What to do when you’ve hit a rut in your life? Get tipsy, find yourself a little bridge to cross, and wait for this guy (above)! This month’s folktale is called “The Piper and the Puca,” and it’s from Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, edited and selected by W. B. Yeats. It’s in the public domain, so I’ve pasted it below. Give it a read, and then see what you think of my interpretation, which follows.
Croagh Patrick, from Wikimedia Commons
THE PIPER AND THE PUCA
Translated literally from the Irish of the Leabhar Sgeulaigheachta.
In the old times, there was a half fool living in Dunmore, in the county Galway, and although he was excessively fond of music, he was unable to learn more than one tune, and that was the “Black Rogue.” He used to get a good deal of money from the gentlemen, for they used to get sport out of him. One night the piper was coming home from a house where there had been a dance, and he half drunk. When he came to a little bridge that was up by his mother’s house, he squeezed the pipes on, and began playing the “Black Rogue” (an rógaire dubh). The Púca came behind him, and flung him up on his own back. There were long horns on the Púca, and the piper got a good grip of them, and then he said——
“Destruction on you, you nasty beast, let me home. I have a ten-penny piece in my pocket for my mother, and she wants snuff.”
“Never mind your mother,” said the Púca, “but keep your hold. If you fall, you will break your neck and your pipes.” Then the Púca said to him, “Play up for me the ‘Shan Van Vocht’ (an t-seann-bhean bhocht).”
“I don’t know it,” said the piper.
“Never mind whether you do or you don’t,” said the Púca. “Play up, and I’ll make you know.”
The piper put wind in his bag, and he played such music as made himself wonder.
“Upon my word, you’re a fine music-master,” says the piper then; “but tell me where you’re for bringing me.”
“There’s a great feast in the house of the Banshee, on the top of Croagh Patric to-night,” says the Púca, “and I’m for bringing you there to play music, and, take my word, you’ll get the price of your trouble.”
“By my word, you’ll save me a journey, then,” says the piper, “for Father William put a journey to Croagh Patric on me, because I stole the white gander from him last Martinmas.”
The Púca rushed him across hills and bogs and rough places, till he brought him to the top of Croagh Patric. Then the Púca struck three blows with his foot, and a great door opened, and they passed in together, into a fine room.
The piper saw a golden table in the middle of the room, and hundreds of old women (cailleacha) sitting round about it. The old women rose up, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, you Púca of November (na Samhna). Who is this you have with you?”
“The best piper in Ireland,” says the Púca.
One of the old women struck a blow on the ground, and a door opened in the side of the wall, and what should the piper see coming out but the white gander which he had stolen from Father William.
“By my conscience, then,” says the piper, “myself and my mother ate every taste of that gander, only one wing, and I gave that to Moy-rua (Red Mary), and it’s she told the priest I stole his gander.”
The gander cleaned the table, and carried it away, and the Púca said, “Play up music for these ladies.”
The piper played up, and the old women began dancing, and they were dancing till they were tired. Then the Púca said to pay the piper, and every old woman drew out a gold piece, and gave it to him.
“By the tooth of Patric,” said he, “I’m as rich as the son of a lord.”
“Come with me,” says the Púca, “and I’ll bring you home.”
They went out then, and just as he was going to ride on the Púca, the gander came up to him, and gave him a new set of pipes. The Púca was not long until he brought him to Dunmore, and he threw the piper off at the little bridge, and then he told him to go home, and says to him, “You have two things now that you never had before—you have sense and music (ciall agus ceól).”
The piper went home, and he knocked at his mother’s door, saying, “Let me in, I’m as rich as a lord, and I’m the best piper in Ireland.”
“You’re drunk,” said the mother.
“No, indeed,” says the piper, “I haven’t drunk a drop.”
The mother let him in, and he gave her the gold pieces, and, “Wait now,” says he, “till you hear the music I’ll play.”
He buckled on the pipes, but instead of music, there came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. He wakened the neighbours, and they were all mocking him, until he put on the old pipes, and then he played melodious music for them; and after that he told them all he had gone through that night.
The next morning, when his mother went to look at the gold pieces, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant.
The piper went to the priest, and told him his story, but the priest would not believe a word from him, until he put the pipes on him, and then the screeching of the ganders and geese began.
“Leave my sight, you thief,” says the priest.
But nothing would do the piper till he would put the old pipes on him to show the priest that his story was true.
He buckled on the old pipes, and he played melodious music, and from that day till the day of his death, there was never a piper in the county Galway was as good as he was.
“Self Portrait as Bagpiper” by Jacob Jordaens, 1644
“The Piper and the Puca”: Interpretation
Encounter with the Daimon
I believe this tale describes, in the character of the seemingly untalented and unsophisticated “half fool” piper, an attitude that constitutes a precondition for creative inspiration, but one that is insufficient in itself for artistic and psychological growth: enter the Puca. The Puca, in my view, is a fearsome but no-nonsense version of a genius or daimon, who bestows on our piper tremendous gifts. “You have two things now that you never had before,” says the Puca to the piper at the end of their adventure together, “you have sense and music (ciall agus ceól).”
