In 1847 Sir Charles Isham journeyed back from Germany, ever the eccentric Sir Charles returned with 21 smaller friends. These small figures were all the rage in Germany and had evolved from small wooden statues of figures that the Italians had called Gobbi two centuries earlier. The garden gnome had arrived.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that the term ‘gnome’ entered usage in England and after the Second World War their popularity grew and they entered the cultural cycle of chic, kitsch and retro. But was there something else to these diminutive garden helpers? Perhaps that cheeky beard-framed grin might be concealing a secret, and a rather large one at that.
Our journey starts in modern day Turkey, more precisely in the town of Lapseki. This town was most likely the area in which the ancient city of Lampsacus stood. Like most cities on or near the west coast it became a plaything for Greek and Persian alike, but its infamy lay not with a real historical figure, but a mythological one.
According to myth Priapus was born here, details concerning his birth vary and according to one variation he was cursed while Aphrodite was pregnant with him by Hera who was still aggrieved over her loss of the golden apple. His curse took the form of something endless junk emails promise: a huge phallus.
Priapus: before sports cars were invented he simply had to make do
The Lampsacuns soon banished him but bade him come back after they call came down with a venereal disease. They promised to make him guardian of their gardens and he existed as a rustic deity, watcher of crops, shepherds (and intriguingly sailors).
His cult passed over to mainland Greece where it was met with a lukewarm reception. It may have been that the Greeks lacked a space for him in their religion. Herms had traditionally stood with erect phalli whilst marking the boundaries (and even Hermes, the boundary god had sported one on occasion). Vases burst with proud satyrs, perhaps there simply wasn’t the space for him, too many cocks and all that.
The Romans, however, loved the crudity of such a deity and perhaps distilled this more bucolic deity (the Lampsacuns also had him as a war god) into the niche of a garden guardian. One part Alan Titchmarsh and several parts 50 Shades.
Romans enjoyed such ‘naughtiness’ particularly in the upper echelons and Priapus soon had poems, 95 or so dedicated to him. The Priapeia was lewd and bawdy, the antithesis of the cultured Roman. Needless to say it was highly popular.
Soon Priapus was appearing in Roman gardens, his gigantic penis underpinning his status as a fertile god but also brandishing a warning. Trespass here and you’ll end up facing it man or woman, coitus or sodomy Priapus wouldn’t care a jot. Priapus had form in using his genitalia as a weapon, intent on raping a sleeping nymph a braying donkey alerted his victim, the poor animal was then beaten to death by Priapus using his engorged member.
But how do garden gnomes feature in all of this? How does the cheeky chap brandishing nothing more phallic than a wink and a smile in the vicarage rockery compare at all to a deity capable of beating a donkey to death with his erect penis?
To start with we have to consider the gnomes themselves, the garden gnome was called Gartenzwerg (‘garden dwarf’) by the Germans and from the outset the link to the earth was something crucial. A Swiss alchemist in the 16th century called Paracelsus coined the term gnome from gnomos, deriving from the Greek for ‘earth-dweller’. And it’s to the ancient Greeks we need to turn back to.
As mentioned earlier it was a Greek town which brought forward Priapus, but gnome-like characters featured all over the Aegean. The Dactyl’s were an archaic race of small phallic beings born to Gaia. There were Idean, Cretan and Rhodian versions of these creatures. All were associated with the earth, being master smithers and craftsmen. Out of the three the Ideans carry a further clue.
The Ideans are named so as they were from Mount Ida in Turkey, in an area which was known in antiquity as Phrygia. This may not seem important until you look that the image below, recognise the hat? It’s called a Phrygian cap and is very similar to that of the garden gnome.
Helen and Paris (who sports a Phrygian cap) red-figure bell-krater, 380–370 BC
Of course this may all be coincidental. Gardens need to be fertile and it’s not a huge leap of the imagination to consider a fertility god portrayed in such a way. But garden gnomes seem to carry a number of shared attributes: they are associated with the garden, have strong chthonic origins and even wear the same hat.
It’s possible that the Swiss and Germans (the Italian Gobbi seem more like miniature caricatures) had a sense of humour and perhaps alluded to Priapus through his hat and other aspects as stated above. His obvious feature removed for the sanity and shame of 19th century Europe. I’ve no idea if the early gnomes featured fishing rods, if they did then surely a joke is in play, if not (and the addition a later occurrence) then irony plays its hand too.