Pots of gold and four-leaf clovers, rainbows and little men in green. In this chapter of ORIGINS, learn the story behind the guard at the rainbow’s end: the Leprechaun.
Little green men are from Mars. But little men who wear green are from Ireland. The Leprechaun embodies the legend and folklore of this country, originally given the name Luchorpan, which means “Little Body” or the same designation as deemed for a dwarf. Leprechauns guard crocks of gold at the end of each rainbow. We know from the breakfast cereal they guard more than just gold, though. Charms, right?
With round faces that are wizened and long-bearded, these fairies have consistently been depicted in black shoes with silver buckles wearing either all green clothing or red jackets with smooth silver buttons, brown breeches, and high crowned hats. In either case, they almost always wear a leather apron to hold their mending tools while they repair shoes. They might carry a pint or a smoking pipe, but they are far different from the innocent fairies of Disney. Historically, they are lustful tricksters, nasty things, who dole out magic that might bring pleasure one day and death another. Untrustworthy, these little men enjoy playing pranks on any human foolish enough to approach, waiting for mortals to look away for a split second so the leprechaun can disappear into a trail of laughter.
As a little girl, I ran toward rainbows desperate to find the leprechaun guarding his pot of gold. I wanted to see him with my own eyes more than anything else, but I learned too soon that his real trick was that the rainbow has no end. His pot of gold would always be out of my reach. Perhaps if I had known as a little girl that Leprechauns emit a tap-tap-tapping as they hammer on shoes, I would have looked for one in a Payless instead of running through my neighbor’s back yard.
The leprechauns ORIGINS have been traced to the eighth century. These water sprites—the luchorpan version—later merged with house fairies that haunted cellars and stole wine to get drunk. Primarily, these creatures served society as cobblers and might have been created in the mind of a tired shoemaker who wished someone would help him with his leatherworking. In most references, the leprechaun has a lucrative business fixing shoes as each one supposedly has enough gold to hide at the end of every rainbow. Should you actually catch one, you are entitled to barter his freedom for gold, amulets, or any other treasure he values above all else. Some legends say the trickster grants three wishes to such finders, although the idiom Be Careful What You Wish For would be well-spoken in this event.
Not to get off topic, but did you know that some say there are no female leprechauns? Supposedly, they are the “redheaded stepchildren” of the fairy culture, the throw-aways that didn’t make the grade because they were defective and misshapen. Guess those lucky charms aren’t so lucky after all. Other lore states that female leprechauns do exist and are as devious as their male counterparts. They would trick and lure men away for secret adventures, something they enjoyed in excess.
Many variations of this trickster fairy have found their way into our hearts and minds through pop culture. One of the most recognized is Lucky the Leprechaun and his lucky charms, although Disney also left their mark in Darby O’Gill and the Little People. On the other hand, we have Ludban, the homicidal leprechaun from the horror comedy simply called Leprechaun. The celebration of St. Patrick’s Day brings out four leaf clovers, rainbows, pots of gold, and tons of leprechaun cosplay throughout the world. Their fame is world renowned, but it hasn’t always been a lucky pass.
Some Irish folklore talks about a little elf that is a malicious spirit, wearing a red coat with a silver buckle, blue socks, buckled shoes, and a long-pointed hat. He is called the Cluricaune. Like the original mashup of house fairies with the Luchorpan, the Cluricaune watches over the bungs and casks’ taps in household wine cellars where his eternally drunken state has been known to frighten servants into not stealing the wine. Similar to the leprechaun, this spirit guards hidden treasures. In other Irish lore, there is mention of a great Lupracan king named Iubdan, who was known by the tiny people he ruled to be a truthful and noble king. As the legend goes, Iubdan had a weakness: his arrogance. He boasted of his greatness, and to teach him a lesson, the court poet told the king and queen of a land of giants where they should go and proclaim his greatness. The royal couple agreed and travelled the long journey to reach this land that did not belong to them. Upon their arrival, the hungry king spied a monstrous bowl of porridge. He climbed the smooth kettle, reached the rim, and leaned carefully over the edge, trying to drink the warm meal. His grip slipped and the king fell into the porridge where his wife, the queen, joined him. They were found in the morning by the giants and taken to their king, who eventually allowed them to go home on one condition: the king of the giants demanded Iubdan give him his magic shoes in exchange for their freedom.
In another tale, a man walked the lush green fields in his town headed back home after a long day at market. A light rain fell bringing on a beautiful rainbow just as he reached a crest along the path. Up ahead, he noticed the rainbow fell into a bog and he rushed on, dropping his sacks from market on the dirt path. His hope was that the bog would trap the rainbow and the leprechaun guarding the crock of gold beneath it. Breathless, the man reached the bog and there spied a little man dressed in green yanking the handle of his pot of gold, but the muck in the bog was stronger still. The tricky leprechaun told the man that he would take him to a bush in the field where an even bigger treasure laid waiting. The man, led by the sprite, journeyed to a nearby bush where the leprechaun promised the man would find gold if he dug deep enough. With no shovel, the man tied a red ribbon around the tree over the spot and, upon his insistence that the leprechaun had kept his word, the man let the mischievous sprite free. When the man returned, spade in hand, the leprechaun was gone but he hadn’t left without a trace. Each tree in the field as far as the man’s eye could see was tied with a red ribbon. The leprechaun’s laughter bounced between the trunks and the discouraged man went back to his packs and headed home, never to search for the rainbow’s end again.
It is said that leprechauns are the incarnation of the ancient Celtic sun god Lugh (Luck). There are supposedly 236 of these fairies still living today in the caverns of Carington Mountain near where the remains of one wee person was discovered in a well by a nearby pub owner in the late 20th century. The European Union has actually granted heritage status to the remaining little people living in this area provided with their own protected sanctuary. I couldn’t invent this stuff if I wanted to. To make it even more unbelievable, certain animals and flora are also off limits to keep a balanced ecosystem for these fairy creatures.
But the rainbows and the pots of gold aren’t all make-believe. They have their roots in history, like so many legends do. Rumors state that Gaelic invaders discovered tombs without gold or treasures, something strange to them, and made up stories to explain why. The burial locations, the culture decided, were located at the end of the rainbow keeping them just outside their reach. This morphed into little people guarding the graves of their ancestors at the end of each rainbow to protect the treasures so they would no longer go missing from the tombs, as the Gaelic invaders had found them. In more present times, the Irish who were denied immigration status headed out west where gold and silver was soon discovered. Believing the Irish too dumb to discover the treasure on their own, it was assumed they were struck with Irish luck, a benefit of the power of the rainbow, if only in a Proverbial sense.
By now, you might want to have a pet leprechaun of your own. Here’s my advice: get something shiny and pop it in a shoebox. You just might get lucky. For the rest of us, we’ll just stick to whatever Lucky is cooking up in his delicious box of Lucky Charms.
I’m Jaimie Engle, and you’ve just discovered ORIGINS.
ORIGINS is a bi-weekly podcast that shares the story behind legends and lore, where myth and science meet; written and produced by me, award-winning author Jaimie Engle of The Write Engle. If you like stories with a supernatural slant, I happen to write them. You can learn more about my books HERE. Please follow on all social media @theWRITEengle. I follow back. As always, subscribing, liking, and sharing this podcast is your greatest compliment. Thank you. I’ve also opened a Patreon account. If you like what you hear, consider donating a buck a month to say thanks. And finally, if you’d like to stick around you can hear a short story from my book The Toilet Papers titled “Cereal Killer: the Leprechaun Murder” about a murder in a town full of breakfast cereal characters leaving you wondering who you can trust.
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