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A History of Leprechauns

December 28th, 2012 Seasonal

When you think of leprechauns, the first things that come to mind are probably small, bearded tricksters who adamantly guard a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But, it turns out there's a lot more to those little guys than you might think! Leprechauns are a significant part of Irish folklore, stretching all the way back to medieval times.

The origins of the word leprechaun are somewhat unknown. It's thought by some to have originated from the Irish term "leath bhrogan," which means shoemaker. Others assert that it comes from "luacharma'n," which means pygmy.

The earliest reference to leprechauns was made in a story known as "Adventure of Fergus, son of Léti," in which Fergus, an Irish king, falls asleep on the beach and wakes up to find himself being dragged into the water by three leprechauns. Fergus manages to break free and capture the creatures, who grant him three wishes in exchange for their safe release. To this day, a popular myth pervades that any human who successfully manages to capture a leprechaun will receive three wishes for his troubles.

Leprechauns are traditionally regarded as clever creatures, neither good nor evil. They tend to keep to themselves, guarding their gold and mending shoes while displaying an affinity for practical jokes.

According to the folklore, leprechauns are descendants of the Tuatha De Danaan, magical beings who made their way to Ireland on flying ships hundreds of years before the Celts arrived. After defeating the Fir Blog, who previously inhabited the land, they encountered the Celts and their iron swords about 2,500 years ago. It's said that the iron sword was the one weapon that could break through the Tuatha De Danaan's magical force field. In order to escape the Celts, they created magical portals to Ireland's underground and disappeared into the soil.

Irelandseye.com reports that leprechauns can be split into two separate groups - leprechauns and cluricauns. Cluricauns steal and wreak havoc in homes at during the night, and they have a penchant for drinking copious amount of wine and beer that isn't theirs.

While green is usually associated with traditional leprechaun garb, Time reports that their original color of choice was red. It wasn't until the 20th century, when people started to associate Ireland with green, did leprechaun depictions show them wearing the deep emerald color.

The elusive leprechaun has lived on throughout the centuries in literature and art. They're portrayed by the eighteenth century poet William Allingham in one of his works titled The Leprechaun; or, Fairy Shoemaker, in which he describes them as elfish, bearded creatures who wear glasses and leather aprons. William Butler Yeats, a poet with an affinity for Irish myth, also references them along with their mischievous counterparts cluricauns in his book Irish Fairy and Folk Tales.

Since the latter half of the twentieth century, leprechauns have been pervasive in pop culture. This is mostly seen in the General Mills cereal Lucky Charms, which was first produced in '60s. The cereal's mascot Lucky draws on the typical leprechaun depiction of a short man who wears green and dons a hat. Lucky Charms also plays on the mythical stereotype of the leprechaun treasure with a pot of gold-shaped marshmallows.

The folkloric Irish character also came to the silver screen in the 1993 with the appropriately titled movie Leprechaun, which was directed and written by Mark Jones and starred Jennifer Aniston. The movie takes the Leprechaun's troublesome characteristic and highlights it to the extreme, with a leprechaun going on a menacing spree as he searches for his pot of gold. The movie spawned sequels and spinoffs such as Leprechaun 2, Leprechaun's Revenge and Leprechaun in the Hood.

Today in the U.S. leprechauns continue to be synonymous with Irish culture through sports mascots, costumes and other mainstream references.