The Pooka or púca (Irish for spirit/ghost), phouka, phooka, phooca, puca or púka is a much feared creature in Irish Folklore.
A solitary spirit, often malevolent, sometimes generous, always capricious.
It assumes many shapes and although most often a horse, can appear as a goat, a bull, an ass, a dog or even an eagle. Or occasionally a melding of one of these with a human form… Like all spirits, it is only half in the world
I was drawn to this story because it was a different take on the Pooka tale and because I have always been fascinated by the idea of shapeshifting and here was an opportunity to imagine it… I chose the transformation scene as I wanted to explore what the inbetween stage from boy to horse might look like and also to show the surprise at becoming a horse on a horses face…
Shapeshifting is a recurring theme in story in every culture of the world and has been written about, spoken about and depicted since the dawn of time. The idea that we could become the animals we shared our space with, not only to run, fly or swim with the ease that they do but to have the shape of those stronger and swifter than ourselves must have been a powerful one for our early ancestors and shapeshifting has always been connected with the actions of deities, the denizens of the otherworld or the excercise of Magic.
Shapeshifting also plays with our ideas of what it is to be human and whether our sense of superiority over and separation from the natural world is as thin as gossamer and can be taken from us so easily, plunging us into potentially darker and more sensual places and making us aware of our animal selves. So shapeshifting as a punishment could be a terrifying concept to so very many of us.
But perhaps if we could reconnect more with these wild aspects of ourselves and be less afraid of the beast within us all we would be more respectful of the beasts out there too and able to appreciate wildness more and domestication less.
So is the pooka out there? Lurking in the hills and forests, or should we seek to find it in the nearest mirror…
Possibly the earliest depiction of a shapeshifter? Or a Shaman? Or maybe both…cave painting at Trois Freres, 13,000 BC
Here is part of the story of the Rathcoffey Pooka from Kildare Folk tales, reproduced with the kind permission of Steve Lally.
“When Archibald returned they never told him about the strange goings on at night after all the merriment was over and the all the crockery and cooking ware was left in the kitchen to be washed. Oh! No! they never dared mention how none of them had dared enter the kitchen after midnight as they were all scared out of their wits by the sound of banging and clattering coming from the kitchen all this cacophony accompanied by the sound of hysterical laughter and whistling. And every morning to their amazement the kitchen was always found spotless and everything clean and in its place. You could have eaten your dinner off the floor it was so well scrubbed.
Now there was a young scullery boy that lived and worked at the castle and he was a very lazy boy… he was so lazy the only time he would lift his hand to do something was when he wished to scratch his head or pick his nose. He was so lazy that he made his Mammy cry.
Now Rathcoffey Castle was a great place for a boy like this to work in as he never had to do a stroke. Shur’ it was heaven altogether, and why should he do anything when what ever it was coming to the kitchen at night was doing such a fine job, far better than he could ever do himself.
Well one night out of curiosity and boredom he decided to see who or what was making all the noise and doing all the cleaning. He waited till all the ware was brought into the kitchen and left piled high to the ceiling with the mice atein’ away at them. He decided to build himself a nice big fire in the fireplace and he knew that no one would bother him as they were all too frightened to go into the kitchen after dark. He lay down on some cushions before the hearth. Ah! It was a grand fire indeed. He could feel the warmth of the flames against his face, smell the aromatic smoke as it curled up the chimney. The flames threw shadows on the walls like dancing demons and he was eased into a deep sleep by the gentle sound of the wood crackling.
Then all of a sudden he was woken by the most terrible howling and shrieking, he could hear the words ‘I’ve got ya now ya boy ya! I’ve got ya now!’ bellowed into his face. The boy looked up in terror and standing above him was a great black horse with red eyes like burning coals and steam hissing out of its curled nostrils.
‘Whooo are you?’ stammered the boy, his heart pounding with fear. The horse grinned at him revealing two rows of ivory white teeth and there was a glint of menace in the creatures eye that sent a shiver down the boy’s spine.
