Before cracking on with the origin of gnomes it might well be worth reading the article What’s In a Gnome just to make sure we are all talking about the same thing. Because this page is quite long I have made it just about gnomes in the abstract, having another page about the history of garden gnomes.
The oldest surviving work containing the word gnome is in a book by the 16th century physician and alchemist Paracelcus. The word gnome is derived from the from Latin gēnomos, in turn derived from the Greek γη-νομος, literally ‘earth-dweller’. Whether Paracelcus made the name up or was quoting earlier (and presumably lost) sources is open to debate. I think it likely he was quoting earlier sources simply because a good doctor (and, for his time, he was an extremely good doctor) generally does not just make stuff up.
The garden gnome of which we all know is based to a large extent on the gnomes of Scandinavian folklore. These gnomes had different names depending on which part of Scandinavia you come from and evolved over time as well. Originally they were ancestral spirits, then they became associated with the winter solstice and offered porridge with butter on it (and they would take umbrage if they didn’t get it) Later still they evolved into the Santa type creatures complete with red hat in the way popularised by Jenny Nyström in the late 1800s. The question is where did these early Scandinavian gnomes come from?
Some say these later Scandinavian gnome were influenced by genuine Bavarian miners who were short (in order to fit through small tunnels) and wore pointy red hats stuffed with wadding to protect them from falling rocks. It has also been suggested that the hats worked like a sort of antenna letting the miners know when they roof was getting too low. Others say that these miners were originally gold and silver miners from Cappadocia in Turkey which would be nice since that is only a couple of hundred miles from the famous Turkish ‘fairy chimneys’ which look a bit like gnomes hats. Some say that the reason that witches and wizards have pointy hats is because they learnt their craft from the gnomes but we are in danger of wandering off the point now.
Some say that the garden gnome was derived from the ancient Greek god Priapus, son of Aphrodite. Because of the enormous size of his ‘wedding vegetables’ Priapus was god of (amongst other things) fertility. There is a 3rd century BC poem by Leonidas of Tarentum that suggests that a statue of Priapus was set atop a farm wall to benefit and guard the crops. A fresco from the House of the Vetti in pompeii shows Priapus wearing a Phrygian cap (of more later) and during the intervening years his most outstanding feature shrunk to more manageable proportions and he become the gnome we know (and some of us love) today.
Some say that the pointy red hat found on garden gnomes is a Phrygian cap. This cap originated in Phrygia (in what is now western Turkey) and to the ancient Greeks was a symbol of eastern mysticism, much in evidence in the cult of Mithras. Later the hat came to represent liberty, first with freed roman slaves, (much) later the French revolution and nowadays it is still used in some of the Seals of the United States senate and the US army.
In Africa there are many tales of small people or spirits, known as Chitsimbakazi, Duruma, or just ‘The Little Ancient Ones.’ Legend has it that if you find one of these creatures and wrestle it, it will give you its treasure. Similar stories exist concerning European gnomes. A not too dissimilar legend is from Brazil concerning the saci gnome. A red hatted, pipe smoking, one legged prankster who will grant you a wish if you grab his red hat. Unfortunately the hat smells so bad you might never get the smell off your hands. Portucal has a similar legend concerning a similar being, the Trasgo who could also appear and disappear at will because of the magic in his hat.
Maybe Jean Yves Jouannais is right when in his book Des Nains, Des Jardins (of the gnomes of the gardens) he suggests that gnomes are part of the collective unconscious. What do you think?