Pookas: Digging into the Secrets of this mischievous Irish mythical creature

Updated On: December 06, 2022

Pookas - A famous Irish mythical creature

Every country has its share of legends, myths, and traditional stories. Ireland’s history dates back thousands of years. The intriguing part however, is that throughout this long history, countless myths and legends have been preserved. One of these myths is the Legend of Pookas, embraced by the Irish for centuries. Whether you think the tales of Pookas make sense or not, there is no doubt that they’re interesting enough to encourage people to dive into their secrets.

Irish Mythology

Ireland’s history dates back hundreds of years beyond the arrival of Christianity. Not all of the cultural heritage succeeded in surviving the religious transformation, and in some cases, the religious intolerance that came with the arrival of the Christian faith. Most notably, medieval Irish literature has saved most of the Irish cultural heritage as the Celts themselves did not record their own history.

There are many important texts and materials that never made it into modern times and others that were never documented, however there are many significant pieces of medieval Irish literature that are kept within the different divisions of the Celtic mythology.

There are four main cycles in the Irish literature in which the bigger parts of the inheritance were preserved (early Irish literature is considered as the oldest slang literature in Western Europe): the Mythological Cycle, the Ulster Cycle, the Fenian Cycle and the Historical Cycle. Irish Folklore preserved other parts which don’t belong to any of the four cycles, but these are the main categories that Celtic myth fall under.

The Definition of Pooka

Pronounced as “Poo-ka,” Pooka is the Irish word for “goblin,” “spirit,” or “sprite.” Other names for Pookas include púca, phouka, phooka, phooca, puca, plica, phuca, pwwka, pookha or púka. The Pooka is a mythic magical creature that can shapeshift but mainly takes the forms of different animals. The legend of Pookas goes back to Celtic myths of the Irish lands. Some theories suggest that the word “pooka” derives from the Scandinavian word for “nature spirit”: “Puke.”

Believed to belong to the fey race (creatures who are known for their supernatural powers and ability to connect with nature), Pookas are commonly known as mischievous but benign creatures who are able to change their form. They originated from the myths and folkloric stories in Scotland, Ireland and neighbouring areas.

Folks all over Celtic cultures in Northwestern Europe knew different versions of the legend of Pooka. This was because stories were preserved by word of mouth and therefore changed naturally over time.

For instance, in Cornish cultures this creature was called the Bucca. A Bucca was a water spirit, goblin, or a merman who lived in mines and coastal areas during storms. In Welsh folklore, it was called a “Pwca.” As for the Channel Islands (between both England and France) people knew of it as the Pouque. In particular, inhabitants of Channel Islands believed that the Pouque were fairies who inhabited the areas around the ancient remnants.

The Pooka was mysterious by nature, so everything from its form, to its abilities and intentions varied in each legend and region that it occupied. They were rumoured to be found in rural communities or marine areas and were linked to the natural world.

In modern Irish ‘Púca’ is the word for ghost.

Irish Pookas in Celtic Mythology

The Origins of Pooka

Some people claim that Pooka was a God in Europe with the name “Boga.” It is believed that Boga was a God of nature, similar to Pan the Greek God of nature, flocks, wild and shepherds. Some language specialists argue that the word “Bog” from the Slavic language derives from the name “Boga”. Bog means omnipotent, and was the Slavic language equivalent of God

Some myths suggest that Pookas are the descendants of the Tautha Dé Danann. The Tribe of Danu as they were also known were the ancient Celtic Gods and Goddesses of Ireland. They were supernatural figures who once lived in Gaelic Ireland before the appearance of our ancestors, according to myth.

The deities were famous for their magical powers and were worshipped as Pagan Gods before the arrival of Christianity in Ireland. They even had their own ancient Irish festivals, but were driven underground and over centuries became the fairies that feature in much of Irish superstition.

In Celtic mythology ‘fairy‘ was an umbrella term used to describe many different supernatural creatures including the banshee, the leprechaun and even some mythical Irish monsters. So it would make sense that the Pooka also falls under this classification.

Les Trois Freres Cave Painting

Some suggest that the first evidence of Pookas’ existence was noticed from paintings in caves of the mountains Pyrenees southwest Europe, specifically in a cave called Les Trois Freres located in southwestern France. The cave is famous for its wall paintings. One of the paintings in Les Trois Freres depict a man wearing the skin of a horse or a wolf with horns up his head.

