A term from Paracelsus perhaps derived from Greek genomos, "earth-dweller" Gnomes are elemental intelligences related to the dense, fixed aspect of nature (earth).
"Just as visible Nature is populated by an infinite number of living creatures, so, according to Paracelsus, the invisible, spiritual counterpart of visible Nature (composed of the tenuous principles of the visible elements) is inhabited by a host of peculiar beings, to whom he has given the name elementals, and which have later been termed the Nature spirits. Paracelsus divided these people of the elements into four distinct groups, which he called gnomes, undines, sylphs, and salamanders. He taught that they were really living entities, many resembling human beings in shape, and inhabiting worlds of their own, unknown to man because his undeveloped senses were incapable of functioning beyond the limitations of the grosser elements...
"The elementals who dwell in that attenuated body of the earth which is called the terreous ether are grouped together under the general heading of gnomes. (The name is probably derived from the Greek genomus, meaning earth dweller. See New English Dictionary.)
Just as there are many types of human beings evolving through the objective physical elements of Nature, so there are many types of gnomes evolving through the subjective ethereal body of Nature. These earth spirits work in an element so close in vibratory rate to the material earth that they have immense power over its rocks and flora, and also over the mineral elements in the animal and human kingdoms. Some, like the pygmies, work with the stones, gems, and metals, and are supposed to be the guardians of hidden treasures. They live in caves, far down in what the Scandinavians called the Land of the Nibelungen. In Wagner's wonderful opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelungen, Alberich makes himself King of the Pygmies and forces these little creatures to gather for him the treasures concealed beneath the surface of the earth.
Besides the pygmies there are other gnomes, who are called tree and forest sprites. To this group belong the sylvestres, satyrs, pans, dryads, hamadryads, durdalis, elves, brownies, and little old men of the woods. Paracelsus states that the gnomes build houses of substances resembling in their constituencies alabaster, marble, and cement, but the true nature of these materials is unknown, having no counterpart in physical nature. Some families of gnomes gather in communities, while others are indigenous to the substances with and in which they work. For example, the hamadryads live and die with the plants or trees of which they are a part. Every shrub and flower is said to have its own Nature spirit, which often uses the physical body of the plant as its habitation. The ancient philosophers, recognizing the principle of intelligence manifesting itself in every department of Nature alike, believed that the quality of natural selection exhibited by creatures not possessing organized mentalities expressed in reality the decisions of the Nature spirits themselves.
C. M. Gayley, in The Classic Myths, says: "It was a pleasing trait in the old paganism that it loved to trace in every operation of nature the agency of deity. The imagination of the Greeks peopled the regions of earth and sea with divinities, to whose agency it attributed the phenomena that our philosophy ascribes to the operation of natural law." Thus, in behalf of the plant it worked with, the elemental accepted and rejected food elements, deposited coloring matter therein, preserved and protected the seed, and performed many other beneficent offices. Each species was served by a different but appropriate type of Nature spirit. Those working with poisonous shrubs, for example, were offensive in their appearance. It is said the Nature spirits of poison hemlock resemble closely tiny human skeletons, thinly covered with a semi-transparent flesh. They live in and through the hemlock, and if it be cut down remain with the broken shoots until both die, but while there is the slightest evidence of life in the shrub it shows the presence of the elemental guardian.
Great trees also have their Nature spirits, but these are much larger than the elementals of smaller plants. The labors of the pygmies include the cutting of the crystals in the rocks and the development of veins of ore. When the gnomes are laboring with animals or human beings, their work is confined to the tissues corresponding with their own natures. Hence they work with the bones, which belong to the mineral kingdom, and the ancients believed the reconstruction of broken members to be impossible without the cooperation of the elementals.
The gnomes are of various sizes--most of them much smaller than human beings, though some of them have the power of changing their stature at will. This is the result of the extreme mobility of the element in which they function. Concerning them the Abbé de Villars wrote: "The earth is filled well nigh to its center with Gnomes, people of slight stature, who are the guardians of treasures, minerals and precious stones. They are ingenious, friends of man, and easy to govern."
