P is for Phouka
I’m doing folklore and book review posts to reach and please a larger audience. Previous years have shown select interest in both and to minimise blogging throughout the year, I’m focusing my efforts on April.
If you’d rather check out my book review for today, go here.
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 Fairy Mythology by Thomas Keightley 
The Irish Pooka [e] is plainly the English Pouke, Puck, and would seem, like it, to denote an evil spirit. The notions respecting it are very vague. A boy in the mountains near Killarney told Mr. Croker that “old people used to say that the Pookas were very numerous in the times long ago. They were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things, that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them. They did great hurt to benighted travellers.” Here we plainly have the English Puck; but it is remarkable that the boy should speak of Pookas in the plural number. In Leinster, it was always the, not a Pooka, that we heard named. When the blackberries begin to decay, and the seeds to appear, the children are told not to eat them any longer, as the Pooh has dirtied on them.
Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry Edited and Selected by W. B. Yeats 
The Pooka, rectè Púca, seems essentially an animal spirit. Some derive his name from poc, a he-goat; and speculative persons consider him the forefather of Shakespeare’s “Puck”. On solitary mountains and among old ruins he lives, “grown monstrous with much solitude,” and is of the race of the nightmare. “In the MS. story, called ‘Mac-na-Michomhairle’, of uncertain authorship,” writes me Mr. Douglas Hyde, “we read that ‘out of a certain hill in Leinster, there used to emerge as far as his middle, a plump, sleek, terrible steed, and speak in human voice to each person about November-day, and he was accustomed to give intelligent and proper answers to such as consulted him concerning all that would befall them until the November of next year. And the people used to leave gifts and presents at the hill until the coming of Patrick and the holy clergy.’ This tradition appears to be a cognate one with that of the Púca.” Yes! unless it were merely an augh-ishka [each-uisgé], or Water-horse. For these, we are told, were common once, and used to come out of the water to gallop on the sands and in the fields, and people would often go between them and the marge and bridle them, and they would make the finest of horses if only you could keep them away from the sight of the water; but if once they saw a glimpse of the water, they would plunge in with their rider, and tear him to pieces at the bottom. It being a November spirit, however, tells in favour of the Pooka, for November-day is sacred to the Pooka. It is hard to realise that wild, staring phantom grown sleek and civil.
He has many shapes–is now a horse, now an ass, now a bull, now a goat, now an eagle. Like all spirits, he is only half in the world of form.
THE PIPER AND THE PUCA.
Translated literally from the Irish of the Leabhar Sgeulaigheachta.
In the old times, there was a half fool living in Dunmore, in the county Galway, and although he was excessively fond of music, he was unable to learn more than one tune, and that was the “Black Rogue.” He used to get a good deal of money from the gentlemen, for they used to get sport out of him. One night the piper was coming home from a house where there had been a dance, and he half drunk. When he came to a little bridge that was up by his mother’s house, he squeezed the pipes on, and began playing the “Black Rogue” (an rógaire dubh). The Púca came behind him, and flung him up on his own back. There were long horns on the Púca, and the piper got a good grip of them, and then he said–
“Destruction on you, you nasty beast, let me home. I have a ten-penny piece in my pocket for my mother, and she wants snuff.”
“Never mind your mother,” said the Púca, “but keep your hold. If you fall, you will break your neck and your pipes.” Then the Púca said to him, “Play up for me the ‘Shan Van Vocht’ (an t-seann-bhean bhocht).”
“I don’t know it,” said the piper.
“Never mind whether you do or you don’t,” said the Púca. “Play up, and I’ll make you know.”
The piper put wind in his bag, and he played such music as made himself wonder.
“Upon my word, you’re a fine music-master,” says the piper then; “but tell me where you’re for bringing me.”
“There’s a great feast in the house of the Banshee, on the top of Croagh Patric tonight,” says the Púca, “and I’m for bringing you there to play music, and, take my word, you’ll get the price of your trouble.”
