Na Púcaí

Na Púcaí
Na Púcaí

Na Púcaí

Supernatural Otherworld creatures in Irish, Scottish and Manx folklore.


All spelling, names and terms in Modern Irish unless stated otherwise.

The modern singular and plural forms of the name are:

Púca (pl. Púcaí, gs. Púca) “Hobgoblin, pooka, phouka, phooca, puck”


The Púcaí are mysterious supernatural creatures found in the indigenous folklore of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man whose origins in Gaelic tradition are unclear. They do not appear under that name in the early literary cycles and are more likely to be part of folkloric developments in the post-Medieval period, especially in Ireland. Since a number of similar creatures exist in Gaelic folk-belief it is probable that we are dealing with a class of being derived from one or more native prototypes albeit heavily influenced by the presence of Scandinavian and English settlers and their traditions.


The Púcaí were solitary supernatural creatures from Irish and Scottish folklore that usually appeared in animal form (a black-coated horse, goat or dog), more rarely in monstrous human form, and were either indifferent or hostile to human life and affairs. The mythological authenticity of these beings is highly debatable. Their relatively late appearance in Irish and Scottish folk tradition is regarded by many as an indicator of a non-Celtic origin. Evidence for this is shown in the word Púca itself which is cognate with several terms describing very similar beings in a number of non-Celtic Germanic languages, perhaps indicating an importation from Medieval or post-Medieval Scandinavia or England (c.f. the Modern English “Puck” derived from Old English “Puca/Púcel”, Icelandic “Púki”, Norwegian “Pukje”, Frisian “Puk”).

However others challenge this interpretation by pointing to the Celtic Brythonic language-family of Welsh, Cornish and Breton which also contain pooka-style words (c.f. Welsh “Pwca”). They argue the difficulties of a more-or-less simultaneous adoption by several Celtic speaking peoples of a pooka word, pointing instead to a reverse process of a Celtic concept being assimilated by the Germanic-speaking peoples (by English invaders in Britain and Scandinavian settlers in Scotland and Ireland).

Difficulties with both views have led to a suggestion that the similarities of the northern pooka tradition derive from a common, if extremely distant, Indo-European myth and the belief in supernatural or elemental creatures that are not quiet divine. Related to this is the possibility that a literary antecedence for the folkloric Púcaí can be found in the Gabharchinn (singular Gabharcheann), a mysterious race of beings referred to a number of times in Medieval Irish and Scottish texts. The name is clearly derived from the Irish words gabhar “goat / (white) horse or mare” and ceann” “head” and literally means something like “Goat- / Horse-headed One”. Given that gabhar is an indigenous Irish term for a goat (and a particular type of horse) and púca more likely a late foreign loanword, could the Gabharchinn be an early prototype for the much later Púcaí?

Though the demonic-like Fomhóraigh may have had an influence on the characteristics of the Púcaí in Irish folklore any direct connection between the two is debatable (however one Middle Irish passage talks of the “luchrupain ┐ fomóraig ┐ goborchind” as if they were closely associated). Irish and Celtic mythology in general has many examples of animals, mainly hounds (or wolves), deer, swine, certain species of bird, and more rarely cattle or horses, that are closely associated with the Otherworld. Equally human-like Otherworld denizens temporarily assuming animal-form is a relatively common phenomenon in many of the earliest stories. These shapeshifters are sometimes able to communicate in human speech despite their bestial guises, something which can also characterise the Púcaí. Another mythological candidate for links with the Púcaí is the Bocánaigh, possibly goat-headed creatures of the air that haunted battlefields and areas of combat in early Irish and Scottish literature.

The straightforward identification of the Púcaí with the Lucharacháin in modern encyclopaedias or fiction is the result of contemporary confusion. As pointed out above, while there may be some association between both it is unlikely that they are the same class of supernatural being. It is more likely that late Medieval Irish and Scottish scribes had an image in their minds of a vaguely related group of beings or creatures that included the Fomhóraigh, Lucharacháin and Púcaí / Bocánaigh / Gabharchinn on one hand contrasted with the Tuatha Dé Danann / Aos Sí on the other.

