Traditionally, gnomes are most often represented as gnarled, wrinkled, hunched old men who have been assigned to guard some ancient treasure. Over the years, the entities have been confused with images of mischievous elves, fun-loving fairies, or dwarves working in diamond mines, but classically, the role of the gnome is that of a supernatural guardian who can release the treasures of the earth to the earnest alchemist or magician. The gnome, according to the alchemists of the Renaissance, had the ability to move through the earth in a manner similar to a human moving through air or a fish through water. The alchemist would seek to invoke the energy of the salamander, a lizardlike entity whose element was fire, and the gnome, whose element was earth, and combine their energies with air and water to create gold from base metals.
The name applied to the guardian of the earth's treasures is thought to be derived from the Greek "genomos," earth-dweller. Popular images of little men and women with pointed hats who inhabit flower gardens and forests have most likely confused gnomes with elves.