If you go by modern depictions of them, leprechauns are lovable little creatures. They’re tiny little men in green top hats, full of Irish charm, and if you’re nice to them they might be able to take you to a pot of gold. They’re a staple of Irish folklore, dating all the way back. Some interpretations of the myth, which traces its origins all the way back to medieval times, depict them as solitary creatures, who’d prefer to spend their time fixing shoes, and will grant you three wishes in return for their freedom.
If you take the time to study them, though, the truth of the legend may be a little bit darker.
The word leprechaun, when translated literally from Old Irish, means ‘pygmy or sprite’, and makes its first appearance in Thomas Dekker’s comedy ‘The Honest Whore’ all the way back in 1604. You’ll find no charm, gold or rainbows in this tale, though. The creature is a fairy of ambiguous morality; making shoes was their sole occupation, and they had been placed on our Earth as a punishment from the Gods, who cast them out for their deceptive nature. They were buried in the Earth in crocks full of treasure in a time of great war, intended to be sealed there forever. It may be from here that their association with treasure comes, although they weren’t particularly keen to share it with passing humans. Leprechauns in this tale were the children of ‘degenerate fairies’, who were neither wholly good or wholly evil, but amused themselves by playing tricks on mortals.
Their distinctive green dress wasn’t present in their early appearances, either. That’s an affectation that started in the 20th century to make them seem a little more ‘Irish’ and cuddly. Leprechauns of yore wore different outfits, depending where in Ireland they might be found. Back in 1831, a novelist named Samuel Lover wrote of a leprechaun that wore a ‘red square-cut coat, richly laced with gold, and inexpressible of the same, cocked hat, shoes and buckles’. Even back then, they were creatures out of their own time, with the hats ‘cocked in the style of a century ago, over a little, old, withered face. Round his neck is an Elizabethan ruff, and frills of lace are at his wrists’. Their distinctive pointy hats, which revelers now wear with great abandon on St. Patrick’s Day, was even sometimes used as a weapon.
We made the leprechaun cute for marketing purpose. It was never designed to be that way.
The True Nature of Leprechauns
A book named ‘The Element Encyclopedia Of Magical Creatures’, written by John and Caitlin Matthews, connects the creature we now call the leprechaun to an eighth century legend about a water spirit named the ‘lurchopan’; which translates as ‘small body’. The water spirits would possess household fairies, turning them into mischievous creatures that haunted cellars and stole alcohol.
The form of their mischief often came in tricking humans, who wanted to capture them and either locate their treasure or be granted three wishes by their magical fairy powers. Folklore expert Carol Rose, in her book ‘Spirits, Fairies, Leprechauns and Goblins’, relates an ancient tale of a leprechaun who was captured by a man, and released in return for information regarding the location of his treasure. The man marked the tree it was buried beneath with a red garter so he could go away and find a shovel to start digging with, and when he came back, every tree in the field was marked with an identical red garter.
Leprechauns, in most cases, haven’t been portrayed as creatures who want to physically harm humans. In most cases, they seem to want to have a little fun at our expense, even if they do go on to reward us in the end.
Why Are They So Connected With Gold And Rainbows?
If you asked the average person to give you facts connected with leprechauns, they would probably tell you that they’re linked with both gold and rainbows. Usually the tales are intertwined; the leprechaun’s gold is located at the end of the rainbow, so all you have to do is find it and start digging it up. For that reason, we believe leprechauns can make us rich. Anybody who’s won money playing the Rainbow Riches Online Slot will tell you about how helpful a friendly leprechaun can be when you’re trying to earn a little cash! Strangely, though, quite how they came to be connected with gold in the first place isn’t clear.
Their occupation fixing shoes isn’t one that would usually make you rich, however as solitary creatures, they don’t go anywhere to spend their earnings. Maybe it all builds up over time and creates a fortune. Perhaps, as we said earlier, the connection is that they were buried in treasure crocks by their captors of old.
The rainbow link is easier to explain, and it’s all part of their deceptive nature. We all know that a rainbow doesn’t have an ‘end’ that touches the ground, no matter how much we’d like to believe otherwise. Therefore every leprechaun who’s ever directed a human to their pot of gold at the rainbow’s end was sending them on a wild goose chase. They are tricksters after all. Why would they give their money away so easily?
How Did We Come To See Them The Way We Do Today?
As with a lot of fairytales that were once darker stories, you can thank Disney for the lovable, friendly little leprechauns we see in fiction today. Their 1959 movie ‘Darby O’Gill And The Little People’ introduced the first recorded instance of the current stereotype, and the popularity of the breakfast cereal ‘Lucky Charms’ didn’t help either. Nowadays, we just accept the smiling, friendly leprechaun as the true face of the fairy, and the other side of their nature has largely been forgotten.
So, next time you’re enjoying a bowl of your favourite breakfast cereal, or playing your favourite online slot game, be a little wary of the little face that’s smiling back at you. He may not be the monster that Warwick Davis depicts in the 1993 horror movie ‘Leprechaun’, but he may not be all that interested in giving you a helping hand, either!