If you happen to be Spanish, Portuguese or from a community that speaks one of those two languages, then the chances are you’ve heard of El Cucuy. Perhaps you know this figure by a slightly different name such as El Coco or Coucuy but no matter what you call it, you know what it means.
For the Hispanophone world El Cucuy is the equivalent of ‘the bogeyman’ a terrifying and yet rarely clearly defined entity used by parents to frighten their children into obedience with a threat that if they don’t settle down and behave or go to their beds without complaining “El Cucuy will come for you”. Exactly what this El Cucuy is or looks like depends on the family and the community, as do the details of what exactly it is he’s likely to do if he does come to ‘get you’ but it’s fair to say that it’s probably not going to be good.
Because the figure is so widespread and amorphous, it can be difficult to pin down a definitive origin. However, we can trace the evolution of the El Coco variant of the story and the disparate elements that likely influenced its evolution.
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El Cucuy is an example of a ‘geographically or culturally specific variant of near universal archetype’.
Or, to put that into plain English:
It is the version of a myth found all over the world that is specific to a particular country or people. In this case, the archetype of ‘The Bogeyman’ found in Mexico, Brazil, the Southern United States and a number of other Portuguese and Spanish speaking countries and communities. But wait a minute, what do we mean by an ‘archetype’ and what makes the El Cucuy version so specific?
An easy way to understand archetypes and their variants is to think about dragons. The ‘archetype’ or blueprint idea of a ‘dragon-like- monster’ exists in almost every major culture, possibly because the dragon is an amalgam of the three predators that were the greatest threat to our ancestors (the snake, the raptor birds and land based predators like lions/leopards and tigers).
However, the shape that this ‘blueprint idea’ takes in different parts of the world varies greatly. You only have to look at a Chinese dragon in comparison to the dragons of western fantasy and you immediately see the differences. The general overarching idea of a ‘dragon’ exists in both cultures and locations but the way it looks when its actually given shape is very idiosyncratic and particular to that region. Like eyewitnesses describing the same person but seen from different angles. Same idea, different versions, or ‘geographically and culturally specific variants on a universal archetype’. Simple.
In the case of El Cucuy, the archetype upon which the character is based is what is referred to in the west as a bogeyman character. These figures, which exist in almost every culture in some form or another, are wildly different but always share a number of common features.
In almost every version the creature’s physical description is somewhat undefined, meaning that the description is not completely specific or detailed and whilst there is usually a mention of ‘teeth’ and ‘claws’ or ‘talons’, (tools that appeal to another innate human anxiety, namely the primal fear of being consumed) the overall appearance is never really pinned down and can vary not only from region to region but from household to household and teller to teller.
Many scholars argue that it is this nebulous and undefined element of the boogeyman’s nature that is one of the key things that makes it so memorable and terrifying. The fact that it cannot be conclusively described means that it can be anything, can take on any form and can appear to children in the form that is most frightening to them, a feature taken on an used with great success by Stephen king for the character of Pennywise in IT, who is himself a form of bogeyman. Whilst the creature is not often described as a shapeshifter, it is the boogeyman’s ability to adapt and become the shape of terror that makes him so horrific.
Another feature of the bogeyman archetype from which El cucuy developed is his use as a deterrent or threat, used by parents to make their children behave. This element is shared with the related myths of the ‘bag men’ which we will look at later.
Scholars have also argued that it is this feature that makes the bogeyman such a memorable monster, with some pointing out that by making the bogeyman a threat, parents are acknowledging its existence. Whereas they may seek to comfort children by telling them all other monsters are imaginary or do not exist, parents actively participate in the myth building of the bogeyman and legitimise the child’s fears by confirming that he exists in order to use him as a tool. Where other monsters die away and fade in potency, our own family bogeymen still give us a chill when we recall them because they remain the only monsters our parents said were real.
From these two shared features a vast array of slightly different variations on the theme emerge. Some continue unchanged for centuries, others spring up and die away depending upon the fashions and anxieties of the societies of the time. An easy way to think of this is to consider the bogeyman as Mr Potato Head. The archetype or overarching idea shared by cultures across the world is the potato. Whilst a culture might not have a figure called the bogeyman, boogeyman or El Cucuy, they will likely have some myth that contains the two key elements mentioned above.
When this Mr potato head archetype moves to a different location or is influenced by a different culture, the people telling the story will remove certain features and replace them with new ones in the same way that someone might remove the moustache from a Mr potato head but add glasses. They will take away some things and add others to make their monster fit, but every version will share those key elements.
This complicated sounding word actually just means the history, origins and evolutions of words. Where does a word or name come from, how did it change over time and why?
In the case of El Cucuy, El Coco and similar creatures, the evolution of the word and the name are linked directly to the evolution of the character and how the general archetype evolved into something far more specific.
