Why are there so many gnome dolls, statuettes, paintings, and drawings in Waldorf schools? Gnomes seem sweet and cuddly. Parents like them. Kids like them. For this reason, they give Waldorf schools a sweet and cuddly way to nudge students toward accepting Anthroposophical beliefs. You see, Rudolf Steiner taught that gnomes really exist. The gnome dolls, statuettes, etc., represent invisible beings that Anthroposophists believe in and that they want you (or at least your child) to believe in. If Waldorf teachers put images of pagan gods in their classrooms, or images of Ahriman, or depictions of wars between good gods and bad gods, parents might raise some questions. But gnomes? Who's gonna object to some sweet li'l gnomes in a sweet li'l ol' Waldorf classroom?
(The gnomes Steiner described are anything but sweet and cuddly, though. But, hush!)
Here is some Steiner gnome lore for you to contemplate:
“A gnome is only visible to someone who can see on the astral plane, but miners frequently possess such an astral vision; they know that gnomes are realities.” — Rudolf Steiner, FOUNDATIONS OF ESOTERICISM (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1982), lecture 27, GA 93a.
“There are beings that can be seen with clairvoyant vision at many spots in the depths of the earth ... If you dig into the metallic or stony ground you find beings which manifest at first in remarkable fashion — it is as if something were to scatter us. They seem able to crouch close together in vast numbers, and when the earth is laid open they appear to burst asunder ... Many names have been given to them, such as goblins, gnomes and so forth ... What one calls moral responsibility in man is entirely lacking in them ... Their nature prompts them to play all sorts of tricks on man....” — Rudolf Steiner, NATURE SPIRITS (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1995), pp. 62-63.
“The predecessors of our Earth-gnomes, the Moon-gnomes, gathered together their Moon-experiences and from them fashioned this structure, this firm structure of the solid fabric of the Earth, so that our solid Earth-structure actually arose from the experiences of the gnomes of the old Moon.” — Rudolf Steiner, MAN AS SYMPHONY OF THE CREATIVE WORD (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1970), lecture 9, GA 230.
“Gnomes are...unable to grasp how there can be anything but an ineffectual relationship with [human beings].” — Rudolf Steiner, CHANCE, PROVIDENCE, AND NECESSITY (SteinerBooks, 1988), p. 95.
"Take the gnomes ... [T]hey are, so to say, in the world which borders on human consciousness; they are already beyond the threshold. Ordinary consciousness is protected from seeing these beings, for the fact is that these beings are not all benevolent ... [I]n the moment when man breaks through into the world wherein they live and are active, he finds there not only the well-disposed beings but the malevolent ones as well ... The main difference between the ill-disposed beings and the well-disposed is that the latter are always drawn more to the plant and mineral kingdoms, whereas the ill-disposed are drawn to the animal and human kingdoms ... Now someone might say: Why then are these malevolent gnomes [allowed to be] there, if they engender parasites? Well, if they were not there, man would never be able to develop within himself the force to evolve the structure of his brain." — Rudolf Steiner, MAN AS SYMPHONY OF THE CREATIVE WORD (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1970), lecture 8, GA 230.
Let's pause for a moment to consider again why these not-very-nice creatures are present, in representational form,
in Waldorf classrooms. Here are statements by two women who have seen gnomes
(i.e., gnome statuettes or figures) in Waldorf schools:
"The presence of stuffed-fabric gnomes in Waldorf kindergartens strikes some parents as charming or even humorous. The gnomes are not only physically present: they often appear in stories the teachers tell, and the children are encouraged to draw gnomes. But the gnomes' role is more complicated than this. I urge prospective Waldorf parents to see past the charm-facade provided by the gnomes. The gnomes sell the school incredibly well, and that is one of their main functions. They literally sell like hot cakes at school fairs or craft shows, and they 'sell' the school by dulling parental reasoning abilities. Parents fall 'in love' with the gnomes, along with the knitted bunnies and ponies and flowing silks and homey 'just like grandma's' atmosphere of the kindergartens.
