It’s tricky to pin down wee folk, and not just because of their size. Small humanoid beings appear in mythology around the world, and they are especially numerous in European cultures. However, many of the most well-known names are treated as somewhat interchangeable. Research a brownie and you’ll end up with fairies and hobgoblins and so on. So rather than tackle a general category of these tiny people, I decided to focus in the tomte. I’ve been curious about tomtar for a while now, and it turns out the different definitions of them will allow me to touch on a variety of those larger categories without getting in over my head.
(A note to any native Swedish-speakers: If I have mangled the proper forms for “tomte,” I apologize and please let me know so I can correct them. I was able to grasp the singular “tomte” and plural “tomtar,” but I was not confident enough to use the definite article plural “tomtarna.”)
My thanks to Tiege McCian of The Burnt Thumb, whose suggestion inspired this post. Tiege wrote, “I’d like to nominate “wee folk” for the quarterly bestiary: gnomes, elves, dwarfs, beings like that, which seem to be common in myths and beliefs the world over.” Now, technically the term “wee folk” is specifically a “Sottish and Irish euphemistic” term for fairy folk,1 so applying it to Swedish tomtar is a bit of a stretch. However, they are sometimes referred to as gnomes, so I’ll call it close enough for now. I will also be addressing a particular kind of elf in an upcoming post, and I’ve received a suggestion of fairies as well, so there will be more about wee folk!
The Invention of Gnomes
Despite their generally aged appearance, gnomes are a relatively young category of little folk. They were first mentioned by the Swiss physician and alchemical theorist Paracelsus in the 16th century.2 Paracelsus’ gnomes were earth elementals existing alongside the elementals of air (sylphs), water (undine), and fire (salamanders). As a result, they had the rather cool ability to move through rock and earth as humans do through air. They were likely inspired by the pygmies of Greek mythology, tiny humanoids who hated cranes with a passion and were sometimes described as living underground. The mythical pygmies stood about 1.5 feet tall.3 Paracelsus’ gnomes may have been a similar height, but since they were invisible,4 measuring them was a bit difficult.
Gnome vanishing into stone. Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
Tomtar look much like the image associated with gnomes today. They are doll- to child-sized, never more than half adult height, but with the face of an old man sporting a long white beard.5 They are almost always shown wearing bright red pointed caps, much like the fairy tale gnomes of Britain.6 Tomtar don’t seem to be elementals. They appear mostly around farms and I’ve never heard of one walking through stone. Then again, more recent interpretations of gnomes often leave that detail out as well.
Helpful Dwarfs and Hats
Much of what became gnome mythology is in fact borrowed from dwarfs. Both the name and the concept originate in Germanic mythology. In Norse legends, dwarfs live underground, creating and coveting fine metalwork.7 They are generally grumpy, but that may be because Loki and the Asgard gods tend to cheat, kill, and rob them without much remorse. Legends about dwarfs outside of the Norse lore show a more complex picture. In fact, I wonder if Paracelsus actually did draw on these tales for his gnomes, since they mention dwarfs walking through “rocks and walls.”8 They also wear a nebelkap or “mist-cap” that makes them invisible.9 This might explain the pointed hats of gnomes, though it seems like a red cap would have the opposite effect of making the wearer more visible.
An average tomte has more in common with these folk dwarfs than with the Norse versions or with gnomes. Tomtar, who can sometimes turn invisible, are generally benevolent to the humans and have little interest in material wealth, often doing chores while humans sleep.10 They quickly turn wrathful if humans disrespect them or mistreat the livestock, though they might cause mischief or harm to said livestock in retaliation. Similarly, the German Stille Volk dwarfs are said to serve humans who respect them and take out their anger on cows.11 The main difference between tomtar and dwarfs seems to be habitat. One source on their Norwegian cousin the nisse says dwarfs live in “hills and forests” while a nisse lives in the houses and barns of humans.12 Their willingness to buddy up with us big folk hints at another category they fit.
A fair number of magical little folk also fall under the category of household spirits. Most household spirits follow a similar pattern of behavior: they protect or benefit the household where they reside unless insulted, and then they may bring misfortune, mischief, or outright tragedy on the human residents. Such beings appear in traditions from Europe, Asia, and Africa, plus modern versions like the house elves of the Harry Potter series or whatever creature used to steal my socks from the laundry. By no means are all little folk house spirits nor are all house spirits pint-sized, but plenty are both, including Scottish brownies, German kobolds, Japanese zashiki-warashi, and Spanish trasgu.
A few household spirits with relatively fixed sizes compared to a human. From left, the lubber fiend (English), kobold (German), zashiki-warashi (Japanese), trasgu (Spanish), human, and kikimora (Polish).
A common way to keep household spirits happy—and trust me, you want them happy—is to offer them food. Brownies will do your housework for cream and milk with a small cake.13 A tomte demands a bowl of porridge with butter around Christmas for his work.14 In one story, the butter is playfully hidden at the bottom of the bowl, which results in an angry tomte killing the best cow on the farm. He does replace it with another cow stolen from a neighbor after finding his butter, but clearly it’s better to have that butter in plain sight!
As you might guess from the food offerings and mandatory respect, household spirits are sometimes a type of deity. Tomtar may have developed from ancestor worship since each is born from the spirit of the man who first founded a farm or “cleared the tomt,” and they frequently live in family burial mounds.15 They were also treated as pagan gods or even creatures of the Devil once Christianity became dominant in the region. Unusually successful farmers might be accused of harboring a tomte to benefit from their “ungodly work and stealing.” I can imagine the neighbor who lost a cow over the hidden butter probably got a bit steamed.
So, how do you fire a tomte? Well, many European household spirits will retire if “given new clothes.”16 We can see this in the Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale “The Elves and the Shoemaker” when the elves happily quit after the shoemaker gifts them new shoes and clothes. The story is likely based on one about Heinzelmännchen, a type of German house dwarf. In this version, the Heinzelmännchen cooked and cleaned for a tailor until his wife tried to trip them with dried peas so she could see one.17 J. K. Rowling’s house elves may have been inspired by the hob, which will serve generations of a family until gifted “a set of new clothes.”18 I haven’t seen any specific claims tomtar will do the same, though one nisse, after a milkmaid gave him new clothes, decided he was “too pretty” to continue working in a barn.19 Most of the time, though, a tomte comes with a farm and there’s nothing to do but give him his porridge.
Tomtar fit into several other categories as well. I’ve seen them compared to vættir or wights, a sort of general term for spirits,20 and they are sometimes shapeshifters as well.21 They may even have a single large eye instead of two, a feature far more common in Japanese yokai than European little folk. Many of their traits—great strength, love of porridge, etc—are also shared with their cousins the Norwegian nisse and the Finish tonttu. But isn’t there anything specific that marks a tomte as a tomte?
A tomte, at heart, is a grumpy old man with magical powers. And yes, tomtar seem to be exclusively male, though if you know of any tales about female versions, please let me know. One seemingly unique trait is their love for horses. A tomte may even braid the tail of his favorite, and woe to any who undoes that braid. Other common triggers for tomte rage are changing traditions or swearing in the barn. I imagine tractors and cars are especially disliked since they might replace the precious horses. I’ve even seen one claim that an angry tomte might express himself with a poisonous bite,22 though general mischief is a more common response.
A tomte may be a traditionalist, but the lore around this spirit has continued to evolve. Around the 1800s, first the nisse and then the tomte combined with the image of Santa Claus to produce the julenisse and the jultomten.23 Now a full-sized but not necessarily overweight man, the jultomte accompanies the more traditional julbock or Christmas Goat to deliver children’s presents to the front door. The modern term “tomten” usually implies this Santa-fied type.
I first encountered the word “tomte” not in a fantasy or a folk tale, but in a middle-grade story about homelessness. In Susin Nielsen’s No Fixed Address, Felix Knutsson has a four-inch felt tomte gifted to him by his Swedish grandmother/Mormor as his “own protector.”24 When he and his mother end up living in a van around Vancouver BC, Felix insists on bringing Mel the tomte with them. While Mel works no obvious magic, he is a grounding force for Felix. Mel falling with a phone into Felix’s grasp helps him decide to call the police when two drunk men attack the van.25 When his mother falls into a depressive “Slump,” Felix offers Mel a bowl of instant oatmeal with butter in hopes of improving their luck.26 When great luck twists into another disappointment, however, he throws Mel from a motel balcony.27 The story takes tomte lore from the Swedish past into the Canadian present, though the true magic is accomplished by the kindness unlocked in human hearts.
It turns out I had read about a tomte years ago without realizing it. The Wonderful Journey of Nils/Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige by Selma Lagerlöf was originally intended as an educational text,28 but its story of a boy touring Sweden with a flock of geese quickly became a classic children’s book. The mischievous Nils traps a clean-shaven tomte only “a hand’s breadth” tall in his home,29 only to be transformed into one himself in retaliation. The English version uses “elf,” but the first chapter of the original is clearly titled “Tomten.”30 Nils still resembles a boy in tomte form, with no noticeable magic or great strength. He is most convinced that he is no longer human not by his size but by his ability to communicate with animals and eat “raw fish.”31 I guess Selma never encountered sushi.
One of the most striking aspects in both Wonderful Journey of Nils and its sequel The Further Adventures of Nils is the fear humans have about meeting a tomte. Even when holding the true tomte in a butterfly net, Nils is frightened to speak to “something weird and uncanny.”32 After his transformation, he shrinks from approaching humans mainly because of how they may react to him. When he does speak to a girl to help her after her brother’s death, she slams the door in terror even though she later follows his instructions.33 Even a man who rescues Nils recalls how as a child he was “not permitted to cry or be naughty” to avoid bringing the wrath of “the tiny folk” under the floor.34 There are those that don’t believe and therefore don’t fear, but it shows how strong the notion of a tomte’s power remained at the beginning of the twentieth century.
