Why gnomes and fairies? - Mothering Forums
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Waldorf > Why gnomes and fairies?
smilla653's Avatar smilla653 10:53 PM 04-06-2006
DH was asking me this tonight as we were looking at Waldorfian toy gnome houses online, and I couldn't answer his question:

"What's the deal with gnomes and fairies with Waldorf? Did Steiner write something about it, or is it a cultural thing?"

mijumom's Avatar mijumom 02:50 AM 04-07-2006
There are others who are much more qualified to respond to your question (and I hope they do) but, I would start with imagination. It's very important in the Waldorf curriculum.
columbine's Avatar columbine 02:08 PM 04-07-2006
http://wn.rsarchive.org/Lectures/Pla...220528p01.html

The above is a link to a lecture by Rudolf Steiner concerning elemental beings (which includes gnomes)

In my KG training I was taught that RS could see these elemental beings, something which had been lost to man in recent consciousness. However, children under the age of 7 can apparently see gnomes but lose this ability afterwards. This is why they are such a big feature of KG.

He considered gnomes to be helpful elemental beings, along with undines, sylphs and fire spirits who are essential to the growth of plant life.
Autumn in KG often involves a lot of working in the earth as this is the time that the children can see that the gnomes are burying the seeds. They care for them over winter and push them up towards the surface in the Spring.

Gnomes are considered to be real, not in the imagination. So I was taught, anyway. One of our teachers was very scathing about our human concept of fairies, saying that we have a tendency to try to humanise these beings.

Hope this answers some of your questions.
mijumom's Avatar mijumom 02:30 PM 04-07-2006
Wow, some of that is really inspiring and some is just creepy (to me).

Columbine- Do you really think that most Waldorf teachers actually believe gnomes and fairies are real?
columbine's Avatar columbine 02:49 PM 04-07-2006
Quote:
Originally Posted by mijumom
Wow, some of that is really inspiring and some is just creepy (to me).

Columbine- Do you really think that most Waldorf teachers actually believe gnomes and fairies are real?
I honestly don't know as it wasn't really acceptable to say that one didn't! Certainly both my children's KG teachers did believe in gnomes. At a parents meeting in our first school when asked about gnomes by a parent, much as the OP has done, the teacher replied, "I think it would be best if you spoke to someone who has seen them".
I can only say that it seemed to me that to the people more deeply into Anthroposophy that I knew, this aspect of RS was highly thought of.
HelloKitty's Avatar HelloKitty 02:55 PM 04-07-2006
Great question. Interesting answers! I always thought it was just part of encouraging imagination, I had no idea they were actually supposed to be believed as real... FREAKY!
mijumom's Avatar mijumom 02:59 PM 04-07-2006
So, you don't think that it's more of a methaphor for the esoteric rather than a belief in gnomes and fairies as we know them from literature etc.?
columbine's Avatar columbine 03:21 PM 04-07-2006
First of all I want to apologise that my intention of being helpful may have been upsetting to anyone. I am really sorry if it has had that effect.

I was trained in and live in the UK so maybe there are differences in the US. However, I thought that these beliefs of RS were being presented to me as the original truth behind the stories that we hear from ancient times. That man used to be able to see the elemental beings and that now we know of them only through stories but that they do still exist.
HelloKitty's Avatar HelloKitty 03:38 PM 04-07-2006
Quote:
Originally Posted by columbine
First of all I want to apologise that my intention of being helpful may have been upsetting to anyone. I am really sorry if it has had that effect.
I'm finding your insight quite interesting, not upsetting.
muse's Avatar muse 04:05 PM 04-07-2006
Quote:
Originally Posted by columbine
First of all I want to apologise that my intention of being helpful may have been upsetting to anyone. I am really sorry if it has had that effect.
The more open and honest trained waldorf teachers are, the better, IMO.
LindaCl's Avatar LindaCl 07:46 PM 04-07-2006
Quote:
"What's the deal with gnomes and fairies with Waldorf?
They're lively little storybook figures that feature in Waldorf classrooms until maybe 1st or 2nd grade, until the children start outgrowing their enthusiasm with fairy land. Think "The Elves and the Shoemaker" or "Snow White in the Seven Dwarves". They come from the folk tradition--and in Waldorf, the fairy tale folk age is the "motif" (for lack of a better word) for the curriculum thru 1st grade. They serve a similar role in the children's play as "Tickle-Me Elmo"--children enjoy playing with toys of characters they "recognize from stories. There are also a lot of kings and queens and prince/sses and farmers and other such toy characters from the fairy tales.