"I urge prospective or current Waldorf kindergarten parents to visit a classroom and observe just how (or whether) the children actually relate to or interact with the gnomes in the classroom. The gnomes aren't cuddly. They aren't friendly. They're actually just a little bit threatening. Gnomes in Waldorf lore are not quite sympathetic to humans — they're tricky and conniving, not exactly smart but crafty, resentful, frankly a little on the mean and stupid side. Gnomes aren't friends or playmates for children — they're often just odd, grimacing presences on the shelf. Watch in the classroom and see — do the children play with them? Do they talk to them? Do they appear to view the gnomes affectionately? Do the gnomes have names, personalities, do the children tell stories about the gnomes? Watch and see.
"Gnomes are something that Waldorf schools can hook onto in popular culture, from suburban lawn ornaments to familiar fairy tales, and insinuate a message about 'nature spirits' that is meant to prepare children to be receptive to a wide variety of related beliefs about the 'spiritual hierarchies' as outlined by Rudolf Steiner. Nature spirits are at or near the bottom of a very complex hierarchy, going up through various rankings of angels and archangels to the Christian seraphim, cherubim etc. (in other terminology 'thrones' and 'dominions,' etc. God, however, is curiously rarely spoken of). Of course, angels are also often spoken of and painted or drawn in Waldorf. I think gnomes get more systematic emphasis because talk of angels is too blatantly religious, parents will wonder if their child comes home always talking about angels, whereas gnomes can be treated as simply creatures from children's stories or fairy tales, and of course most Waldorf schools deny to parents that the curriculum is religious." — Diana Winters
A conventional image of gnomes
"The felt gnome in my son's Waldorf classroom sat on a shelf near the top of the chalkboard. I remember the class teacher telling a group of parents that the gnome's role was to watch the children while he was out of the classroom. He said it with a smile and a twinkle in his eye, so my reaction was that it was funny and cute. I assumed it was intended as a big joke and that all the other parents shared that assumption. It never occurred to me the gnome might have a different significance for the children. But, in retrospect, I don't remember my children ever including gnomes in their conversation or play.
"The teacher spoke of the gnome affectionately. I think he said the gnome's name was George. It's really weird to look back now, picturing all those adults sitting at their children's desks, listening attentively to a man who, unknown to us, believed his guru could see real gnomes. It's like something out of a Monty Python skit." — Margaret Sachs
Steiner's followers take his word on most subjects, including the subject of gnomes.
Anthroposophists and Waldorf teachers today generally agree that gnomes do exist.
Here are a pair of statements, for instance, from Stewart C. Easton,
who served as General Secretary of the Anthroposophical Society of America.
"Very far back in time all human beings were what we should today call ‘clairvoyant’, that is to say, it was possible for them actually to perceive spiritual beings who are invisible to most of us today. Until quite recently this faculty was common enough, and even now it has not entirely disappeared in some remote areas. It was possible, for example, to see various elemental beings which have been called gnomes, trolls, sylphs, naiads, elves, fairies, and the like. Such beings certainly exist even if the ordinary person can no longer see them." — Stewart C. Easton, THE WAY OF ANTHROPOSOPHY (Rudolf Steiner Press, 1985), p. 37.
"The invisible elemental beings could be perceived until recent times by many people, and they have passed into the folklore of every country. They were given names, which we shall also use here. The gnomes or goblins are the beings of the earth who work with the roots of plants and have a special affinity for the metals of the earth. The undines are water beings...they work with the leafy part of the plants. The sylphs live in the airy-warmth element, and it is their task to bring light down to the plants. Lastly, there are the salamanders of fire-beings who bring warmth into the blossoms and make possible the formation of a seed...." — Stewart C. Easton, MAN AND WORLD IN THE LIGHT OF ANTHROPOSOPHY (Anthroposophic Press, 1989), p. 286.
For a few sample statements by other Anthroposophists — including Waldorf teachers —
about gnomes, please keep reading.
