The Leprechaun is known by Americans to be a little red-headed man who hides pots of gold at the end of a rainbow. These tricksters, who make an appearance to the public every March, are now synonymous with Irish culture. However, outside of pop-culture, the opposite is actually true. The folklore behind the leprechaun is fascinating and goes back thousands of years in Celtic culture.
The Origin of the Leprechaun
Leprechauns are, simply put, mischievous fairies. Originating from the 8th-century text Adventure of Fergus son of Léti, these sprites were originally held to be water-dwelling beings who would play tricks on passersby. These beings gradually made their way onto the land, where they hid away in hills and ruins, only coming out to torment people who ventured near. Oddly enough, these beings spent their time cobbling shoes…for who, I don’t know. Leprechauns hoarded gold in an attempt to lure in people to play tricks on, but this sometimes backfired.
Legends held that a leprechaun if caught, would surrender his gold in exchange for freedom. Often though, the sprites were smart enough to get away, taking their gold with them. Gradually, this part of the myth evolved and became a central part of the public’s image of the leprechaun. William Allingham, an Irish poet, wrote of the being in his poem The Leprechaun or Fairy Shoemaker:
Lay your ear close to the hill.
Do you not catch the tiny clamor,
Busy click of an elfin hammer,
Voice of the Leprechaun singing shrill
As he merrily plies his trade?
He’s a span
And a quarter in height.
Get him in sight, hold him tight,
And you’re a made man!
Surprisingly, these beings were originally held to look more like goblins, clothed in red cloaks and small triangular hats. They did remain reclusive, and, interestingly enough, only male-no traditional tales tell of a female leprechaun. As story-telling evolved, leprechauns were given green garments and red hair.
Unfortunately, as Irish immigrants came to America, the image of the leprechaun became a stereotypical caricature of these displaced people. In Ireland, the fairy retains more of his classical features and is just one of the many sprites in Celtic folklore.