#FolkloreThursday, Celtic folklore, Faerie, Faeries, folklore, folklore creatures, Irish folklore, Owen Harding, Phouka, preview of work, Ronel Janse van Vuuren, short story, T.S. Eliott, Tales of the Onyx Labyrinth, Wattpad, writing
The idea that certain Faeries can shape-shift is deeply embedded in folklore and legend. Some of these creatures are absolutely deadly. Others, like the Phouka, just want to have fun.
The Púca (Irish for spirit/ghost), Pooka, Phouka, Phooka, Phooca, Puca or Púka, is primarily a creature of Irish folklore. Considered to be bringers both of good and bad fortune, they could either help or hinder rural and marine communities. The creatures were said to be shape changers which could take the appearance of black horses, goats and rabbits. They may also take a human form, which includes various animal features, such as ears or a tail.
Malevolent or benevolent nature
The pooka may be regarded as being either menacing or beneficent. Fairy mythologist Thomas Keightley said “notions respecting it are very vague,” and in a brief description gives an account collected by Croker from a boy living near Killarney that “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. Also, children were warned not to eat overripe blackberries, because this was a sign that the pooka has befouled them.
In contrast, the phouka is represented as being helpful to farmers by Lady Wilde, who relates the following tale. A farmer’s son named Phadraig one day noticed the invisible presence of the phouka brushing by, and called out to him, offering a coat. The phouka appeared in the guise of a young bull, and told him to come to the old mill at night. From that time onward, the phoukas came secretly at night and performed all the work of milling the sacks of corn into flour. Phadraig fell asleep the first time, but later concealed himself in a chest to catch sight of them, and later made a present of a fine silk suit. This unexpectedly caused the phoukas to go off to “see a little of the world” and cease their work. But by then the farmer’s wealth allowed him to retire and give his son an education. Later, at Phadraic’s wedding, the phouka left a gift of a golden cup filled with drink that evidently ensured their happiness.
There are stories of some phooka being blood-thirsty and vampire-like creatures. Other stories even say some are man eating beings, hunting down, killing, and eating their victims.
Morphology and physiology
According to legend, the púca is a deft shapeshifter, capable of assuming a variety of terrifying or pleasing forms. It can take a human form, but will often have animal features, such as ears or a tail. As an animal, the púca will most commonly appear as a horse, cat, rabbit, goat, goblin, or dog. No matter what shape the púca takes, its fur is almost always dark. It most commonly takes the form of a sleek black horse with a flowing mane and luminescent golden eyes. (The Manx glashtyn also takes on human form, but he usually betrays his horse’s ears and is analogous to the each uisce)
If a human is enticed onto a púca’s back, it has been known to give them a wild ride; however, unlike a kelpie, which will take its rider and dive into the nearest stream or lake to drown and devour him/her, the púca will do its rider no real harm. Pooka are also known as great chefs, but only operate in their own village. However according to some folklorists the only man ever to ride the púca was Brian Boru, High King of Ireland, by using a special bridle incorporating three hairs of the púca’s tail. The púca has the power of human speech, and has been known to give advice and lead people away from harm. Though the púca enjoys confusing and often terrifying humans, it is considered to be benevolent.
Google Images shows this when you search for “Phouka”:
Some of these images creates the impression that the Phouka is terrifying.
This mythic creature is also well documented in classic literature of Ireland and Britain. Irish poet and playwright W. B. Yeats depicts Pooka as an eagle, while Irish novelist and playwright Brian O’Nolan, who wrote under pseudonym Flann O’Brien, was also so inspired. O’Brien’s masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds, features a character called Pooka MacPhillemey, a “member of devil class”. In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Puck is a mischievous and quick-witted sprite responsible for setting many of play’s events in motion through his magic
Lest you think that Pooka is just another myth from Irish history – think again! The Pooka exists in contemporary Ireland also. For example it has a strong resonance with events of recent past, and not just symbolically either. Remember the Pooka is always around just before disaster. Cork born folklorist Thomas Crofton Croker in Fairy Legends and Traditions (1825) alleges that Pooka does appear as a real flesh and blood person. Apparently, Pooka in a human guise approaches someone, inveigles its way into their company and subsequently predicts unfortunate events that would befall them. Of course, when adversity does strike, this entity is never around. Hidden in its supernatural realm, it revels in joy of watching humans enduring effects of catastrophic events.
For example, consider this report recorded by folklorist Owen Harding in July, 2011.
“On Wednesday, 1st November, 2006, about 7.30pm, Denis O’Rourke, a business man and investor (originally from Cork city but then living in Malahide, County Dublin), believes he met Pooka. A strange and well-dressed man was outside of front gate of Denis’s home. This man struck up a conversation with Denis, claiming he had known him for years. He went on to tell Denis about his family – true facts he could not have known, going back three generations, and how over years they had lost and gained money. This man, who did not give a name, also said that family finances were based on more than just heritage, they were also subject to greater economy of a nation. Over next couple of years O’Rourke witnessed not merely fiscal fall of country, but his own financial ruin, including his business, his family home and two other houses he had invested in.”