But first, more from the Master:
"It is true that the beings which we call gnomes and goblins have a physical body, but they do not possess what in man we call the ego. The gnomes have the physical body as their highest principle, but they have three principles below the physical body. That makes their bodies far less visible than the physical body of man." — Rudolf Steiner, THE INFLUENCE OF SPIRITUAL BEINGS ON MAN (Anthroposophic Press, 1961), lecture 8, GA 102.
"Each year the moon is actually nearer the earth [sic; this is flat wrong - RR]. One recognizes this from the ever more vigorous play of the moon-forces in the gnome-world during the time of the new moon [sic — hard to argue with this, however]. And to this coming nearer of the moon the attentiveness of these goblins is quite specially directed; for it is in producing results from the way in which the moon affects them that they see their chief mission in the universe. They await with intense expectation the epoch when the moon will again unite with the earth... [sic; don't hold you breaths, gnomes]." — Rudolf Steiner, MAN AS SYMPHONY OF THE CREATIVE WORD, lecture 9.
"We gaze down into the depths of the earth not to seek there below for abstract ideas about some kind of mechanical laws of nature, but to behold the roving, wandering gnomes, which are the light-filled preservers of world-understanding within the earth ... The gnomes laugh us to scorn on account of the groping, struggling understanding with which we manage to grasp one thing or another, whereas they have no need at all to make use of thought. They have direct perception of what is comprehensible in the world; and they are particularly ironical when they notice the efforts people have to make to come to this or that conclusion ... People are so stupid — say the gnomes — for they must first think things over ... [G]nomes become ironical to the point of ill manners if one speaks to them of logic ... Thus the gnomes, inside the earth, are actually the bearers of the ideas of the universe, of the world-all. But for the earth itself they have no liking at all. They bustle about in the earth with ideas of the universe, but they actually hate what is earthly." — Rudolf Steiner, MAN AS SYMPHONY OF THE CREATIVE WORD, lecture 7.
“[I]t is from this feeling of hatred, of antipathy towards the earthly, that the gnomes gain the power of driving the plants up from the earth. The antipathy causes the plant to have only its roots in the earth....” — Rudolf Steiner, AGRICULTURE (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2003), p. 155.
[R. R., 2009.]
“And so we picture, from below upwards, in bluish, blackish shades the force of gravity, to which an upward impulse is given by the gnomes; and flitting all around the plant...the undine* power that blends and disperses substances as the plant grows upwards. From above downwards, from the sylphs, light is made to leave its imprint in the plant and molds and creates the form which descends as an ideal form and is taken up by the material womb of the earth; moreover fire spirits flit around the plant and concentrate cosmic warmth in tiny seed points. This is sent down to the gnomes together with the seed power, so that down there they can cause the plants to arise out of fire and life." — Rudolf Steiner, HARMONY OF THE CREATIVE WORD (Rudolf Steiner Press, 2001), pp. 125-126.
“It is a remarkable thing that animals and man, who in their lower organs are in fact earth-bound, should experience as poison what has become corrupted on the earth in the belladonna, whereas birds such as thrushes and blackbirds, which should really get this in a spiritual way from the sylphs — and indeed through the benevolent sylphs do so obtain it — should be able to assimilate it, even when what belongs up above in their region has been carried downwards to the earth. They find nourishment in what is poison for beings more bound to the earth.
"Thus you get a conception of how, on the one side, through gnomes and undines what is of a parasitic nature strives upwards from the earth towards other beings, and of how the poisons filter downwards from above.
"... And so you have gained a picture of those beings which are just on the boundary of the world lying immediately beyond the threshold, and of how, if they carry their impulses to their final issue, they become the bearers of parasites, of poisons, and therewith of illnesses. Now it becomes clear how far man in health raises himself above the forces that take hold of him in illness. For illness springs from the malevolence of these beings who are necessary for the upbuilding of the whole structure of nature, but also for its fading and decay.
