The Secret History of Gnomes.

The Secret History of Gnomes.
-By Angelique Duncan

When one sees a statue of a garden gnome one would never realize the grand and noble history that they hold. Their beginnings are much loftier than the life they hold now, residing in the suburbs among the daises and St. Augustine.

The name Gnome quite literally means “Earth Dweller” and is synonymous with Pygmaei or as we know the term today, Pygmies. Once believed to stand 3-4 feet tall, masculine, strong in physique with long beards. Their possible history reaches back to the ancient Roman Greco era to a tribe in Greek mythology who were secondary deities who co existed with humans. The Gnomes were considered highly skilled in nature magic. Gnomes were seen as benevolent beings that were intelligent and wise, hard working in manual labor, peaceful in nature yet fierce defenders when necessary. They were the guardians of farmland; gardens and small livestock and forest animals. When lands were under attack they rode upon goat back brandishing spears to drive out the invaders.

In Roman mythology they were considered akin to the Roman fertility god Priapus protector of livestock fruit and gardens and considered very virile. It is believed that Gnomes are depicted consistently as male figures in history and rarely referenced as female in that the Gnomes were defenders of the meek and all things worthy of protection. It is believed they were very protective of their women and would defend them to all cost against predators and intruders, and later in history from humans.

In Celtic and Germanic lore, the Gnomes were a tribe attributed with Earth element magic and were defenders of mines and under ground tunnels. It was believed that gnomes could move through the Earth and breath underground with the same ease their human counterparts do above ground in the air. Some associate Gnomes as descendants of the Dwarves of Germanic and Norse legends for the ability to move underground and the belief that Gnomes were skilled miners. It was thought that they helped to build under ground tunnels to hide treasures and riches of the fae folk after the great invasions of ancient Ireland, and from humans in modern times.

The history and genealogy of the Gnomes is also believed to be traced to the Tomte or Nisse of Scandinavian folklore. The Tomote are sometimes believed to be an incarnation of a deceased ancestor of the home who comes back to defended the children and animals of the estate and would help with chores, particularly gardening and farm work. The Scandinavian folklore of the Tomote gave rise to the legend of and has associations with the winter elves who appear at Yule.

The size of the Gnomes is widely accepted as a physical attribute, although some historians and mythologist suggest that their representation of small size was more figurative than literal in that in their possible origins they came form lesser spirits or gods. The modern depiction of Gnomes in literature is significantly smaller than what is written in ancient mythology. The modern accepted stature of a Gnome is 2-3 feet tall and in many instances as short as 1 foot tall.

One theory between folklorist and mythologist is that Gnomes adapted to the world around them. That the Gnomes became smaller to better navigate an ever-increasing population of humans and development. Shape shifting to a smaller size helps to keep them hidden. Others believe that the gradual change of Gnomes appearance was the result of the Christian church marginalizing pagan deities through depictions of art and restructuring of legends to aid in making Christianity more palatable to Pagans. Many descriptions of Pagan deities through the Christian church had their attributes downplayed and magical properties lessened. Benevolent entities and magical creatures of Pagan nature religions were often diminished from noble in spirit to mischievous sometimes comical and in most instances considered dangerous as the Church weaned the populace from their previous beliefs to Christianity. By making these entities appear small made them seem less powerful than the Church and what it’s religious deities had to offer. Stories of Gnomes were homogenized more closely with legend of Dwarves and described as irritable, impatient, war like and ugly in appearance. The Gnomes as stoic guardians eventually faded into the stuff of myths.

The use of small statues of Gartenzwege or garden dwarf has remained tremendously popular through out Europe since the 1600’s. Folks would display a small porcelain statue of a Gnome in there home as a protector. Tying to the legends of the Tomte. It was common practice to keep either a wooden, terracotta or ceramic Gnome in ones garden to act as a guardian to discourage nighttime intruders invading ones crops. A popular folk tale in the 1970’s was that Gnome statues secretly came to life after dark working their gardens, shooing away pests. When the sun rose they returned to their post, turning back to stone.

The industry for lawn statues grew in time with demand for garden gnomes becoming hugely popular in pre Word War II Germany. Most were produced from hand sculpted molds, however declined post war to only a few original family manufacturers. They are now mass- produced all over the world using cheaper materials. The depiction has changed as well. Once the imagery was more sober and wise in appearance however after release of Disney’s ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, Gnome statues took on the more rounded chubby appearance and became seen as more comical nature. Gnomes have had many depictions in literature and often interchangeable to different small statured magical species, affecting their representation in art and statuary.

