The Coco (or Cuco, Coca, Cuca, Cucuy) is a mythical ghost-monster, equivalent to the bogeyman, found in many Hispanic and Lusophone countries. He can also be considered a Hispanic version of a bugbear, as it is a commonly used figure of speech representing an irrational or exaggerated fear. The Coco is a male being while Coca is the female version of the mythical monster, although it is not possible to distinguish one from the other as both are the representation of the same being.
Names and etymology
The myth of the Coco originated in Portugal and Galicia. According to the Real Academia Española the word coco derives from the Portuguese côco, which referred to a ghost with a pumpkin head. The word coco is used in colloquial speech to refer to the human head in Portuguese and Spanish. Coco also means “skull”. The word “cocuruto” in Portuguese means the crown of the head and the highest place. In Basque, Gogo means “spirit”. In Galicia, crouca means “head”, from proto-Celtic *krowkā-, with variant cróca; and either coco or coca means “head”. It is cognate with Cornish crogen, meaning “skull”, and Breton krogen ar penn, also meaning “skull”. In Irish, clocan means “skull”.
In the Galician Lusitanian mythology, Crouga is the name of an obscure deity to whom offerings were made. In the inscription of Xinzo de Limia, written in Lusitanian, it is Crouga that is offered (given). The theonym Crouga derives from *krowkā.
The ancient Portuguese metaphor ‘to give someone coca’ (dar coca a alguém) means: to have one subdued and at the disposal with caresses and cuddles, to make one dizzy, meek with magic potions and magic spells. The words “acocado” (“spoiled rotten child”) and “acocorar” (“to spoil a child rotten”) derive from coca.
Many Latin American countries refer to the monster as el Cuco. In Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado, where there is a large Hispanic population, it is referred to by its anglicized name, “the Coco Man”. In Brazilian folklore, the monster is referred to as Cuca and pictured as a female humanoid alligator, derived from the Portuguese coca, a dragon.
In Spain and Latin America, parents sometimes invoke the Coco as a way of discouraging their children from misbehaving; they sing lullabies or tell rhymes warning their children that if they don’t obey their parents, el Coco will come and get them and then eat them.
It is not the way the Coco looks but what he does that scares most. It is a child eater and a kidnapper; it may immediately devour the child, leaving no trace, or it may spirit the child away to a place of no return, but it only does this to disobedient children. The coca is on the look out for child’s misbehavior on the top of the roof, the coco takes the shape of any dark shadow and stays watching. It represents the opposite of the guardian angel and is frequently compared to the devil. Others see the Coco as a representation of the deceased of the local community.
The oldest known rhyme about the Coco, which originated in the 17th century, is in the Auto de los desposorios de la Virgen by Juan Caxés.
The rhyme has evolved over the years, but still retains its original meaning:
“Duérmete niño, duérmete ya…
Que viene el Coco y te comerá.
Sleep child, sleep now…
Or else the Coco will come and eat you”
The Portuguese lullaby recorded by Leite de Vasconcelos tells Coca to go to the top of the roof. In other versions of the same lullaby, the name of coca is changed to that of “papão negro” (black eater) the name of another boogyman.
“Vai-te Coca. Vai-te Coca
Para cima do telhado
Deixa o menino dormir
Um soninho descansado
Leave Coca. Leave Coca
Go to the top of the roof
let the child have
A quiet sleep”
During the Portuguese and Spanish colonization of Latin America, the legend of the Cuco was spread to countries such as Mexico, Argentina and Chile.
There is no general description of the cucuy, as far as facial or body descriptions, but it is stated that this shapeshifting being is extremely horrible to look at. The coco is variously described as a shapeless figure, sometimes a hairy monster, that hides in closets or under beds and eats children that misbehave when they are told to go to bed.