In summary it would seem then that the folkloric Púcaí are an amalgamation of several influences, both indigenous and foreign.

Each Uisce - the supernatural water-horse, kelpie or selkie of Irish, Scottish and Manx folklore
Each Uisce – the supernatural water-horse, kelpie or selkie of Irish, Scottish and Manx folklore

Related Creatures

Each Uisce (plural Eich Uisce), Capall Uisce (plural Capaill Uisce), Colpach (plural Colpacha) “Water-horse, kelpie, selkie”

The Eich Uisce or “Water-horses, kelpies” are dangerous supernatural creatures from late Irish and Scottish folklore that normally appear in equine form near water (fast flowing rivers, lakes or the sea’s edge), though occasionally they can adopt the guise of a beautiful young woman or man. While they may seem to be quintessentially Celtic many scholars believe they have a foreign origin and were adopted into the Celtic cultures of north-western Europe at a late date since there is no explicit references to them in any of the surviving early Celtic literatures. However, like the Púcaí above, several native traditions may have contributed towards the development of their myths. Shape-shifting amongst the Otherworld community (the Tuatha Dé Danann and Aos Sí) is commonplace in early Irish and Scottish legends, with several animal forms favoured by their number. Encounters with members of the Otherworld folk at lake-edges, rivers and river-fords is equally common, especially in those stories of warriors and aristocrats (and later saints) meeting Otherworldly maidens. One major reason for this is that such places represented boundary zones (what modern anthropologists dub in Latin liminal places). In a Celtic context these places were of enormous importance. A river or ford often marked the boundary between different territories, as well as between dry land and water, and wherever boundaries of any form butted up against each other in the Celtic lands the barriers between this world and its supernatural equivalent became more tenuous or permeable. For the Irish, Scots and Manx it was through the cracks in the ordered world that the supernatural crept in.

Wells, springs, lakes, streams and rivers (and the sea itself) were believed to give access to the Otherworld beneath (hence the archaeologically attested Celtic practice of votive offerings in lakes, rivers, etc.). Otherworld animals entering our world occasionally used such places to do so and references to supernatural cattle, horses, deer and swine in relation to rivers and lakes can be found throughout the legends of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Together these would explain various aspects of the Eich Uisce, and their origins are probably not unrelated to that of the Púcaí. Victorian folklorists and populist writers who attempted to draw a firm distinction between the Púcaí, Eich Uisce and other related folkloric creatures were only partly correct since they stemmed from a more ancient tradition of Otherworldly peoples and creatures common to the Celts. In fact it is not unreasonable to suggest that the Púcaí and Eich Uisce were originally different aspects of related folkloric beings that emerged from 15th, 16th and 17th century Ireland and Scotland as coherent native traditions slowly succumbed to foreign colonial pressure and Gaelic civilization began to crumble.

The Kelpie by Herbert James Draper
The Kelpie by Herbert James Draper, 1913

© An Sionnach Fionn


Online Sources For The Above Articles:

  1. Warriors, Words, and Wood: Oral and Literary Wisdom in the Exploits of Irish Mythological Warriors by Phillip A. Bernhardt-House
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  3. Water Imagery in Early Irish by Kay Muhr
  4. The Bluest-Greyest-Greenest Eye: Colours of Martyrdom and Colours of Winds as Iconographic Landscape by Alfred K. Siewers
  5. Fate in Early Irish Texts by Jacqueline Borsje
  6. Druids, Deer and “Words of Power”: Coming to Terms with Evil in Medieval Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  7. Geis, Prophecy, Omen and Oath by T. M. Charles-Edwards
  8. Geis, a literary motif in early Irish literature by Qiu Fangzhe
  9. Honour-bound: The Social Context of Early Irish Heroic Geis by Philip O’Leary
  10. Space and Time in Irish Folk Rituals and Tradition by Lijing Peng and Qiu Fangzhe
  11. The Use of Prophecy in the Irish Tales of the Heroic Cycle by Caroline Francis Richardson
  12. Early Irish Taboos as Traditional Communication: A Cognitive Approach by Tom Sjöblom
  13. Monotheistic to a Certain Extent: The ‘Good Neighbours’ of God in Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  14. The ‘Terror of the Night’ and the Morrígain: Shifting Faces of the Supernatural by Jacqueline Borsje
  15. Brigid: Goddess, Saint, ‘Holy Woman’, and Bone of Contention by C.M. Cusack
  16. War-goddesses, furies and scald crows: The use of the word badb in early Irish literature by Kim Heijda
  17. The Enchanted Islands: A Comparison of Mythological Traditions from Ireland and Iceland by Katarzyna Herd
  18. The Early Irish Fairies and Fairyland by Norreys Jephson O’ Conor
  19. The Washer at the Ford by Gertrude Schoepperle
  20. Milk Symbolism in the ‘Bethu Brigte’ by Thomas Torma
  21. Conn Cétchathach and the Image of Ideal Kingship in Early Medieval Ireland by Grigory Bondarenko
  22. King in Exile in Airne Fíngein (Fíngen’s Vigil): Power and Pursuit in Early Irish Literature by Grigory Bondarenko
  23. Sacral Elements of Irish Kingship by Daniel Bray
  24. Kingship in Early Ireland by Charles Doherty
  25. The King as Judge in Early Ireland by Marilyn Gerriets
  26. The Saintly Madman: A Study of the Scholarly Reception History of Buile Suibhne by Alexandra Bergholm
  27. Fled Bricrenn and Tales of Terror by Jacqueline Borsje
  28. Supernatural Threats to Kings: Exploration of a Motif in the Ulster Cycle and in Other Medieval Irish Tales by Jacqueline Borsje
  29. Human Sacrifice in Medieval Irish Literature by Jacqueline Borsje
  30. Demonising the Enemy: A study of Congall Cáech by Jacqueline Borsje
  31. The Evil Eye’ in early Irish literature by Jacqueline Borsje and Fergus Kelly
  32. The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory by John Carey
  33. “Transmutations of Immortality in ‘The Lament of the Old Woman of Beare'” by John Carney
  34. Approaches to Religion and Mythology in Celtic Studies by Clodagh Downey
  35. ‘A Fenian Pastime’?: early Irish board games and their identification with chess by Timothy Harding
  36. Orality in Medieval Irish Narrative: An Overview by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  37. Oral Life and Literary Death in Medieval Irish Tradition by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  38. Satirical Narrative in Early Irish Literature by Ailís Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh
  39. Lia Fáil: Fact and Fiction in the Tradition by Tomás Ó Broin
  40. Irish Myths and Legends by Tomás Ó Cathasaigh
  41. ‘Nation’ Consciousness in Early Medieval Ireland by Miho Tanaka
  42. Bás inEirinn: Cultural Constructions of Death in Ireland by Lawrence Taylor
  43. Ritual and myths between Ireland and Galicia. The Irish Milesian myth in the Leabhar Gabhála Éireann: Over the Ninth Wave. Origins, contacts and literary evidence by Monica Vazquez
  44. Continuity, Cult and Contest by John Waddell
  45. Cú Roí and Svyatogor: A Study in Chthonic by Grigory Bondarenko
  46. Autochthons and Otherworlds in Celtic and Slavic by Grigory Bondarenko
  47. The ‘Terror of the Night’ and the Morrígain: Shifting Faces of the Supernatural by Jacqueline Borsje
  48. ‘The Otherworld in Irish Tradition,’ by John Carey
  49. The Location of the Otherworld in Irish Tradition by John Carey
