Púca Origins: How a Mischievous Little Monster Infiltrated Irish Folklore

H. R. Millar's frontispiece to the original edition of Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, "They saw a small, brown ... pointy-eared person ... step quietly into the Ring"

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And now, for a tiny little post about a tiny little monster: the púca.

Often anglicized as “pooka,” this notoriously mischievous monster is, technically speaking, a spirit. And “[l]ike all spirits,” according to W. B. Yeats, “he is only half in the world of form,” (source: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, 1888).

Yeats elaborates that the púca is “essentially an animal spirit.” And like so many other supernatural beings from Irish mythology (notably the Morrígan, who often takes the form of a crow or raven, and werewolves, who, well, self-explanatory), the púca is capable of therianthropy. 

Translation: the púca can shapeshift into animals. And I quote:

“[The púca]  has many shapes—is now a horse, now an ass, now a bull, now a goat, now an eagle.”

source: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888)

In one of the most well-known Irish folktales featuring the púca, “The Piper and the Pooka,” the spirit appears as a bipedal goblin with horns on his head. Later, he transforms into a horse and carries the eponymous piper to a feast at the house of the banshees.

“The pooka riding on black horse.” source: Colum, Padraic (1916) The King of Ireland’s Son, New York: Henry Holt (via Wikimedia Commons)


The púca appears as a horse again in the story “Mac-na-Michomhairle,” as relayed by Douglas Hyde to Yeats:

“[O]ut 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.”

source: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry (1888)

Yeats, for his part, questioned whether this horse-monster was not actually an augh-ishka (each-uisgé), or waterhorse—a creature I defined in an earlier article on Irish dragons. But Yeats concluded that the “November-day” (re: Samhain) association “tells in favour of the Pooka,” as “November-day is sacred to the Pooka.”

Note: the one form the púca decidedly does not take, according to Yeats, is that of a human.

“Depiction of the Pwca in Wirt Sikes’ book British Goblins: Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions, 1880 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Appearance aside, the púca’s behavior is typified by mischief-making and “other devilment,” according to historian Peter Berresford Ellis. In particular, the spirit has a reputation for leading travelers astray (source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology, 1987).

Yeats further specifies that the púca is fond of messing with people who are in their proverbial cups. Or as he puts it, “Especially does [the púca] love to plague a drunkard,” (source: Irish Fairy Tales and Folkore, 1892).

So let you take warning by me: Whenever you’re out on the liquor, me lads, watch out for…the púca. (And yes, I borrowed the aforementioned warning from the popular Irish folk song, “The Black Velvet Band.”)

Placing the Púca: Where Did This Malicious Critter Come From?

Irish folk tales tell us that the púca makes his home “[o]n solitary mountains and among old ruins,” (source: Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, 1888).

For example, there is said to be a púca (which, curiously, takes the form of a buzzing fleece of wool) that haunts the aptly named Dun of Coch-na-Phuca in Kilkenny, County Leinster. (It’s unclear if this is the same “certain hill in Leinster” where the púca from Douglas Hyde’s aforementioned story dwells.)

Indeed, the Irish countryside seems to be rife with púcaí (plural of púca), and their mythos has become integrated into the local landscape. Or at least that was the case when famed comparative mythology scholar Joseph Campbell visited Donegal. Check out the following passage from his 1911 book, Mearing Stones: Leaves from my Note-Book on Tramp in Donegal:

“‘What are these?’ I asked an old woman in the fields this morning, pointing to a cluster of what we in the north-east corner call paddock-stools, and sometimes fairy-stools. ‘Well,’ said she, ‘they’re not mushrooms, anyway. They’re what you call Púca-piles. They say the Púca lays them!’”

But despite its longstanding popularity (or perhaps “infamy” is a better word) in Ireland, the púca was not originally Irish. Indeed, as Ellis points out, the púca has no presence whatsoever in Irish mythology (i.e., Ireland’s oldest, most sacred storytelling tradition) and was likely brought to Ireland by the Vikings.

