Leprechauns have been a part of Irish folklore for at least 700 years, but they’ve been tricksters from the start.

The fairy-like creatures first appeared in written stories around the 14th century. Fergus mac Léti, the king of Ulster, is said to have fallen asleep on the beach and wakes to discover that he’s being dragged into the sea by three leprechauns (the name was spelled lúchorpáin and meant “small body,” back then). He captures the tiny men, who grant him three wishes in exchange for release.

Traditionally, leprechauns like to be alone by themselves making or mending shoes while guarding hidden pots of gold at the end of rainbows. It’s said that you can tell a leprechaun is near by the tap-tap-tapping of their small hammer on the soles of shoes. In the original depictions, leprechauns mostly wore red, but writings by Irish poet William Butler Yeats mention “trooping fairies” wearing green jackets thTbecame the image we use today.

Leprechauns are tricksters and they share qualities with other tricksters of folklore. The Big Bad Wolf from little Red Riding Hood is a trickster figure, so is Bugs Bunny. For the most part, tricksters cannot be trusted and they are fond of practical jokes and fooling the people who seek to trap them.

Believe it or not, leprechauns are a protected by European law, too. When a bunch of countries got together to form the European Union, a special section of the documents forming the union granted special status to the 236 leprechauns said to be alive and well on Carlington Mountain in Leinster, Ireland.

- By ERIC A. HOWALD