The Legend of the Leprechaun
- By Jenna Maxwell
Leprechauns: An Irish Folklore Legend
When you think of St. Patrick's Day, what is the first thing that comes into your mind? You would not be alone if the initial thing you associate with St. Patrick's Day is that wee, mischievous little leprechaun; all decked out in his bright green clothing. Where in the world did this strange and mystical little imp come from? What is it about the leprechaun that fascinates us? And more importantly, what does the leprechaun have to do with St. Patrick's Day? Many of us today consider the leprechaun as something akin to that cute little fellow on the Lucky Charms cereal box or just as a simple symbol of good luck. The truth of his history goes far deeper. Although the Irish leprechaun is very popular today, his roots are found in the deepest parts of mystical Irish folklore.
History of the Leprechaun
Legends of leprechauns and other types of mystical fairies have been a part of Irish tradition for centuries. In fact, the leprechaun has been around for so long that he even predates St. Patrick himself by over a millennium. Thousands of years ago before the time of the Celts, a legendary and mythical tribe of people known as the Tuatha De Danann ostensibly lived in the lands of Ireland.
There is a lot of mysterious folklore and superstition regarding this magical and mystical settlement of people. Legends teach that the tribe members of Tuatha De Danann were the descendants of the Goddess Danu. Supposedly these ancient people were also gifted with unique, supernatural powers including various types of magic. The people of Tuatha De Danann were also gifted artisans and poets. The sun god named Lugh Lamfada, or the long-armed warrior, ruled over the Tuatha De Danann for many years during which Ireland enjoyed a peaceful time of prosperity, from about 1897-1700 BC.
Eventually, the Tuatha De Danann were defeated and taken over by a group of people known as the Milesians. After their overtake, the Tuatha De Denann were allowed to stay and live in Ireland but were forced to reside underground. These folks were compelled to live out their lives in the shadows, living as mystical fairies. From this time in history forward, the Tuatha De Danann would be known as the "fairy folk" or "good people" of Ireland. Entrances to the world of fairies became the stuff of which good legends are made, the access ports to the fairy dwellings becoming known as faerie forts or fairy rings. These earthen mounds were said to be the simple homes of the fairy folk, and the ancient remains of some of these abodes are still found in Ireland today.
Leprechauns, like most other fairy creatures that are a part of Irish folklore, likely have been created from the legends surrounding the Tuatha De Danann. The word "leprechaun" comes from the word, Luc-RUP-an, which means, "a pygmy, sprite or small-bodied fellow." The leprechaun likely came to be the imagined consensus of many types of Irish fairies with qualities and characteristics that seemed to evolve through time. Historically, Irish legend spoke of very small male fairies that inhabited the lands of Ireland. Tales of these bizarre beings have been passed on for generations, and a great deal of superstition surrounds these ancient stories. Irish folklore has described the leprechaun, as being a supernatural yet solitary creature that is prone to being a bit crotchety, yet ironically the leprechaun also tends to have a distinct mischievous streak.
The visage of the Irish leprechaun has changed a bit through the years. Although the leprechaun has always been considered to be a very small statured male fairy, his appearance has changed somewhat as time has passed. Leprechauns have always been considered to be mystical, and most legends tell of leprechauns possessing some magical powers.
Traditionally, the leprechaun is a shoemaker by trade. It is rumored that when you near the hidden hovel of a leprechaun, if you listen carefully you can hear the telltale tapping of his shoemaker's hammer. How these miniscule cobblers amassed their massive wealth from making shoes is unknown, but Irish myth teaches that these unusually greedy and miserly leprechauns will hoard their fortunes, hiding their gold carefully away in secret stashes. Irish tradition also says that sometimes the leprechaun will hide his riches in pots strategically hidden at the end of rainbows.
