Between the rockery and a hard place. Priapus and the garden gnome?

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.

A replica of one of the gnomes Sir Charles brought back

It seems to have all started far from Germany in both time and direction. In antiquity a Greek city called Lampsacus stood on the eastern side of the Hellespont. Needless to say it’s proximity to the coast made it rich through trade but also attracted the eyes of various conquerors, yet it was not any of them who was its most famous resident.

It was said that Priapus was born here, his mother Aphrodite had irked Hera enough for the goddess to curse Aphrodite’s son and this took the form of gigantic genitalia. Though this chimes with many an email cluttering up my junk folder the notion of such largesse was not something to necessarily boast about. To the Greeks such size alluded to a base nature where a man was marked as beast as opposed to civilised. The most obvious example are Satyrs who prance around on vases misbehaving with phallus literally pointing the way.

The Lampsacenes soon banished him but bade him come back after they all came down with a venereal disease. If you are interested in STIs in antiquity, then you can catch two podcasts I did on them earlier this year on my Libsyn or iTunes. Have your lunch before though.

Priapus as hermes, from Pompeii. Both deities shared an association with boundaries.

Priapus was won over with a promise from Lampsacus to make him guardian of their gardens and he existed as a rustic deity, watcher of crops, shepherds (and intriguingly sailors). His appearance shrieked with fecundity so was apt as a fertility god but also one who would watch over farms and gardens, defending their produce. 

His cult passed over to mainland Greece where he continued to guard over farm gardens, a 3rd century BCE poem by Leonidas of Tarentum in the 3rd century BCE reads as following:

Here on the garden wall did Dinomenes set me up, wakeful Priapus, to guard his greens. But look, thief, how excited I am. And is this, you say, all for the sake of a few greens? For the sake of these few.

The poem featured on the statue of Priapus as a cheerful reminder to any would be thief that the consequences would be harsh, though later epigrams would be far more detailed. Leonidas of Tarentum, as his name states, was an occupant of southern Italy, more specifically Magna Graecia which was the collection of Greek colonies based there. Priapus, in addition to his other associations, somehow became a deity of sailors and harbours and perhaps this is the reason for the spread of his cult.

North of Tarentum and sometime later it was Rome who picked up the baton and moved Priapus into the realm of the epigram with due vigour and thrust. Priapus was well suited to the Roman epigram which, as Hooper comments, was often far more obscene than its Greek counterpart.

The Roman epigrams formed a collection known as the Priapeia, numbering 95 in total and included Martial and Catullus. These often carried a similar warning to the epigram by Leonidas, but would go into explicit physiological detail in describing the exact punishment dealt by Priapus if you were caught scrumping in the garden he was guarding.  I won’t recount them here but the Wikipedia entry contains one such example. These epigrams would most likely feature on the wooden image of Priapus placed in the Roman garden and here we start to encounter problems.

The first of these is Priapus himself, because even though he was a god who offered a truly unpleasant punishment he was also one not to be taken seriously. The endeavours of Priapus also contain a comic motif, if not a dark one. When a braying donkey interrupts his attempts on a sleeping nymph (I have also read similar but with Hestia) he beats the poor animal to death with his now flaccid member. Richlin sums it up neatly when commenting that he is “a ridiculous god, a god to be mocked…He is the source of threats, god of the phallus yet he is also a shabby wooden idol”.

This may have been the Roman interpretation of Priapus and here we meet another problem. Priapus was a guardian of a functioning garden which supplied families with food. However, in Rome he was often present in the luxurious gardens of the rich. These were not to sustain but to entertain. In poem 33 of the Priapeia the god bemoans that lack of nymphs he has to chase anymore, Uden argues that this is something of an allegory for the function of the garden in Rome. Priapus complains because the gardens he now occupies aren’t really gardens anymore, certainly not in the way he knew them to be.

A garden which bore no real fruit or food was the ultimate in extravagance, akin to bathing in a time of drought. Roman writers were experts in diagnosing moral decline, where their forefathers were hearty rustic types working the land these gardens sat in stark contrast as a marker to what they had become and Uden cites several writers, including Pliny who make this point.

Perhaps outside of Rome and the gardens of the elite Priapus existed as he had in Greece, though to be fair we could also understand the Greeks having some fun with him too. At least outside of Rome and in working gardens he would have something to guard, along with the joke there would be reason for him in the first place. What function in the garden of a senator? What to guard exactly and, let’s be honest, these types of gardens did not lack for security.

Pun intended, but here Priapus really stood out, with nothing to guard against perhaps his function was akin to the kitsch pink flamingo an obscenity which was permissible due to its non-Roman nature. Simply a Greek curiosity.

This perhaps gives us the first connection to the modern garden gnome, which can be viewed in a similar context, albeit one far safer for the eyes of vicars. However, the garden gnome didn’t simply appear overnight on the lawns of Britain, and it’s to Sir Charles Isham we need to turn to next.

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.

Fresco from Pompeii, the cap is not what you immediately notice..

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. Perhaps the gnomes were also seen originally (as they are now) as what we would term kitsch, a response you could argue sits with the Romans in how they viewed the image of Priapus stood in their garden.

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 most prominent feature removed for the sanity of vicars and elderly aunts of 19th century England. Perhaps the gnome with a sly look about him and a fishing rod in hand is alluding to something far more than the sum of his parts…

Further reading:

Hooper, Richard W. The Priapus Poems: Erotic Epigrams for Ancient Rome

Richlin, Amy. The Gardens of Priapus pg 141ff

Uden, James. The Vanishing Gardens of Priapus, Harvard Studies in Classical
Philology 105:189-219. 2010.



Leave a Reply