Elizabeth Gilbert has given a tantalizing TED talk about this entity, and argues for adopting the idea of the daimon or genius that is connected to, but separate from ourselves. My favorite part of the talk is her illustration of the idea via the very visceral experience of poet Ruth Stone, who may have had her own encounter with a Puca:
[W]hen she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem,and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”
Who is this devilish being who rushes at us when we are least expecting it, yet somehow ready? “The ‘genius-daimon’ is that incorporeal, imperishable spirit of a place or person, possessing an inimitable character all its own,” says Stephen A. Diamond in Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence (p. 263) And William Desmond tells us:
The daimon is not a quaint exotism we find among unenlightened primitives. It may be the true word that describes the tutelary powers that aid us to become and be ourselves . . . We are in the care of something other, and greater. Transcending is not in our power, but our powers are in the power of transcending. The daimon must be with us, or we with the daimon, for our power of being to come into its flourishing. (Ethics and the Between, p. 205)
As an archetypal being, the daimon has many manifestations, but there is always a compelling or demanding aspect to contend with–not answering the call, not doing what one is called to is grounds for punishment. The Puca of our story, depicted as an anthropomorphised animal of some kind, perhaps part horse and part goat, is certainly not a comforting figure. He commands the piper, and makes no bones about the risk involved in going with him. Paradoxically, it seems, there needs to be an encounter with this “other” in order for a person to develop fully into their own selfness. If you take a depth psychological view, this makes sense, as under this view, the ego, the everyday going-about-our business mode of consciousness we spend most of our time in is very limited. According to depth psychology, without access to the larger and deeper structures of the psyche, and with only social adaptation to shape (and potentially warp) us, we end up, like the piper, playing the same tune over and over, treading the same path with stultifying predictability. But there is always this other force underneath, compelling us in one way or another, and giving us access to a different dimension of consciousness, and of life:
The daimon motivates. It protects. It invents and persists with stubborn fidelity. It resists compromising reasonableness and often forces deviance and oddity upon its keeper, especially when it is neglected or opposed . . . it is out of step with time, finding all sorts of faults, gaps, and knots in the flow of life–and it prefers them. (The Soul’s Code, p. 39)
Fairies such as the Puca are shape-shifting, time-and-space bending entities who come from a psycho-cosmological place much vaster, more complex and more fluid than our own, and can be our living energetic connection, a psychopomp, to that wider domain. The force they embody is formidable, and like the piper we had better hang on tight, keep our egos open but intact.
But we might ask: how does the meager ego get access to these larger, richer structures, these bigger, more complex energies in the first place? Or, in the context of our tale, we may wonder: why does the Puca even bother with the piper, who is merely going about his business, playing his one tune incessantly, collecting his gold, and taking it home to mother in infantile fashion?
There are two clues in the tale to the attitude needed, I think, to facilitate an encounter with the Puca/Daimon/Genius, two qualities or conditions that open the way, and these are foolishness and drunkenness. Drunkenness lowers consciousness, allowing unconscious material to rise. At its best it can be initiatory and loosen rigid boundaries. Foolishness, often a corollary to drunkenness, can embody a certain creative naivete, a willingness to do as one pleases, to be daring, or just plain odd, without care for the consequences or the judgements of others. It is key, I believe, that our piper has both of these qualities in half-measure, for if he were fully drunk and completely foolish, he would not have been enough of a match for the Puca. But had he been too sober and too proper–not drunk and foolish enough–the Puca would have had no entree with him.
So the piper has just the right disposition for a meeting with the Puca. But there are plenty of half-drunk, half-fools out there. What would make the Puca think of testing him, of giving him the opportunity to earn his gifts? The Puca sees in the piper, apparently, underneath the veneer of the silly, unambitious, mama’s boy tinkerer a gifted, mature musician and man. The sense and music were there all along, but the particular force, energy, and otherworldly knowledge of the Puca was needed to bring them out. The piper is also at the right place: a bridge, or place of crossing. The Puca himself is another kind of bridge, bridging the human and fairy worlds.
How did the Puca know of the piper’s potential, and see fit to unleash it? The answer, perhaps, is in this strange connection to the stealing and eating of the priest’s gander, presumably close to a year earlier. According to The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan, geese, either domestic or wild were extremely important symbolically to the Celts: “So strong was the identification of Celtic people with the goose that it was a taboo food among the Britons, used for divination, and eaten only on ritual occasions. Some fairy beings could change by shape-shifting into geese . . . ” (p. 224) Perhaps we have a clue here, and may assume the gander to be a fairy being as well. So the consumption (integration) of the priest’s gander, we may conjecture, has a ritualistic aspect, and rituals, as we know, tend also to lower consciousness and draw out the divine or supernatural forces. The thievery, here, is also important, as acts of theft usually are in myths and fairy tales.
