From the Pen of the Puca...

From the Pen of the Puca is written by Katharine Clark and illustrated by Lauren Curtis ♥ 

To find Puca articles by Sabbat, press Ctrl+F, and enter your Sabbat of choice in the search box in the upper right corner of your screen ♥

Hello, everyone! 

Let me introduce myself. I am the Puca (pronounced “poo-ka”), and it will be my job to tell you about the magical and mystical creatures you might meet at each turning of the Wheel of the Year. What’s a Puca, you ask? Well, I’m just one of the oldest, strongest, most mysterious (and, yes--sometimes scariest) spirit in all of Ireland! 

I am a shape-shifter. That means I can appear as different things to different people. Some folks in Ireland see me as a large eagle with huge wings; some see me as an ugly dwarf, or as a black goat with curling horns. Most of the time, however, I can be seen as a giant horse with yellow, glowing eyes. That is my favorite disguise, and Samhain is my favorite time of year! 

Anything left out in the fields on Samhain Eve (October 31) belongs to me. The Irish farmers use to say that I would spit on the crops and “blight” (poison) them, but that wasn’t really true. I would just suck the “spirit” out of the grain and vegetables left outside so they would be useless for humans to eat. Some folks would leave a portion of their crops in the field on purpose as a gift to me so I wouldn’t get cranky. No one wants a cranky Puca. Do you know what I would do? I’d break down fences, scare chickens so they stopped laying eggs, and make cattle run in fear. I have the gift of human speech, so I would stand outside someone’s house and call his or her name. If they didn’t come out, I would damage their property. If they did come out, I would throw them on my back and make them ride like the wind all night. I would dump them in a watery ditch come morning, and laugh as I galloped away. Quite a mean trick, no? But I wasn’t able to throw everyone off my back. 

There was one person in all the Celtic lands who was able to ride me until the sun rose, and then he refused to get off! His name was Brian Boru, High King of all Ireland. He made me promise never again to play tricks on good people or anyone who happened to be Irish. I’ve tried to keep my word, over all these hundreds of years, but sometimes I forget. I’m not always naughty. Sometimes groups of Irish folks would go to the high hills on Samhain with gifts for me. They would call my name and I would appear to them. I would tell them their future, and give them wise advice. I would answer their questions and tell them what to expect in the New Year. For you, I will happily share what I know of Irish magical birds and beasts, as well as those from other lands. No tricks, now! I did promise King Brian, after all. 

May your tricks be few, and your treats be many!

Puca and the Banshees
Most of you have heard the term. You and your siblings, or your friends, have just gotten up a rousing game of indoor tag. As you go careening around the corner, screaming with the thrill of the chase, your mother's voice rings from the kitchen, “Stop running around shrieking like a bunch of banshees!”

OK. You get it. She wants you to stop. But banshees? Shrieking banshees? From what dark recesses of your mother's mind did she dredge up THAT insult? Well, settle in, children, there's a tale to tell of gods, mystic hills, ancient families and--yes--even death. After all, it is Samhain.

To understand the Banshee, we have to go all the way back to the time of the Irish Gods--The Tuatha De Danann (“too-A-tha day dan nan” or Children of the Goddess Danu). They came from four mystical cities in the Otherworld, bearing with them four magical tools. For generations they ruled Ireland, defending it against their deadly foes, and making the land bloom and prosper.

Then, one day, mankind came to Ireland from across the sea. They were able to land their ships, confront the Danann, and defeat them. The TDD (Tuatha De Danann) did not wish to abandon their green and beloved island, so it was decided: mankind would live in the surface world, but the gods (often referred to as “The Shining Ones” and “The Gentry”) would live underground, beneath magical hills and mounds.

There they built palaces filled with gold and every kind of feast food. Time passed differently, under the earth. A day in their world would be centuries on the surface. In this way, the Old Gods survived. They became the fairies of Ireland, and were called the Aes Sidhe (“ah-shee” or people of the hill). The gods were fir sidhe ('fir-shee”). And the ancient goddesses? A divine female was called a woman of the hill, a bean-sidhe, pronounced--yep, you guessed it--banshee!

