Looks like the hot summer weather distracted me from my blog for a while… but I’m back and ready to share some facts! Last time, I introduced you to a creature of the Fair Folk, the Pooka. Today I want to tell you about a mythical being that might not be part of the Fair Folk in Celtic mythology, but fascinating nonetheless.
The Faoladh (which is the Irish word for “wolf”) is not quite like a werewolf. He’s a shapeshifter. Faoladhs often live in pairs and have to remain in their wolf form for seven years. You might mistake this creature as a bloodthirsty monster, but the Irish werewolf acts as the guardian and protector of children, wounded men and lost persons. It is not a cursed creature, but rather one that’s devoting its life to the safety of other people.
The most famous of the Irish werewolves were the people of Ossory.
Last week I talked about categorizing faeries into the Seelie and the Unseelie Court, but the Fair Folk is so much more than faeries. One of those creatures that dwell with the faeries is the pooka, sometimes also spelled púca, phouka, or even pwca.
What is a pooka?
The pooka is an Irish goblin with the ability to change its shape. It often appears as a dark horse or goat and will bear some of those animal features when in human form. Like the Seelies and Unseelies, the pookas can be both benevolent and malevolent.
Below is a page taken from Brian Froud’s FAERIES. The text reads:
The Phooka is an Irish goblin with a variety of rough beast-like forms. He appears sometimes as a dog or a horse, or even a bull, but he is generally jet-black with blazing eyes. As a seemingly friendly, shaggy […] pony Phooka offers the unwary traveller a welcome lift, but once astride he is taken for a wild and terrifying gallop across the wettest and most thorny country, eventually to be dumped headlong into the mire or deposited in a ditch. The chuckle is that of the Phooka as he gallops away.
A pooka means no harm
Some people fear the pooka because of that wild ride, but in truth the pooka means no harm. Pookas enjoy playing a few little tricks that might appear malevolent but aren’t meant to hurt anyone. For example, a pooka loves to chat for hours, but he will leave without a word and a trace that he was there in the first place. It is also said that berries killed by frost were turned poisonous by the pookas who spit on them.
The term ‘faerie’ does not refer to one individual type of being, but rather encompasses a whole variety of beings. In Celtic mythology there are many ways to categorize faeries, for example into Trooping Faeries or Solitary Faeries. But one categorization that has intrigued me from the beginning was the Scottish notion of a Seelie and an Unseelie Court.
“[I]n Scottish legends the faeries are often divided into the Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court. The Seelie Court is comprised of the good, kind fairies, while the outright evil faeries tend to belong to the Unseelie Court (Briggs 1976: 222). These courts were not seen as very confining: the faeries of the Seelie Court could be violent when angered, while the […] members of the Unseelie Court could sometimes just have fun in non-lethal ways.”
Faerie Folklore in Medieval Tales – An Introduction by Mika Loponen
Beware: Seelies can be just as treacherous as Unseelies. The distinction, although implied (as seen in the picture below), is not light vs. dark, good vs. evil. All of the Fair Folk lack moral sense and are incapable of understanding human emotions; the Unseelies’ methods might just be a bit more savage.
The first time I came across this distinction was actually in a fictional novel. In the Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare, faeries are divided into two courts. This idea always fascinated me, but I had more burning questions: Why were there two courts? Did they used to be one? What divided them? The beauty of story-telling is that we can make up our own answers. And so I went ahead and wrote The King’s Daughters, the first conflict between Seelies and Unseelies in my fictional world of Tír na Óg.
My upcoming novel Seelie Princess will be filled with all kinds of magical creatures. I based a lot of the story and characters on Celtic mythology, but not all of my research made its way into the novel. Over the course of the next few months, I will share bits and pieces of Celtic lore I found during my research. Leave a comment below if you’re interested in learning more!
Have you seen a faerie lately?
Whether you think faeries are real or just a story you tell little children, the truth is that many European cultures have their own faerie belief. Some think of the faeries as small and cute forest creatures, others would say they are more humanoid. Faeries might be benevolent little helpers sometimes, but they can also be tricksters, like Puck in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The many names of the faeries
The faeries—also spelled ‘fairies’ or ‘fae’—go by many names. Some call them the Fair Folk. The Scottish refer to them as the Wee Folk, while the Welsh know them as Tylwyth Teg. One term that inspired me in particular is of Irish origin:
The (Aos) Sidhe – In Irish folk belief, the Tuatha de Danann, children of the goddess Dana, inhabited the island of Ireland early on. They were seen as a race of divine beings eternally young and unfading. With the arrival of the Sons of Mil, however, they retreated to live under the mounds (Irish: Sidhe; pronounced SHEE) and became thus known as the Sidhe or Aos Sidhe. They are the ever-present second race of Ireland, also called the Faeries or Fair Folk. (Source: The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries by W. B. Yeats)
Where did the faeries come from?
Same as with their appearance and etymology, the origin of the faeries varies depending on the culture. As explained above, the Irish think of the faeries as a second race living under the hills. Some believe them to be demons or demoted angels, while others think of them as demoted deities. But perhaps they are some form of elemental or spirit.
If you’re interested in learning more about faeries, here are some resources I used:
Fairy on Wikipedia (a good starting point, but not all of it is reliable)
Faerie Folklore in Medieval Tales (a wonderful introduction to the topic; available for free here)
The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries by W.B. Yeats (available for free here)
A Treasury of Irish Fairy and Folk Tales (available on Amazon)