Stealing the gander seems in thematic terms to be the instigating action of the story. In psychological terms the piper stealing the priest’s gander likely represents the shift of energy or libido from a restrictive but ordered attitude (priest) to a more liberal, open one. Since there is no father in the story, and based on the authority the priest exerts over the piper, the priest can be slotted, in Jungian terms, as the father/father complex stand-in. The piper shares this stolen bounty with his mother, and gives a wing to “Red Mary,” likely a fairy-in-disguise and anima figure (female aspect of the male psyche) who repays him by tattling to the priest. (A whole other line of interpretation could be taken up around this peripheral yet key character of the story, but we’ll set it aside for now.)
The priest and the Puca, though opposites, are tied together symbolically: both hold a kind of otherworldly authority and power, and both, we should remember, require the piper to go to Croagh Patric, but with very different aims: the priest wants him to atone, restoring order and hierarchy, while the Puca wants him to shake off his restrictions and transform. To do this he must enter an underworld realm, and while there entertain, and pay respect toward, the wise old (grand)mother, who in this case manifests as a collective of faerie women living beneath Croagh Patric, in “The House of the Banshee.” Isn’t the Banshee a harbinger of death? Robert Moss has written recently of her, and reminds us that besides taking the form of the hag, she can assume the form of a beautiful young woman, and that she has a more complex role:
Above all, she comes to invite us or escort us on the Otherworld journey: not only the journey that follows physical death, but on journeys beyond the physical world from which we may return to the body with magic and power. (http://mossdreams.blogspot.com/)
Still, the visit to her realm is not without its dangers: Desmond goes on to warn that the daimon too is not only connected with creation, but also, necessarily, to destruction. It is is “connected to death. There is a demonic side the daimon, relative to the nihilating powers that rear up in us as creatures, that shadow all transcending.”
Marie Louise Von Franz reminds us that “demonism and creativity are psychologically very close to each other. Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.” (Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul, p. 106)
That bears repeating: Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.
We can assume our piper becomes sufficiently conscious of his creative impulses to ensure his daimon becomes a helpful force, and what’s known in fairy tale analysis as a “donor”–a figure who gives the hero some sort of magical assistance or bestows upon him or her some power. In return for becoming more conscious and giving something of himself to the underworld powers, the “hundreds of old women” whom he serves (an interesting contrast/parallel to his familiar mother and home), he receives the power of maturation, an accelerated ripening of his inborn potentials. The gold he receives, the real gold as opposed the illusory gold so often proffered by the fairies, is repeated access to inspiration, and the skill that evolves from having taken a path of “hills and bogs and rough places” instead of the familiar path, risking the difficult piece instead of the easy, well-worn tune.
So, in light of the wisdom embodied in this tale, here are some takeaways I’ve gleaned, things to tell myself:
- Steal a gander: Be subversive to your “thou shalt” conventional thinking and sacrifice time and energy to feed the irrational forces
- Sense (orderedness, thinking, rationality) and music (playfulness, emotionality, irrationality) are both necessary for growth and maturation of the personality and the development of one’s art, whatever form it may take.
- Be half-drunk and half-foolish: Lower consciousness (daydream, but in an attentive way) and be willing to risk failure. If you do these things, the Puca, or rather, your own version of a daimon, will catch your scent and consider visiting you.
- Be brave, trust the daimon and go with him or her: Inspiration can be frightening as well as vivifying, but when you are called, you need to answer. Opportunities for inspiration must be seized, and to do so we must trust the foreign-feeling energy enough to ride it, acknowledging that it knows better than us where to go.
- Play up! Don’t think about it or doubt yourself. Just do that thing you feel you’re meant to do, even if you don’t think you can.
- The warning from Von Franz: Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.
Before I leave off, I want to bring up the oddness of the revivified gander, who, although eaten, is living with the wise women under Croagh Patric, and who gives the piper the unmelodious squawking pipes. Of course, if we know anything of fairies, we expected the gold to turn to leaves, but I for one did expect that the set of fairy pipes would be superior to the piper’s old set. But instead they sound atrocious. Why is that?
In terms of why the gander is still around, remembering the goose’s significance to the Celts and other peoples, perhaps this is an element of psyche that cannot be integrated, a mysterious fundamental energy that exists on multiple planes. In relation to the gander specifically and Hindu thought:
The cosmic gander (the divine presence in the universe) reveals itself through song, which is thought of as the breathing of the supreme being, the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. (Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, p. 460)
The conscious rhythm of inhaling and exhaling is quite important to pipers, so having this particular instrument in the story makes symbolic sense. But why the horrid sounds coming from the faerie pipes? Perhaps the divine element gives the squawking pipes to our lad to keep him grounded, to balance his newfound powers and prevent an inflation. (Maybe this is why his gold pieces must not survive as well.) Don’t we all have times in our creative lives, and our lives in general that feel awkward, frustrating and stymied, as well as times where things are beautiful and flowing? That is what human life is meant to be, it seems, and since we know from mythic and folkloric wisdom that we can’t stay in the nether realms indefinitely without penalty, we had better be willing to play the squawking pipes on occasion, so that our real music, when it arrives, sounds that much more melodious.
More to explore:
If you haven’t watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk pertaining to the daimon or genius, here it is: