In an 1872 paper in the Revue Celtique, Whitley Stokes translates a story from the Lebor na hUidre (The Book of the Dun Cow) the oldest extant manuscript in Irish, which gives what might be my favorite theory on the origin of leprechauns:
After the flood, Noah planted a vineyard. Once, upon drinking too much of his own wine, Noah got drunk and passed out, naked. Noah’s son Ham found Noah unconscious and went back to his brothers, Japhet and Shem, telling them what he saw and making fun of their father.
Japhet and Shem didn’t laugh. Instead, they brought a cloak to cover their father, walking up to him backwards so they wouldn’t see him in his embarrassment.
When Noah woke, he found out what had happened, and cursed Ham for mocking him. This makes Ham the first person to be cursed after the deluge, and therefore the spiritual successor of Cain (the first person cursed, ever). Because of the curse, Ham’s children were all born “Luchrupdin and Fomoraig and Goborchinn and every unshapely appearance moreover that is on human beings.”
Luchrupdin is leprechaun. The Fomoraig (Fomorians) are apparently a supernatural race from the sea, or from underground, enemies of the early Irish people. The Lebor na hUidre describes them as having the body of a man and the head of a goat; other texts describe them as one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged monsters; still other texts describe them as beautiful. According to The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore, the most accepted current theory is that legends of the Fomorians are the remnants of the mythology of earlier, pre-Celtic inhabitants of Ireland. The Goborchinn are a type of Fomorian, ruled by Eochaid Echchenn, the horse-headed.
The story of Noah getting drunk is in Genesis, Chapter 9 (Gen. 9:21 or thereabouts). In the biblical version, Ham is the father of Canaan, and Noah actually cursed Canaan for Ham’s filial impiety, which strikes me as pretty harsh. Canaan is the ancestor of the Canaanites, one of the Israelites’ traditional enemies (or maybe “rivals” is a better word). That probably explains the Bible version; I like the leprechaun version better.
This post is a slightly reworked extract from a longer St. Patrick’s Day themed post from several years ago. I like this story; I thought it bore reposting.
Whitley Stokes’ 1872 article “Mythological Notes” can be found in Volume 1 of the Revue Celtique, on archive.org. The article starts on page 256.
A table of contents (in English) of The Book of the Dun Cow, including English translations of most of the texts and a link to the entire book in Irish, can be found here, courtesy of Mary Jones (@tlachtga on Twitter).
My (very brief) research into the Fomoraig and Goborchinn comes mostly from Wikipedia, The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monoghan, and Celtic Folklore by John Rhys (which is also available via sacred-texts.com).
Illustration by Arthur Rackham (1920) for Irish Fairy Tales by James Stephens. Source: Wikimedia Commons