Although most of the time leprechauns are associated with the color green, the earliest tales of leprechauns had them preferring to dress up in the color red. During the twentieth century, most everything Irish became associated with the color green, eventually including even the leprechaun. Perhaps the adjustment to his wardrobe and ditching the red apparel made it easier for him to camouflage himself. Today most leprechauns are depicted wearing a brightly colored green coat, matching green top hat, spiffy black shoes and a belt with a large buckle. The leprechaun will sometimes adorn his cap with a four-leaf clover.
Legends surrounding leprechauns go back for centuries. The leprechaun has always been associated with mischief, however, and although he has often been labeled as a rather cantankerous and crusty fellow, he's also known for being quite clever. People have been trying to capture and outwit leprechauns for hundreds of years, and the truth is, although capturing a leprechaun could prove to be lucrative, historically it is not so easily done.
As far back as medieval times, stories of these playfully malicious fairies have been told and retold. One ancient saga tells of a king named Fergus Mac Leti, who awakens from sleeping on the beach when a group of small sprites (or leprechauns) try to drag him into the sea. After subsequently capturing the cagey leprechauns, Fergus is granted three wishes by the reluctant captives. One of the wishes Fergus requests is to gain the ability to breathe underwater. He is granted this wish, but the sneaky leprechauns make a small but deadly caveat to the ability. Fergus will not be able to use this underwater breathing skill in the Dundrum Bay of Ulster. Of course, Fergus eventually attempts to swim there in spite of the condition, and while doing so, has a nasty confrontation with a truly evil sea monster. During this underwater kerfuffle, Fergus becomes so frightened that his face becomes permanently contorted into a look of utter terror, which necessarily disqualifies him from being the king, forever.
Although stories of people attempting to capture a leprechaun have been around for centuries, doing so is clearly complicated. Most leprechaun tales that exist in Irish folklore today involve a crafty leprechaun outwitting a human. Leprechauns are notoriously capricious and can't be trusted. In spite of all the downsides, Irish folklore does indicate that if you do capture a leprechaun you are entitled to having three wishes granted. Sometimes a captive leprechaun can also be coerced into revealing the location of his secret trove of gold to ensure his immediate release--but attempting to steal from a leprechaun can be somewhat dangerous. Keeping a constant eye on the leprechaun once captive is imperative. One glance in another direction usually means the leprechaun can and will escape, slipping clean away and out of sight. Leprechauns are well known for being experts at distracting humans and even once captured, these stealthy sprites usually find a way to elude their captors.
St. Patrick's Day and The Leprechaun
There is no real or direct connection between St. Patrick's Day and the elusive, playful leprechaun. As the celebration of St. Patrick's Day has become more and more popular among the masses, many symbols of the Irish have all sort been lumped together and used as part of the celebrating this favorite Irish holiday. For that reason, the leprechaun himself has become not only a symbol of St. Patrick's Day, but also a symbol of very good fortune.
The modern image of the leprechaun embodies many popular Irish symbols of good luck as well as some old stereotypes that were used against Irish immigrants when they came to America during the great potato famine. The leprechaun dresses himself in the very fortuitous color of good luck green. His traditional suit is often adorned with a shamrock, itself a symbol supposedly used by St. Patrick himself to teach people about the Holy Trinity. Leprechauns are also frequently depicted as being very fond of drinking, their favorite beverage being Poteen or moonshine. Often possessing various musical talents, leprechauns have been known to play various musical instruments such as the tin whistle, fiddle or the Irish harp.
In 1959, Disney released a movie that may be responsible for much of our modern vision of the leprechaun. In the film "Darby O' Gill and The Little People," the leprechaun is depicted as a more cheerful, friendly creature. During most St. Patrick's Day celebrations, media campaigns, and parties, this happier more festive version of the leprechaun seems to be the one most preferred by the majority of people.
How to Capture a Leprechaun
It's possible that you've been thinking about attempting to capture a leprechaun. Since elementary school, many of us have had the notion of building an effective trap and catching a real, live leprechaun. Legend says that if you are fortunate enough to catch this diminutive and elusive lad, he will be required to tell you where he's hidden his gold. Others say upon capture, the leprechaun is required to grant three wishes to his captor. Most of us have never known anyone lucky enough to catch an actual leprechaun. Rumors still abound, however (especially this time of the year) and apparently there are plenty of those out there that are quite adamant about trying some leprechauning. (The technical term for the sport of trying to capture one of the wee people.)