Coca is a female dragon that in medieval times, in the Iberian Peninsula, used to take part in different celebrations. In Portugal one still survives in Monção and she fights in some sort of medieval tournament with saint George during the Corpus Christi celebrations. She is called “Santa Coca” (Saint Coca), an allusion to the Irish saint, or “Coca rabixa” (Tailed Coca). If she defeats Saint George, by scaring the horse, there will be a bad year for the crops and famine, if the horse and Saint George win by cutting off one of her ears with earring and her tongue, the crops will be fertile. Oddly enough the people cheer for Saint Coca. In Galicia there are still two dragon cocas, one in Betanzos the other in Redondela. The legend says that the dragon arrived from the sea and was devouring the young women and was killed in combat by the young men of the city. In Monção, the legend says, she lives in rio Minho; in Redondela she lives in the Ria of Vigo The dragon shared the same name that was given in Portuguese and Spanish to the Cog, and although used mainly for trade it was also a war vessel common in medieval warfare and piracy raids to coastal villages.
The oldest reference to Coca is in the book Livro 3 de Doações de D. Afonso III from the year 1274, where it is referred to as a big fish that appears on the shore:
“And if by chance any whale or sperm whale or mermaid or coca or dolphin or Musaranha or other large fish that resembles some of these die in Sesimbra or Silves or elsewhere…”
In Catalonia the “Cuca fera de Tortosa” was first documented in 1457. It is a zoomorphic figure, looks like a tortoise with a horned spine, it has dragon claws and a dragon head. The legend says she had to dine every night on three cats and three children. The legend of the Coca can be compared to the one of Peluda or Tarrasque.
In Brazil the Coco appears as a female alligator called Cuca. Cuca appears as the villain in some children’s books by Monteiro Lobato. Artists illustrating these books depicted the Cuca as an anthropomorphic alligator. She is an allusion to Coca, a dragon from the folklore of Portugal and Galicia.
The sailors of Vasco da Gama called the fruit of the Polynesian palm tree, “coco”. The word “coconut” is derived from their naming.
Traditionally in Portugal, however, the coco is represented by an iron pan with holes, to represent a face, with a light in the inside or 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. In the Beiras, heads carved on pumpkins, called “coca”, would be carried, by the village boys, stuck on top of wooden stakes.
“The same name [Coca] is given to the pumpkin perforated with the shape of a face, with a candle burning in the inside – this gives the idea of a skull on fire – that the boys on many lands of our Beira carry stuck on a stick.”
An analogous custom was first mentioned by Diodorus Siculus (XIII.56.5;57.3), in which Iberian warriors, after the battle of Selinunte, in 469 BC, would hang the heads of the enemies on their spears. According to Rafael López Loureiro, this carving representation would be a milenar tradition from the Celtiberian region that spread all over the Iberian Peninsula.
“The autumnal and childish custom of emptying pumpkins and carving on its bark, eyes, nose and mouth looking for a sombre expression, far from being a tradition imported by a recent Americanizing cultural mimicry, is a cultural trait in ancient Iberian Peninsula.”
This representation would be related to the Celtic cult of the severed heads in the Iberian peninsula. According to João de Barros, the name of the “coconut” derived from “coco” and was given to the fruit by the sailors of Vasco da Gama, c.1498, because it reminded them of this mythical creature.
“This bark from which the pome receives its vegetable nourishment , which is through its stem, has an acute way, which wants to resemble a nose placed between two round eyes, from where it throws the sprout, when it wants to be born; by reason of such figure, it was called by our [men] coco, name imposed by the women on anything they want to put fear to the children, this name thus remained, as no one knows another.”
Rafael Bluteau (1712), defines that the coco and coca were thought to look like skulls, in Portugal:
“Coco or Coca. We make use of these words to frighten children, because the inner shell of the Coco has on its outside surface three holes giving it the appearance of a skull”
In the first half of the 20th century the coca was an integral part of festivities like All Souls’ Day and the ritual begging of Pão-por-Deus. The tradition of Pão-por-Deus, already mentioned in the 15th century, is a ritual begging for bread and cakes, done door to door by children, though in the past poor beggers would also take part. Its purpose is to share the bread or treats gathered door to door with the dear little souls, the dead of the community who were eagerly awaited and arrived at night in the shape of butterflies or little animals, during the traditional magusto. In Portugal, depending of the region, the Pão-por-Deus assumes different names: santoro or santorinho, dia dos bolinhos (cookies day), fieis de deus. This same tradition extends to Galicia where it is called migallo. It has a close resemblance with the tradition of souling or nowadays Trick-or-treating. While the Pão-por-Deus or Santoro is the bread or offering given to the souls of the dead, the Molete or Samagaio is the bread or offering that is given when a child is born.