There are many different opinions about this: Some believe that the paintings on the walls of Les Trois Freres are a representation of Shamans. While others suggest that the drawings represent Pookas (a stag Pooka to be more specific). Others suggest that the painting could be of a horned God such as Cerrunos the Celtic God of the hunt and the forest.

There are even some disputes about the validity of the discovery which if nothing else, ironically mirrors the confusion and mischief which was created by the Pooka in mythology.

Shamans

Some anthropologists believe that Shamanism is a practice known for working to communicate with spirits in the other worlds. A shaman is a person who has powers to interact with the world of good and mischievous spirits.

According to Shamanism, Shamans’ spirit can depart their bodies and travel to the other worlds. They can also get visions or dreams and can reveal certain messages from the worlds of spirits. In return, the spirits manage to guide the shamans through their journey in the spirit world. Throughout the spiritual rituals, a shaman enters a being of which they can reach a curative and soothsaying state. In this state, they can cure any sickness caused by evil spirits.

What can we learn from the ambiguous origin of the Pooka?

There are some bizarre claims that Pookas were worshipped in ancient Egypt as Gods on their own, but there is no strong evidence to support this. All indications say that the legends of the Pooka have both Irish and Welsh origins. One piece of evidence is that the word “Pooka” itself is originally Irish.

Throughout history, humanity kept evolving. Part of this development is represented in art and mythology. Art can tell experts more than you may think about the people who created it. Animals have always played a big part in mythology for their role in people’s daily lives.

The most logical explanation is that the Pooka originated from an amalgamation of some or many of these concepts. Legends were constantly changing and people built different stories around them and there may have even been some rituals. At some point, these stories became a part of people’s traditions and beliefs before ultimately fading into mythology.

Similar Shape-Shifting Mythological Creatures

There are creatures in Irish mythology that share similar characteristics with the Pooka.

Shape Shifting - The Myth of Pookas
Shape Shifting – The Myth of Pookas Anne Anderson’s Beauty and the Beast Illustration

Kelpies

A Kelpie is a pixie horse with Scottish origins. It stands for “the Lowland name of a demon in the shape of a horse.” In myths, Kelpies are horses that escaped from the faeries’ master and went to hide in the water. Kelpies have the abilities of water creatures. They can swim and even breathe underwater.

A Kelpie is strong to the extent that they can pull a huge boat on their own. Just like a Pooka, a Kelpie will sometimes take a person upon their backs. While the Pooka will do no harm to a person, a kelpie will try to take them back under water.

Most notably, Kelpies can take a human form just like a Pooka, but they do it to catch prey. Kelpies manage to appear in the form of a person to seduce or trick a lone traveler. Kelpies vary in color from white to dark black and sometimes have a pale glassy green color. Both Pookas and Kelpies belong to the goblin’s race in some cultures and are associated with marine loctions, but a Kelpie is always more fierce than a Pooka.

Each-uisge

Coming from a Scottish origin, Each-uisge, (also known as aughisky or echushkya) is a water spirit. Each-uisge’s literal meaning is “water horse” and is very close to the Kelpie’s but even more evil. According to folk expert Katharine Briggs, Each-uisge is considered as “perhaps the fiercest and most dangerous of all the water-horses.” People mostly mistake Kelpies with the Each-uisge but there is an important differentiating factor.

According to tales, Kelpies live in rivers while each-uisge lives in the sea, or lakes. Moreover, like a Pooka, aughisky has the ability to shapeshift into ponies, horses, and big birds. Additionally, echushkya is able to take the shape of a human. If a man is riding on its back, he’s safe from danger as long as they’re not close to water. That’s because they take their victim to the deepest point underwater.

The Legend of Pooka

Legend has it that a Pooka, who likes to live in mountains and other similar areas, has the main characteristics of many animals. They usually take any form that pleases them however. Pookas are benign yet mischievous creatures. A Pooka is one of the most feared creatures in the history of Irish folklore. In most of the folktales, narrators mainly connect Pookas to mischief, black magic, damage, and sickness. However they can bring fortune as well as misfortune to humans.

Pookas in Different Regions

Tales of the Pooka differ from one area to another. In some regions, dwellers respect Pookas more than fearing them. While most people did not believe in Pookas, they sometimes talked about them as a way to keep their children well behaved.

Some stories state that Pookas show up especially in November- to give people advice or to warn them about some unpleasant news that might happen to them. November was beginning of the Celtic year so the Pooka would essentially advise people on the year to come.

As the beliefs of how a Pooka would treat humans differ, the stories and beliefs of how a Pooka would look also differ. The version of the story mainly varies from one place to another.

In County Down, the Pooka would take the form of a tiny malformed hobgoblin and ask for a share of people’s yield. While in County Laois, they took the shape of a huge scary hairy boogeyman. In Roscommon, a Pooka takes the form of a black goat. In both Waterford and Wexford, the Pooka takes the form of a big eagle with a really big wingspan.

Characteristics Vary from One Place to Another

Apart from the fact that a Pooka’s form would be different from one region to another, Pookas have three main common characteristics: First, they either have red or sparkly golden eyes. Second, they have dark black fur or hair. But above all, Pookas have the ability to speak which is why they prefer taking human forms. To put it differently, Pookas take human form to trick people, chat with them, give them advice, or even give forecasts for the upcoming year.

In the southern part of County Fermanagh, people used to gather on specific hilltops. They waited for a speaking horse which inhabitants noticed before on the occasion of the famous Bilberry Sunday.

In the Wicklow Mountains, Liffey river has created a waterfall which people call “Poula Phouka” which means “the Pooka’s hole.” Also in County Fermanagh, the top of Binlaughlin Mountain is known for the “peak of the sneaking horse.” In Belcoo, County Fermanagh, St. Patrick Wells were said to be called “Pooka Pools” thousands of years ago, but religious Christians changed their name to “St. Patrick Wells.”

The Only One Who Ever Rode on a Pooka

Pookas have the power and the ability to shift their guise. As per folklore, Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland, is the only person who got to ride on top of a Pooka. In particular, the public knows Brian for his battles against Vikings. King Brian ruled from 941 to 1014. According to legend, Brian was a courageous man and was the only one who got to ride on top of a Pooka.

King Brian - The One Who Rode Pookas
King Brian – The One Who Rode on a Pooka – A 1723 publication of Dermot O’Connor’s translation of ‘Foras Feasa ar Éirinn‘ featured this illustration of Brian Boru

Brain had the guts to stay on the Pooka’s back long enough to force it to surrender to him eventually. Stories say that King Brian also forced the Pooka to agree on a couple of terms before he released it. First of all, Brian got Pookas to agree that they would never hurt Christians or mess with their properties. Secondly, Pookas had to agree that they would never assault an Irishman except for those with wicked intentions and drunk Irishmen. Though the Pooka agreed to the terms, it seems like they’ve forgotten about their promises over the years.

Pooka’s Day

Pooka’s day is mainly related to Samhain which is an end of year celebration of the Gaels (an ethnolinguistic group based in northwestern Europe and is a part of the Celtic language that comprehends Irish, Manx, and Scottish Gaelic). Some people know the first of November as Pookas’ day.

As the tradition goes, when it’s harvest time and harvesters are collecting crops, they have to leave some stalks behind to reconcile the Pooka. This is what the public call “Pookas’ share” which no one can eat because, obviously, no one wants to infuriate a Pooka!

Furthermore, in some places, the Pooka spits on some fruits (especially when frost kill berries). This usually happens as November begins. This means that they poisoned the fruits and no one will be able to eat them. When rain falls on a sunny day, it’s an indication that Pookas go out on this specific night.

Douglas Hyde, the folklore specialist, described the Pooka as a “plimr, sleek, terrible steed” that walked down from one of Leinster’s hills and talked to the people in the 1st of November. According to Hyde, the Pooka provided them with “intelligent and proper answers to those who consulted it concerning all that would befall them until November the next year. And the people used to leave gifts and presents at the hill.”

Pookas in Pop Culture

A variety of Pookah stories made it to the publishing industry and cinema industry. Starring the renowned actor James Stewart in 1950, the movie Harvey (inspired by the play of the same name) was the most famous film adaption of the Pooka legend. The story is about a Pooka with the name Harvey in the shape of a six-foot white rabbit.

The six foot, three-and-a-half inches tall rabbit becomes best friends with a man named Elwood P. Dowd (played by Stewart) and starts playing tricky games with people around him. Unlike the play which featured the Pooka as a character played by an actor, Harvey is never shown on screen in this film which adds an element of mystery to the plot. Although the Pooka remains unseen, there are plenty of paranormal activities such as doors opening by themselves and things going missing, that strongly suggest that Harvey is real.

Harvey won an Oscar in 1951, as Josephine Hull won the award for best supporting actress, while James Stewart was nominated for best leading actor.

Harvey Movie - The Legend of Pookas
Harvey – A 1950 film exploring the mythos of the Pooka

Shakespeare described the character of Robin Goodfellow as ‘sweet Puck’ in his 1595 play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. This is a direct reference to the Pooka and the character is a prankster, only solidifying the connection.

While this one is a bit more of a stretch, the Cheshire Cat from’Alice in Wonderland’ can definitely be compared to the Pooka as he is a trickster with supernatural powers and can disappear at will, but is ultimately benign.

The Pookah is also represented in many other forms of media including the YA novel series Merry Gentry, the anime show Sword Art Online, and the digital game Cabals: Magic & Battle Cards. 

In most works, artists tend to draw the Pookah as a wicked creature taking the form of an animal, usually a rabbit. In ‘Knightmare’, the well-known children’s program from the late eighties/early nineties, the creators of the program represented Pookas as crazy creatures. The darker interpretation also applies to 2001’s “Donnie Darko”, a psychological sci-fi thriller which portrays a scarier version of the creature.

On the other hand, some artists design the character of the Pookah as a weird but harmless creature. ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles’, a famous children’s fantasy book series and follows this archetype.

There is also a hurling club in Pittsburgh known as the Pittsburgh Púcas. Their team crest even includes their interpretation of the púca!

There are some theories that both the Easter Bunny and the Boogey Man were inspired by the Pooka to varying degrees. In reality, the Púca is more than likely just one of countless interpretations of these figures as so many cultures have their own version of the beings.

When Pookas Started to Vanish

As Christianity started to spread around the island of Ireland, the beliefs of animal-worshipping, including the idea of Pookas being Gods, started to vanish gradually. Just like many other supernatural pagan beings, the myth of the Pookah was unacceptable to the new faith and was subsequently vilified or forgotten over time.

The new religion changed how people viewed Pookas; they were transformed from supernatural creatures and deities into obscurity. That’s when the legend of Pooka started to lose the significance it had and began to vanish.

The Pooka somewhat survived as an Irish boogeyman. Parents would use the creature as a warning to scare Irish children into behaving well.

Pookas Never Say Goodbye

According to myth, the Pooka shows up here and there, now and then, to different people in different places. The legend goes, if you have Celtic blood running in your veins, Pookas will always be watching you. They’ll also try to trick you when they can. They will stare, smile and even chat with you. While annoying, the presence of the Pooka is rarely harmful.

If you move into a new house a Pooka may appear to tell you stories of the people who lived there before you, and will, of course, know everyone that once held property of the house. They will know who lost their land in the area and who lost his fortune or money. Like gambits in chess, the Pooka may reveal their love of trickery and mischief, giving up the element of surprise but igniting a sense of dread in the person who has crossed their paths, as they now know what is to come.

You probably know by now that Pookas have the ability of human speech. It’s important to realise that during a conversation with a Pooka, one might lose track of time and not until the conversation-that could last for a few hours-is over you will wonder what happened and whom you were talking to. What’s more important than the Pooka’s ability to talk is that they also leave suddenly. In other words, Pookas never say goodbye and will leave you not knowing if the conversation was real.

Whether the stories and myths of Pookah were real or not, there is no doubt that it has a fair share in affecting the Irish civilization, traditional beliefs, and culture. Pookah is one of the most feared mythological creatures in Irish culture; however, there is no proven evidence about it actually harming people. Just remember, once a Pooka finds a way to you, the games will begin. So, beware!

If you like this blog then why not check out some of our other Irish blogs such as: Irish Blessings, The Bodhran Drum’s Impact on Irish Traditional Music, Irish Wedding Traditions, Irish Legends and Tales of The Irish Mythology,The Children of Lir: A Fascinating Irish Legend, The Curious Case of Irish Curses