Every country with a renowned history has its share of legends, myths, and traditional stories, as they help in shaping the cultural and historical existence of the whole country among others. Ireland is one of those countries with a history that dates back to thousands of years in the past. The intriguing part is that throughout this long history, lots and lots of legends and interesting stories have taken place in the country’s heritage. One of these myths is the different stories of Pookas, embraced by the Irish for years. Whether you think the tales of Pookas make sense or not, there is no doubt they’re interesting enough to encourage people to dive into their secrets.
Ireland’s history goes back dozens of years beyond Christianity. Not all of the cultural heritage succeeded in surviving the religious transformation, and in some cases, the religious intolerance. Most notably, medieval Irish literature has saved most of the Irish cultural inheritance. Though there are many important texts and materials that never made it into modern times and others that were never documented, there are many significant pieces of the 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. Also Irish Folklore preserved another part which people kept passing throughout time. Some parts of the manuscripts don’t belong to any of the four cycles. Even though, those manuscripts remained important to the whole cultural process.
The Definition of Pooka
Pronounced as “Poo-ka,” Pooka is the Irish word for “goblin,” “spirit,” or “sprite.” Other names for Pooka include púca, phouka, phooka, phooca, puca, plica, phuca, pwwka, pookha or púka. It is a mythic magical creature that shifts in shapes and mainly takes forms of different animals. The legend of Pookas goes back to the Celtic myths of the Irish lands. Some theories suggest that the word “pooka” is coming from the Scandinavian word for “nature spirit”: “Puke.”
Believed to belong to the fey race (creatures who are known for their supernatural powers and their ability to connect with nature), Pookas are commonly known as evil creatures who are able to change their shapes and originate from the myths and folkloric stories in Scotland, Ireland and the neighboring areas.
Folks all over Celtic cultures in Northwestern Europe knew the legend of Pooka with different versions. For instance, in Cornish cultures, they call it Bucca. A Bucca is a water spirit, goblin, or a merman who lived in mines and coastal areas during storms. While in the Welsh civilization, they know it with the name “Pwca.” As for the Channel Islands (between both England and France) people know it as Pouque. In particular, inhabitants of Channel Islands believed Pouque were fairies who inhabited the areas around the ancient remnants.
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, pretty much similar to “Pan,” the Greeks’ God of nature, flocks, wild and shepherds. Some language specialists argue that the word “Bog” from the Slavic language is actually coming from the name “Boga.” The name “Bog” means omnipotent, and was the forerunner of the English term “God.”
Others believe that Pookas are the residues of “Tautha Dé Danann” – means the tribes or the people of the Irish goddess Dana aka Danu. Earlier, folks knew the tribes of goddess Danu by the name “Tauthe Dé” which means the tribe of Gods. They were people whom once lived in Gaelic Ireland before the appearance of man on it. Those people were famous for their magical powers. Some stories claim that Tuatha Dé Danann were the major Gods before Christianity reaches Gaelic Ireland. The tribe lived in rural areas and were known for their magical ability to change their shapes.
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 the southwestern part of France. The cave is famous for its wall paintings. Some of the paintings in Les Trois Freres are showing a man wearing a skin of a horse or a wolf with horns up his head.
Anthropologists have different opinions about this: Some believe that the paintings on the walls of Les Trois Freres are a representation of Shamans. While the other team of anthropologists and scholars suggest that the drawings represent Pookas (a stag Pooka to be more specific) especially that, according to what was mentioned previously, the paintings show a man dressed as a horse or a wolf with a horn up their head.
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 states. In this state, they can cure any sickness caused by evil spirits.
There are some bizarre claims that Pookas were worshiped in ancient Egypt as Gods on their own, but there is no strong evidence of it. 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 developing. A big part of this development is represented in art and mythology which kept developing as humanity developed. Animals are a big part of mythology for their role in people’s daily lives since the dawn of civilization. The most logical explanation is that the Pooka originated from there. Legends kept developing and people kept building different stories around them and then performing rituals. At some point, those stories turn into a part of people’s traditions and beliefs.
Similar Shape-Shifting Mythological Creatures
There are creatures in Irish mythology that in one way or another are similar to Pookas in some characteristics.
A Kelpie is a pixie horse coming from 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 besides being able to release a sticky substance whenever they want.
A Kelpie is too 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. On the contrary to the Pooka who will do no harm to the person up its back, 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 a prey. Kelpies manage to appear in the form of the opposite sex to seduce the traveler. They either take them into the water by asking for help or by giving sensual services. If no traveler appears in the area for some time, a kelpie takes a human form and goes hunting. 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 but a Kelpie is more fierce than a Pooka.
