Pookas: Shapeshifting Irish Tricksters

black_horseThe word “pooka” (or phouka, puka, etc.) derives from Gaelic púca, meaning “spirit, ghost, or goblin.” Originally an earth-spirit associated with fields and herds, these beings are best known as trickster figures, either malevolent or simply mischievous. The worst among them have been accused of crimes including child molestation, kidnapping, and murder.

Pookas often pass through the mortal realm invisibly, but they are also accomplished shapeshifters. A pooka’s animal form is almost always a type of animal that lives in close proximity to humans: cats, dogs, horses and ponies, goats, cattle, rabbits, etc.—another indication of their original agrarian connection. In Waterford and Wexford, however, they have been known to take the form of a huge eagle. No matter the form, its fur or feathers are almost always dark.

As an agricultural spirit, pookas are associated with Samhain, the Gaelic harvest festival when the last of the crops are brought in. The pooka is acknowledged to have a right to anything that remains in the fields after November 1, “the pooka’s day.” Thereafter, pookas might render crops inedible or unsafe—perhaps by spitting or defecating on them. In some locales, reapers leave a small share of the crop to placate the hungry creature.

Pookas can also be helpful to farmers. In at least one story, pookas helped a poor farmer by milling his grain for him in the dead of night.

The Border Region has a variety of pooka known as a brag. These beings are noted for their kindness to animals. They still enjoy playing tricks on humans, however.