Oddity of the Week: The Pooka
The púca (Irish for spirit/ghost), pooka, phouka, phooka, phooca or púka is primarily a creature of Irish folklore. Considered to be bringers both of good and bad fortune, they could either help or hinder rural and marine communities. The creatures were said to be shape changers which could take the appearance of black horses, goats and rabbits.
The púca has counterparts throughout the Celtic cultures of Northwest Europe. For instance in Welsh mythology it is named the pwca or pwwka and in Cornish the Bucca. In the Channel Islands, the pouque were said to be fairies who lived near ancient stones; in Channel Island French a cromlech is referred to as a pouquelée or pouquelay(e), poulpiquet/polpegan are corresponding terms in Brittany.
The pooka may be regarded as being either menacing or beneficent. Fairy mythologist Thomas Keightley said “notions respecting it are very vague,” and in a brief description gives an account collected by Croker from a boy living near Killarney that “old people used to say that the Pookas were very numerous…long ago…, were wicked-minded, black-looking, bad things…that would come in the form of wild colts, with chains hanging about them.” and that did much to harm unwary travellers. Also, children were warned not to eat overripe blackberries, because this was a sign that the pooka has befouled them.
In contrast, the phouka is represented as being helpful to farmers by Lady Wilde, who relates the following tale. A farmer’s son named Phadraig one day noticed the invisible presence of the phouka brushing by, and called out to him, offering a coat. The phouka appeared in the guise of a young bull, and told him to come to the old mill at night. From that time onward, the phoukas came secretly at night and performed all the work of milling the sacks of corn into flour. Phadraig fell asleep the first time, but later concealed himself in a chest to catch sight of them, and later made a present of a fine silk suit. This unexpectedly caused the phoukas to go off to “see a little of the world” and cease their work. But by then the farmer’s wealth allowed him to retire and give his son an education. Later, at Phadraic’s wedding, the phouka left a gift of a golden cup filled with drink that evidently ensured their happiness.
There are stories of some phooka being blood-thirsty and vampire-like creatures. Other stories even say some are man eating beings, hunting down, killing, and eating their victims.
95 Years Later: Remembering the Sticky Horror of the Boston Molasses Flood
There is no shortage of forgotten disasters, but few rival the 1919 Great Boston Molasses Disaster in the scope of its strangeness and the small memory of it in the place it totally destroyed.
Today is the 95th anniversary of the January 15, 1919 catastrophe, when a massive steel tank holding some 26 million pounds of molasses broken open, crashing a wave of sticky substance stretching up to 25 feet tall and 160 feet wide. It’s a story that starts as an amusing anecdote — a sugary sea spreading through the streets — but quickly turns into a nightmare of almost unimaginable proportions. Moving at 35 miles per hour, the wave engulfed absolutely everything in its path, including people who were strolling through the afternoon streets on an unusually warm day. The legs of the elevated tracks were broken, houses and buildings were obliterated into shards, horses, as reported by the Boston Post, “died like so many flies on sticky fly paper.”
In the aftermath, 21 people were dead, 150 injured, and rescue was exceeding slow, as of course molasses movement is known to be. The molasses seeped into the infrastructure, and even now on hot days people in the North End area claim to smell a whiff of molasses in the air. The disaster was at first blamed on anarchists — as disasters in early 20th century America tended to be — but was later revealed to be shoddy construction.
Oddity of the Week: Tengu
Tengu (天狗?, “heavenly dog”) are a type of legendary creature found in Japanese folk religion and are also considered a type of Shinto god (kami) or yōkai (supernatural beings). Although they take their name from a dog-like Chinese demon (Tiangou), the tengu were originally thought to take the forms of birds of prey, and they are traditionally depicted with both human and avian characteristics. The earliest tengu were pictured with beaks, but this feature has often been humanized as an unnaturally long nose, which today is widely considered the tengu’s defining characteristic in the popular imagination.
Buddhism long held that the tengu were disruptive demons and harbingers of war. Their image gradually softened, however, into one of protective, if still dangerous, spirits of the mountains and forests. Tengu are associated with the ascetic practice known as Shugendō, and they are usually depicted in the distinctive garb of its followers, the yamabushi.
The stars of P.T. Barnum’s “Freak” show, c. 1905. From left: Laloo the Hindu (he had a parasitic twin), Young Herman (who had a large chest), J K Coffey (the “Human Skeleton”), James Morris (the “Rubber Man”), and Jo Jo the “Dog Faced Boy” (who had generalized hypertrichosis or “werewolf syndrome”)