"These are the things which, arising from instinctive clairvoyance, underlie such intuitions as those of the Indian Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva ... Brahma is intimately related to all that is of the nature of the fire-beings, and the sylphs; Vishnu with all that is of the nature of sylphs and undines; Shiva with all that is of the nature of undines and gnomes. Generally speaking, when we go back to these more ancient conceptions, we find everywhere the pictorial expressions for what must be sought today as lying behind the secrets of nature.” — Rudolf Steiner, MAN AS SYMPHONY OF THE CREATIVE WORD, lecture 7.
Here is a rather lengthy excerpt from MAN AS SYMPHONY OF THE CREATIVE WORD, lecture 8.
"It is the gnomes which, in a spiritual way, make good in the world what the lower orders of the animals up to the amphibians lack. This applies also to the fishes, which have only indications of the skeleton.***** These lower animal orders only become complete, as it were, through the fact that gnomes exist.
"And just because the conditions of the beings in the world are very different, something arises between these lower creatures and the gnomes which I yesterday called antipathy. The gnomes do not wish to become like these lower creatures. They are continually on the watch to protect themselves from assuming their form. As I described to you, the gnomes are extraordinarily clever, intelligent beings. With them intelligence is already implicit in perception; they are in every respect the antithesis of the lower animal world. And whereas they have the significance for plant-growth which I described yesterday, in the case of the lower animal world they actually provide its completion. They supply what this lower animal world does not possess. This lower animal world has a dull consciousness; the gnomes have a consciousness of the utmost clarity. The lower creatures have no bony skeleton, no bony support; the gnomes bind together what works as the force of gravity and make their bodies from this volatile, invisible force, bodies which are, moreover, in constant danger of disintegrating, of losing their substance. The gnomes must ever and again create themselves anew out of gravity, because they continually stand in danger of losing their substance. Because of this, in order to retain their own existence, the gnomes are constantly attentive to what is going on around them. As far as earth-observation goes no being is more attentive than a gnome. It takes note of everything, for it must know everything, grasp everything, in order to preserve its life. A gnome must always be wide awake; if it were to become sleepy, as men often do, this sleepiness would immediately cause its death.
"There is a German saying of very early origin which aptly expresses this characteristic of the gnomes, in having always to remain attentive. People say: Pay heed like a goblin. And goblins are in fact the gnomes. So, if one wishes to make someone attentive, one says to him: Pay heed like a gnome. A gnome is really an attentive being. If one could place a gnome as an object lesson on a front desk in every school classroom, where all could see it, it would be a splendid example for the children to imitate.
"The gnomes have yet another characteristic. They are filled with an absolutely unconquerable lust for independence. They trouble themselves little about one another and give their attention only to the world of their own surroundings. One gnome takes little interest in another. But everything else in this world around them, in which they live, this interests them exceedingly.
"Now I told you that the human body forms a hindrance to our perceiving such folk as these. The moment this hindrance is removed, these beings are there, just as are the other beings of nature for ordinary vision. Anyone who comes so far as to experience in full consciousness his dreams on falling asleep is well acquainted with these gnomes. You need only recall what I recently published in the “Goetheanum” on the subject of dreams. I said that a dream in no way appears to ordinary consciousness in its true form, but wears a mask. Such a mask is worn by the dream when we fall asleep. We do not immediately escape from the experience of our ordinary day consciousness. Reminiscences well up, memory-pictures from life; we perceive symbols, sense-pictures of the inner organs — the heart as a stove, the lungs as wings — all in symbolic form. These are masks. If someone were to see a dream unmasked, if he were actually to pass into the world of sleep without the beings existing there being masked, then, at the moment of falling asleep, he would behold a whole host of goblins coming towards him.
"In ordinary consciousness man is protected from seeing these things unprepared, for they would terrify him. The form in which they would appear would actually be copy images of all those qualities in the man which work as forces of destruction. He would perceive all the destructive forces within him, all that continually destroys. These gnomes, if perceived unprepared, would be nothing but symbols of death. Man would be terribly alarmed by them, if in ordinary consciousness he knew nothing about them, and was now confronted by them on falling asleep. He would feel entombed by them — for this is how it would appear — entombed by them over yonder in the astral world. For it is a kind of entombment by the gnomes which, seen from the other side, takes place on falling asleep.
"This holds good only for the moment of falling asleep. A further complement to the physical sense-world is supplied by the undines, the water-beings, which continually transform themselves, and which live in connection with the water just as the gnomes live in connection with the earth. These undines — we have learned to know the role they play in plant-growth — also exist as complementary beings to those animals which stand at a somewhat higher stage, which have assumed a more differentiated earthly body. These animals, which have developed into the more evolved fishes, or also into the more evolved amphibians, require scales, require some sort of hard external shell. The forces needed to provide certain creatures with this outer support, this outer skeleton — for these forces the world is indebted to the activity of the undines. The gnomes support spiritually those creatures which are at a quite low stage. Those creatures which must be supported externally, which must be clad in a kind of armour, they owe their protective sheath to the activity of the undines. Thus it is the undines which impart to these somewhat higher animals in a primitive way what we have in the covering of our skull. They make them, as it were, into heads. All these beings which are invisibly present behind the visible world have their great task in the economy of existence. You will always notice that, where materialistic science wishes to explain something of the kind I have just developed, there it breaks down. It is not in a position, for instance, to explain how the lower creatures manage to propel themselves forward in an element which is scarcely harder than they are themselves, because it does not know about the presence of this spiritual support from the gnomes which I have just described. Equally, the formation of an armour-like sheath will always create a difficulty for purely materialistic science, because it does not know that the undines, in their sensitivity to, their avoidance of their own tendency to become lower animals, thrust off from themselves what then appears upon the somewhat higher animals as scales or some other armour-like covering." — Rudolf [Believe-You-Me] Steiner
* Gnomes are one of the four major types of "nature spirits" or "elemental beings" — that is, invisible beings that dwell within physical nature. Waldorf teachers generally accept Steiner's doctrine that there are really only for elements: earth, air, fire, and water. (Science, by contrast, has so far identified 118 elements. See., e.g., http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/108636/chemical-element) Clinging to ancient superstition, Waldorf teachers generally accept Steiner's doctrine that four elemental beings dwell within the four elements. These elemental beings are gnomes, sylphs, salamanders,** and undines.
*** Steiner taught that whereas each human has a soul, animals only have tiny portions of souls. Thus, for instance, all dogs share a single soul. The entire canine species possesses one soul, and each dog possesses only a tiny portion of this soul. (If there are ten million dogs in the world, then each dog has one ten-millionths of a soul.)
**** That is, clairvoyants such as Steiner. (Steiner never hesitated to say that he knew best about everything.)
***** Steiner's statements are jam-packed with factual errors. [See "Steiner's Blunders".] This is a minor sample. Fishes do not have "indications" of skeletons — that is, they do not have vague, primordial precursors of skeletons. They have skeletons.
When Steiner graduated from college, and later when he earned a Ph.D., he presumably had some factual information at his command. But later yet, when he elected to become an occultist, he elected to become a functional ignoramus. And, indeed, most of the statements he made thereafter reflect a shocking degree of ignorance. Case in point? Gnomes. Gnomes do not exist. Yet here we are discussing Steiner's teachings about gnomes.
For more on these and related matters,
Descriptions of gnomes given in Anthroposophical publications are often couched in terms that might be used in class, telling gnomes stories to children.
But these descriptions are often accurate statements of Anthroposophical beliefs.