Coming from a Scottish origin, Each-uisge, aka aughisky or echushkya famous in the Scottish folk tales as a water spirit. Each-uisge’s literal meaning is “water horse” and is very close to Kelpie’s traits 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 live in the sea, lakes and sea lakes. Moreover, like a Pooka, aughisky has the ability to shift shapes to 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 the man on their back (their victim) to the deepest point under the water. In that case, they drown him then tear him apart until there is nothing left except the liver which floats to the surface.
The Legend of Pooka
Legend has it that a Pooka, who likes to live in mountains and other similar areas, has main characteristics of animals. Even though they’re interested in taking the human form or any other form that pleases them. Pookas are benign yet mischievous creatures. A Pooka is one of the most feared creatures in the history of Irish folktales. In most of the folk tales, narrators mainly connect Pookas to mischief, black magic, damage, and sickness.
The character of the Pooka is pretty much similar to a mythological being in Asian folk tales. This being is actually a woman’s head that is disconnected from the body and can fly on its own. Not only does a Pookah mess with people on the land, but also tricks sailors in the sea. It’s known that they’re fond of wrecking ships and taking them away from Ireland.
Pookas in Different Regions
Views and tales of the Pooka differ from one area to another. In some regions, dwellers respect Pookas more than fearing them. While in other spots, most of them, in fact, inhabitants, just fear Pookas. Some stories state that Pookas show up from one time to another- especially in November- to give people advice or to warn them about some unpleasant news that might happen to them. As the beliefs of how a Pooka would treat humans differ, the stories and beliefs of how a Pooka would look like 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 take the shape of a huge scary hairy boogeyman. Even more 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.
Until a very recent time, in the southern part of County Fermanagh, people used to gather on specific far up spots. They wait 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 a Pooka
Pookas have the power and the ability to shift their guise. As per folklore, Brian Baruma Mac Cennetig aka Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland, is the only person who got to ride 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 a Pooka. He got to do this by only using a three-hair special curb of Pookas’ tail.
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 Pookas to agree on a couple of terms: First, Brian got Pookas to agree that they’ll never hurt Christians or mess with their properties. Second, Pookas have to agree that they would never assault an Irishman except for those with wicked intentions and drunk Irishmen. Though Pookas agreed to the terms, it seems like they’ve forgotten about their promises over the years.
Pooka’s day is mainly related to Samhain which is a 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). 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 and Pop Culture
Variety of Pookah stories made it to publishing industry and cinema industry. Starring the renowned actor James Stewart in 1950, the movie Harvey (makers originally borrowed it from a play that has the same name) was the most famous drawing the Pooka legend. The story is about a pooka with the name Harvey in the shape of a six-foot white rabbit. The three and a half inch tall rabbit becomes a best friend with a man and starts playing tricky games with people around him. Pookah is also represented in many other representations including the series Merry Gentry, in the anime show Sword Art Online, and the digital game Cabals: Magic & Battle Cards. There is also this club for the famous hurling game in Pittsburgh and its name is Pittsburgh Púcas.
In most works, artists tend to draw Pookah as a wicked creature taking the form of an animal-mostly a rabbit. Like the well-known children’s program Knightmare, the creators of the program represented Pookas as crazy creatures. The same case also goes with movies that are kind of recent including the movie “Donnie Darko” released in 2001. On the other hand, some artists draw the character of Pookah as a weird non-evil creature. Just like how the makers of The Spiderwick Chronicles -the children’s famous fictional book series- presented it.
When Pookas Started to Vanish
As Christianity started to spread, the beliefs of animal-worshiping, including the idea of Pookas being Gods, started to vanish gradually. Just like every other supernatural existence, Christianity tyrannized the myth of Pookah. The new image of the new religion changed how people viewed Pookas from supernatural creatures and sometimes Gods to harmful monsters. That’s when the legend of Pooka started to lose the significance it had and began to vanish. Some say Pookas ran to North America, where people there still honor nature as well as animals.
Pookas Never Say Goodbye
A 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 try to know you more, what you like and what you don’t to be able to trick you, play just to drive you crazy. They will stare, smile and even chat with you. Moreover, Pookas will tell you stories, and in case you’re not the first one to dwell a house they may tell you that they lived there before, and will, of course, know everyone that once held property of the house. They will know who lost his lands and who lost his fortune or money and just like gambits in chess they may say they’ll trick you.
You probably know by now that Pookas have the ability of human speech. It’s important to realize that during a conversation with a Pooka one might lose track of time and not until the conversation-that could last for few hours-is over you will wonder what happened and whom you were talking to. What’s more important than Pooka’s ability to talk is that they also leave out of a sudden. 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, games will start. So, beware!
If you like this blog then why not check out some of our other 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, Legendary Castles in Ireland, Ulster Fleadh 2018.