St. Patrick's Day, some facts are clear: Celebrate the patron saint of Ireland by wearing green, drinking green liquids, and celebrating the luck 'o the Irish. But what about leprechauns -- do they bring luck or terror to the party? In the movie "Leprechaun," they're seriously scary. But on a box of "magically delicious" Lucky Charms cereal, not so much.On
So what's the history of the tiny Irish fairies? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a leprechaun as a "mischievous elf … usually conceived as a shoemaker and believed to reveal the hiding place of treasure if caught." The leprechaun has been described in Irish folklore as "about three feet high, and is dressed in a little red jacket or roundabout, with red breeches buckled at the knee, gray or black stockings, and a hat, cocked in the style of a century ago, over a little, old, withered face."
Sounds harmless enough.
But these pint-size creatures, which originated in Irish pagan mythology are, as D.R. McAnally points out in "Irish Wonders," "not wholly good nor entirely evil," adding, "his father being an evil spirit and his mother a degenerate fairy; by nature he is a mischief-maker."
Lookups on Yahoo! for the Irish legend include "are leprechauns real," "how tall are leprechauns," and even "leprechaun traps."
Legend has it that the leprechaun could be blamed for small mischief around the house -- making a pot boil over, say. Just keep the little guy fed and nothing bad would happen. Farmers were said to leave the leprechauns whiskey in the field to ensure a good harvest.
The Slate's Explainer column describes some of the dangers of the Celtic elf: "A leprechaun might kidnap you, replace your infant with a changeling, or even kill you if you came too near his treasure."
Thank pop culture for creating the very opposite image -- a jolly, happy leprechaun. In the Broadway show "Finian's Rainbow" that was later made into a movie in 1968 with Fred Astaire, the happy story featured a leprechaun with a pot of gold who teaches tolerance. And there's Lucky the Leprechaun on the Lucky Charms cereal box, introduced in the early 1960s.
So if you do happen to see a leprechaun on St. Paddy's Day, don't steal his gold, or his Lucky Charms. You never know what he might do.