Celtic culture is ripe with legends and myths that help to entertain and explain the mysteries of life. Among such lore are leprechauns, which are mythological figures that continue to impart whimsy into St. Patrick's Day celebrations even now.
The word "leprechaun" is derived from the Irish lu chorpain, meaning "small body." Various attributes have been used to describe leprechauns. While the origins and the history surrounding leprechauns differ, one common thread is that these creatures are surrounded in magic. Some believed leprechauns were descendents of the Goddess Danu and the Tuatha De Danaan. They inhabited Ireland long before the Celts arrived, and when the Celts did come, brandishing iron swords that could penetrate the leprechauns' magic, leprechauns fled to underground abodes in the soil shielded by magical, hidden entrances. Some say leprechauns still reside under the damp soil.
Other stories describe leprechauns as smart, devious creatures of fairy folk who were the only fairies to have a profession other than cattle trading. Leprechauns were shoemakers to the fairies who took the shape of men wearing green or red coats and hats and participated in mischief. Leprechauns hoarded all of their gold coins in a pot under a rainbow. Catching a leprechaun was tricky, as these "wee folk," as they were often described in folk tales, were quite adept at remaining out of arm's reach. Should one be captured by a human, folklore stated that the leprechaun must grant three wishes to earn his release.
Some viewed leprechauns as serious sorts, keeping people away from sacred places and helping to control people's behaviors. Historians believe this was one for leaders to establish societal rules.
Descriptions of leprechauns and tales of their antics have survived in Ireland for centuries. When the Irish began emigrating to America during the Great Potato Famine, they brought with them their mythology and stories. However, the tale of the leprechaun has changed over time.
The Irish-American view of the leprechaun differed from the more traditional Irish view. Americans saw leprechauns as frivolous and silly. Leprechauns were depicted with broad, pug noses and out-of-style ratty clothing. Many negative stereotypes Americans directed at the swarms of Irish immigrants arriving in the United States were exemplified in the insensitive and, at times, hateful illustrations of leprechauns.
Leprechaun mythology has been alive and well in Ireland for more than a thousand years and will likely live on for centuries more.