  50. Prophecy, Storytelling and the Otherworld in Togail Bruidne Da Derga by Ralph O’ Connor
  51. The Evil Eye’ in early Irish literature by Jacqueline Borsje and Fergus Kelly
  52. Rules and Legislation on Love Charms in Early Medieval Ireland by Jacqueline Borsje
  53. Marriage in Early Ireland by Donnchadh Ó Corráin
  54. The Human Head in Insular Pagan Celtic Religion by Anne Ross
  55. Gods in the Hood by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein
  56. The Names of the Dagda by Scott A Martin
  57. The Morrigan and Her Germano-Celtic Counterparts by Angelique Gulermovich Epstein
  58. The Meanings of Elf, and Elves, in Medieval England by Alaric Timothy Peter Hall
  59. Elves (Ashgate Encyclopaedia) by Alaric Timothy Peter Hall
  60. The Evolution of the Otherworld: Redefining the Celtic Gods for a Christian Society by Courtney L. Firman
  61. Warriors and Warfare – Ideal and Reality in Early Insular Texts by Brian Wallace
  62. Images of Warfare in Bardic Poetry by Katharine Simms
  63. Rí Éirenn, Rí Alban, Kingship and Identity in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries by Máire Herbert
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  65. The Ancestry of Fénius Farsaid by John Carey
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  3. Lebar Gabala: Recension I by John Carey
  4. The Irish National Origin-Legend: Synthetic Pseudohistory by John Carey
  5. Studies in Irish Literature and History by James Carney
  6. Ancient Irish Tales by Tom P. Cross and Clark Harris Slover
  7. Early Irish Literature by Myles Dillon
  8. Irish Sagas by Myles Dillon
  9. Cycle of the Kings by Myles Dillon
  10. Early Irish Myths and Sagas by Jeffrey Gantz
  11. The Celtic Heroic Age by John T Koch and John Carey (Editors)
  12. Landscapes of Cult and Kingship by Roseanne Schot, Conor Newman and Edel Bhreathnach (Editors)
  13. The Banshee: The Irish Death Messenger by Patricia Lysaght
  14. The Learned Tales of Medieval Ireland by Proinsias Mac Cana
  15. The Festival of Lughnasa: A Study of the Survival of the Celtic Festival of the Beginning of Harvest by Máire MacNeill
  16. Pagan Past and Christian Present in Early Irish Literature by Kim McCone
  17. The Wisdom of the Outlaw by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  18. Conversing With Angels and Ancients by Joseph Falaky Nagy
  19. From Kings to Warlords by Katharine Simms
  20. Gods and Heroes of the Celts by Marie-Louise Sjoestedt (trans Myles Dillon)
  21. The Year in Ireland by Kevin Danaher
  22. In Ireland Long Ago by Kevin Danaher
  23. Irish Customs and Beliefs by Kevin Danaher
  24. Cattle in Ancient Ireland by A. T. Lucas
  25. The Sacred Trees of Ireland by A. T. Lucas
  26. The Lore of Ireland: An Encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
  27. Irish Superstitions by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin
  28. Irish Folk Custom and Belief by Seán Ó Súillebháin
  29. Armagh and the Royal Centres in Early Medieval Ireland: Monuments, Cosmology and the Past by NB Aitchison
  30. Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland by Lisa Bitel
  31. Irish Kings and High-Kings by John Francis Byrne
  32. Early Irish Kingship and Succession by Bart Jaski
  33. A Guide to Early Irish Law by Fergus Kelly
  34. Early Irish Farming by Fergus Kelly
  35. A Guide to Ogam by Damian McManus
  36. Ireland before the Normans by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
  37. Early Medieval Ireland: 400-1200 by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín
  38. A New History of Ireland Volume I: Prehistoric and Early Ireland by Dáibhí Ó Cróinín (Editor)
  39. Early Ireland by Michael J O’ Kelly
  40. Cattle Lords & Clansmen by Nerys Patterson
  41. Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland by Patrick C Power
  42. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe by H R Ellis Davidson
  43. The Lost Beliefs of Northern Europe by Hilda Ellis Davidson
  44. Lady with a Mead Cup by Michael J Enright
  45. Celtic Mythology by Proinsias Mac Cana


1 comment on “Na Púcaí

  1. Jams O'Donnell

    What about the “Sea-Cat” in Flann O’Brien’s ‘An Beal Bocht’. Any idea where he got that from?


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