the exact nature of that influence.  Paracelsus’ concerned himself with medicine and alchemy and he used his spirit people to help explain phenomena and to supplement his exploration of elements. He definitely wasn’t interested in the mythology of his spirit people and used them in a rudimentary scientific manner. What I find amazing is the power of the ancient tales. He borrowed from folk tales and essentially re-purposed the old pygmies and earth manikins as his gnomes only for the gnomes to be re-purposed back towards myth and fantasy by those with a similar interest as mine.

I may have missed a reference to spirit people in the Archidoxa and quotes from the Paramiri but the role of Paracelsus’ spirit people had nothing to do with his interest in alchemy or medicine.  As we discovered in Part I, they were used by God as guides to humanity. In the gnome’s case, as a marker that natural resources were available in the region.  Even Paracelsus’ dwarves, monstrous offspring of the gnomes, were created by God to remind humanity of God’s powers. In the dwarves case, they weren’t put on Earth to guard resources, craft them or being monstrous, cause sickness to miners but to remind humanity:

This must also be understood to mean that although we are from Adam yet there are people who are not from Adam, such as giants and dwarfs who are greater and stronger than we. It also means that if you shall not do honest work, God can exterminate you in the root and let you all dry out like fruit on a tree, and create other people thereafter“.

 Thanks to commenter Alastair M who at the end of Part I let us know about Paul Ernst’s short story, The Microscopic Giants. From Alastair M’s description Ernst’s mannikins were very true to the original.

I hope others may be able to find hints and clues in the texts linked to above.











  • John E. Boyle says:

    There are some interesting similarities between these ‘gnomes’ and elementals in the RPG RuneQuest. RQ was designed by Steve Perrin and Ray Turney, and it looks like one or both of them read something written by Paracelsus or a book based on his work.

    Or is Paracelsus’s work so foundational that anything in print today is downstream from him? Fascinating.

    • Scott Cole says:

      At least for RuneQuest it was foundational to their gnomes:

      RuneQuest Monsters 2006:
      “Gnomes are perhaps the most useful of the elementals.
      A gnome’ can carry a person with it as it swims through the soil, provided it is strong enough to lift the person. The ‘ gnome cannot, however, provide air for that person.”

      That’s straight from Paracelsus.

      The modern concept of gnomes is far different from the more elemental nature of his gnomes though.

      • John E. Boyle says:

        I think they had to be coming at this after asking themselves the question: “What is an elemental?”

        RQ does not contain any race that corresponds even roughly to the modern concept of gnomes. The term gnome is used only in reference to earth elementals; elementals in general show Paracelsus’s influence.

        RQ Elementals:

        Earth – Gnome – often a swirling pattern of movement that swims through soil

        Fire – Salamander – an entity made of flame that often resembles a lizard

        Air – Sylph – a dust devil or funnel cloud

        Water – Undine – a mobile waterspout or sentient wave

        Darkness – Shade – a seething pillar of darkness that is cold to the touch

        Note that no elemental resembles a sentient creature unless the summoner has a power/spell that enables them to do so.

        I didn’t realize it until you published part One of this article, but the elementals encountered in my series “The Children of Khetar” will roughly follow the Paracelsus Model.

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