Quote:
Did Steiner write something about it,
I have come to find out Steiner had something to say about everything . 6000 texts, about everything under the sun from Nietchze to cocaine.

Yes, Steiner wrote that fairies were what he called "elemental beings" which people in the 'olden days' could perceive but that we've lost that perception in the modern day (most, anyway). Gnomes were one type of fairy, and they weren't to Steiner these cute little men like we think of them, with the beards and smurf-like personalities, but they sound to me like little beings of forces that operate in the mineral realms in the earth. (Other elementals can also be found in the watery places, fire, and air.) Some anthroposophists believe in the existence in fairies (non-anthroposophists too--I read that it's almost universal in Iceland, for example).

I have this book by Marjorie Spock that talks about the subject, and also a collection of Steiner's assorted texts on the subject. The cute little gnomes in the kindergarten bare only a very passing resemblance to the "elemental beings" in Steiner (Both the toy gnomes and Steiner's gnomes seem to originate from within the earth, it's their natural home). But they're also very different from one another. In the kindergarten, gnomes are more like 'Sneezy' and 'Dopey' than the 'elemental beings', except they're created by hand out of wool or silk by Waldorf teachers and parents, not Walt Disney). The gnomes and fairies in the Waldorf classroom stepped straight out from Grimm's Fairy Tales and other folk stories, not Steiner.

Besides gnomes, Steiner described sylphs, salamanders, and undines as 'elemental beings'. And Steiner's particular ideas or descriptions of elemental beings is never presented to Waldorf students. It would be highly unusual if this were ever done.


Quote:
or is it a cultural thing?"
Oh yes. Very much a cultural thing. I think that most cultural mythologists see similar figures appearing in various folk traditions around the world, including fairies, though they can take on different 'personas' in these different cultures. In the US, Waldorf schools are still very much influenced by the European cultural tradition which shaped the very first Waldorf schools. But there's no reason it 'has' to follow it.

The gnomes and fairies and fairy tales are of the European tradition. Waldorf's view of child development is one in which the children at this age are experiencing themselves their own psychological 'folk consciousness'--that's why the folk tales are incorporated into the grades at this age. They are seen to 'dovetail' both the way the child looks at the world at that age, and what their particular developmental needs are at that age. But it isn't necessary to use European folk tales to serve this purpose. As Waldorf is moving into Japan, for example, the classroom teachers will try to use Japanese folk tales in place of the Brothers Grimm. I saw examples of work by newly trained Japanese teachers who were basing classwork around Japan's traditional stories.
LindaCl's Avatar LindaCl 08:38 PM 04-07-2006
Quote:
Originally Posted by columbine
I honestly don't know as it wasn't really acceptable to say that one didn't! Certainly both my children's KG teachers did believe in gnomes. At a parents meeting in our first school when asked about gnomes by a parent, much as the OP has done, the teacher replied, "I think it would be best if you spoke to someone who has seen them".
I can only say that it seemed to me that to the people more deeply into Anthroposophy that I knew, this aspect of RS was highly thought of.
This touches on one of the most difficult challenges for a Waldorf teacher.

Steiner makes it quite clear that 'falsity' with the children is not healthy. In other words, no teacher is ever to 'pretend' to believe in the material that is brought to their students.

However, Steiner doesn't want anyone, including teachers, to dutifully follow or 'believe' anything - he wants to completely dispense with this kind of gullibility or obedient 'belief' thinking and replace it with authenticity. That's the whole *point* to Waldorf education, to Steiner, 'belief' is not freedom.

He warned that there is a risk that anthroposophy could be misapplied this way. He warned that it shouldn't become absorbed as just another 'belief system'. And in many ways he cautioned that a person needs to come to the various ideas, etc., that he was working with in anthroposophy only AFTER having a well developed real life experience in practical, scientific, and other matters because then that individual was better prepared to bring to what he says fully *independent judgement*. This was great advice, imho. Unfortunately it sounds as if there are some Waldorf teachers that are doing just the opposite.