Harding alleges that there are many similar reports, and possibly many more from others who are too embarrassed to reveal them. The problem, Harding claims, is that many people are not aware that anything unusual has happened until after Pooka has left. Not only that, but when disaster does happen, Pooka, like T.S. Eliott’s elusive cat Macavity,* “is not there”!
*Macavity is celebrated in a poem by Eliot as Mystery Cat; musical Cats is based on poem
Pooka pronounced poo-ka is from the old Irish ‘Puca, which means ‘goblin’. There are many variations of the spelling Pooka some of which are Puca, Plica, Phuca,Pwwka, Puka or Pookha all of which are totally acceptable.
A Pooka is a shape-shifter and can take any form it chooses but usually it is seen in the form of a dog, rabbit, goat, goblin or even an old man but traditionally a Pooka is seen as a dark, sleek horse with a long wild flowing mane and luminescent golden eyes. An important thing to always remember about a Pooka is that they have the power of human speech and when inclined make great sport of those they talk to as they like to embellish the truth.
Pooka’s can be found in any rural location and every county in Ireland has its very own Pooka. They like open mountainous areas so that they can run free while in horse form.
When a Pooka is in horse form, which it seems to favour a lot, he tends to have fun by inviting a rider to jump on his back this seems to happen when the rider has had a little too much to drink and is making his weary way home from the pub and would gladly jump at the chance of a lift. Thus starts the wildest trip the rider will ever know for the Pooka loves to terrify the rider with its great prowess jumping over hedges and rocks and making death defying leaps. Come the grey dawn the rider is thrown off the Pookas back and left trembling but none the worse from the night’s events to find his own way home.
This is maybe where the Pookas reputation slips a bit as while on a wild night out like this they do tend to run through crop fields and knock down fences without a care.
Pookas are mainly associated with Samhain (31st Oct) and November 1st is considered Pookas Day. This coincides with the harvest and the traditional customs that when the harvest is being brought in the reaper must leave a few stalks behind this is called the Pookas share and must be left to appease the Pooka because we for one would not like to incur his wrath. It is said that when we see the rain falling on a sunny day, which it does a lot in Ireland, the Pooka will definitely be out and about that night. Also berries that have been killed by the frost overnight should never be eaten as it is the Pookas spit that is on them and that would render them poisonous.
A Phouka is a shape-shifting faery. They love drama, mischief, and making distractions. In their original form they look like a mortal, but with furred ears.
A mischievous hobgoblin, sometimes seen as an ass, a horse, a calf or a goat, or a combination of these, or as a ghostly black dog, is said to be a pre-Celtic deity, later downgraded. Its favourite trick is to rise out of the ground between a person’s legs and carry him off. At daybreak next day, the phooka throws his victim back, usually into the mud. It is said that a phooka can give humans the power to understand the language of animals.
They’re such fascinating creatures. Here’s how they look on the Origin of the Fae page on this blog:
The first kind roams free as horses and loves being mischievous. They are deft shape-shifters, capable of assuming any form – terrifying or pleasing. Their human form, like those of the second kind of Phouka, is marked by fur ears and sometimes a tail. No matter the form they take, their fur is always dark.
Even in animal form, they have the power of human speech. They enjoy confusing and helping humans in equal measure, even terrifying them on occasion. They like to embellish the truth and see the reactions of others. They’re puckish (like their names suggest) and quick-witted.
Their favourite trick is to suddenly appear out of the ground between the legs of an unwary human and carry the person off. After a wild night of galloping everywhere, the Phouka will throw the rider off at daybreak (in mud, if possible) and disappear.
The only time they appear to be wrathful is when the farmer forgets to leave a couple of stalks after harvesting for the Phouka to enjoy. Everyone knows that they should leave the Phouka’s share…
The Second Kind belong to the High Fae. They were somehow enslaved by them and can only occasionally shape-shift. They have to stay in their human form, fur ears and all, to serve the High Fae. Mostly they live in the human realm. They are absolutely terrified of everything.
They are known to be great chefs, which is the position they usually have in the High Fae household.
Stories abound that this second kind of Phouka are bloodthirsty creatures with Vampiric tendencies. In these stories they are known to hunt down, kill and eat their victims – usually humans. Unfortunately this is true. Because these Phoukas are unable to roam free and be mischievous as is their nature, something inside breaks and they become monsters. But only for a while. They will return to being the frightened slaves of the High Fae, unable to shape-shift once the magic is burned up.
All Phoukas have the ability to give humans the power to understand the language of animals.
All Phoukas love drama, mischief and leading others on a merry chase.
They even feature in a slightly changed way in the newest instalment in the Tales of the Onyx Labyrinth – Mischief and Misdirection.
“Daphne stealthily walked down a corridor, hugging the wall. She was certain that her quarry was somewhere in this deserted section. Breathing softly, she turned the corner.
A rabbit sat alone in the cavern, happily chewing giant cloves.
The Guardian glared at the dark brown rabbit, willing it to turn into the baboon she’d been chasing. But of course that didn’t happen.”
– Mischief and Misdirection, Tales of the Onyx Labyrinth, Ronel Janse van Vuuren
I hope you enjoy reading the sixth tale in the series. Comments can be left here or on Wattpad – I always appreciate feedback. What do you think the Phouka looks like? Based on the research, do you think they’re merely capricious? Do you enjoy stories with Phoukas in them?