This is one of my favorite posts from last year.In the spirit of Halloween, I am reposting:
We all know of El Cuco, the mythological monster, our parents all
warned us about and sometimes even utilized to put the fear of God into
us and make us do their will. The other day I was thinking about El Cuco
and wondering if perhaps its origins came to us from our Yoruba
ancestors since the term sounds African. I was surprised to learn: (it
was originally an European pumpkinhead!)
From Wikipedia’s article on ‘The CUCO’: The
Cuco (Coco, coca, or cuca) is a mythical monster, a ghost, witch;
equivalent to the boogeyman found in many Hispanic and Lusophone
The myth of the Coco originated in Portugal and Galicia. According to the Real
Academia Española the word “coco” derives from the Portuguese language,
and referred a ghost with a pumpkin head.
Traditionally, the coco, or its feminine counterpart “coca”, is represented by a
carved vegetable lantern made from a pumpkin with two eyes and a mouth,
that is left in dark places with a light inside to scare people. The
vegetable lantern is similar to the Jack o’ lantern. Coca the dragon is
another representation of this scary being and is present in the
folklore of Portugal and Galicia.
The name of the “coconut” derived from “coco” and was given to the fruit by the
sailors of Vasco da Gama because it reminded this mythical creature.
The legend of the Cuco began to be spread to Latin America by the Portuguese and Spanish colonizers.
There is no general description of the Cuco, as far as facial or body descriptions.
The legend of the Cuco is widely used by parents in Spain and Latin America
in order to make their children go to sleep. Parents usually tell small
kids that the Cuco will take them away if they don’t fall asleep early.
This method has been in use for decades now.
Popularity and other names
TheCuco method is very popular among parents from Dominican Republic to
Argentina. In many countries, the character has different meanings: in
Mexico, for example, parents prefer to call Cuco the similar name
“Calaca”, which also means skeleton there.
In Brazil Cuco appears as a female, ‘Cuca’. Cuca appears as the villain in some
children books by Monteiro Lobato. Artists illustrating these books
depicted the Cuca as an anthropomorphic alligator.
In Northern New Mexico, where there is a large Hispanic population, El Cuco is referred to in its Spanglish name, the Coco Man. His image is
construed with Brazil’s sack man; he carries a bag to take naughty
children around Christmas time, and demands repentance in the form of
Catholic prayers. The Bogeyman (or boogeyman) could be considered an English equivalent of the Cuco, since both monsters attack children who misbehave.
POPULAR SONG FOR THE CUCO: duermete niño, duermete ya…que viene el cuco y te comera (sleep child, sleep now…or else comes the coco to eat you)
* Photo credit: Self-portrait by Jamie Wyeth
And if you ever wondered about the nature of Africa’s indigenous beliefs, you should definitely check out V.S. Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa, which sounds really interesting: