In the Land of Leprechauns and Other Creatures
This March 2019 is replete with festivities. We went over Carnival last week, and now, we are diving into the culture of Ireland. This coming Sunday, Irishmen and women, anybody of Irish descent, and those who are not will celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Cities around the world like Dublin, London, Glasgow, and Boston host celebratory parades to celebrate Irish culture. Symbols that represent Irish culture are displayed in the streets and in party venues, like the color green, the flag of Ireland, and shamrocks. Also, no St. Patrick’s Day celebration can be complete without the Leprechaun. Although not essential for the day, one might see decorations displaying a leprechaun with a pot of gold, floats with people dressed as leprechauns, or a big balloon of a leprechaun hovering above a parade.
Leprechauns have been a part of Irish folklore and mythology. They were regarded as a type of fairies who belonged to the aos sí, a class of supernatural creatures in Gaelic mythology. Leprechaun entered the English language from the Irish leipreachán, which came from the Old Irish form luchorpán—from lú, ‘small,’ and corp, ‘body’, which is a borrowing of the Latin corpus. These little creatures were said to spend their time making shoes and engaging in mischievous behavior.
The belief in mythical creatures is not new. According to William Butler Yeats, Irish poet and folklorist, fairies were once believed to be god-like figures whose status and power diminished when Christianity rose and slowly replaced the Celtic religion in the British Isles. The earliest known versions of mythical creatures appear in Ancient Greek myths. Satyrs—σάτυροι (sátiri), centaurs—κένταυροι (kéndavri), and nymphs—νύμφες (nímfes), are the precursors, or the counterparts of other Indo-European mythical beings, like Celtic fairies, leprechauns included, and the Germanic dwarfs and elves. The belief in such creatures were not limited to Indo-European cultures. In pre-Islamic Arabia, djinns—جن, were spirits, like angels and demons, that were neither good nor bad, but were prone to mischievous behavior, kind of like elves and fairies. The singular of the Arabic jinn—جن,jinnī—جني, gave English genie. In Cambodia, the mrenh kongveal—ម្រេញគង្វាល, were believed to be elf-like beings that helped herders with their livestock. They too, however, were prone to mischief.
In South Africa, a tikoloshe is a cross between a dwarf, cat-, monkey-, and zombie-like creature. The tikoloshe, or tokoloshe, is said to be invoked by someone who wants to do harm to another individual, and that those who do not want to be harmed by it must place bricks under the legs of their beds, since the tokoloshe only attacks at night while people sleep.
All around the world, different cultures have stories of spirits, creatures, and other fantastic entities. Many of these beings were inspired by ancient beliefs that said that there were different realms in the universe—the natural realm, inhabited by humans, and the supernatural one, inhabited by gods, spirits, genies, elves, goblins, fairies, and many others. Today, we may not believe in the existence of such creatures, but they still permeate our imagination through stories, books, movies, and of course, holidays. Have a happy and safe St. Patrick’s Day.
El-Zein, Amira (2009) Islam, Arabs, and the intelligent world of the Jinn. Contemporary Issues in the Middle East. Syracuse, NY, Syracuse University Press.
Harris, Ian Charles (2005) Cambodian Buddhism: History and Practice. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
O’Donnell, William H. “Introduction and Headnotes to Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, Ed. W.B. Yeats (1888).” Prefaces and Introductions, 1988.
Scholtz, Pieter (2004). Tales of the Tokoloshe.