To quote Ellis:

“[The púca] occurs in later legend and seems to have no basis in myth, probably being an import from the Norse púki, an imp, from where it also went into Welsh pwca and into English as puck.”

(source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)

If the name “puck” has your ears ringing (perhaps we have some Shakespeare fans in the house?), you’re likely already aware that in English folklore, a puck is a domestic spirit, which, like the púca, is known for stirring up mischief. The most famous iteration of this folkloric figure, of course, is the “shrewd and knavish” Puck (a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow, a.k.a. Hobgoblin) from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

“Puck, AKA Robin Goodfellow. Title page image of Robin Goodfellow: His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests.” Date: 1629 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, there is a theory that Shakespeare based his Puck on the Irish púca. Or, as Yeats puts it (and let’s face it, Yeats will always be able to put it better than I can): “Some derive his [the púca’s] name from poc, a he-goat; and speculative persons consider him the forefather of Shakespere’s ‘Puck.’”

Speaking of speculation, did you catch that part about the he-goat?

It certainly fits, given what we know of púca lore, that its name would be based on the word for another horned, notoriously rambunctious “beast” of the field. But according to Ellis, the notion that “púca” came from “poc” is pure poppycock. (I’m sorry.) And I quote:

“The famous Puck Fair held in August in Killorglin, Co. Kerry, is nothing to do with the púca. The Puck Fair is named from poc (pronounced puck), a buck-goat. The old song ‘An Poc ar Buile’ (The Mad Goat) is associated with the festival which has been held since the seventeenth century and may have its origins in the Feast of Lughnasadh.”

(source: A Dictionary of Irish Mythology (1987)
“King Puck statue in Killorglin, County Kerry, Republic of Ireland” (2008) source: Ogmios / Wikimedia Commons

Ultimately, the precise etymology of “púca” is still up for debate. As noted in Frank Sidgwick’s The Sources and Analogues of ‘A Midsummer-night’s Dream’ (1908), it’s possible that “the source might be a British word, from which the Irish púca would be borrowed.”

Lo and behold: the Old English word for “goblin” was pūca.

So, did the Norse púki (“an imp”) inspire the English word, as Ellis suggests, or was it the other way around?

Much to the púca’s delight, I’m sure, the debate continues.

Want to meet more monsters from Irish mythology? Check out…

Irish Monsters in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 3)

In the Ireland of myth and legend, “spooky season” is every season. Spirits roam the countryside, hovering above the bogs. Werewolves lope through forests under full moons. Dragons lurk beneath the waves. Granted, there’s no denying that Samhain (Halloween’s Celtic predecessor) tends to bring out some of the island’s biggest, baddest monsters. Prepare yourself for (educational) encounters with Irish cryptids, demons, ghouls, goblins, and other supernatural beings. Learn more…

Neon Druid: An Anthology of Urban Celtic Fantasy

“A thrilling romp through pubs, mythology, and alleyways. NEON DRUID is such a fun, pulpy anthology of stories that embody Celtic fantasy and myth,” (Pyles of Books). Cross over into a world where the mischievous gods, goddesses, monsters, and heroes of Celtic mythology live among us, intermingling with unsuspecting mortals and stirring up mayhem in cities and towns on both sides of the Atlantic, from Limerick and Edinburgh to Montreal and Boston. Learn more…

Want to learn the full story of Samhain? Check out…

Samhain in Your Pocket (Celtic Pocket Guides 2)

Perhaps the most important holiday on the ancient Celtic calendar, Samhain marks the end of summer and the beginning of a new pastoral year. It is a liminal time—a time when the forces of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and blight, are in conflict. A time when the barrier between the land of the living and the land of the dead is at its thinnest. A time when all manner of spirits and demons are wont to cross over from the Celtic Otherworld. Learn more…

More the listenin’ type?

I recommend the audiobook Celtic Mythology: Tales of Gods, Goddesses, and Heroes by Philip Freeman (narrated by Gerard Doyle). Use my link to get 3 free months of Audible Premium Plus and you can listen to the full 7.5-hour audiobook for free.

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