The Little Folk - Stories of Gnomes
Updated: Jul 25
Stories of tiny humanoid creatures are as old as humanity itself. Cultures around the globe share unique tales of the little folk. From the gnomes of northern European folklore to the Duendes of Latin American legends and the "little black people" of Taiwan. Although the diminutive folk's behavior varies they do all share similar characteristics. They usually have some sort of innate magical ability combined with a penchant for devilment.
European Gnomes - Hairy Fairies
Legends of gnomes can be found in almost every European culture. The Norse shared tales of the Dvergr (dwarves), invisible people that lived underground in Svartalfheim. There exists no mention of the dwarves being small of stature. Dwarves were famous for their skills as craftsmen and smiths. Notably, they forged the weapons of the gods like Thor's hammer Mjollnir. They also forged the long golden hair of Thor's wife, the lady Sif. How one goes about forging hair is anyone's guess, it's a safe bet to say that Sif was bald. Dwarves are also referred to as svartálfar (Black Elves) due to their characteristic pitch-black skin. They possessed great physical strength as well as potent magical abilities. Later writers would alter the legend to include the now-famous short stature.
The Norse also told tales of a more recognizable sort of gnome, the Nisse. Tall red hats and long white beards characterize these tiny folk. Their appearance is reminiscent of the modern garden gnome. They are said to inhabit farmhouses and barns, acting as secret guardians of these places. Nisse are usually no more than 3 feet tall, but due to their shapeshifting abilities, they can transform into much larger forms. Their powerful illusion magic gives them the ability to turn invisible in an instant. That's probably why you haven't seen any rummaging through your dirty laundry. Nisse are associated with the winter solstice and in modern times the Christmas season. These easily offended little people would turn to annoying pranks should you cross them, even going so far as to kill livestock when enraged.
Across the English channel, several species of little folk can be found. The English Brownie is another example of something that resembles the garden gnome. They are household spirits that come out at night to perform menial chores around the house and farm. Homeowners are expected to leave out a bowl of milk by the hearth as an offering to the Brownie. Brownies are as easily offended as their Norse cousins but far less vengeful. Should you offend its sensibilities it will simply leave your home and seek a new haunt. Laziness is unacceptable to a Brownie, and they are known to play pranks on lazy servants. Fun fact, Brownies hate baptism and will leave your home forever should you attempt to baptize one.
The Emerald Isle is home to one of the most famous gnomish beings, the Leprechaun. These creatures seem to only appear later on in Irish folklore, being first mentioned in Echtra Fergus mac Léti (Adventure of Fergus son of Léti). The king of Ulster falls asleep on a beach, as you do, and awakes to find three leprechauns dragging him into the surf. He easily overpowers his would-be kidnappers and they grant him three wishes in exchange for their freedom. Commonly leprechauns are believed to spend their time making and mending shoes. They also have a pot of gold that they hide at the bottom of a rainbow in what is surely some kind of metaphor.
Further east we have the Kobolds of Germanic folklore. Kobolds spend most of their time invisible, like most other gnomelike entities, but have been known to take the form of animals or even candles. They live in homes, mines, or ships and their look changes depending on where they are. Shipboard Kobolds can be seen puffing on pipes while dressed as a sailor. Mine dwelling Kobolds are hunched and ugly, likely a side-effect of years of hard labor and a bad case of the black lung. Those Kobolds that dwell in human homes wear the discarded garments of the peasantry. These creatures are roughly the size of a small child, making them some of the bigger gnomes in Europe. The element cobalt owes its name to these mischievous critters. Miners would blame Kobolds for the arsenical ores of cobalt that polluted other mined elements.
Slavic pagans believe in a household spirit known as the Domovoy. These household gods protect the family line of those residing in the house. They are the deified progenitors of said bloodline and can manifest themself as a host of other spirits depending on the specific task it performs in the house. Domovoys are particularly concerned with the well-being of the children and animals of a family. Adults are apparently on their own. Domovoys are often depicted waging war with one another. The loser of such combat abdicates its role as protector of their family. Victorious Domovoy are then said to take control of the other's household. Domovoys share in the emotional experiences of their family and have been known to warn them of impending tragedy. They are known to take take the shape of various animals and have also been known to transform into the master of the house. Slavs represented the Domovoy by placing statuettes of them near the front door or above the stove.
Asian Gnomes - Pygmies or Nature Spirits?