Now, the Old Gods didn't always STAY under their sidhe. They loved the beauty of Ireland too much, and they were curious about mankind. They often interacted with humans, even falling in love and having children of mixed human/fairy heritage. This was particularly true with the ancient families--those who have names starting with “Mc” and “O”, even if these were dropped over time. (Example: O'Cassidy and Cassidy, McFeeny and simply Feeny). There were five families, in particular, said to have fairy blood: O'Neil, O'Brien, O'Connor, O'Grady and Kavanagh. When an Irish person died, it was customary for the women of the clan to do a public display of mourning. They made a wailing sound, or sang a lament. This was called a “caoineadh” from which the word “caoin” ( pronounced “keen”) is taken. “Caoin” means “to weep” or “to wail.”

If a full-blooded human was mourned by their clan women, the only suitable “keener” for someone with fairy blood would be their Danann ancestress, still living beneath her mystical mound. And so, the family's own banshee would wail for the departed spirit, and they would do so no matter where that descendant might be, in Erin or abroad. The cry would be heard both where the person expired, and in the forest and lakes of the clan's ancestral home. Several banshees may wail for the passing of a holy person or great leader.

A banshee can take several forms. She can be a maid with gray hair and a gown of silver, or a motherly figure in green dress and red cape, her flowing hair a strawberry blond. She could also be a frightening hag, with the wrinkled face of a crone, wrapped in her cloak of misty black.

The banshees have been called “fallen angels” by some, who also claim that their wails are intended to frighten and confuse the soul, so that it looses it way to its spiritual home. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Their cries not only mourn the passing of a life, but ward off any possible negative entity which might interfere with the soul's journey.

Although scary, the banshee's shriek is harmless to the living – unless you see her in the midst of her keening. Unfortunately, that would mean you would be the next to die. There is an up side: banshees cry near natural objects such as trees, ponds, and rock formations, and only at night. So, if you hear something shrieking around the house, and moving off to the woods, DON'T FOLLOW!

Well, kids, the ol' Puca has a lot to do this evening, so I have to get started on my crop blighting. Let me leave you with this though:

If your name's McManus, O'Leary, O'Toole 
McCartney, O'Casey, McMahon and O'Doole 
You may be part fairy. When you cease to be, 
Don't ask “Why the banshee?” She shrieking for thee! 
And so ends my story. It's time for “Good night." 
Sleep well, chant your prayers, don't let bedbugs bite. 
Tonight if there's howling around the back porch, 
And nobody's out there, with candle or torch, 
Your clan may be smaller, when morning comes due, 
But look at it this way... at least it's not you! 

Puca and the Phoenix
The winter is upon us and the days are getting shorter. At the Solstice we celebrated the longest night of the year and by Imbolc, we will see that the sun is reborn! It kinda makes me what to cuddle up by a nice campfire, toast some wieners or a marshmallow or two, and think about my friend the phoenix. The dying and re-born sun reminds me a lot of my old pal. Why? Well, I will tell you that as we go along...

The phoenix is ancient, and is talked about in the old stories and folk tales that come down to us from Arabia, Egypt, Rome, China, Greece, and many other lands. She is the size of a huge eagle, or even a heron, with feathers of scarlet and gold, the colors of health and good fortune. She has a beautiful voice, and sings every morning at the dawning of the sun. To hear her song is to be blessed with happiness! 

The phoenix lives a very long and happy life – some say 500 years, and some say 1,461. That’s a lot of living! However, the phoenix is not immortal. Death comes to everything, even this magical. mythical bird. When she feels her time has come, she builds a funeral pyre (it’s like a large campfire that can hold a lot of weight) with sweet woods and spices, like myrrh. She sets it on fire and nests down on the flames until they consume her, and she simply disappears. 

Don’t be sad--that’s not the end of her story, oh no! 

Three days later, from out of the ashes, there comes a scratching, and a pushing upward, and then whoosh! Out flies a brand new baby phoenix with all the color, and music, and memory of the old. She gathers the leftover ash and melted myrrh from the now dark fire, and rolls them into an egg, which she flies to heaven and places on the altar of the sun god... So now do you see why this time of year reminds me of the phoenix? Shinning bright and beautiful, she fades away in fire and is reborn from the darken ash. In a way, she is a symbol of us all as we move from life to life. 

The phoenix has come to represent goodness and grace. Royalty would use her image as a sign of high power and noble birth. She was even the “totem” of the empress of China. (A totem is an animal special to a person or tribe. It gives them strength and protection). No one but the empress was allowed to wear the phoenix design on anything. Even the early Christian church used her to be the symbol of Jesus, because they believed he died and was re-born in three days as well--but we know Phoenix is the sacred “firebird” of legend, our “bird of the sun.” 

Puca and the Bunnies
Soon the flowers will be blooming, and it'll be time for the Easter Bunny to visit with the old Puca.
“Whoa there, Puca,” I can hear you say. “You’re friends with the Easter Bunny? I mean…Easter isn’t exactly one of our celebrations.”

And you would be right except…brace yourselves…the Easter Bunny is PAGAN! Let me tell you the whole story, but it’s an old “tail.” May have a little “hare” on it. OK, OK, I know. That wasn’t very…bunny!

The first thing to remember is that almost every land has stories about magical rabbits and hares. Mostly, they are considered creatures of the moon which mystically appear at night (hares are nocturnal), and can be as black as the new moon or as white as the full. They are usually seen as symbols of life, not only because they can multiply quickly, but also because they adapt very well to changes in their environment. In Egypt, there was even a rabbit-headed goddess who ruled her own city. In hieroglyphics, a picture of a rabbit over a wavy line was the symbol for the word “exist,” so hares were certainly connected with the Divine Life Force.

Hares were seen as both lucky and unlucky, depending on the season and the circumstance. For my people, the Irish (and other Celts), a hare would be released before a big battle. The direction in which it ran could foretell victory or defeat. Sometimes they were released before the gathered warriors for good luck. It was believed that witches could turn themselves into hares, and that they would gather in the woods, as a coven, to dance. To come upon them would be most unfortunate.

In the fall, the Irish believed that the aged spirit of the goddess, otherwise known as “The Crone,” would change herself into a hare and hide in the fields. As each plot of land was harvested, she would run to the next until, finally, there would be just one shock (or bundle) of wheat, still standing, in which she could hide. The farmer who cut that last shock of wheat would have to play host to the goddess spirit until the next spring planting. That was considered a blessing and a burden!

It was thought unlucky if a hare ran across your path, especially if you were an expectant mother. However, you could avert any curse or bad energy by carrying a rabbit’s foot. The left rear one was considered the luckiest…except for the rabbit!

March is mating season for rabbits. At night, in the woods, they leap about and almost appear to be boxing. Because their mating dance in the moonlight seems a bit crazy, and the moon (or “Luna”) was once thought to drive weak minded people into madness (“LUNAtic” ), a new phrase came into the English language. People acting crazy were called “mad as a March hare”. In fact, you can even find a mad March Hare in Alice in Wonderland!

But what about the Easter Bunny? Well, we see now that hares and rabbits are associated with the moon, life, and March fertility (mating). We know that our celebration of the Vernal Equinox is around the 21st. What you may not know is that the Christian church calendar always sets Easter as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Equinox. So their celebration closely follows our own. 

At the Equinox, the Anglo-Saxons (modern English) people worshiped a goddess of the moon, life and fertility named Ostara. Her symbol, and totem animals, were hares. She also had a brightly colored bird. One day, to amuse the children who asked her for magic, she changed the bird into yet another hare. This one, however, kept its ability to lay eggs, and they were always the bright colors of its former feathers. These eggs would be gathered into a basket, and the hares would distribute them to all the children who loved Ostara.

Ostara’s magical hare was so beloved that the church could not make the people give him up, so they “adopted” him and …ta da!… the Easter Bunny was born. So, the next time you see an image of a bunny with a basket of painted eggs, give a wink and tell him, “You can’t fool me, Easter Bunny! You’re really Ostara’s Hare!”

May all your chocolate bunnies be solid, all your marshmallow chicks be fresh, and may all your egg hunts be downhill on dry lawns. Happy Equinox!

