The Puca is a fearsome Irish shapeshifter that goes by many other names across the world, says ANN MASSEY
Of the fairy realm; the Puca translates as ghost or spirit, a very apt description for an evasive – yet terrifying supernatural being that materialises after nightfall throughout Ireland.
The Puca can change its appearance at will, and is considered one of the most feared and esteemed creatures in Celtic folklore.
Throughout Europe and probably the world, every country has its own incarnation of the Puca, also known as Pooka, Phouka and Phuca.
In Ireland, this shapeshifter will appear mostly in rural areas, particularly on mountains and hills.
Taking on many guises – including a rabbit, a hideous goblin; demanding a share of the harvest, a giant hairy bogeyman, an enormous eagle, a black goat with large horns and a dark stallion with a wild flowing mane and yellow eyes that burn like sulphur.
In its guise as a dark stallion the Puca will roam the landscape, tearing down fences and destroying farms. Trampling crops and causing cattle to stampede, its steely gaze could stop cows from producing milk and hens to stop laying their eggs.
The Puca also has the ability to converse with humans, before its nightly run it would call at a house for company, if its requests were refused then the property would be razed to the ground.
Lonely travellers were often swept up and thrown onto the back of the dark stallion, taken on a nightlong terrifying rides, to be shaken off in the grey light of morning, traumatised, with no memory, yet changed forever.
Beware the Puca
One man, weary of having been taken twice was believed to have tricked the Puca by wearing silver spurs and causing it so much pain the Puca agreed to leave him alone.
The High King Brian Boru is the only person who succeeded in catching and taming the Puca, Bringing the creature to bear with a bridle made from three strands of its mane. In return for freedom the Puca was made to promise never to harm an Irishman again, unless he was intoxicated or partaking in evil deeds.
After some years the notoriously untrustworthy and untruthful tormentor reverted back to old ways, forgetting the promise it had made the King.
The Puca is synonymous with the Gaelic festival of Samhain, marking the bringing in of the harvest and the start of the winter season.
In fact – November 1st, is the traditional start of this festival, known as ‘Puca Day’ – when the Puca is also supposed to be civil.
Indeed, it was thought that if you treated it with reverence you could find it in good humour, giving you warnings or prophecies- or even saving you from the malevolent fairies.
Regardless, the folklore warns that fruit must not be eaten after this day as it has likely to have been spat on by the Puca, thus bewitching it and making it inedible.
After harvesting anything left in the field that is considered to be ‘puka’ or fairy-blasted, what’s left is known as Puca’s Share.
Until a short time ago, South Fermanagh locals would gather in high places to await a speaking horse on Bilberry Sunday. If you were to go looking for one now, you should start in County Wicklow, specifically Poulaphuca, which translates as ‘The Puca’s Hole’.
The story of the Puca remains very much alive in modern times, being referenced in the poems of W.B Yeats and more recently in the films Harvey and Donnie Darko.
Oscar Wilde’s mother Jane, a poet in her own right and a prolific collector of Irish Fairy Tales believed the Puca came to the aid of many farmers.
But ask any poor wretch who has encountered the Puca and they will have a very different tale to tell.
So, if you were very tipsy last night and woke up this morning with mysterious injuries and amnesia regarding the night’s events, you may well have encountered the Puca on your way home – you may well have been taken on the ride of your life.
I love shapeshifters from myths and folklore. This may be one of my favourites.
I’m glad I didn’t know about this when I lived in Ireland!