“In this same city of Coimbra, where we find ourselves today, it is customary for groups of children to walk on the streets, on the 31st October and 1st and 2nd November, at nightfall, with a hollow pumpkin with holes that were cut out pretending to be eyes, nose and mouth, as if it was a skull, and with a stump of candle lit from within, to give it a more macabre look.”
“In Coimbra the begging mentions «Bolinhos, bolinhós» and the group brings an emptied pumpkin with two holes representing the eyes of a personage and a candle lit in the inside […] another example of the use of the pumpkin or gourd as a human representation, is in the masks of the muffled young men during the desfolhada, the communal stripping of the maize, in Santo Tirso de Prazins (Guimarães), which after, they carry hoisted on a stick and with a candle in the inside, and leave them stuck on any deserted place to put fear to who is passing by.”
The muffled young men, called serandeiros, are disguised young men, covered with a blanket, bed sheet or with a hooded cloak. They carry around a staff, a stick of quince or of honeyberry, about their own height in one hand, on the other they carry a small bundle of basil or apples that they make the girls that take part of the desfolhada smell, or tickle the cheeks of the people, and sometimes, to play a prank, they bring stinging nettles. When a girl recognizes who the serandeiro is or if she recognizes her boyfriend masked as a serandeiro she throws him an apple that she had previously brought from home. The serandeiros represent the spirit of the dead, the spirits of nature.
The heads would have protective and healing powers, protecting people and communities. They would also be cherished for their divinatory, prophetic and healing powers. The display places for the Iron Age severed heads were in the inside or outside of buildings with a preference for public places, with streets and people passing by and always preferring high places.
The rituals in the Catholic religious order of Our Lady of Cabeza, a Black Madonna, in Portugal include the offering of heads of wax to the Lady, praying the Hail Mary while keeping a small statue of Our Lady on top of the head, and the pilgrims praying with their own heads inside a hole made on the wall of the chapel. The Chapel of Our Lady of the Heads (Nossa Senhora das Cabeças) placed 50 m (164 ft) NW of the ruins of the Roman era temple of Our Lady of the Heads (Orjais, Covilhã) evidences a continuity in the use of a sacred space that changed from a pagan worship cult area to a Christian one and continued to be a place of worship for centuries after. According to Pedro Carvalho the pre-Roman findings and the unusual location of the ruins inside an 8th-century BC hillfort suggest it was the place of a pre-Roman cult.
In Portugal, coca is a name for the hooded cloak and it was also the name of the traditional hooded black wedding gown still in use at the beginning of the 20th century. In Portimão during the holy week celebrations, in the procissão dos Passos (sp: Procesión de los Pasos), a procession organized by the Catholic brotherhoods, the herald, a man dressed with a black hooded cloak that covered his face and had three holes for the eyes and mouth, led the procession and announced the death of Christ. This man was either named coca, farnicoco, (farricunco, farricoco from Latin far, farris and coco) or death. The name coca was given to the cloak and to the man who wore the cloak.
In 1498, the Portuguese King Manuel I gave permission to the Catholic brotherhood of the Misericórdia to collect the bones and remains from the gallows of those that had been condemned to death and put them in a grave every year on All Saints’ Day. The brotherhood in a procession, known as Procissão dos Ossos, were followed by the farricocos, who carried the tombs and collected the bones.
In the travels of the Baron Rozmital, 1465-1467, it was written a paragraph commenting the traditional mourning clothes of the Portuguese of that time. The relatives of the deceased who accompanied his funeral would be clad in white and hooded like monks, but the paid mourners would be arrayed in black.”[…] white was worn as the garb of mourning until the time of King Manuel, at the death of whose aunt, Philippa, black was adopted for the first time in Portugal as the symbol of sorrow for the dead”.
Os cocos, giant representation of the coco and coca of Ribadeo. The tradition dates back to the 19th century.
In Ribadeo two giant figures represent “el coco y la coca” that dance at the sound of drummers and Galician bagpipe players.