And anybody in Waldorf education that comes away from Waldorf training buying the idea it is a "deeply thought of" thing to believe in gnomes or whatever seems to have completely missed the boat. (Not you columbine--I mean those teachers you seem to tell of.)

So maybe Steiner was gullible himself thinking teachers could reconcile these two distinct lines of advice without undue confusion. *I* get it. But unfortunately, it doesn't sound like all Waldorf teachers do.

It is absolutely possible to believe in an archetypal truth or idea without adopting the "literal truth" of the existence of gnomes, be it from literature or Steiner's idea of 'elemental beings'. You don't have to bring the children either version. Bring one of your own that you think has universal truth that makes sense you. If you do not believe it, Steiner seems to insist, don't bring it to the children. Regardless of what it is. If you as a teacher are only bringing gnomes through the toys and stories and other imaginative features to the children because "Steiner said so" or because "Waldorf is supposed to", then it's false, and unhealthy for the children. Which is bad. Steiner says this much more firmly and unequivocally than he did anything about the existence of gnomes. As I see it, this 'truth' I think he's talking about isn't a religious, literal or scientific 'truth'--it's more an 'artistic' truth. If you can 'hear' truth in music, or 'see' truth in great painting or literature, or 'feel' moral truth from nature~~that's the kind of truth Waldorf teachers need to aspire to to be a great teacher.

Not this, not something such as this literal 'truth' that gnomes are real.

. Sorry for the rant--
mijumom's Avatar mijumom 09:09 PM 04-07-2006
Thank you. That was very thought provoking. I'm just not completely sure I get it. I have never promoted the idea of St Nick, The tooth Fairy, The Easter Bunny etc. prior to going to Waldorf. Do you think my son's teachers believe in these characters or are you saying the essence of what they represent is what they should believe in. I'm really serious here because I've had a really hard time saying "yep, St Nick came" when I obviously don't believe it. But, seeing the desire in my very sophisticated son to believe has compelled me to go along with these things.

I hope I'm making sense.
muse's Avatar muse 05:00 AM 04-08-2006
You and your child can believe whatever you want and still go to a waldorf school. In my experience nobody is going to try to talk you in to believeing something or be upset if you don't believe in it. But you have to be comfortable with stories and play that revolves around gnomes and the like. I can handle it because it all seems pretty harmless, and positive. I'd rather that than elmo or spiderman or whatever.

I was in the class the other day and the teacher said something about the little gnomes and a child asked, "gnomes aren't real are they?", and the teacher just quietly changed the subject. I found that irritating; I would rather she had just asked him, "What do you think?", but I could see she was doing it to just leave the possibilities for imagination and fantasy open.

Aside from gnomes, I had a much harder time with my son being told on his birthday that he was an angel that had come down to earth, as if it were absolute fact, and without any prior checking with me about whether that fit with our belief system or not. But it was also interesting that he really didn't take that part in. Kids seem to hear and believe exactly what they want.
Deborah's Avatar Deborah 11:44 AM 04-08-2006
Muse said:
Quote:
Kids seem to hear and believe exactly what they want.
You are absolutely right. I observed my daughter and many members of her class in first grade through seventh grade. They all had the same teacher, heard the same stories, created somewhat similar notebooks (although very far from exactly the same) and yet they all developed as individuals with varying ideas about what was important and how the world works.

As one example: in fifth grade my daughter came home one day and had to tell me something she had figured out. "People get born again and again. They come back!" She then explained that they had been hearing stories from Indian (as in India) mythology, the teacher had described reincarnation in one of the stories, and dd had felt that this was true, outside of the "story" reality. I don't think the rest of the class went home that day believing in reincarnation. This just happened to really click with dd.

Throughout her school years she was very good at taking hold of the pieces that really reverberated for her and just putting aside the stuff that didn't. I did the same thing as a child attending public schools (14 by the time I reached 8th grade).

Children are surprisingly hard to indoctrinate. You need a very simple theme and then a set-up where this theme is pounded into the children over and over and over again. This is not what happens in waldorf schools, where the curriculum is diverse...it is more like a buffet...in my experience.

Deborah

PS I would talk to the teacher directly about the birthday story. If this story doesn't fit with your family beliefs, the teacher needs to know about it. The birthday story is quite different from the various mythologies as it is clearly personal, not general.

