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Irish & Celtic Mythological Creatures

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

If asked about the magical creatures of Irish mythology, many would first imagine the impish Leprechaun. This lesson looks at the Leprechaun and goes deeper to examine a number of faeries, spirits and creatures related to Irish legend.

The Faerie Folk

Many of the creatures we know from Irish mythology come to us from writings from the Middle Ages and later. Even after the conversion of Ireland to Christianity by St. Patrick and his followers, the older religion was not entirely forgotten by the Irish people. Many of the stories were written down and preserved by Irish Christian monks during the Middle Ages. Many others were carried on by word of mouth by the Irish people.

These later tales evolved over the years, influenced by Christian beliefs, and were later adapted by writers such as W. B. Yeats during the 19th and early 20th century. Many of these stories are told about the Sidhe, (pronounced: 'Shee') which is the Gaelic name for those creatures that became known as the Faeries and spirits of Irish legend.

The Leprechaun

To most people, the best known of the Sidhe is the leprechaun. The modern name leprechaun comes from the older Gaelic word leipreachán or luchorpan and many believe it came from the words 'Lu', which meant 'small,' and 'Corp' which meant 'body'. These creatures were often imagined as small men who wore ill-fitting and out of date clothes. Although we often imagine them wearing all green today, the Irish originally viewed them as dressed in red.

The leprechaun was seen as a solitary creature, living on his own, and employed mainly as a cobbler. Like many of the other faeries, the leprechaun was viewed as very rich and willing to bribe any humans who managed to capture him; this eventually developed into our modern view of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

The leprechaun was known for a devilish sense of humor and would often play practical jokes upon the humans it encountered. Despite this, the creature could occasionally be quite dangerous; the earliest known story to feature a leprechaun is the Adventure of Fergus, son of Léti, which depicts how King Fergus Mac Léti, while sleeping, was grabbed by a group of leprechauns who tried to drag him into the sea and drown him.

The Puca

Another famous creature from Irish mythology is the puca. The puca is a shapeshifter and is able to assume almost any form; although, if it tries to appear as a human being, it often still has some animal features about it. No matter how the puca chooses to appear, it can be spotted because it will always have dark hair or fur.

The Irish never came to a true consensus about the nature of the puca; some stories show them to be vicious creatures who want to kill and devour humans, whereas others show them as being wise and friendly, if not still tricksters. Puca were known to try to scare humans by appearing in the form of a horse and, after someone is convinced to take a ride, the puca would run madly around terrifying their passenger. They were also known to attack and scare travelers late at night if they were traveling alone. The creatures were also associated with the harvest; after the fields had been harvested, the remaining crops left on the field were said to have been put aside for the puca.

Banshee

The banshee is probably second only to the Leprechaun in the popular imagination. The creature's name comes from the Gaelic words 'bean' (woman) and 'sidhe' (faerie) and means 'woman of the faerie mounds.' She was often seen either as a woman dressed in red and green with wild, messy, hair, or as a withered, old woman.

In any case, a banshee was said to appear at the death of a member of a great Irish family, and it was even said that certain families had a specific banshee that followed them throughout the generations. When a family member died, she would appear and begin to wail and scream, mourning for the dead. This probably comes from the Gaelic tradition of mourners who would weep and keen while reciting traditional chants. In later stories, the banshee would sometimes appear as an omen to foretell the death of the listener, but her more traditional depictions show her mourning the passing of a family member.

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