“By my word, you’ll save me a journey, then,” says the piper, “for Father William put a journey to Croagh Patric on me, because I stole the white gander from him last Martinmas.”
The Púca rushed him across hills and bogs and rough places, till he brought him to the top of Croagh Patric. Then the Púca struck three blows with his foot, and a great door opened, and they passed in together, into a fine room.
The piper saw a golden table in the middle of the room, and hundreds of old women (cailleacha) sitting round about it. The old woman rose up, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, you Púca of November (na Samhna). Who is this you have brought with you?”
“The best piper in Ireland,” says the Púca.
One of the old women struck a blow on the ground, and a door opened in the side of the wall, and what should the piper see coming out but the white gander which he had stolen from Father William.
“By my conscience, then,” says the piper, “myself and my mother ate every taste of that gander, only one wing, and I gave that to Moy-rua (Red Mary), and it’s she told the priest I stole his gander.”
The gander cleaned the table, and carried it away, and the Púca said, “Play up music for these ladies.”
The piper played up, and the old women began dancing, and they were dancing till they were tired. Then the Púca said to pay the piper, and every old woman drew out a gold piece, and gave it to him.
“By the tooth of Patric,” said he, “I’m as rich as the son of a lord.”
“Come with me,” says the Púca, “and I’ll bring you home.”
They went out then, and just as he was going to ride on the Púca, the gander came up to him, and gave him a new set of pipes. The Púca was not long until he brought him to Dunmore, and he threw the piper off at the little bridge, and then he told him to go home, and says to him, “You have two things now that you never had before–you have sense and music (ciall agus ceól).
The piper went home, and he knocked at his mother’s door, saying, “Let me in, I’m as rich as a lord, and I’m the best piper in Ireland.”
“You’re drunk,” said the mother.
“No, indeed,” says the piper, “I haven’t drunk a drop.”
The mother let him in, and he gave her the gold pieces, and, “Wait now,” says he, “till you hear the music, I’ll play.”
He buckled on the pipes, but instead of music, there came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. He awakened the neighbours and they all were mocking him, until he put on the old pipes, and then he played melodious music for them; and after that he told them all he had gone through that night.
The next morning, when his mother went to look at the gold pieces, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant.
The piper went to the priest, and told him his story, but the priest would not believe a word from him, until he put the pipes on him, and then the screeching of the ganders and geese began.
“Leave my sight, you thief,” said the priest.
But nothing would do the piper till he would put the old pipes on him to show the priest that his story was true.
He buckled on the old pipes, and he played melodious music, and from that day till the day of his death, there was never a piper in the county Galway was as good as he was.
The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures by John & Caitlín Matthews
In Irish tradition, the Pooka or Puca is a mischievous spirit in half-animal form who can transform at will. Pookas punish graverobbing and ingratitude, and have been known to help rescue beasts that founder in bogs. He sometimes helps in household tasks and tidies up after people. Irish children call snails ‘pookas’ and bid them put out their horns in a nursery rhyme. Before Hallowe’en it is safe to eat the wayside blackberry, but not afterwards when the Pooka smites the fruit, making it inedible by dirtying it.
*More can be read in the book.
The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper
(Also pooka, puka) Shapeshifting creature of Irish folklore. The phouka takes many forms and is described by turns as wild and tricksy, or helpful and benevolent. He is sometimes described as a bogie beast taking the form of an eagle, a bat, a dog, a rabbit, a goat, or a sleek black horse and luring humans onto his back then embarking with them on a wild ride. In other tales he takes the form of a creature akin to a pisky, or brownie, helping with agricultural labours such as threshing.
*More can be read in the book.
Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane
Variations: Bookhas, Bwcas, Phouka, Pooka, Pwca.
In Irish fairy lore the malicious phouka is the bane of the countryside. It is said when it rains while the sun is shining the phooka will be out that night.