The Saisiyat people of Western Taiwan remember a time when they interacted with gnome-like beings. The Saisiyat are the smallest group of Taiwan's indigenous peoples. Comprising only 1.3% of the total population. Saisiyat legends tell of a time long ago when they would trade and party with a race of small people that lived across the river from them. These people stood less than a meter tall and were known for their agriculture and singing abilities. The Saisiyat would invite them to their harvest festivals due to the little black people's talents for singing and dancing. That is until one day when the little black people seduced some of the Saisiyat women. Young Saisiyat men followed the dwarfs back to the bridge they used to return home. These young vandals cut the bridge as the little black people were crossing, plunging all but two into the cold waters below. The two surviving dwarfs taught the Saisiyat people the dances and chants of Pas-ta'ai as a way to appease the spirits of the people they genocided. These dwarfs then left the area and traveled to the east, never to be seen again.
The Ainu people of Hokkaido in northern Japan also have legends of tiny humanoids sharing their land. They called them the Korpokkur (those who dwell under butterbur leaves). Korpokkur were said to live in pits covered by butterbur leaves. Unlike the Ainu, the Korpokkur practiced pottery. Korpokkurs were said to be capable of speech and used stone tools. They would trade with the Ainu only under cover of night, as the Korpokkur hated being seen. Ainu legends describe the Korpokkur as rough-looking, very hairy, big-headed with prominent brow-ridges and reddish skins. Modern anthropologists hypothesize that the Korpokkurs were yet another example of pygmy African populations in Asia. The Korpokkur disappeared from the island of Hokkaido following a conflict with the Ainu.
Ebu Gogo - Homo Floresiensis
On the island of Flores in Indonesia, there exist legends of small hairy humanoids. The Nage people of Flores call it Ebu Gogo (old glutton). Ebu Gogos look much more apelike than human. They have large mouths, flat noses, and prominent brow-ridges with disproportionately long arms and pot-bellies on their hairy bodies. Ebu Gogos are reportedly very fast runners and excellent climbers that would often raid people's crops. According to the Nage, Ebu Gogos are capable of mimicking human speech in a parrot-like fashion and speak to one another in their own murmuring language. No evidence exists for Ebu Gogo using tools or fire. The Nage report that Ebu Gogos are ill-tempered and vicious creatures that will at times kidnap and consume humans. Following a spate of children going missing from their villages the Nage devised a plot to exterminate the Ebu Gogo. They offered the Ebu Gogo clothes made from highly flammable palm fibers. The wee-folk eagerly took their new threads back to their cave for a fashion show. The Nage then hurled fiery torches into the cave, bringing about a conflagration that killed all but two of the Ebu Gogo. People sure seem to enjoy killing those smaller than themselves, no wonder most gnomes prefer to remain hidden. According to Richard Roberts (discoverer of homo floresiensis), tales of the Ebu Gogo might be true.
American Gnomes - Fearsome Fae
The Inukin live in the frigid northlands of the American continent. Alaskan natives like the Inuit and Yup'ik have long believed in the existence of diminutive humanoids. These Inukin are said to be between 1 and 3 feet tall with pointed ears and conical heads. They are famously capable hunters and are usually seen wearing animal skins. The pointed ears are reminiscent of the fairy-folk of Europe and the conical heads point to the cultural practice of head-binding. Similar to many other gnomes on this list the Inukin are notoriously bad-tempered and fond of mischief. They have been known to lead travelers astray in the woods and to steal hunters' kills. Inukins are said to be incredibly powerful despite their small stature, capable of picking up a whole caribou by themselves and running off with it. There are stories of bush-pilots spotting caribou traveling at high speeds while seemingly lying on their sides. The pilots would swoop in for a closer look only to see an Inukin holding the beast above its head. One story of an Inukin encounter comes from a local hunter. He was hunting near a mountain when he saw a strange portal in the rock. Peering inside he saw a group of Inukin dancing merrily. He tore away from the mesmerizing sight after a few moments only to discover that a full year had gone by while he stood transfixed. Try explaining that to your wife.
The Cherokee people of North America have the Nunne'hi. Nunne'hi are said to be magical guardians of nature and joy. They are known to be playful pranksters who sometimes enjoy helping out. Nunne'hi can be heard in the lonely places of the world playing their drums. Attempting to follow these drums to their source is futile as the sound keeps getting further away from you the more you approach. The Nunne'hi, like many gnomes, would spend most of their time invisible. They make their homes in the mountains and caves far from human habitation. Nunne'hi were known to be very protective of the Cherokee, and would appear to assist them during times of war. They constructed large townhouses in places like Blood Mountain, Pilot Knob, and the Nikwasi Mound. Tales of the Nunne'hi sheltering lost travelers for the night are common. The travelers would be sent along their way, and when they turn to say goodbye they find the Nunne'hi have disappeared along with their homes. These people are said to stand no taller than a man's knee and have skin colors ranging from black to white and also gold like the Cherokee.