The first and perhaps most terrifying thing to note is that the word ‘coco’ and ‘coca’ has a history stretching back thousands of years, suggesting that the myth in some form or another may also be centuries if not millennia old.
The modern use of coco or cucuy can be traced back to the Iberian Peninsula, to Portuguese and the Galeco language (a language spoken in North western Spain). The interesting parallel here is the the word is used not only to describe a monstrous entity with a head like a pumpkin or other vegetable, but also that the word is used in colloquial terms to mean a head a cranium and specifically a severed head (more on this later)
The fact that linguists can trace the origin of these words back to proto-celtic origins and the fact that words with shared or similar sounds and meaning still exist in the Cornish language of southernmost Britain and in the endangered Breton language of northern France suggest that the myth may originally have been of celtic origin, but adopted absorbed and modified by the latin speaking cultures as they eventually overran portions of northern and mainland Europe particularly along the Atlantic coasts.
Indeed there are written records of ‘cucuy’ as a monster stretching back as far as the thirteenth century in these regions where the Coca, a creature that survives on ‘cats and bad children’ is mentioned in Livro 3 de Doações de Dom Afonso Terceiro.
The word ‘coco’ was also used to describe something that stood in for a severed head such as the carved vegetables used to frighten children in 15th century Portugal and Spain and it is this same relationship between the idea of the monster, and the word for a severed head that gave us the word for ‘coconut’. The story being that the great explorer Vasco de Gama upon discovering the fruit with its ‘hair’ on the outside, named it in reference to its resemblance to a severed head and the vegetable headed creature the word also relates to.
Interestingly, in an entirely separate language strain in Britain, the word ‘bogeyman’ derives from a ‘bogey’ or ‘bugge’ which meant something scary or a ‘scarecrow’. What is striking about this is that scarecrows were often given heads made of carved vegetables and so this same link exists in two entirely different language paths in different regions that end up referring to versions of the same monster…creepy.
In addition to this we can see fully formed versions of the myth in poems and lullabies that existed in Spain and Portugal as early as the 17th century in which the ‘coco’ figure is said to wait on the roof to take away disobedient children. The earliest example of this is in the Spanish Auto de los desposorios de la Virgen by Juan Caxés in which the lyrics translate to something close to “Sleep now child else Coco comes and will eat you”. Always a pleasant thought to help you drift off to sleep huh?
These creepy and threatening lullabies are the forerunners of the creepy rhymes that seem to find their way into every modern horror movie. A startlingly similar example is the children’s skipping rhyme from Wes Craven’s Horror Classic A nightmare on Elm Street in which ‘Freddy is coming for you’. This particular example is an interesting inversion of these rhymes because they implore the children not to sleep because the bogeyman (in this case the razor clawed figure of Freddy Kreuger) will get them, the opposite instruction to that featured in these earlier rhymes that instruct the children to sleep.
The Cloak or Cowl.
Another strand of influence on the name and indeed appearance of El cucuy, is in the fact that the word ‘coca’ was also used in Portugal during the Procissão dos Passos a ritual procession performed by catholics during holy week and meant to symbolise the announcement of Christ’s death.
In this context Coca is used to describe the figure who leads the procession, who invariably wore a hooded cloak or cowl, similar to those worn by monks and notably in many depictions of the Grim Reaper figure. The word was also used to refer to the actual garment worn by this figure. Hooded figures of the same name were also part of the procession led by Catholic brotherhood of the Misericórdia who in 1498 were given permission to remove the bodies and bones of those killed on the gallows and transfer them to consecrated ground. The bodies of criminals were then paraded and conveyed by these ‘coco’ men wearing ‘coco’ cloaks. In other parts of europe ‘Coco’ or cucuy is actually depicted, usually as a reptilian creature like a dragon, large tortoise or alligator/crocodile.
So over the course of several centuries and language variations we have coco, coca and cucuy meaning a monster or ghost with a carved vegetable head. To add to this we have another Portuguese festival celebrated on Corpus Christi, during a reenactment St George attempts to slay Coca which is the name of the female dragon. According to the legend, if the huge paper mache dragon scares the horse on which George is riding then the crops for the year will fail, but if George is victorious there will be a good harvest. All elements that will have combined with the original bogeyman archetype to create something more specific to those cultures. But how did these ideas make their way to the Americas, to then evolve into the single figure we know today as El coco?
El Coco reaches the Americas.
The leading theory on how these disparate elements combined to form a legend on the other side of the atlantic is that the tale travelled with the people, most likely during the migrations that took place in the period known as the union of the crowns, the period between 1580 and 1640 When the Spanish and Portuguese kingdoms were united by the Hapsburgs.