Puca and the Mandrake
It is a night washed in moonlight. In the clearing, a man with cotton wadded in his ears digs a furrow around a green growth sprouting two long, berry-laden, stems. At the base of the plant, near the dirt, he tightly ties a rope. The other end is tied to the collar of a dog he brought with him from the village.  Suddenly, the man releases the dog and starts to run away. Afraid of being left behind, the dog gives chase. As he races to catch up to the man, the rope grows taunt, and then the plant begins to slip out of the earth.

In the empty fields, a piercing scream rings out. Startled crows, in surrounding trees, take flight--then fall to the ground, dead. The sound of night insects grows silent; nothing moves in the field, not even the wind. The next morning, a mandrake root lies on the shelf of the local alchemist, while the baker whistles for his dog--a hound which will never more heed his master's call. Scary, huh? And all this just to harvest one herb, a mandrake, in order to create that all-powerful magical item, the Mandragore.

Now, the Puca knows there are all kinds of herbs capable of all types of effects, but never has so much attention been paid to the nature, harvesting and magical fashioning of one plant. Why? Well, that's the story...

The Mandrake is a member of the nightshade family. Some types of nightshades, such as eggplants and potatoes, are a food source. Others--like mandrake--are highly poisonous. It is an ancient plant, even mentioned in the Old Testament. It's name in Hebrew means “love plant.” It developed a reputation, in past times, as an aid to pregnancy and a child's development in the womb. (That's why, in the film “Pan's Labyrinth,” Ofelia places a mandrake root in a bowl of milk under the bed of her pregnant--but ailing--mother).

Mandrakes were viewed as partly human. It was accepted knowledge that the plants grew beneath the swaying feet of hanged men, and watered by certain, fertile bodily fluids escaping from the corpses. OK--I know--it's an icky thought, but that is why it was believed the roots looked so much like small human bodies. And because it was partly human, and part “other worldly,” it had awareness, and did NOT want to be yanked out of its womb of dark soil. When human children are birthed into the world, they cry. So, too, did the young mandrake, it was said, but with one exception. The scream of the root being harvested instantly killed all who heard it. (A-ha! You're thinking: dead birds, missing dog, guy with cotton ear plugs--I get it!)

The old Puca knows that truth is often stranger than fiction. Experiments have shown that plants have a way of communicating with each other on a basic level. Willow trees, under attack from insects, will release a scent picked up by other trees of the same species, and they will then exude a type of chemical to help defend themselves against the bugs. However, screaming mandrakes may be taking the concept a bit too far!

So, now you have your mandrake root. What next? According to some, you should now cut off the ends of the root, bury it at night in a cemetery, and wait 30 days, all the while watering it with cow's milk in which three bats have been drowned. (Yeah. Good luck with that!) On the 31st day, dig up the root in the evening, dry it in an oven with branches of verbena, then wrap it in a piece of shroud and carry it with you always. (Amaze your friends! Be the first one on the block! Fun at parties!) If you didn't feel like spending a month is a cemetery, crying over “split milk,” you could merely fashion a human-like figure, or a Mandragore. Remove all but four of the roots: two for arms and two for legs. A bit down from the top, pinch the root in slightly to form a neck and head.

Mandragores have a list of accomplishments. They aid fertility, increase health, awaken the heart to love, bring money (that's a popular one) and grant protection, even against demons! If left on the mantel, or a kitchen window, they will generate happiness and prosperity. You can even use it to cleanse a house, much as you would use sage and cedar. Finally, a Mandragore can increase the strength of any spell. So Puca, you may ask, is that bit about a killing scream really true? Well, think a moment. If the first person who harvested mandrake was screeched to death, who was left to warn everyone else? Still, I think I'll leave cultivating mandrake to the experts, and just focus on the positive things a Mandragore--or a pouch filled with mandrake--can do!

Puca and the Bees
Lammas, and everyone is bustling, busy with the first harvest! This place is humming like a hive--each person fulfilling their role, busy as a colony of bees.

Ah, bees--the very symbol of the Sacred Divine. Oh, you didn’t know that? Well then, settle down over here by the fire pit and I’ll tell you all about the sweetest creature in the worlds of myth and reality!