A gnome — detail from a painting by Ingrid Gibb
in Marjorie Spock's
FAIRY WORLDS AND WORKERS
“Since gnomes and human beings are alike earthbound creatures, we will probably find gnomes — or cobolds, or goblins, as they are sometimes also called — the fairy race closest to our understanding... [G]nomes live down below the surface of our planet, where roots take an anchor-hold on earth ... Gnomes are immensely clever Little People ... Gnomes are the only beings in the world who never sleep. This is because they are afraid to do so. They believe that any slackening of attention forebodes double tragedy: the dissolution of their bodies (which they rightly or wrongly feel must be held together by sheer concentration) and the frightful disgrace of being ignorant of what goes on ... There could be no such things as plant or tree roots if there were no gnomes to tend their development. Gnomes are at work all through the year marshalling nutrients around them and wielding magnetic forces to draw them down to a firm grounding in the earth.” — Marjorie Spock, FAIRY WORLDS AND WORKERS - A Natural History of Fairyland (Anthroposophic Press, 1980), pp. 11-12.
This passage was presumably written for adults ("double tragedy," "dissolution," "magnetic forces"...),
but few adults outside the Waldorf/Anthroposophical community could possibly take it seriously.
Here is an Anthroposophical publication that more clearly is written in language appropriate for children.
Jacob Streit's LIPUTTO — Stories of Gnomes and Trolls,
cover art by Susanne A. Mitchell
“Liputto is a mountain flower-root gnome ... In the summer he helps the flowers grow and when they bloom he pulls the sunlight down through the roots into the earth. That’s how there got to be sundrops in the earth ... Liputto and many ofther gnomes carried sundrops deeper into the earth and divided their rays ... Mother Earth needs many sundrops, so that in the spring everything can grow ... A gnome master told all this to Liputto: 'Blue flowers drip blue light into the deep, red flowers — red light....'” — Jacob Streit LIPUTTO — Stories of Gnomes and Trolls (Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, 1999), p. 15.
"A gnome master..."
"Children of all ages..."
The crucial point is that Steiner's followers believe in the literal existence
of gnomes and other invisible, mythical beings.
They believe that, as Steiner said, such beings can be seen
through the use of clairvoyance.
Here is a statement by a Waldorf teacher who is the author
of numerous Waldorf teachers' guides:
"There are people who perceive beings in nature, in the earth, in the water, in the flowers and the trees. These nature spirits or elementals are known by other names, such as gnomes, undines, sylphs and salamanders. They are the 'little folk' of the Irish. Of people with such a faculty we say they are a little 'fey', i.e. they have some primitive form of spiritual vision [i.e., unschooled clairvoyance]. Bearing these matters in mind we can say that our normal consciousness of the world is partial. It can, of course, be developed, not only with respect to the material world but also beyond the immediate world of sense perception." — Roy Wilkinson, RUDOLF STEINER - An Introduction to His Spiritual World-view, Anthroposophy (Temple Lodge Publications, 2005), p. 184.
The world beyond sense perception is the supernatural realm,
the abode of beings such as gnomes.
Clairvoyants may be called "fey," but Anthroposophists
accept their reports as truth.
Indeed, Anthroposophists strive to develop their own
powers of clairvoyance.
[See "Knowing the Worlds" and
We can conclude with one more statement by Roy Wilkinson,
in which he makes clear that belief in nature spirits is woven into the central teachings
of the religion that is Anthroposophy.
"Once the earth was created, it required a sustaining and maintaining element. The active forces which gave the mineral its inner being, the plant its unique shape and movement, and each animal species its particular characteristic, stream down from the heavenly spheres, the dwelling places of the hierarchies [i.e., the gods], but for their work on earth the hierarchies have assistants. In the solid substance, in the rocks, in the metals are the so-called earth spirits [i.e., gnomes]. In the mist, cloud and spray are the water-spirits [undines] ... Around the blossom and fruit of the plant hover the beings of air [sylphs] while a fourth category [fire spirits] transmutes the warmth of the environment into the ripening forces. It is the co-operation of all the nature spirits which forms the etheric body of the earth and the nature spirits are helpers and offspring of the third hierarchy [of gods]." — Roy Wilkinson, THE HOSTS OF HEAVEN (Wilkinson, PRT Offset Limited, 1980), pp. 27-28.
— Compilation and commentary by Roger Rawlings
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