Leprechauns: Mythology of the Little People

Leprechauns are often stereotyped, misunderstood—especially in the United States—and even maligned, as in a series of 1990s horror films in which the leprechaun is a malevolent little beastie.

Leprechauns have been used to sell cereal (Lucky Charms) and as mascots for sports teams (the Boston Celtics). They have been portrayed as pyromaniacs (in an episode of The Simpsons), and their musical taste has been impugned—sentimental Irish music is called Leprechaun Music. And, of course, it is common knowledge that leprechauns have a pot of gold.

How does all of all of this “leprechaun lore” stack up to the leprechaun’s real place in Irish mythology? As with most fantasy figures, leprechauns have evolved over the years, and the most romantic aspects of their legend have survived.

A commonly accepted image of a leprechaun is of a small, old man with a red beard and wearing a top hat. He is often intoxicated, but never so drunk that he can’t ply his trade as a shoemaker or a tinker. The first sign that a leprechaun is near usually is the tapping of his hammer.

It’s unclear where the name “leprechaun” comes from. It may be from leath bhrogan, Irish for shoemaker, or it may derive from the Irish word luacharma’n for pygmy.

Leprechauns have not been around that long. They rarely are spoken of in folk tales, those stories that usually concern a human hero and are given a more formal telling. Leprechaun tales usually are told casually by locals and contain local names and scenery.

Only since the early 20th Century have leprechauns been depicted as wearing emerald green; the first leprechauns wore red, and their physical appearance varied depending on where in Ireland they lived.

Unlike the malicious creature in the Leprechaun films, leprechauns like solitude and usually avoid human habitations, although some have adopted human families and have even followed them abroad.

In general, though, leprechauns don’t have much use for humans, whom they consider foolish and greedy.

Leprechauns are cunning, mischievous and sometimes cranky, but they generally don’t harm people. They have a “gift for gab” and would be the life of the party, if you could get them to attend human parties.

Leprechauns do have a treasure, left by the Vikings when they plundered Ireland in the eighth and ninth Centuries A.D., which they bury in crocks of gold.

Because leprechauns are honest, if you capture one, he must tell you where he’s hidden his gold, but beware of his tricks. You can hold a leprechaun in place with your eyes, but if you glance away, he will vanish.

Each leprechaun carries two leather pouches, one containing a silver coin and the other a gold coin, to bribe captors to set him free. But both coins are bewitched; once the leprechaun has paid his ransom and gained his freedom, the silver returns to his purse, and the gold turns to leaves or ashes.

Copyright 2013 by David Kubicek

This story may be reposted on other websites and blogs if credited to the author.  Publication in any other form must be by permission of the author.

Categories: History, Irish, Mythology

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