The origins of the concept of Duendes can be traced back to the Iberian peninsula in Europe. Portuguese Duendes are known to lead young children astray in the forest. The Duendes of Latin America are more varied in their demeanor, sometimes leading lost travelers home and other times kidnapping them. Mexican Duendes are gnomes that dwell in the walls of your home. Creepily these Mexican Duendes enjoy clipping the toenails of unkempt children, they are terrible at it though and it's common for a victim to wake up with missing digits. The most famous of all is the Belizean Tata Duende. This devilish gnome is said to have backward-facing feet and hands with no thumbs. Encountering Tata Duende is likely to end in the amputation of your thumbs, should the jealous gnome see them. This creature is just one of the many fairy-beings that are often blamed for mysterious disappearances in the wilds. Despite his weird feet and thumb-fetish, Tata Duende is said to be a guardian of nature, and will on occasion lead lost travelers out of the woods.
Pacific Islands - Gnomes of the Sea
Native Hawaiians have a legend of the Menehune, a race of tiny people that lived on the islands before the arrival of the Polynesians. These 2-foot tall gnomes were notoriously shy and fun-loving. They were known to practice cliff-diving, singing, dancing, and archery. Menehunes were mainly nocturnal, like many other gnomes around the world they prefer the cover of darkness. Their most impressive skill lies in their masterful engineering and speedy construction. The Alekoko Fishpond is said to have appeared overnight and is attributed to the tiny builders. These industrious gnomes formed a 40km long bucket brigade to pass along the freshly cut stones from Makaweli to the location of the pond. Archaeologists estimate that the pond was created 1000 years ago. Despite the Menehune being displaced by the Polynesian settlers, some still believe that there are Menehune roaming the islands. Some modern scholars are giving credence to the legends of advanced builders predating the arrival of the Polynesians, it would help to explain why so many advanced ancient constructions exist on the island. The 1820 census of Kauai listed 65 people as being Menehune. Put that in your pipe and smoke it!
Patupaiarehe - Forest Dwellers
The Maori have rich mythology full of fascinating creatures. The Patupaiarehe are said to inhabit the misty mountaintops of New Zealand's North Island. Most tales of the Patupaiarehe describe them as light-skinned, small, with no tattoos and either red or blond hair. They were afraid of lights and would only go out at dusk. Lighting a campfire was enough to keep the Patupaiarehe at bay. These mountain fairies loved to play the flute and make love to beautiful women. Some believed that children born with red hair were the offspring of the Patupaiarehe.
On the island continent of Australia, the aboriginal people have an impressive oral history stretching back thousands of years. The Noongar people of south-west Australia tell the legend of the Woodarjee. The Woodarjee looks exactly like an aboriginal person, save for being around 30 cm tall and being dressed only in a loin-cloth. Woodarjees use traditional hunting tools like spears and woomera (spear-throwing tool). They are notoriously aggressive and have been known to attack humans on sight.
African Gnomes - Evil Spirits or Forest Fairies
The Mongo-Nkundo language refers to these 3-4 foot tall forest gnomes as Eloko (Biloko is the plural). Biloko can be found in the mythology of the Congo and Uganda. They are described as having a human body, with the mouth of a crocodile and grass in place of hair. Biloko are created when a person dies with a hate-filled heart. These hateful people come back as the undead Biloko to terrorize travelers in the forest. Biloko are said to be able to swallow a man whole, and they are incredibly aggressive. They live in the deepest jungles of Zaïre where they guard their treasures, fruit and game, with the avarice of a dragon. The Biloko learn hateful magic from their peers and are said to craft magic bells from gold. These gold bells will hypnotize any who hear it ring, and the Biloko will swiftly gobble them up.
The Tokoloshe is a demonic familiar conjured by a witch-doctor in South-African mythology. They are made from a stolen human corpse and conjured to complete a heinous task. Witch-Doctors are different from Sangomas (traditional healers) in their practice of necromancy and inflicting curses upon others. The Tokoloshe is set upon an intended victim that it will assault and play, sometimes deadly, tricks on. They are usually invisible but can be seen by children. Their bodies are very small and placing your bed on bricks is enough to avoid their grasp. Tokoloshes are blamed for cot-deaths as well as healthy adults dying in their sleep.
Almost every culture has some legend of tiny people going about their mischievous business at night. Could these be long-held memories of a time when modern humans shared the Earth with homo-floresiensis? Are there really gnomes living amongst us? This list could easily have been twice as long for all of the myths uncovered during research.
What do you think about the legends of the gnomes?