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European Mythical Creatures: Leprechauns and Elves

By Yona Williams    9/29/11

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"Small creatures" seem to appear in many European fairy stories. It is quite common to read about elves, gnomes, dwarfs, pixies, and leprechauns in their legends and tales. In this article, you will learn the difference between some of these mythical creatures.

What is a Leprechaun?

The Irish have tales of small fairies called leprechauns that have the ability to bring good luck. Seen as helpful creatures – they are often depicted as wearing green clothing, buckled shoes, and a cap (usually red). Sometimes, they are dressed in an apron or had a long white beard. Some of the personality characteristics of a leprechaun include having a fondness for alcohol, music and sports. They are mischievous with a habit of playing practical jokes on unsuspecting victims.

Some tales say the leprechauns spend time making shoes and storing coins in a hidden pot of gold. Concepts involving the leprechaun includes that they could lead you to a pot of gold situated at the end of the rainbow and the leprechaun had the ability to grant you three wishes for their release if you were lucky enough to ever capture the creature.

The earliest known reference to the leprechaun appears in a medieval tale called the Echtra Ferfus mac Leti, where the King of Ulster falls asleep on a beach and awakens to find himself being dragged into the sea by three "luchorpaini." When he catches the creatures, they grant him three wishes so that they could be released. Interestingly, the spread of Christianity lessens the focus and importance of the leprechaun.
An example of a leprechaun in popular culture today is the brand character for Lucky Charms, who is responsible for making 'magically delicious' cereal.

What is an Elf?

Originating in Germanic mythology, elves were originally classified as a race of divine beings that possessed magical powers. Sometimes, the powers were used to benefit mankind, while other times, they could be used to hurt humans. Medieval Norse myths separated the creatures as 'light elves' and 'dark elves.' Over time, the depiction of elves went to highlight their very small size and placed them as living in forests, wells, springs, or underground in hills or beneath rocks. During the 19th century, some writers and artists of the Romance period would describe elves as the same size as a human possessing great beauty and youthfulness.

The earliest descriptions of elves come from Old Norse mythology, where men could be elevated to the rank of an elf after he had died. This is seen in the tale of petty king Olaf Geirstad-Eld, who was worshipped as an elf when he died at the age of 20. Old Norse beliefs suggest that they believed crossbreeding between elves and humans was possible. Tales spoke of a human queen taken an elf as a lover.

Today, one of the most popular references to elves in popular culture is the creatures associated with Christmastime. Modern children folklore in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland often depict the elves as helpers of Santa (or his international counterpart) with long noses, pointy ears, and dressed in green. These elves are thought to make the toys for Santa in a workshop located at the North Pole. Many popular video games also offer characters and "worlds" centered on the concept of elves and other similar creatures.

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