Till this day Gnomes enjoy popularity in culture. Garden Gnomes have become a central figure in games and pranks known as “gnoming”. One incarnation of “gnoming” is to steal a Gnome from it’s garden and place it randomly in another so that the Gnome travels the neighborhood, often appearing in unconventional places like on rooftops or inside mailboxes. Another popular fad is to send a gnome with a note attached to travel around the world to see how far it will go and if it will return back to it’s previous location. Some Gnomes become victims of theft that results in a ransom note listing bizarre demands.

Perhaps the existence of Gnome like creatures has existed in so many cultures and mythologies due to their ability to travel great distances undetected under ground. Maybe those cheery faced, pointy hat statues decorating the lawns of the sub-burbs still enjoy late night adventures. Is it possible the reason the petunias were spared from the grasshoppers as the result of the fierce protection of ones garden Gnome? Maybe. The only one who knows is the Gnome, and he is stone faced and isn’t speaking.

Angelique Duncan is proprietor of Twilight Faerie Nostalgic and Capricious Objects. Check out her artist page to find links to her shops and vintage inspired traditional holiday art. Visit again next month for more traditions and folklore.

The Legend of the Christmas Spider

The Legend of the Christmas Spider-By Angelique Duncan

One of our cultures most common holiday customs comes from a very old German and Ukrainian legend of one of the tiniest and misunderstood of creatures. The tradition of covering ones holiday tree in shiny sparkly tinsel originates from the Legend of the Christmas Spider. There are different versions of the legend however the root of the story is mostly the same across cultures.

Once upon a time a gentle mother was busily cleaning the house for the most wonderful day of the year. Not a speck of dust was left. Even the spiders had left their cozy corner in the ceiling and had fled to the attic to avoid the housewife’s busy cleaning.

At last, it was Christmas Eve. The tree was decorated and waiting for the children to see it. The poor spiders were dismayed, for they could not see the tree, or the presents that waited for morning. The oldest and wisest spider suggested that perhaps they could peep through the crack in the door to see this glorious sight. Pretty soon all was quiet, so the spiders quickly crept into the room. The tree towered so high that they couldn’t see the ornaments on top. In fact, the little spiders’ eyes were so small that they could only see one ornament at a time. They all scurried up the trunk, out along each branch, filled with a happy wonder at the glittering beauty. The spiders loved the Christmas tree. All night long, they danced in the branches, and every place they went left a trail of dusty, gray web. When at last they had inspected every bit of the Christmas tree, it was shrouded in the dusty gray of spider webs.

In one version of the story the spiders realized what they had done and were panicked to undo what they had done to the tree and feared once it was discovered they all would be killed. They prayed for mercy as they tried to figure out how to fix what they had done. An angel appeared in answer to their prayer. She offered that one spider would have to be sacrificed to save the rest. The oldest wisest spider offered himself since it had been his instigating that brought the spiders to this dilemma. The angel turned the spider to sparkling ice and transformed the webs into glittery strands of shiny metal. The spiders were in awe that what they had done had made the tree even more beautiful.

This story is told in versions with different entities transforming the webs to silver and gold. Some cultures tell that it was Santa Clause or Father Christmas who upon discovering the web covered tree felt sympathy for the spiders, and for the housewife who had worked so hard on decorating the tree. He touched his hand to the web and transformed it to what we now know as tinsel. The story is also told in a version that arrived much later in history that the baby Jesus helped the spiders and transformed the webs.

Another telling of the Christmas Spider legend from the Czech republic tells that a poor woman who could not afford traditional holiday decorations or gifts yet wanted to provide something beautiful for her children. So she went to the woods and found a tree to put up in their home. She spent the day polishing and cleaning her humble home in hopes of brightening their meager holiday. As she swept her floors a spider narrowly escaped the broom. The women noticed the spider and felt sorry for it. Rather than kill the spider or toss it outside into the winter cold she let it live but asked that she retreat to the attic out of site. In gratitude for the woman’s kindness and mercy, the spider crept down from the attic and labored through the night spinning beautiful webs onto each branch. On Christmas morning the sun shone through the window and hit the webs turning them into silver. The women and her children woke to find the magnificently decorated tree and the exhausted spider on a branch. The story spread and from then on a spider on ones tree was seen as a sign of good fortune.

One rendition of the legend tells that a woodsman went to the woods to cut his tree before a pending snowstorm. A spider had taken shelter in the branches in hopes to avoid the cold and had fallen asleep. When the spider awoke it found it had been moved inside. Seeing the blizzard of snow falling outside the window the spider was overwhelmed with gratitude to the woodsman for bringing him into his warm home. The spider spun decorative webs over the tree in pure joy. When the sun rose the next morning the webs turned to silver glistening on the branches. The woodsman was so pleased with the silver the spider had spun he revered the spider as a token of fortune and each year there after when bring in the annual holiday tree he would collect a spider to shelter the winter in it’s branches.