It is said that, should our honey bees disappear, human kind will cease to exist within thirty years. Why, you ask? Because we are so dependent on bees to pollinate and cross-pollinate our plants, fruits, flowers and crops that their demise would bring about the end of our food supply.

The ancients must have realized how vital the bee is to our survival because, in folklore, it has always been honored as part of the human family. In England, and the American Appalachians, it was believed that bees could only thrive if kept by a happy family. Any news of the clan had to be shared with the bees--happy news, such as marriages and births, but especially the passing of a family member. In fact, if the bees were not told of the death before the next sunrise they, themselves, would begin to die!

The bees should be invited to the funeral. However, if the deceased had to be removed from the house (not everyone dies in a hospital), the hives had to be turned to face away from the front door.

Bees may have been closely connected to Death because they were considered to be messengers of the gods, and guides to travelers between the worlds of the living and the dead. Honey was considered the “nectar of the gods” and the food of the Divine. Bees and their honey symbolized immortality and the continued life of the spirit. They stood for resurrection. That could explain why King Tut was buried with pots of honey. (Honey was even used by the Egyptians to embalm and preserve bodies.)

The bee’s honey could be made into mead (honey wine) which was thought to have magical and prophetic powers. The person who drank the mead would speak the truth. In Greece, a child whose lips touched honey was thought to grow into an eloquent poet or speaker. In Irish myth, the god Oghma--creator of language--was called “Cermait” or “honey-mouthed.”

Bees were naturally associated with goddesses. After all, the hive workers were female, servicing a “queen bee,” but even god-based societies got their “buzz” on. In Maya, there was a bee god named “Ah-Muzen-Cab.” His image was found in the Mayan ruins. (By the way, their tombs were shaped like beehives. Hmmm…)

Even in Greece, the mighty sun god Apollo was connected in various ways with bees. Apollo could bestow the gift of prophecy. This ability was given to him by 3 “bee maidens” called “The Thriae.” Later, he gifted them to Hermes, a god who often guided the dead out of life (and sometimes spirits back into it). This makes sense, especially if bees could easily travel between the worlds!

Have you ever heard of Delphi? (Someone told me about this ditzy Seeker who traveled there, but thought she was in Las Vegas!) Anyway, the oracle of Delphi was a woman referred to as the Pythia, but she and her attendants were also called “bees.” They served the god Apollo at his temple. It’s interesting that the “navel stone” at Delphi (a stone supposedly marking the navel of the planet) is shaped like a large hive.

Then there’s Dionysus, the god of wine. When the Dog Star (Sirius) rose in the late July sky, a bull was sacrificed to him. Bees were thought to rise from the carcass--the reincarnation of the bull. There are even ancient depictions of bee goddesses with bull horns!

Naturally, many goddesses have been considered “Queen Bees.” Take Artemis, for example. She’s Apollo’s sister, and a goddess of magic and the moon. So, what’s the connection? There are some beliefs that hold that honey comes from the moon, and the stars are its very own bees. Artemis is also known to the Romans as Diana. Her statue at Ephesus shows her with many breasts--or some think. They could also be palm dates or grain sacks (the scholars can’t tell for sure) but they bear a striking resemblance to bee eggs!

In Crete, the goddess Potnia was the “Pure Mother” and her priestesses were called Melissas. They were all depicted as dancing while being dressed as bees (Melissa = bee). Demeter’s priestesses were also called bees, and Aphrodite (the goddess of love) was worshiped at honeycomb shaped shrines.

Cybele’s priestesses (Melissas) were prophets and oracles. Part of the mixture they ingested to produce their trance included honey. An Anatolian Goddess has been unearthed, sculpted wearing a beehive headdress--a sign of Divinity. Finally, in the Bible--yes, even the Bible --there is a prophetess named Deborah. Her name means “true oracle,” “true words”... or "bee."

Think about this: the Bible says, “In the beginning was The Word.” The Buddhists say that there was a creating sound or word that brought all of Creation to life, and that word was Om. However, there are others who say that the creating “voice” of the Goddess was the humming of bees.