A shape-shifting trickster takes great delight in tormenting travellers, this fairy being will assume the form of a wild colt dragging chains, enticing a weary traveller to mount up on its back. As soon as it has a rider the phooka takes its victim on a wild ride, kicking and bucking hard enough to break human bones; ultimately it dumps its prey off in a ditch. In the guise of an eagle it will snatch up a man and fly him toward the moon. It is also known to take on the form of a demonic horse, black, huge, and well-muscled breathing blue flames from its nostrils and smelling like sulphur.
When blackberries begin to go to seed and rot on the vine children are told not to eat them because the phooka “dirtied” them. When the berries are killed by a frost it is said the phooka spit upon them. After the first November it is tradition not to eat blackberries as the phooka has defecated or urinated over the remaining crop.
*Read more in the book.
- The Pooka
- The Púca (Pooka) In Irish Folklore
- 10 Mythological Creatures and Shapeshifters
- Pookas: Digging into the Secrets of this mischievous Irish mythical creature
- The Irish legend of the Pooka
Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel
Though phouka means “goblin”, “spirit” or “sprite”, and has different spellings, this mythical creature can shapeshift into any animal it wants to. It does on occasion take the form of a misshapen goblin, usually when demanding its share of the harvest, but this is rare. Though some see them as terrifying, the phouka is mostly benign and mischievous. The tales that malign this creature is usually concerned with black magic, damage and sickness – though the phouka is well-known for mischief and there are no accounts of a phouka ever harming a human.
Its appearance varies from region-to-region. In County Down, the phouka looks like a tiny goblin asking for its share of the harvest. This has come to be known as the “phouka’s share” when the reapers leave a few strands behind. In County Laois, it is in the form of a hairy, terrifying bogeyman out to scare people who are out after dark. In Roscommon, the phouka looks like a black goat. In Wexford, the phouka is an eagle with an immense wingspan. For the most part, though, it takes on the form of a beautiful black horse which enjoys taking the unwary on a wild ride through the countryside, depositing them safely at their front door at dawn. Or, more likely, just dumping them wherever when the fun is over – usually in a bog or other such nasty place.
What sets the phouka apart from faery animals, though, is its ability to speak. It can even take on human form and chat to humans, tricking them or even giving advice. No matter the shape the phouka takes, its fur is always dark.
In a lot of places, the phouka is seen as a creature of the hills and mountains. This is mainly because this faery enjoys the freedom of galloping across open spaces in its horse-form.
In Ireland, the phouka is mainly feared because it only comes out at night and finds it enjoyable to create mayhem and mischief.
It’s not clear where the legend of the phouka comes from, but it’s probably from the widespread horse cults from the early Celtic world that left its mark on the Otherworld.
Phoukas in Modern Culture
Iron Fey book series by Julie Kagawa
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.Learn more here.
The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi
This mischievous and roguish trickster can appear in the form of a horse, rabbit, goat, dog or sometimes even a human. But no matter what form the Phooka takes, its fur is almost always dark. In horse form, a Phooka will lure humans to ride on its back. Unlike a Kelpie, however, the Phooka will not do the rider any real harm but will take the unfortunate person on a wild and terrifying ride.
On occasion the Phooka can be persuaded to advise and has been known to shepherd people away from great danger. For these reasons, despite the Phooka’s delight in confounding and terrifying humans, it is considered more benevolent than malevolent.
It is the Phooka who spoils the blackberries after the first of November. Anyone who eats one after that date is stealing from the phooka and likely to be on the receiving end of this faerie‘s displeasure or devious sense of humor.Learn more here.
Phoukas in My Writing
Origin of the Fae: Phoukas
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.
Translation of Phouka to Afrikaans: Pooka.
See them in action:
Solitary Fae (Origin of the Fae #6)
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? Anything about phoukas you’d like to add? Any stories about phoukas you’d like to share? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to the subject.
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No-one writes about the fae like Ronel Janse van Vuuren.