The Victorians would hang one small ornate spider on their Christmas trees to up hold the tradition and as a reminder of where tinsel came from. This tradition like so many others has fallen to the wayside and has become buried in obscurity of the lost history of the winter holidays. So when your decorating your holiday trees this year, hang a little tinsel in honor of its origin. And when you’re cleaning your home before your holiday company arrives, if you see a spider go scampering past your broom have mercy and spare its fragile little life. It just wants to stay warm and the act of holiday kindness may just bring your home good fortune.

Angelique Duncan is proprietor of Twilight Faerie Nostalgic and Capricious Objects. Check out her artist page to find links to her shops and vintage inspired traditional holiday art. Visit again next month for more traditions and folklore.

The Giving of Thanks

The Giving of Thanks-By Angelique Duncan

Most of us have been told since elementary school the Thanksgiving story. That in November 1631 the early migrants from Europe to North America celebrated the “first” Thanksgiving feast after surviving the perils of arriving to their new home on the Mayflower. The story is told that the pilgrims were grateful for their first successful corn crop and for the help of the Wampanoag Indians for their generosity. William Bradford called for a grand feast of celebration and thanks. This story stuck and was passed on for generations and is the commonly held legend today.

However this story although some what based in factual events is highly disputed by historians for it’s complete accuracy of how we have arrived at the annual November holiday feast. A commonly accepted theory among historians is that the story of Thanksgiving is an amalgamation of many first feast that celebrated migrations to North America combined with varied religious and cultural influences.

Fasting followed by feast days had long been a practice of Puritans in Europe as part of Reformation that eliminated many more elaborate festive church holidays that had Pagan roots. The legend of the Thanksgiving feasts celebrated in North America of the 1600’s combined elements of the religious observances of the church to give gratitude to God for deliverance while incorporating the elements of ancient harvest festivals celebrating bountiful crops. Through out the colonies there had been many First feasts or Thanksgiving celebrations in honor of a multitude of hardships over come. giving debate to the accuracy that Mayflower pilgrims were indeed the first to hold a Thanksgiving feast in North America. Given the similarities of Thanksgiving feast and that of Harvest festivals many historians believe that these feasts were most likely held in the months of August and September. Thus, coinciding traditional celebration dates of Lammas and the Autumn Equinox, a more likely time to finish reaping crops for the season in New England.

George Washington declaring November 26, 1789 as a public day of gratitude issued the first official proclamation of a unified national holiday for Thanksgiving. However for decades after each state celebrated Thanksgivings on different dates with out unified celebration. Later President Lincoln issued a proclamation that a national day of Thanksgiving would be recognized on the last Thursday of November in an effort to foster the union of North and South during the civil war. It would not be until 1941 that Franklin D Roosevelt would declare the fourth Thursday in November to be the official national holiday of Thanksgiving that we celebrate today. The measure was an effort to bolster the economy and give an earlier start to what we now recognize as the winter holiday season proceeding the Christmas Holiday.

The traditional meal and foods associated with our modern celebration are closer to the Victorians Thanksgiving celebrations with interpretations of what the Pilgrims meal might have been. Our current Thanksgiving practice with emphasis on family, neighbors and unity surrounding a traditional family meal arose from a 30-year letter writing campaign by Mrs. Sarah Josepha Hale. It is widely believed that her pleas for a national day observing family and unity is what encouraged Abraham Lincoln to proclaim the national holiday on a uniform day for the country. It is from the writings of Victorian women to periodicals and newspapers of the their time that the recipes we now know became a mainstay to the celebratory meal. As well, the traditional potted mums, brightly colored centerpieces and horn o plenty marking the Thanksgiving season were the creation of the Victorians rather than the décor of pilgrims. What had once been a day celebrating the harvest that transformed to a somber day of deliverance and prayer, had become a festive day to unify family and celebrate home.

The Thanksgiving holiday as a day to celebrate family was further reinforced in importance in American culture after World War Two ended and soldiers returned home from war. The holiday took greater importance to emphasize family and a unified feast after so many had been separated from family shipped over seas, and was welcomed after the rationing of goods encouraged by the war effort. The nation collectively celebrated the greatness of the nation in gratitude of winning the noble cause of a World War.

Whether you are celebrating the bountiful harvest, acknowledging hardships over come or celebrating the gathering of family and friends, be grateful. During the day-to-day monotony and frustrations of life it is easy to forget how much we have to be grateful for. Count your blessings and all that you have to be thankful for.

Angelique Duncan is proprietor of Twilight Faerie Nostalgic and Capricious Objects. Check out her artist page to find links to her shops and vintage inspired traditional holiday art. Visit again next month for more traditions and folklore.