Pooka

An Irish Spirit

I have spelt the name for this particular spirit as ‘Pooka’, but there are other spellings – púca, phouka, phooka, phooca, puca or púka. However, it is spelt, the ‘Pooka’ is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore.  Some sources suggest that the origin of the name may have come from the Old Norse term ‘pook’ or ‘puki’, which refers to a “nature spirit”. The usage of the term in Ireland, however, predates the arrival of Viking settlers and may be derived from the Irish word ‘poc’, meaning a male goat, which is a form the creature is often said to take.

Pooka

‘Pookas’ are thought to bring either good and bad fortune, either helping or hindering the rural and marine communities in which they are found. They are said to be shape changers, which have either dark or white fur or hair. Because they are adept at changing their form the Pookas could take on the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. Moreover, it is not unknown for them to take human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail. There exists a brief description taken by Thomas Crofton Corker from a boy living in Killarney in which he tells us, “old people used to say that the Pookas were very numerous…long ago…, were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things…that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them, and that did much to harm unwary travellers.”

One theme that runs through all folklore concerning the Pooka is their constant appetite for mischief. They are said to entice humans to take a ride on their back, giving the foolish rider a wild and terrifying journey before finally dropping the unlucky person back at the place they were taken from. It is said that the rider may be able to take control of the pooka by wearing sharp spurs and using those to prevent being taken, or to steer the creature if already on its back. While such pooka stories can be found across northern Europe, the Irish tales alone specify a protective measure for encountering them. The protective power of the “sharp things,” as they are always referred to by the pooka in the tales, may stem from the Irish belief that “cold iron” has the ability to ward off the supernatural. These stories bear similarities to other Irish folk creatures, such as the ‘good people’ or the ‘fairy host’, who are said to target humans on the road or along their regular fairy routes. Pooka encounters with humans, however, tend to occur in rural, isolated places, far from settlements or homes.

On occasion the pooka is represented as being helpful to farmers, particularly in tales where the creature intervenes before a terrible accident, or before the person is about to happen upon a malevolent fairy or spirit. In several of the regional variants of the stories where the pooka is acting as a guardian, the pooka identifies itself to the bewildered human. What makes this action particularly noteworthy is that it is in stark contrast to the lore of many other folkloric beings, who guard their identities or names from humans.

There were certain agricultural traditions surrounding the pooka, and it is especially associated with Samhain, a harvest festival, when the last of the crops are brought in. Anything that remained in the fields was considered “pooka”, or fairy-blasted, and was, therefore, inedible. In some regions reapers left a small share of the crop, the “pooka’s share”, to placate the hungry creature. Nonetheless, 1 November was always considered to be the ‘Pooka’s Day’ and, therefore, the one day of the year when it could be expected to behave in a civil manner. In some areas, however, the beginning of November saw the pooka either defecate, or spit, on the wild fruits rendering them inedible and unsafe.

I have spelt the name for this particular spirit as ‘Pooka’, but there are other spellings – púca, phouka, phooka, phooca, puca or púka. However, it is spelt, the ‘Pooka’ is primarily a creature of Celtic folklore.  Some sources suggest that the origin of the name may have come from the Old Norse term ‘pook’ or ‘puki’, which refers to a “nature spirit”. The usage of the term in Ireland, however, predates the arrival of Viking settlers and may be derived from the Irish word ‘poc’, meaning a male goat, which is a form the creature is often said to take.

‘Pookas’ are thought to bring either good and bad fortune, either helping or hindering the rural and marine communities in which they are found. They are said to be shape changers, which have either dark or white fur or hair. Because they are adept at changing their form the Pookas could take on the appearance of horses, goats, cats, dogs, and hares. Moreover, it is not unknown for them to take human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail. There exists a brief description taken by Thomas Crofton Corker from a boy living in Killarney in which he tells us, “old people used to say that the Pookas were very numerous…long ago…, were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things…that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them, and that did much to harm unwary travellers.”

One theme that runs through all folklore concerning the Pooka is their constant appetite for mischief. They are said to entice humans to take a ride on their back, giving the foolish rider a wild and terrifying journey before finally dropping the unlucky person back at the place they were taken from. It is said that the rider may be able to take control of the pooka by wearing sharp spurs and using those to prevent being taken, or to steer the creature if already on its back. While such pooka stories can be found across northern Europe, the Irish tales alone specify a protective measure for encountering them. The protective power of the “sharp things,” as they are always referred to by the pooka in the tales, may stem from the Irish belief that “cold iron” has the ability to ward off the supernatural. These stories bear similarities to other Irish folk creatures, such as the ‘good people’ or the ‘fairy host’, who are said to target humans on the road or along their regular fairy routes. Pooka encounters with humans, however, tend to occur in rural, isolated places, far from settlements or homes.

On occasion the pooka is represented as being helpful to farmers, particularly in tales where the creature intervenes before a terrible accident, or before the person is about to happen upon a malevolent fairy or spirit. In several of the regional variants of the stories where the pooka is acting as a guardian, the pooka identifies itself to the bewildered human. What makes this action particularly noteworthy is that it is in stark contrast to the lore of many other folkloric beings, who guard their identities or names from humans.

There were certain agricultural traditions surrounding the pooka, and it is especially associated with Samhain, a harvest festival, when the last of the crops are brought in. Anything that remained in the fields was considered “pooka”, or fairy-blasted, and was, therefore, inedible. In some regions reapers left a small share of the crop, the “pooka’s share”, to placate the hungry creature. Nonetheless, 1 November was always considered to be the ‘Pooka’s Day’ and, therefore, the one day of the year when it could be expected to behave in a civil manner. In some areas, however, the beginning of November saw the Pooka either defecate, or spit, on the wild fruits rendering them inedible and unsafe.

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