PS2 I just remembered a first hand experience of indoctrination when I was perhaps 8 years old. My parents sent me for two weeks to "Christian" summer camp. Beats me why, as my family are Jewish and agnostic overall. It was probably really cheap. So the camp was seriously into indoctrination and after a couple of weeks I'd been "saved." However, a couple of weeks after I got home it had worn off and I went back to being my own self again. That sort of thing won't stick without constant reinforcement.
mijumom's Avatar mijumom 01:04 PM 04-08-2006
Oh, I'm not worried about indoctrination. I'm just saying that when my son has an "Easter Bunny" oriented event at school and comes home talking about the Easter bunny (and it has been reinforced by the teacher) then, when he comes home, I'm in the position of having to along with it or defying the status quo and bursting his bubble (which I won't do). I don't mind, it's just a path I wouldn't necessarily have taken if he wasn't exposed to it at school.

Same with many other characters that are supposed to actively do things (like St. Nick, Tooth Fairy, leprechons and I don't know what else there is).

Prior to school, he was vaguely exposed to these things through other friends and I never felt like it mattered if we did things differently. He had no investment in it. He didn't really believe in Santa. Now he believes (and I mean really believes) in all of it.

I'm willing to adapt my style but I didn't anticipate it. Nor him coming home talking about saints and Jesus (Jesus I think was just from another kid at school).

All of the figures have been positive influences and I really dig how imaginative he is. Some might not appreciate these things from a "non-religious" school.

All of that said, it doesn't take too much research or exploration to learn the prevelance of some of these things at school. I just took it at face value that as a non-religious school it would be different.
Attila the Honey's Avatar Attila the Honey 01:16 PM 04-08-2006
I've been reading this thread with a great deal of interest. Just as an aside I wanted to pipe in and say that my grandmother, who was born in the Black Forest in Germany in 1906, believed in gnomes, fairies and all manner of elemental spirits until the day she died, at 96 years old. She was a sane, intelligent woman (I swear!) and a devout Catholic, but this was a cultural belief that was very important to her. Most of my great aunts and uncles were the same way, including a great aunt that was a Catholic nun.

I grew up hearing stories about fairies, elves, gnomes and they were told to me as factual ("there was this man in our town that was tricked by a gnome..", for example.)

Sorry if I derailed the thread, I just wanted to pipe up.
RiverSky's Avatar RiverSky 01:27 PM 04-08-2006
I was very curious about the topic of gnomes a while ago and I created a poll asking "do gnomes exist?" and 25% of people who responded said that they did indeed believe in gnomes. Here is the link. Personally I was surprised that the number was so high.
sapphire_chan's Avatar sapphire_chan 01:53 PM 04-08-2006
Totally and completely off topic here:

I'm re-reading Mercedes Lackey's "elemental masters" series and wondering if she's read about Waldorf. In the world of these books most people have a balance of elements, but some have more of one element and can get the help of salamanders, slyphs, undines, or gnomes.

Anyway, back to your regularly scheduled thread...
Rhonwyn's Avatar Rhonwyn 12:15 PM 04-09-2006
There is a lot of difference between schools. Unlike mijumom's school, our Kindergarten teachers never talked about Santa or the Easter bunny. They did talk about St. Nicholas and it was celebrated in the school with the kids leaving out their shoes but the teachers were very clear about St. Nick and Santa not being the same. Instead of the Easter bunny, Lady Spring would come to the school after the spring parade and give every child a seedling to plant in their garden at home.
cielle's Avatar cielle 12:39 PM 04-09-2006
Quote:
Originally Posted by Attila the Honey
I've been reading this thread with a great deal of interest. Just as an aside I wanted to pipe in and say that my grandmother, who was born in the Black Forest in Germany in 1906, believed in gnomes, fairies and all manner of elemental spirits until the day she died, at 96 years old. She was a sane, intelligent woman (I swear!) and a devout Catholic, but this was a cultural belief that was very important to her. Most of my great aunts and uncles were the same way, including a great aunt that was a Catholic nun.

I grew up hearing stories about fairies, elves, gnomes and they were told to me as factual ("there was this man in our town that was tricked by a gnome..", for example.)

