“What happened to the garden gnome”

Who better to room with than the son of Venus and Bacchus? Beyond being a little man with gigantic genitals, Priapus was the god of gardens and fertility. Statues of him have been found in private villas and in the houses of Pompeii and ancient Rome. As such this demigod is considered the forefather of the ornamental hermit or garden gnome, a somewhat peculiar phenomenon that became a craze in eighteenth-century England. A serious country estate would be nothing without a romantic garden, complete with follies and hermitages, populated with hermits – fantastical or real. Dressed as druids, these professional recluses would be required to grow their hair and refrain from washing. Yet as the romantic era of ‘pleasing melancholy’ changed, and the job of hermit disappeared, living hermits gave way to mass-produced ceramic, wooden, and, later, plastic garden gnomes.

Although they were popular throughout the twentieth century, it seems that our contemporary culture has let this potent dwarf down. Apart from those fond of kitsch – such as artist Paul McCarthy, who continues to enjoy both the naïve charm and the sexual suggestiveness of the gnome – the figure has lost its appeal as a room or garden mate. In the East the appetite for outside hooded totems survives, such as Jeju’s dol hareubangs – penis-shaped rock statues placed in front of gates on this South Korean island, representing gods that offer both protection and fertility. Luckily the internet, in its ability to perpetually reverberate with both past and current folly, has helped the Western garden gnome regain some of its stature #gnome-spotting #gnome-napping.

Although the traditional gnome might be gone, sharing one’s home or porch with inanimate and fictional figures is as popular as ever. Sony’s Aibo or Bandai’s Tamagotchi – machines that require care in exchange for company – were precursors of the AI-infused pets and robots that will be populating the smart home of the future. As latter-day Snow Whites, we will be commanding seven subservient little helpers to give us massages, scare away fruit thieves, or satisfy other needs. But the spirit of the gnome is stoic, mystical, and Pan-like. Our modern-day version of this sentiment might be best recognized in the cat; certainly, the sheer number of cat videos available on the internet proves that this creature inspires endless amounts of novel, pleasing melancholy.