Sunday, March 7, 2010


It seems only fitting to talk about wee folk and shamrocks in March, doesn't it? Fairies can be found all throughout European folklore. This little fellow was drawn in the 15th-century French "Hours of Mary of Burgundy" (Vienna, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 1857). He represents what we normally think of as a fairy, although without wings, a "Tinkerbell" creature of very small stature. Irish folklore is replete with fairies which can assume human or animal forms. They are gifted musicians and have been known to lead humans astray with their singing and pipe playing. Although they can be social creatures, the best known are the ones who are loners, especially the leprechauns. The leprechaun is a very solitary creature, avoiding contact with even other leprechauns. About two feet tall with gruff and unfriendly dispositions, these males' (never female!) main occupation was making shoes for the fairies. If you should ever have the luck of catching a leprechaun, you can get him to tell you where he hides his treasure. But if you look away from him for even a split second, he will vanish! According to an article in Wikipedia on leprechauns, the creature had different appearances in Ireland depending on where he was found. Before the 20th century, it was believed that the leprechaun wore red, not green. And according to Yeats, the "trooping fairies" wore green whereas the solititary fairies, like the leprechauns, wore red jackets. Although this fellow seems to have lost his jacket entirely and also comes from a 14th-century English manuscript, I like to think of him as a wonderfully startled wee man, perhaps of the leprechaun persuasion.
(Yes, I know that leprechauns are all male, but I just have to wonder how more leprechauns would be produced! I personally think that this very strange little female from a 14th-century French illumination (NY, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 68.174, fol. 28v) would be exactly the right companion for any sensible leprechaun!)
And finally, the shamrock, a member of the clover family. This border of shamrocks is adapted from the embroidery on an altar frontal from 13th-century Rupertsberg. The famous apocryphal story about St. Patrick is that he used its three leaves to teach the Irish about the Christian Trinity. An older Druid belief involved finding a four-leaf clover which, they believed, could help in locating witches and demons. The shamrock remains the national emblem of Ireland.