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What is a Leprechaun, Are They Real, and Why in Irish Legends

GA Anderson writes about mystical and psychological symbol interpretations and how to apply them to your dreams.

Irish Leprechauns, Pots of Gold, and Rainbows

Leprechauns are impish little elf-like fellows dancing through the woods, popping in and out of sight, and always leading you away from their treasures.

A symbol of good times, fun, and the Irish. That's the modern day image of leprechauns, but it hasn't always been that way.

To understand the legends and myths of leprechauns, you first have to ask "What exactly are leprechauns, and why are they always associated with rainbows, pots of gold, and Ireland?"

Leprechaun hat and pot of gold

Leprechaun hat and pot of gold

Celtic Music as You Read

The Leprechauns Legend


The origin of the legend of leprechauns doesn't start with good times, it starts with conquest. The behavior of popping in and out of sight wasn't playfulness, but a result of banishment.

And their pots of gold didn't come from rainbows, but the seas.

Why Ireland? Because of an invasion.

Discover all this and more as the story of the leprechauns travels banismentment to from surly old shoemaker to party animal.

The evolution of Leprechauns

*see composite image components citations

*see composite image components citations

From Tuatha de Danann to Leprechaun

The story of leprechauns begins with an invasion and conquest early in Ireland's history. In the 11th century Book of Invasions, it is told that the Milesians, (a Mediterranean people), invaded Ireland and conquered the early Irish inhabitants, the Tuatha de Danann, and forced them to live underground.

This was the beginnings of the leprechauns trait of popping in and out of sight.

At the time, leprechauns were a normal sized people, but as time passed and the legend grew, to comport with their underground habitat, their stature also began to become seen as smaller. A more befitting image for things that live under the earth.

Ireland Home of the Leprechaun Legend

Leprechauns are associated with Ireland because that's where their legend began.

The popular common name, leprechaun, was derived from the Irish word leipreachán, defined by Patrick Dinneen, an Irish lexicographer and historian, as "a pigmy, a sprite, or leprechaun - in the late 1800's, but the legend of the leprechaun was first recorded in the 11th century. In a book of early Irish history, and its invasions and conquests.

Patrick Dinneen - father of leprechaun  oil portrait by Yeats

Patrick Dinneen - father of leprechaun oil portrait by Yeats

The Leprechaun: Shoemaker to Mischievous Imp

If you ask anyone born from the mid-twentieth century forward, what a leprechaun is, the most probable description will be of an elfish little imp that loves to play practical jokes, always wears green, and has a pot of gold hidden at the end of the rainbow.

And is Irish of course. Leprechauns have become almost a national symbol for Ireland.

That stereotype is further nurtured by the popularity of St. Patrick's Day celebrations and parties. After all, every good party needs a little fun, a little drink, and an iconic symbol to represent the celebration.

Thus began the transformation of the leprechaun.

The Early Image of The Leprechaun

The early legends of the leprechauns, (vanquished Tuatha de Danann), portrayed them as almost normal-size people, whose primary occupation was making and mending shoes.

Leprechaun Shoemaker

Leprechaun Shoemaker

Frequently portrayed as dressed in cobbler's attire and apron, working on a shoe in their lap, or counting their coin, (as in this wood-carving etching ), they were seen as old, surly, and gnarled from a lifetime of bending over lap-work.

Another part of this early portrayal relates to their now famous pot of gold. They were said to have been so miserly that they kept every coin earned in a black pot that could be easily hidden.

Irish Poets Redefine the Leprechaun's Appearance

The Irish take their legends and history seriously, and both were heavy influences on Irish literature, which, although not the birth mother, was the nurturing mother that developed the image of the leprechaun to that of a magical little imp or fairy.

Combined with the rise of Christianity in Ireland, (the church needed to diminish the power of magical legends), the physical bearing of a leprechaun became that of a rather small fellow, or even a relative of a fairy.

When Irish poets and story tellers started writing and talking about Leprechauns, they had to be a little more descriptive. One early example, as described by Samuel Lover, writing in 1831, describes the leprechaun as:

... quite a beau in his dress, notwithstanding, for he wears a red square-cut coat, richly laced with gold, and inexpressible of the same, cocked hat, shoes and buckles.

TRADITIONAL gREEN CLAD LEPRECHAUN

TRADITIONAL gREEN CLAD LEPRECHAUN

how-to-stop-a-mailbox-thief


A later portrayal by William Yeats is similar in most ways, but describes them more as solitary fairies, that wear red jackets. He went on to say that "trooping fairies," (different from leprechauns), wear green. This may have been the start of "Irish green" becoming the color of the leprechauns.

The Gold, the Magic, and the Rainbow

The concept of leprechauns and their pots of gold has two possible beginnings, one of which also ties into the legends of their magical abilities.

Besides the apparent magic of popping in and out of sight, leprechaun legends also say that if you catch a leprechaun, he has to give you his pot of gold, or, grant you three wishes if you let him go.

Leprechaun and Pot of Gold

Leprechaun and Pot of Gold

The rumored magic of leprechauns goes all the way back to the beginning, to the Tuatha de Danann. Old folk tales have it that they had magical powers, that they could command the waves of the seas*.

So while later depictions show them as miserly leprechaun shoemakers saving their coins in pots, the older folk tales say they got their gold from lost ship's treasure they found on the sea bottoms around Ireland.

*the old Irish folk tale version of the Milesian invasion says that the invaders were persuaded by the Tuatha de Danann to go back out to sea, a distance of 9 waves, and if they were able to return and once more take the island, they would be given all the gold and treasures of the Tuatha de Danann.

The Milesians agreed, but as soon as they were "9 waves" distant from the shore the Tuatha de Danann conjured up a great storm that sank their ships. But alas, the Milesians had left two of their warrior kings on the island, and when they saw what happened - they conquered the island again and banished the Tuatha de Danann to live underground

Just as the image of the leprechauns changed with the ages and the telling, it would seem likely that the origin of their pots of gold did also, and the magical beginning of the Tuatha de Danann version seems the more likely seed for the image we have of them today.

Leprechaun's Magical Rainbow

Leprechaun's Magical Rainbow

Leprechauns and Rainbows...

The rainbow in leprechaun lore has nothing to do with the being Irish, or Ireland, but everything to do with one physical attribute of rainbows. Namely, have you ever seen or found the end of one?

Of course not, because in reality the end of a rainbow is an illusion.

From a distance, a rainbow does look like it goes right down to the ground, and you could walk right up to it. But they don't. They end in the atmosphere, not on the ground.

Rainbows are merely light rays refracting through atmospheric water droplets. They are circular, and have no end.

And that fits perfectly with the magical ability of leprechauns to pop in and out of sight, and never get caught. What better place to hide a pot of gold than in a place that can never be found, because it isn't really there.

Irish Legends and Lore

Leprechaun and Pot of Gold

Leprechaun and Pot of Gold

Modern Day Leprechauns

Tracing the legend of the leprechauns started with their 11th century beginning in the story of the conquest of Ireland. Here they were portrayed as a magical but banished people.

Then, through the history of Irish poets and story-tellers into the late 1800's and early twentieth century, where they became a little more friendly and colorful, there still remains the leap to today's image of leprechauns.

How did the leprechauns of lore become the happy, beer-drinking, dancing and mischievous little imps of today.? Money and good times of course.

The Irish have a storied history of drink and dance, and good times. What better way to promote Ireland and capture some tourism dollars than promoting the lore of leprechauns. Tied in with the famous Irish St. Patrick of course.

So make those little imps cute and impish, add a little commercialization, and it's a win-win for everyone. Ireland wins. The celebrants win. And the modern day Leprechaun is born.

© 2012 ga anderson

What is a Leprechaun and Why Are They Associated with Ireland Comments

Nicole Brock on February 01, 2017:

I think i accidentally recorded a leprauchon when i was walking around the house with my phone and didnt know it was on record. Something whooshed by the camera and then laughed a little devilish laugh and disapeared into my stuff. Im kind of freaked out to even go to bed after i noticed that video in my stuff that i didnt even know about. Now i was just looking up if they are real because that is the kind of feeling i got about the thing like it was being mischievious.

Hopefully its nice lol. I have gotten some weird scratches lately though like one long one down my whole arm and then one with three scratches on my leg that is taking long to go away and i never recall getting those scratches. Another weird thing is how i read some thing online anout leaving three gold painted pebbles outside the door for good luck with money. I got some decorative ones already made to use in flower pots and then put a few by the door outside and they would disapear, so i kept replacing them and theyd always disapear so i then tried a more hidden location on window ledge in case kids in the apartments were just taking them but still theyd disapear and now its like theres a lepraucon or something weird in here. Already before all that theres been other weird stuff here too and its not only my apartment. Lots of people have crazy stories. I wonder if you can really catch them or if thats all jokes on youtube?

ga anderson (author) from Maryland on March 16, 2012:

@grandmapearl - thanks for reading "What is a Leprechaun and Why Are They Associated with Ireland," and taking the time to leave such a nice comment.

and the votes too of course

GA

Connie Smith from Southern Tier New York State on March 16, 2012:

Wonderful Hub! I most especially enjoyed listening to the Irish music as I read. A stroke of genius, it really set the mood. I had no idea of the origins of leprechauns. Thanks for the history and all the images. Perfect for St. Patrick's Day. Voted Up and hit a lot of buttons. Also shared. :)

ga anderson (author) from Maryland on March 15, 2012:

@Simone - thanks for the visit and comment. Yes, you are right, from a seed grows a tree

GA

ga anderson (author) from Maryland on March 15, 2012:

@Maddie - Thanks for reading "What is a Leprechaun and Why Are They Associated with Ireland," and taking the time to comment

GA

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on March 15, 2012:

I had no idea that leprechauns had such an interesting origin story! I love how concepts evolve over time, and totally enjoyed reading about how this particular figure has changed over the centuries. Very fascinating.

Maddie Ruud from Oakland, CA on March 15, 2012:

Thanks for putting this together! It's great to see the history of the leprechaun laid out so clearly.

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