The Unexplained: The mysterious reign of the hermit gnomes

Some of the early gnomes who guarded a garden were real people.

In the 1800s, wealthy landowners started recruiting real-life humans to serve as protectors and guardians in their gardens.  Image from Medium.

Gnomes first appear in history in ancient Rome.  They have always been considered good luck.  There, small statues of gods became popular to ward off evil spirits.  Their presence in gardens was insurance for a good harvest.  At some point, the little god statues morphed into stranger characters, with coarser features.

In the Renaissance, this was helped along by a Swiss alchemist, Paracelsus.  He had the idea that the statues protecting gardens had spirit natures.  They slept during the day and came out at night to work magic and help plants grow.  His beliefs about these garden creatures caused them to turn into grotesqueries.  They became smaller, craggy-faced, and sometimes hunchbacked.  The statues of these grotesqueries became highly sought-after throughout Europe.

Sara Marie Hogg

A German sculptor, Phillip Griebel, learned of a demand for these statues, so he perfected the form of the gnome, adding colorful clothing and hats, and attitudes. His gnomes were made of terracotta, from molds, which he later fired. They were quite lovely and intriguing.  His work was so popular that he turned his attention to the production of gnomes exclusively.  Wealthy European landowners grabbed them up and hauled them back to their estates to protect and enhance their gardens.

When Sir Charles Isham saw some of the German gnomes, he brought some back to England and started the trend there  The Griebel family continues to have a statuary business in Germany to this very day, because of earlier successes—probably due to gnomes.

Not long after the arrival of gnome statuary in the British Isles, an unexplained mystery cropped up.  Why?  No one knows why or how it started.  It is somewhat mind-boggling.  There, in the 1800s, wealthy landowners started recruiting real-life humans to serve as protectors and guardians in their gardens.  They sought out gnome-like hermits—living ornaments if you will – to put on their grand estates.  It was a bizarre display of status and wealth.  The human ornaments were preferred to have an air of eccentricity, to be dour-looking, non-engaging.  They were required to wear long robes, grow long beards, hair, and fingernails.

The large, living gnomes were also required to stay for several years—there was a contract.  If the hermit left, he would not be compensated.  An odd hut or a rustic shack was built for the hermit.  It was displayed with prominence and great care went into the design.  The hermit was provided with meals from the kitchen of the estate.

Often, if no hermit was available to serve as a kind of estate actor, a hut was built anyway, in a place of prominence.  It was in plain sight for guests and passersby.  There was no occupant, yet.  Elaborate excuses were made for the absence of the hermit:  He has been called away.  He was taken ill at the last minute.  He just left. You just missed him.

The hermits were instructed to drape themselves in an aura of melancholy.  Melancholy reached its height of popularity in the Edwardian Era of England.  The hermit/actors were most popular in England but the custom traveled to Scotland and Ireland as well.  They dressed like druids, in long robes, and were sometimes displayed seated silently at a crude table with an hourglass, spectacles, and often a human skull.  One must wonder where the skull came from—real or an artistic creation?

A wealthy estate owner, Charles Hamilton put an advertisement out for his garden hermit. He would give the hermit 700 pounds (a fortune at the time) for seven years of service.  Hamilton’s ad basically stated:  the hermit… would be provided with a Bible, optical glasses, mat for his feet, hassock for his pillow, an hourglass for a timepiece, water for his beverage, food from the house.  He must wear a camlet robe, and never, under any circumstances, must he cut his hair, beard, or nails, stray beyond the limits of the grounds, or exchange words with the servant.

It took a few decades, but having a human gnome ornament in the garden did eventually fall out of fashion.  After WWI and WWII, climates changed and the terracotta gnome statues fell out of fashion, too.

In case you haven’t noticed, the little gnomes have marched back with a frenzy in recent years.  Some rare female gnomes have even joined them.  They are mostly made of inferior materials.  They are not the high-quality statues they once were.  They are gaudy and garish. They are the champions of kitsch.                                             


Sara Marie Hogg is the author of Quite Curious, true stories of the bizarre and unexplained. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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