The horse pulled over a chair and sat down in it and crossed his legs, he then reached in to his big black mane and produced a large clay pipe. He lit the pipe, took a deep drag out of it and exhaled the thick smoke out his nostrils. Then he cleared his throat and spat onto the fire causing it to hiss like an angry serpent. And then the horse began…
‘I am the Pooka Horse, I dwell amongst the ruins and the hilltops, I have been driven monstrous by much solitude and they say I am of the race of the Nightmare! But I was once boy like you, a lazy boy just like you!’ The Pooka Horse looked ever so pleased with himself as he went on to tell the poor boy his story. ‘I was so lazy, I made my Mammy cry and the fairies were so angry with me they sent a big black Pooka Horse, who threw me on his back and ran the full length and breadth of Ireland with me holding on for dear life. He ran to the south, where he took me to the top of Mount Carrantuohill in the County Kerry and he howled like a wolf, then he took me to the West where my teeth chattered as his hooves clattered across the mighty Burren in the County Clare, then he took me to the North where he jumped across ‘Maggie’s Leap’ in the County Down and finally he brought me to the East Where my heart pounded as he bounded across the plains of the Curragh of Kildare. He came to a sudden halt and I was sent flying into the furze bushes and when I came to I was no longer a boy but the great black Pooka Horse that you see before you now’.
The creature went on to explain that there was a curse upon him. ‘I would remain a Pooka horse and travel the land seeking out lazy people and when I found them, I would have to carry out all their chores and labour. The only way I could break the spell was to find a boy or a girl lazier than I was, and catch them sleeping when they should be working. The Pooka grinned menacingly at the boy and took a deep drag from his pipe. He went on ‘I found you a long time ago boy, dozing about, skiving off your duties and playing truant. All I had to do was to catch you sleeping, I waited and worked here doing all your chores and now I got Ya!’ Ha!’roared the Pooka Horse. ‘Please!’ begged the boy, ‘Please give me one last chance, I promise I will never be lazy again and do all that is asked of me and more’. The Pooka Horse leered down at the boy and curled back his lips in a snarl, revealing those terrible teeth, hissing at the boy he said ‘We’ll see, we’ll see…’ With that the Pooka put out his pipe, pushed it back into his mane, stood up, turned and opened the door. The boy heard him galloping across the plain outside, crying ‘We’ll see!, We’ll see!’
The poor lad jumped up and began to scrub, mop and wash everything in the kitchen. He did this every day and night for a brave long while. And there was no sign of the Pooka Horse.The people of Rathcoffey Castle were very pleased with and proud of their scullery boy, and they rewarded him well and he had a day off every week to do as he pleased. And they were no longer full of fear at night with all that strange commotion going on in the kitchen.
So as time went on the boy began to think that the Pooka Horse was a thing of the past, in fact he started to believe that he imagined the whole experience. And he had been working so hard, far harder than anyone else in the castle and he deserved a night off. He was due a holiday the following week, but he could not wait.
So one night after the festivities were over and all the dirty dishes were brought into the kitchen, he went inside as before and built himself a large fire. Ah! How lovely it was, he needed a rest and this was well deserved.
It was not long before he drifted off to sleep, snoring away contentedly…
‘Ahhhhhhh! Ha! Ha! I got you now for sure ya boy ya!’ The boy jumped out of his sleep absolutely terrified, his heart beating in his breast.
Standing above him was the Pooka Horse, he grabbed the boy in his arms and roared with laughter in his face then dropped the boy to the floor. The boy gawked in disbelief as the monster turned back into human form and he watched as his own body began to cover with hair and his hands turn to hooves. Standing before him was a young man looking ever so pleased with himself, then he turned and ran from the house singing out ‘I’m free!, I’m free!’.
The scullery boy had become a Pooka Horse and was doomed to search the land for a boy or girl lazier than him to lift the terrible curse. But he could not bring himself to punish a child in such a dreadful way. So instead he went about the helping the poor, weak and the sick. He helped wherever he could and never slacked on any job he started. He did all this without anyone knowing who did it or receiving any thanks. Then one day many years later the curse was lifted and he was no longer a boy but a young man. And he then travelled from house to house, school to school telling young people his story warning them of what might happen if they were lazy. And somewhere out there roams another Pooka Horse who is keen to pass the curse on to someone else, so be wary and diligent in your work, for he might come looking for you”
All the folk tales books can be purchased from the History Press, http://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/local-history/storytelling or direct from me (signed copy) at firstname.lastname@example.org