With large numbers of people from Portugal and Spain travelling to the colonies across the sea, each bringing their own variant of the myth, new variants closer to today’s vision of El Cucuy emerged from the fertile soils and imaginations of the new world.
In this new environment, the story not only adapted to meld with local beliefs and customs but also consolidated and galvanized particular features in individual communities so that they became more prominent in particular regions. For example in some areas such as Mexico, the reptilian aspect of the fiend’s character is de-emphasised in favour of a hairer appearance, whereas further south it has been retained and even added to with the specific idea that coco resembles an alligator.
In addition to being ill defined in terms of appearance El Cucuy’s intentions are also changeable depending upon the particular location and even teller. Most commonly the threat given by parents in relation to the creature corresponds to one of two basic childhood fears, either the fear of being eaten or the fear of permanent separation from the family unit and particularly from parents by being ‘taken away’.
It is this second threat that features most prominently in another strand of folklore that is closely related to El cucuy and to the ‘bogeyman’ myth in general, namely that of the ‘sack’ or ‘bag man’.
In this myth which is popular throughout Spanish America and several South American countries in slightly altered forms, tells of an old, or particularly large man who comes into town with a large gunny sack slung over his shoulder and into which he put naughty or disobedient children to be most commonly either spirited away never to be seen again or in some variants eaten. Whilst this character is considered to be distinct from ‘the bogeyman’ there is undoubtedly a great deal of crossover between the two, with aspects of one often being present in stories of the other.
Interestingly, in his most basic form in the americas the sack/bag man, though often supernatural to some extent, seems to retain his human characteristics, whereas in some central and northern European countries (the sack or bag man myth is another near universal story that has examples across the world in countries as disparate as India and Russia, China and Brazil) the ‘sack/bag man’ often takes on a less human form.
There, he is sometimes represented as a demon or devil-like figure with horns and hooves (such as in the case of the krampus myth) or is actually replaced by the devil himself. In these countries, the figure is far more monstrous than human and at times indistinguishable from the ‘bogeyman’ character. Notably these bag men characters share the same two features of being not clearly defined and being used as a threat by parents that scholars agree to make the bogeyman myth so unsettling.
The influence of this bag man character upon the El Cucuy myth can be seen in the fact that many versions of the El cucuy myth have the monster carrying a sack in which he places his victims before taking them away or eating them, El cucuy seeming to embody a more monstrous and less human variant of the sack man myth.
El Cucuy specifics
As mentioned above, El Cucuy often remains ill defined in terms of physical characteristics. However a few elements can be picked out. Notably the hooded shawl or cowl, similar to the grim reaper, seems to be a common feature (and as we have seen links back to the origins of the name itself). Other shared features are huge teeth and claws and a tendency to occupy the darker or less visited spaces in the home such as the insides of closets, under the bed, or attic and basement rooms.
One of the most famous and in my opinion best depictions of El coco is the etching by Francesco de goya which shows a hooded figure approaching a woman who is seated with her two terrified children. What is so effective and affecting about this particular vision is how it embodies many of the key elements of the El coco myth. The character wears a large hooded cloak, linking it to earlier versions of the myth, its face is never seen, capturing the crucially nebulous and never uniform nature of the thing’s actual features. Also there is the fact that the mother is also present, embodying the fact that parents sanction and even support the creature’s reality and existence.
Beyond this depiction, El cucuy has appeared in a wide variety of forms on television and in film. In this way the folkloric character is also a great example of ‘cyclical influence’. What is meant by this is that the original El cucuy myth will influence another character or prompt someone to make a definitive vision of the creature and decide how to depict it on screen. Whatever this version becomes then, in turn, influences people’s ideas about the El Cucuy myth itself and what El Coco should look like, so that the cycle continues to go around in a circle, with the myth influencing popular culture and popular culture then influencing the myth.
Examples of this will be seen in the fact that some sources will describe the creature with features that are clearly in keeping with recent Hollywood depictions or television depictions of El Cucuy or the bogeyman.
It has been noted that descriptions of the bogeyman tend to be influenced by what is popular at the time or reflect the anxieties of the culture and community, so that for example in areas where the predator most likely to take children is a jaguar, wolf or bear the creature has long hair, whereas in places where crocodiles alligators or snakes are more of a threat the creature remains reptilian.
The bag men myths often adopt characteristics like dark beards or descriptions that make them sound like vagrants or outsiders and in some cases darker skin tones, reflecting the xenophobia of a particular community.
In modern times the bogeyman will take the form of whatever creature or monster is in vogue at the time, when a new werewolf movie is popular the bogeyman is more likely to be hairy, when a creepy clown is popular it will adopt elements of that in descriptions given by parents and children. In recent years descriptions of el cucuy have matched more closely the version depicted in films about the character or its depiction in popular television shows.
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