A tomte and his porriage. Artwork by Bridget Sarsen.
It’s amazing how many names can apply to a little old man in a red cap! What names do you think fit the tomte? Or should he just be “tomte,” plain and simple? Also, if you’ve read either Nielsen’s or Lagerlöf’s work, I’d love to hear your thoughts on them. Or perhaps you’ve encountered a tomte by that name or another in other tales or media. If so, please share!
- Briggs, Katherine Mary, A Dictionary of Fairies: Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976), 429, https://archive.org/details/BriggsKatharineMaryAnEncyclopediaOfFairies/page/n267/mode/2up.
- McVan, John, “On Gnomes: From Alchemical Theory to a Fairy Tale Staple,” #Folklore Thursday, posted Oct. 17, 2019, accessed Jan. 6, 2021, https://folklorethursday.com/folktales/on-gnomes-from-alchemical-theory-to-a-fairy-tale-staple/.
- “PYGAMIES (Pygmaioi),” Theoi Greek Mythology, accessed Jan. 15, 2021, https://www.theoi.com/Phylos/Pygmaioi.html.
- Sampson, Anastacia, “Tomte – One of the Most Popular Scandinavian Mythological Characters,” Sweden.org.za, last modified Oct. 19, 2020, accessed Jan. 6, 2021, https://www.sweden.org.za/tomte.html.
- Kruse, John, “Gnomes and Gardens,” British Fairies, posted July 28, 2019, accessed Jan. 6, 2021, https://britishfairies.wordpress.com/2019/07/28/gnomes-and-gardens/.
- McCoy, Daniel, “Dwarves,” Norse Mythology for Smart People, last modified Dec. 29, 2020, accessed Jan. 16, 2021, https://norse-mythology.org/gods-and-creatures/dwarves/.
- Keightley, Thomas, The Fairy Mythology: Illustrative of the Romance and Superstition of Various Countries (London: Whittaker, Treacher and Co., 1833), 2: 17. Accessed through Google Books Jan. 6, 2021, https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Fairy_Mythology.html?id=uV4AAAAAMAAJ.
- Keightley, 15.
- Veronica, “Tomte,” Nightbringer, last modified July 24, 2017, accessed Jan. 15, 2020, https://www.nightbringer.se/lair_tomte.html.
- Keightley, 16-17.
- Christensen, Camilla, “The ‘Nisse,’” Legends of the North, posted Dec. 8, 2014, accessed Jan. 15, 2021, http://legendsofthenorth.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-nisse.html.
- Raven, Aurora, “Household Spirits,” Owls Gathering, posted Dec. 19, 2012, accessed Jan. 6, 2021, http://owlsgathering.blogspot.com/2012/12/ahousehold-deity-protects-ones-home.html.
- Fredriksson, Joan, “The Genealogy of the Swedish Tomte,” Swedish Press, Dec. 22, 2018, accessed Jan. 6, 2021, https://www.swedishpress.com/article/genealogy-swedish-tomte.
- Veronica, “Tomte.”
- Simpson, Jacqueline, “On the Ambiguity of Elves ,” Folklore 122 no. 1, (April 2011): 76-83. JSTOR (41306567), 77.
- Keightley, 30.
- Veronica, “Vættir,” Nightbringer, last modified July 24, 2017, accessed Jan. 18, 2020, https://www.nightbringer.se/lair_vaettir.html.
- Veronica, “Tomte.”
- Veronica, “Tomte.”
- Nielsen, Susin, No Fixed Address (New York: Wendy Lamb Books, 2018), 8.
- Nielsen, 219.
- Nielsen, 95.
- Nielsen, 256.
- Lagerlöf, Selma, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, trans. Velma Swanson Howard (Garden City: Doubleday, 1936), v, https://archive.org/details/wonderfuladventu0018582/page/n13/mode/2up.
- Lagerlöf, Wonderful, 7.
- Lagerlöf, Selma, Nils Holgerssons underbara resa genom Sverige (Stockholm: Bonnier, 1908), 13, https://archive.org/details/nilsholgerssons00lybegoog/page/n18/mode/2up.
- Lagerlöf, Wonderful, 28.
- Lagerlöf, Wonderful, 8.
- Lagerlöf, Selma, The Further Adventures of Nils, trans. Velma Swanson Howard (Garden City: Doubleday, 1917), 121, https://archive.org/details/TheFurtherAdventuresOfNils-Eng-SelmaLagerlof/page/n119/mode/2up.
- Lagerlöf, Further, 66.