Sorry if I derailed the thread, I just wanted to pipe up.
Actually I think this is a good point. I have a friend who speaks german and lived there for a semester. She sort of thinks it's funny to watch people get all wrapped up and worried over Waldorf when to her it mostly looks like a bunch of people just trying to be German!
Rhonwyn's Avatar Rhonwyn 12:46 PM 04-09-2006
I read an article online at one of the mainstream news sites about Iceland and their building laws. There are places you cannot build because a gnome, or a troll, or a fairy, etc live there and if you built there it would be bad luck and piss off the elemental who would then wreck havoc on the project. The elementals are protected as much as endangered species. The reporter walked around with a native who pointed out what lived where. Obviously, the beings are very real to those who live in Iceland.
mijumom's Avatar mijumom 01:10 PM 04-09-2006
"There is a lot of difference between schools. Unlike mijumom's school, our Kindergarten teachers never talked about Santa or the Easter bunny. They did talk about St. Nicholas and it was celebrated in the school with the kids leaving out their shoes but the teachers were very clear about St. Nick and Santa not being the same. Instead of the Easter bunny, Lady Spring would come to the school after the spring parade and give every child a seedling to plant in their garden at home."



You know, I can't be certain how much he gets from other kids and how much is directly stated by the teachers. There's just way more of an acknowledgement than I'm used to. The Easter Bunny was definately addressed and St. Nick and I think leprechons. Like I said, I don't mind but some might. Am I off topic here? I just kind of think that there's more belief in imaginary characters (including gnomes and fairies) than other places.
LindaCl's Avatar LindaCl 03:02 PM 04-09-2006
I can't address whether classroom teachers are more likely to believe in fairies and such than the general population, but I doubt if any believe in the Easter bunny or tooth fairy.

I know that some, fundamentalists and atheists included, find a belief in beings like this to be very wrong. Waldorf teachers would probably not share that view. They're probably less embarassed to admit if they do believe in any of them themselves. (Which is fine with me--what I find distressing is the idea described earlier that Waldorf teachers are encouraged or *supposed* to believe in them, that this is desirable, or exalted, or whatever. WRONG!)

I know that some teachers are more expressive about what they believe than others in conversations with children. (Older children, I should say. When my children were small, personal conversations with the children just didn't take place much, if at all, so I can't really recall examples from the early grades) But in what I've witnessed in this regard, it's in a very respectful and personal way. These issues aren't "teachings" or "shoulds". It's hard to explain. For a similar example, my FIL believes his dead wife often comes to sleep with him at night, and he talks about it in a respectful and honest way. My children understand this as "his truth", and in a very different universe from "their truth". They don't get sucked in this intellectual "taking of sides" about how *real* this *really* is most of the time. It's very real to him, and they respect that. However, it's not *their truth*, and they don't perceive anybody expecting them to adopt it. They're like this with their teachers beliefs also, and their friends, who come from a variety of religious beliefs, many of them holding to specific *truths* adopted by those religions.

But I'm surprised how much things have changed in the last few decades. Easter bunnies and tooth fairies and Santa and leprecauns used to be mainstream--nobody thought twice of them when dealing with children. These characters appeared in nearly every school. They still do in my community. My town's recreation department sponsors Easter bunny appearances, and Santa rides through town every Christmas on a town firetruck, giving away candy in all the neighborhoods.
mijumom's Avatar mijumom 04:40 PM 04-09-2006
Hmmm. I'm not fundamentalist or atheist. I have a firm belief in God and I was drawn to the spiritual aspect of of Waldorf. I believe there is much magic and inspiration in things that we know are not fabrications. I have, prior to now chosen to focus on those things (like rainbows). That was enough before. Now the rainbows have pots of gold and leprechons on either side. I don't feel too passionate about all of this but it is a shift I hadn't anticipated seeing as we are not religious or traditional but more "spiritual" and progressive. I understand that Easter and St. Nick being Christian staples may be completely normal to some people but not to me and my kids. Now, in my little spare time, I will be shopping for goodies for an Easter Basket as my kids are expecting the Easter Bunny to arrive next week. I also had to ask St. Nick to come to our home because, due to our lack of knowledge about that ritual, my son didn't have his shoes out at school and missed out on him coming. You think I'm going to burst my kids bubble when it is something his sacred teacher is promoting. No way. I got treats and put them in the kids shoes.

