European Mythical Creatures: Dwarf and Gnome

Where would Snow White be without her seven dwarfs? Tracing back the origin of the dwarf, you will see a connection to Germanic mythology. In this article, you will learn more about the culture of dwarfs and gnomes and how they figure into popular culture today.
What is a Dwarf?

According to Germanic mythology, a dwarf was a being that lived in the mountains and in the earth. The creatures were supposed to be full of wisdom and have a knack for mining, blacksmithing, and crafting. Some descriptions call the dwarfs ugly and short. In later depictions, the creatures took on more of a comical appearance. Researchers have traced back the origin of the word ‘dwarf’ and have come up with an array of interesting theories. Some believe that the beings were first seen as nature spirits, while others saw them as being related to death.

Norse mythology describes dwarfs in different ways. In the Poetic Edda (compiled during the 13th century from earlier traditional sources), the creature is described as being the product of the “primordial blood of the being Brimir and the bones of Blainn. In the Prose Edda (written in the 13th century), the dwarfs were compared to maggots that lived in the flesh of the primal being Ymir before they were given the gift of reason by the gods. The two publications offer names to more than 100 dwarfs, including Austri , one of the dwarfs given the responsibility to hold up the sky.

After the Germanic peoples were introduced to Christianity, the tales centered on dwarf stories were told in as folklore in European regions where Germanic languages were still spoken. Today, dwarfs are found in popular stories, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They also play a role in popular video games, such a World of Warcraft, and Dungeons and Dragons.

What is a Gnome?

The small creature of folktales and legends is linked in different cultures to magic and alchemy , thought to be first introduced by Paracelsus, who lived during the 16th century. Described as a small creature with human features, the gnome is believed to live under the ground. Paracelsus first wrote about the gnome (a word derived from the Renaissance Latin term “gnomus”). In his description, the gnome is “two spans high” with the ability to move underground just as easily as humans move through the air. It is in their nature not to make contact with humans.

Many ancient and medieval mythologies make mention of similar beings , often described as guarding mines or keeping an eye on underground treasures Today, gnomes have found a place throughout the pages of modern fantasy literature. Modern fairy tales usually pit the gnomes against other small creatures of folklore. For example, 19th century fiction makes comparisons to the airy characteristics of fairies.  

In popular culture, you will find the gnome used in promotion for Travelocity, who uses the ‘traveling gnome’ in many of their advertisements. Gnomes also make popular garden and yard decorations, which look quite similar to the depictions seen in early illustrations of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.