The holiday known as Halloween in modern times actually has ancient origins, tracing back to Irish pagan origins.
Irish folklore is surely some of the most unique and fascinating in the world. Stories, myths and legends vary in their characters and content. Mood as well can vary, with some stories darker than others.
One of the darker stories in Irish and, more broadly, Celtic, folklore is that of the púca (also written pooka, puka, phouka), a sort of animal spirit or goblin shapeshifter of dubious intentions. Stories vary in terms of the púca’s designs, and they are thought to bring both good and bad fortune, depending on their mood.
Púca are shape-shifting troublemakers. Legends say that the púca can change into horses, goats, cats, donkeys, bulls, dogs, foxes, wolves, and hares, though always with jet-black fur. Horses bearing sleek coats, wild manes and flaming eyes are the most common animal shape of these mischievous fairies. When in human form, these fairies still bear animalistic characteristics.
Though stories about the púca are vague and varied, one common similarity is the púca’s love of mischief. Mischief can take many forms, but one favourite with the púca seems to be taking their preferred animal form of a great black horse and enticing the unwitting rider on its back for a wild and terrible horseback ride through the night. Usually, this person has been on the drink, and even if they haven’t, the púca bewitches them, leaving them with a bad feeling and hazy recollections of a night poorly spent. As you can imagine, that would frighten anyone – though little actual harm is done.
Sometimes the púca can serve as a protective entity, helping farmers with the crops, offering presents, or intervening ahead of a terrible accident to prevent harm, though stories of kindly púca are much overshadowed by those of mischief, bad luck, or even doom.
Then again, there are some stories darker still, calling the creatures blood-thirsty and accusing the púca of being evil creatures that hunted and killed humans. It seems the stories are as varied as the púca themselves. There are many types of fairies in Ireland. Learn more about fairy folklore here.
The púca is a rural being. Many traditions associate the púca with agriculture and the Celtic harvest calendar. The púca is generally thought to inhabit Ireland’s most remote places – hills, mountains, and bogs. It is a creature of grey autumn days, of misty dawns and murky dusks. Most tales of humans interacting with them happen during the night, particularly after the unlucky person is leaving the warmth and cosiness of the pub for the chilly, inky blackness of an October night.
Stories of the devious púca are not unique to any one part of Ireland. Folk tales and oral stories place this creature across the island from County Down to Waterford and Wexford and everything in between. Versions of the púca also exist throughout the folklore of other Celtic cultures.
The púca are heavily associated with Halloween, or Samhain (pronounced “saw-when”), as it’s known in Ireland. Samhain is an ancient pagan festival. In the Celtic calendar, Samhain falls on the last day of October, which is also the last day of autumn, marking the end of the harvest season.
After Samhain, farmers left the fields to winter, leaving the remains of the undesirable crops behind. Such crops are “puka” – touched by the fairies and therefore left to them. Fairy-conscious farmers would take it one step further and leave a “púca’s share” of crops out to appease the mischievous beings and dissuade them from causing the farmer any harm.
If this sounds familiar, it should. On the night of Samhain, when the people believed the curtain between our world and the spirit world to be at its thinnest, Irish people would (and often still do) leave out offerings – usually food – to appease the fairies and keep them from harming the people in the house. Disguises were used to confuse the fairies and spirits, and vegetables like turnips carved with gruesome faces to scare them away.
In modern times, such pagan practices translate as adults passing decadent candy offerings to “trick-or-treating” children, designing and wearing scary and ever more extravagant costumes, and fun pumpkin-carving activities with the final pumpkins proudly displayed on doorsteps across the world on Halloween night.
If the fairies have Halloween night, then the púca have November 1st. By November, the harvest is finished, and anything left is spoilt. The púca are blamed – they must have ruined anything that remained in the fields. By the day after Samhain, wild berries and other fruits have shrivelled and died – so the púca must have spit on them and left them spoilt. And yet – November 1st is the one day a year during which the púca are reputed for their civility.
The púca have made their way from oral tradition into Irish stories. Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s mother, was a renowned folklorist and she recorded a number of stories surrounding these mischievous little beings. Irish national poet W.B. Yeats penned a poem about an eagle-shaped púca.
Gothic horror writer Sheridan Le Fanu, a contemporary of Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, included the púca in multiple stories, including one in which a púca appears in the shape of a cat. 20th-century novelist Flann O’Brien’s award-winning novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, has a character called Pooka who can shapeshift when smoking a magic pipe. Even the modern children’s Spiderwick series by Holly Black includes a phooka amongst the various supernatural characters (also in the form of a cat).
Though English, the most famous version of the púca is the trickster character Puck from Shakespeare’s play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Video games feature such creatures too. From well-known games like The Witcher 3 to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, video games also sport iterations of púca, proving that the reach of Irish folklore is far and wide.
Learn more about Ireland’s thousands-years-long relationship with this ancient holiday.
From witches to selkies, humans turned to swans and formidable queens and giants, dive into the wonderful and strange world of Ireland folklore in our series.