So, off you go! Help gather the harvest, or lend a hand preparing the feast that will come from all those home-grown goodies. Find some honey to spread on the Sabbat cakes or to mix in ice tea. Enjoy Lammas and, if you do…

 ...tell it to the bees!

Puca and the Leprechauns
Whether it comes in or goes out as either a lion or a lamb, March's winds bring changes. Not only does the Spring Equinox come in March, but also the feast of that glorious patron of Ireland, Patrick!  

As they say, everyone is Irish on March 17th. Old movies like “The Quiet Man” will be shown on TV, Irish groups like the Chieftains will make special appearances on morning shows and, for those of you in the area of New York City, there is the traditional parade. Everyone wears green, eats loads of corned beef and cabbage, and drinks everything from green milkshakes to green beer. However, the symbol that rivals them all, from flags to greeting cards, is the leprechaun. Even though there are scads of mythic creatures in Ireland (like yours truly) it is the leprechaun that catches the human imagination, and immediately invokes visions of the Emerald Isle.

The name “leprechaun” may have come from a number of Irish words. It could come from the term meaning “shoemaker” and, in truth, these tiny men have been depicted working hard on a shoe--but only one. Why? This particular fairy can appear in the natural world of men, but really belongs in the world of spirits. Therefore, he has one foot in both realities, and only the mundane world would require a shoe!

The name might also come from the Irish for “pygmy” as they are tiny people. Yet, the explanation I favor is that their name comes from the word “luch-chromain” which means “little stooping Lugh.” As you may know, the old Gods of Ireland were the Tuatha De Danann, or children of the goddess Danu. When men came to our island, the gods went underground to live, but they did not abandon the world above. They often would interact with humans, who described them as “shining beings” or “shining ones.” The brightest of the TDD was the sun god Lugh. To call a leprechaun “little stooping Lugh” was to identify him with the old gods. Who's to say they shouldn't be!

Leprechauns were thought to guard treasure, like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You would have to catch him to make him surrender his fortune, but if you lost eye contact with him for just a moment, he would disappear. Often times, if you DID get his gold, it would turn into a pile of leaves in the morning. This also connects Leprechauns to the old Irish deities. The burial mounds dotting Ireland, especially in the East along the river Boyne, were though to be the entry ways to the world of the gods. These “hills” or “sidhes” (pronounced shees) were rumored to contain all the wealth of Ireland itself, from gold to magical harps and objects of power. A mortal may be taken into the sidhe, wined and dined and bedecked with gold but, in the morning (or even years later, since one day in a sidhe could last a decade or more) he would awaken on the top of the mound in a pile of leaves.

In general, leprechauns love to do mischief, but are considered harmless. Mostly, they like to be left alone. Oh! And all that green they're supposed to wear? In reality, the first leprechauns wore (brace yourselves) RED! Why red? In Irish myth and folklore, red was the color of divinity. See, I TOLD you they could be gods!

Close cousin to the leprechaun is a little creature called the “cluricaun.” The cluricans are like leprechauns “after hours” since they love places that sell strong drink. It's not surprising that they are often quite tipsy. They are very grumpy and have been know to ride on the backs of sheep and dogs at night! If you treat them well, they will guard your wine cellar. If you disrespect them, look out! They can plague your house with mischief and make your grapes turn sour. Taverns and inns don't mind having a friendly cluricaun about, as they will defend your establishment against drunk and dishonest employees.

Just in case you think the Irish are the only ones with leprechaun-like fairies, the Welsh have their own version. Being a mining country, workers felt that the mines and caves were the homes of a special type of leprechaun. If the mine was in danger of collapse, these spirits would rap on the rock walls to warn the miners to get out. As these people migrated to the United States, they felt that these spirits followed them into the mining areas of America. Once again, if collapse was imminent, they would bang a warning on the mine walls. Eventually, these spirits were giving their own name by the Welsh-Americans. They called them “Tommyknockers.” Humm... sounds like a good title for a book.

Have a wonderful Vernal Equinox, and a mild, healthy Springtime. Forgive me for a moment of patriotic pride but... EIRINN GO BRACH (IRELAND FOREVER)!