Not all authorities agree concerning the amiable disposition of the gnomes. Many state that they are of a tricky and malicious nature, difficult to manage, and treacherous. Writers agree, however, that when their confidence is won they are faithful and true. The philosophers and initiates of the ancient world were instructed concerning these mysterious little people and were taught how to communicate with them and gain their cooperation in undertakings of importance. The magi were always warned, however, never to betray the trust of the elementals, for if they did, the invisible creatures, working through the subjective nature of man, could cause them endless sorrow and probably ultimate destruction. So long as the mystic served others, the gnomes would serve him, but if he sought to use their aid selfishly to gain temporal power they would turn upon him with unrelenting fury. The same was true if he sought to deceive them.
The earth spirits meet at certain times of the year in great conclaves, as Shakespeare suggests in his Midsummer Night's Dream, where the elementals all gather to rejoice in the beauty and harmony of Nature and the prospects of an excellent harvest. The gnomes are ruled over by a king, whom they greatly love and revere. His name is Gob; hence his subjects are often called goblins. Mediæval mystics gave a corner of creation (one of the cardinal points) to each of the four kingdoms of Nature spirits, and because of their earthy character the gnomes were assigned to the North--the place recognized by the ancients as the source of darkness and death. One of the four main divisions of human disposition was also assigned to the gnomes, and because so many of them dwelt in the darkness of caves and the gloom of forests their temperament was said to be melancholy, gloomy, and despondent. By this it is not meant that they themselves are of such disposition, but rather that they have special control over elements of similar consistency.
The gnomes marry and have families, and the female gnomes are called gnomides. Some wear clothing woven of the element in which they live. In other instances their garments are part of themselves and grow with them, like the fur of animals. The gnomes are said to have insatiable appetites, and to spend a great part of the rime eating, but they earn their food by diligent and conscientious labor. Most of them are of a miserly temperament, fond of storing things away in secret places. There is abundant evidence of the fact that small children often see the gnomes, inasmuch as their contact with the material side of Nature is not yet complete and they still function more or less consciously in the invisible worlds.
According to Paracelsus, "Man lives in the exterior elements and the Elementals live in the interior elements. The latter have dwellings and clothing, manners and customs, languages and governments of their own, in the same sense as the bees have their queens and herds of animals their leaders." (Philosophia Occulta, translated by Franz Hartmann.)
Paracelsus differs somewhat from the Greek mystics concerning the environmental limitations imposed on the Nature spirits. The Swiss philosopher constitutes them of subtle invisible ethers. According to this hypothesis they would be visible only at certain times and only to those en rapport with their ethereal vibrations. The Greeks, on the other hand, apparently believed that many Nature spirits had material constitutions capable of functioning in the physical world. Often the recollection of a dream is so vivid that, upon awakening, a person actually believes that he has passed through a physical experience. The difficulty of accurately judging as to the end of physical sight and the beginning of ethereal vision may account for these differences of opinion.
Even this explanation, however, does not satisfactorily account for the satyr which, according to St. Jerome, was captured alive during the reign of Constantine and exhibited to the people. It was of human form with the horns and feet of a goat. After its death it was preserved in salt and taken to the Emperor that he might testify to its reality. (It is within the bounds of probability that this curiosity was what modern science knows as a monstrosity.)" —Manly P. Hall, Secret Teachings of All Ages
"The four elements of Nature—earth, fire, water, and air—are merely condensations of the four types of ether. These four varieties of ether are densely populated by innumerable elemental creatures of Nature. The salamanders live within the fire (the Tejas Tattva). The ondines and nereids live within the water (the Apas Tattva). The sylphs live within the clouds (the Vayu Tattva). The gnomes and pygmies live within the earth (the Prithvi Tattva)... The physical bodies of the gnomes are the elementals of the plants under the influence of the zodiacal signs of earth." —Esoteric Medicine and Practical Magic,
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