You can't just say, oh, we don't do that or have that when it is integral to the school. I am sending him there and he has full faith and belief in what he is told there. Why would anyone pay this kind of money just to undermine the spirit of what the kids are absorbing? I think you either go with it or go elsewhere.

There is a big difference between "spiritual" and "religious". I think I expected it to be much subtler and less traditional.

Again, my kids are happy, they want to believe so I'm going with it. I've heard Waldorf referred to as based on "esoteric christianity", so far, that feels accurate.

The kids also made menorahs and study other cultures so that is reassuring to me. Still, the Jesus stories, songs about saints etc. are integral.

Peace.
muse's Avatar muse 05:32 AM 04-10-2006
Slightly OT here but DS just asked me where Winnie the Pooh lives, and in talking I realised he absolutely believes that Pooh is real. Just another example of how kids actually often CHOOSE to believe in things, whether we encourage it or not.
Deborah's Avatar Deborah 09:20 AM 04-10-2006
Human beings are odd in the way they relate to stories, and not just children. I'm a librarian and one thing we do regularly is book discussions. We mostly discuss fiction and I've noticed that people drift into talking about the characters in books as though they were "real." If asked, everyone would of course say, "Yes, I know this is fiction" but in order to enjoy fiction we have to let ourselves slide into feeling as though the people are real. The oddest thing is that one of the books in our most recent series was a memoir: and we were talking about the people in just the same way...

Separating the story from reality is just about impossible for children and it is healthier for them if they don't even think about the question.

As a child I can remember not being able to tell my dream experiences from my waking experiences and being confused about whether something "really" happened or not.

Deborah
knittingmomma's Avatar knittingmomma 11:23 AM 04-10-2006
This is a fascinating discussion. I have knit hundreds of little gnomes. However, they are not the old with very distinctive facial features. Instead, they are very gentle.

In "The Gnome Craft Book" by Thomas and Petra Berger, gnomes are described as follows:
"Story-telling tradition in many countries has handed down tales of encounters with the little folk - gnomes, dwarfs, leprechans or other kinds, depending on the region and surroundings. All of these are nature spirits, ususally found in remote forests and mountains, moors and farmland. Some people even have the gift of seeing them, and say they are like little men not m ore than two feet tall, with silvery beards and ruddyfaces, and are dressed in bright warm clothes, with pointed caps on their heads.
For rural communities, it has always been important to work in harmony with the little folk because this leads to prosperity and health. Gnomes traditionally helped the farmer or forester. They worked for the good of plants and animals and practised arts of healthing and caring."

The authors are from Europe, thus as a previous poster mentioned, seems to be very much a cultural influence.

I like to use them for imaginative play.

Warm wishes,
Tonya
mijumom's Avatar mijumom 01:10 PM 04-10-2006
I just think there is a difference between a child speaking of imaginary beings as if they are real and an adult doing so.

Some people are comfortable with it and some are not.

I think the point of this thread and where it has led was to make clear the use of gnomes and fairies in the Waldorf classroom. Obviously one can only get concensus on the symbolism and not how its used as it varies from school to school.

Parents are here to understand "what" they can expect at a given school not whether it is good or bad which is obviously too subjective to determine.
Rhonwyn's Avatar Rhonwyn 01:11 PM 04-10-2006
I find the mention of lepruchans and easter bunnies odd as our school never mentioned those. No talk about Jesus either. The only Jesus thing I ever saw was a picture of the Madonna holding the infant Jesus in the Kindergarten but the kid were never told who was in the picture. I asked my kids about it and they said it was a Mom holding her baby. It is a beautiful Renaissance painting and to my kids it was nothing more than that.

We celebrate St. Nicholas day at home but I am of German descent so it made sense. Most kids at school do not celebrate St. Nicholas day except for at school. The Jewish kids certainly don't celebrate the Easter bunny or Advent at home and neither do the Buddhist. Some do Soltice instead. My son celebrates Kwanzaa in class but we don't at home because we are not African American. The same could be said about Hannakuh which my kids are very jealous of (mulitiple days of presents). I have explained to my children that there are school celebrations and home celebrations. Some are the same and some are different. They are learning about many cultures and faiths but we only practice our culture and faith at home.
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