Folkloric Origins: Leprechauns

Leprechauns originate from Ireland and are said to be male fairies that specifically make shoes and guard gold; they are very tricksy and difficult to catch, but if they are caught, sometimes they grant wishes. Leprechauns are not cute the way Americans depict them but rather ugly little goblin-like creatures that are often the makers of shoes; it is thought by some scholars that the word comes from ‘leath brogan’, meaning “shoemaker”.

One possible origin of the leprechaun is from the Lugh tale; he was the god of the sun and light, but when Christianity swept through Ireland, this warrior god became much smaller in size because he was no longer believed in like the sidhe (pronounced “she”); then this mighty figure became a fairy craftsman in popular imagination.

Leprechauns also possibly come from water sprites called lúchoirp or luchorpáin and are very mischievous spirits who attempt to trap a folk hero-king in the water who then later mated with household fairies to become drunkard, trickster fairies.

There’s the clúracán (or cluricaune), a specifically male tiny figure that lives in cellars because they love to smoke and drink people’s wine; they wear red clothing and at times carry silver coins with them. If the clúracán was the true antecedent of the leprechaun, then the reason behind its change of clothes is probably that green is associated with Ireland in general and the silver coins became gold probably because the value is higher/more lucky if you find his coin-filled pot.

There is disagreement among scholars about the true nature of where the word ‘leprechaun’ originates from, though it seems as if the leprechaun we know and love today is a mish-mash of all of these stories. It’s also important to note that the Irish people were very respectful to all such beings because they were frightened of them.

Then there’s the pot of gold detail; why would a leprechaun have or need gold anyway? It could be simply to trick humans (some stories have fairies trapping people in fairy world or simply outwitting them so they don’t get the gold) or like the dragon, who has no real need for gold, it could also simply be something valuable to the creature but not in the way we think of it. And why is it at the end of the rainbow? This is unclear as well, but it is most likely another trick from the leprechaun since there is no end to the rainbow as humans perceive it, so humans will never findit.

It is said there are no female leprechauns, so how do they breed? Another folklore tidbit answers this: they are deformed children of fairies, possibly even cast out from fairy society. When a fairy leaves a sick or deformed child of its own (they have even been known to enchant a block of wood for this purpose) to kidnap a human child. Unfortunately, most likely this is how people explained disabilities in their children and at times, used it as justification for murdering them way back when. The human babies said to be kidnapped become slaves to the fairies.

Today, the leprechaun is a symbol associated with St. Patrick’s Day, a Christian holiday that celebrates St. Patrick, but in modern day is really a celebration associated with everything Irish; the leprechaun functions as a way to enchant children with tales of gold at the end of rainbows that are guarded by mischievous, funny little men. There is no fear in this Americanized holiday, only fun, crafts, and the imagination of Irish folklore. St. Patrick’s Day for adults is more of a drinking holiday with lots of green present because if you’re not wearing it, you’ll be pinched!


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