Preparation For The Hunt: Know Your Target
Before you even think about attempting to capture a leprechaun you have to do some basic reconnaissance. Knowing some of the behavioral tendencies of the leprechauns will help you to understand his potential weaknesses and vulnerabilities, making his capture easier. Since leprechauns are shoemakers by trade, if you hear the tap, tap, tapping of a hammer you may be nearing leprechaun territory, so be on alert. Leprechauns tend to be very intense and engrossed in their work. Thus, attempting capture while they are working is a good strategy--that is if you are lucky enough to come upon, or find their workshop. As mentioned before, the best clue is the hammering noise, so listen carefully.
Leprechauns are notorious for being sneaky, tricky, a bit cagey as well as very mischievous. A dastardly leprechaun has outwitted many a human. You can't assume that because he's small of stature and has rather goofy way of dressing that he's not a force to be reckoned with because that is simply not the case. You are going to have to come up with a very carefully crafted plan in order to have even a modicum of success on your hunt, and even then the odds are stacked against you. Of utmost importance is assembling some essential supplies to have on hand for your leprechauning quest.
A successful day of Leprechauning will require:
In addition to being cantankerous, leprechauns are pretty greedy money hoarders, and you will want to take advantage of this weakness as you set up your leprechaun lair. Rig the large camouflage net in a tree or up high enough where a leprechaun won't see it. (The average leprechaun is only about two feet tall, so it doesn't have to be extremely high to be out of his vision.) Tie the netting so that it is held up with a rope or string. When the leprechaun is in the right place, you will tug on the string, releasing the net on top of him, trapping him. In order to lure the leprechaun into the trap, fill the treasure chest or pot to the brim with the play gold coins. Leprechauns cannot resist the power of gold and will be very tempted by this potent lure; plan carefully and use it wisely. The large box will come in handy to put the leprechaun in after his capture so you can keep him secure until he leads you to his hidden treasure.
In order to draw the leprechaun into your trap, you will need to attract it with the noise of an appropriate horn. An English Horn is most preferred, but most folks don't have access to an instrument quite this elegant, so in a pinch a squeaker horn should do the trick rather nicely. Dress up as a leprechaun (this will confuse him if he accidentally spots you) or you can also dress up in camouflage gear to help you hide in the bushes more effectively. Once you have your trap set and are wearing your disguise and have all your gear set in place, it's time to hide and begin to toot the squeaker horn. At this point, it's time to wait--and this part could take awhile. In fact, you should plan on having some snacks on hand in case you become cranky and irritable while you are waiting for a leprechaun. Catching leprechauns is a tricky business with little reward and mostly big letdowns. With a wee bit o' luck, very grand treasure may wait. But only you can ultimately decide how much effort you want to put into what is likely a risky undertaking. Some folks say that whether you ultimately catch a leprechaun or not, the journey and adventure found while out leprechauning are all well worth the effort.
If the leprechauning doesn't go so well, do not dismay. There's likely an Irish Pub somewhere nearby with a pint of Guinness with your name on it--or there's always next year. In any case, we're very sure your friends will enjoy hearing all about your escapades.
Today in the United States, the leprechaun and St. Patrick's Day are irrevocably entwined. Whether you consider the leprechaun a character representing mischief, mysticism or just a bit o' luck, there is no doubt that when you see a very short, red-bearded fellow dressed all in green, you know who he is. The leprechaun has not only become an iconic representation of St. Patrick's Day, but clearly he's also a huge part of what most of us consider the luck o' the Irish.
Do you want a few tips on how to create a lucky leprechaun look of your very own? Check out our informative how-to video on creating an exciting leprechaun look that is perfect for your next St. Patrick's Day celebration!
Happy St. Patrick's Day from your friends at Halloween Express!
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