Europe’s East is alive with myth and legend. From the deepest recesses of the Black Forest to the towering peaks and deep mines of the Ural Mountains, this is a region steeped in folklore and terrifying tales filled with the antics of nymphs, gnomes, trolls, fairies and other, stranger, creatures that play with human lives for good and evil. Poland is no different, and Wroclaw is home to a mystical mix of both Polish and German folklore.
There was a time when these creatures from another realm would stay hidden from humanity, only rarely exposing themselves to our world. In doing so they passed into myth and legend, but no more. Everywhere you go in Wroclaw you see them. Small subterranean beings from the netherworld have reclaimed the light and roam freely among us.
Gnomes, or krasnale in Polish, are secretive critters. Very little is known of their lifestyles, courtship rituals or political and societal structures. The fact that most of them spend the majority of their time underground guarding the entrances to gold and silver mines and whatnot, doesn’t help. Nor does their diminutive size, and Wroclaw’s authorities have struggled to keep accurate records of how many live in the city today.
The country’s most eminent gnomeologists estimate close to 500 gnomes live here. Since they live to the ripe old age of 400 years old, this could well be an underestimate. Traditionally, gnome communities were patriarchies and while humans came to be familiar with the bearded, somewhat rotund, pointy hat-wearing males – many took up unpaid labour in human gardens to make ends meet – it was rare to see female gnomes.
Decades of gnomeagette protests demanding equal rights have led to change, and today you’ll see female gnomes on Wrolcaw’s streets. This social revolution is linked to urbanisation. Typically rural until the late 20th century, city life has had some negatives. Swapping a traditional diet of nuts, berries and seeds for burgers and kebabs has had disastrous health outcomes, and the community is dealing with an epidemic of teenage gnomes addicted to diesel car fumes.
This truly is a land where folklore has power beyond fairy tales. Perhaps it’s no surprise that these ancient folk became the symbol of an underground protest movement that fought communism in 1980s Poland. If you’d been in Wroclaw on 1st June 1988, you’d have seen an absurd sight. Ten thousand people marched in the streets wearing orange hats just like those worn by the garden gnomes that once proudly guarded my grandfather’s garden.
This was the ‘Revolution of the Gnomes’, and the culmination of years of gnome-related protest against Poland’s communist government. It came on the eve of the fall of the Iron Curtain, and was organised by Orange Alternative, a movement opposing oppression with “peaceful absurdity“. The brainchild of Waldemar Fydrych, images of gnomes, some claim they are dwarves, had been graffitied onto Wroclaw’s walls since the early 1980s.
A deliberately silly but symbolic challenge to the government’s all-powerful grip on people’s lives, groups would dress up as gnomes and gather in the streets. Since there’s no dignified way to arrest a gnome, the inevitable intervention by police became an act of rebellion that made the police seem ridiculous. While Orange Alternative’s gnomes can’t be credited with toppling the government, they clearly tapped into the Zeitgeist.
Arrested numerous times, Fydrych is one of those almost forgotten people who bravely played a part in undermining Polish communism. The proliferation of the Gnomes of Wroclaw since 2001 has revived this epic history of dissent, and spotting them as you walk around the city makes visiting Wroclaw all the more fun.