Sunday, April 01, 2007

In search of the Leprechaun

How strange it is that so many people all over the world are familiar with the figure of the leprechaun. It has become the most effete cliché in our vacuous tourist industry. Yet very few people know what it means, where the word comes from. I got a call from a friend in Talinn recently who was entertaining Estonian friends. They said they were familiar with the leprechaun. My friend who is Irish wanted to check the origin of this myth with me, so I explained the origin to him again. Leprechaun comes from the Irish Lugh an Lamh fhada, Lugh of the long hand, who was the god of light and wisdom. In Irish mythology, Lugh defeats the evil warrior called Balor of the Evil Eye in the internecine battle that would become known as Cath Magh Tuireadh, or the Battle of Moytura. In this battle the forces of good represented by the Tuatha De Danann, the children of the goddess Danu, (an Indo-European figure originating in India and flowing through Europe in the form of the Danube), and the Fomorii, those who dwell ‘fo mhuir’ beneath the sea, the forces of evil who were led by Balor. Balor’s evil eye destroyed everything it looked upon. Lugh kills Balor with a sling which gouges out his enormous eye. When the battle is over, however, Domnu the nefarious Doppelgeist of Danu, utters the following admonishment to Danu

‘all life is transitory. Even your children are not immortal, my sister. The time will come when they will be defeated. The time will come when no one will want gods and goddesses to nurture them, when they will be driven into the darkness, like my children have been this day’

The words Reich in German, Rí in Irish and Raj in Hindi are cognate with the English word ‘reach’. Rí is the Irish for King. One’s kingdom was one’s reach, that which one held. Reich in German means exactly this. The verb ‘ereichen’ means to reach or attain. Lugh was one of the most revered gods in Irish mythology. He was the father of Cúchulainn and gave his name to places as diverse as Ireland’s smallest county, County Louth and Lyon in France, both derived from Lugdunum, or the fort of Lug. His feast is still in August which is Lughnasa in Irish. In the Middles Ages, the notion of a pagan God commanding so much power and respect was anathema to the zealous monks who were transcribing the myths. So they changed his name to Lugh Chromain, little stooping Lugh. Through corruption this became the ridiculous Leprechaun. What this case shows is that cultural symbols can become caricatures of themselves through the changing ideologies of history.

3 comments:

metro gael said...

Dear John,
Your comments are amusing and I am delighted that you have undertaken a "waspish" though thoroughly erroneous explication in the field of etymology. I'm afraid the German word Reich and the notion of reichen are etymologically linked. You can find this in any reliable etymological dictionary. Modern dictionaries are not for the specialist. I suggest you read Peter Beresford Ellis's book on Celic mythology oder Sie konnten auch veilleicht ein richtiges Studium der Deutschen Sprache unternehmen.
Vielen Dank meinen ungebildeten Freund.

metro gael said...

Dear John,
Your comments are amusing and I am delighted that you have undertaken a "waspish" though thoroughly erroneous explication in the field of etymology. I'm afraid the German word Reich and the notion of reichen are etymologically linked. You can find this in any reliable etymological dictionary. Modern dictionaries are not for the specialist. I suggest you read Peter Beresford Ellis's book on Celic mythology oder Sie konnten auch veilleicht ein richtiges Studium der Deutschen Sprache unternehmen.
Vielen Dank mein ungebildeter Freund.

metro gael said...

I rest my case.
Reich, N., £Land, Gebiet, Staat‹, mhd.
ró che, ró ch, N., £Herrschaft, beherrschtes
Land, Reich, Regierung, K–nig, Reichswappen‹,
ahd. ró hhi (1. H. 8. Jh.), ró chi,
N., £Herrschaft, Macht, Gewalt, Reich,
Land, Welt, Gegend, Erde, Herrscher‹, as.
ró ki, N., £Reich, Herrschaft, Gewalt,
Volk‹, germ. *ró kja, *ró kjam, *reikja,
*reikjam, N., £Reich, Herrschaft‹, Lw. kelt.
*ró gjo-, *ró gjom, N., £Reich‹?, idg.
*rÅ› Ä om-, Sb., £Herrschaft‹, zu idg. *rÅ› -,
M., £K–nig‹, s. idg. *re› - (1), V., Adj.,
Sb., £richten, lenken, strecken, recken, gerade,
Richtung, Linie‹, vgl. Geschichtliche
Grundbegriffe
reichen, V., £reichen, sich erstrecken,
ausbreiten‹, mhd. reichen, V., £erreichen,
erlangen, holen, nach etwas langen, reichen‹,
ahd. reihhen (1000, PN), reichen, V.,
£reichen, sich erstrecken, ergreifen,
ausdehnen‹, westgerm. *reikjan, V., £reichen,
ausstrecken‹, zu idg. *re› -