Púca: Ireland’s shapeshifting trickster spirit of Celtic folklore
Try to imagine: you’re a normal worker, and you live in your pretty cottage just outside Dublin.
It’s autumn and, despite the wind is brisk, the weather is pleasant and so you decide to take a normal nighttime stroll. You latch your gate behind you, and turn, just to find a stranger dressed in a fashionable suit. He begins to tell you your own family secrets, including sins, adultery, sorrows, destitution. Then he tells you what’s going to happen to you: your wife will leave, your money will run dry and your happyness will crumble. He laughs, turns around, and is gone.
Or, you’re just five or six years old, and it’s harvest time on your family’s farm. As you help your mother pick strawberries, a dark rabbit suddenly appears. He told you that long ago, he lived in your house and he knows you’ve been eating the strawberries. Before you can tell him something, he’s vanished….
Or maybe you’re a ploughman, who live in your farm. You’re drinking at the local pub to forget your pain and, when last call comes, you stumble out and realize you can’t find your way home in the darkness. Then a macabre black horse appears and, due alchool, you don’t seem to notice that it is speaking to you, offering a ride home. After a horrific fast ride, you wake up, face down in a field….
All of these Irish tales speak about the fortune (or misfortune) of meeting a púca. From the Gaelic for “ghost”, púca is a shapeshifting trickster spirit of Celtic folklore that usually takes the form of a domestic animal, or a human with telltale animal features, such as large ears, fur, or a tail. Sometimes a púca can be decidedly more monstrous, part-bullock, or part-pig, for istance.
In any case, the beast’s purpose is to abduct wayfarers at night, taking them on a frightening cross-country ride, and leaving them back at their point of departure at dawn.
It is also often associated with Halloween, a significant holiday in Ireland that coincides with Samhain, the autumn festival marking the end of the harvest season (do you remember my old article?).
And, in addition, the púca is said to destroy any crops not picked before November 1.
Yes, they can also bless humans with good luck or protection, but can kidnap us, terrify, or bewitch us. So, It’s thought best to avoid them or to ward them off with charms, spurs, and cold iron.
One example of benevolent púca comes from an old legend. As story goes, a cold night a farmer’s son felt the púca’s presence and offered him a coat. To return the favor, it made a habit of milling the family’s corn into flour during the night, and all family was blessed with financial prosperity and fertile soil.
The púca often appears to lone travelers on rural roads and paths after dark, especially in fall and winter. Sometimes appears as an auld man, coming up the road with a big stick under his arm and a big whisker. In horse form, they are most famous for flinging drunk pedestrians onto their backs and galloping off at horrific speed.
There is only one legendary example of a person mounting and riding púca by choice: Brian Boru, the High King of Ireland, about a thousand years ago. He is said to have performed this astonishing thing by making a bridle that incorporated several strands of the beast’s hair.
The púca’s mischievous stories, as well as its connection with Halloween, are explained by another legend. Apparently, anyone who wanted to pick blackthorn berries (“sloes”) should do so before Halloween, or else the púca would shite on all the sloes and they couldn’t be used.
As a result of this legend, there are a few agricultural traditions surrounding the creature at this time of year. In some counties, for istance, farmers leave a bit of their harvested crops out for the beast so he’ll be well-fed and in a good mood on November 1, which is considered the púca’s day, as it is the one day of the year when he will be benevolent.
On this day, he may dispense advice, perform acts of charity, or dole out prophecies while, on the other days, a way to tell if he is in a good mood is to put a comfortable bench on the right side of your front door and an uncomfortable bench on the left. Why?
A happy púca will only sit on the right….
Images from web / Google Research