Coco (folklore)

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Que Viene el Coco (1799) by Goya

The Coco (or Cuco, Coca, Cuca, Cucuy, Cucuí) is a mythical ghost-monster, equivalent to the bogeyman, found in many Hispanophone and Lusophone countries. He can also be considered an Iberian version of a bugbear,[1] 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[edit]

The myth of the Coco, Cucuy, originated in Portugal and Galicia. According to the Real Academia Española, the word coco derives from the Galician and Portuguese côco [ˈko.ku], which referred to a ghost with a pumpkin head.[2] The word coco is used in colloquial speech to refer to the human head in Portuguese and Spanish.[3] Coco also means "skull".[4] The word "cocuruto" in Portuguese means the crown of the head and the highest place.[5] In Basque, Gogo means "spirit".[6][7] In Galicia, crouca means "head",[8] from proto-Celtic *krowkā-,[9] with variant cróca;[10] and either coco or coca means "head".[11] It is cognate with Cornish crogen, meaning "skull",[12] and Breton krogen ar penn, also meaning "skull".[13][14] In Irish, clocan means "skull".[15]

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".[16] In Brazilian folklore, the monster is referred to as Cuca and pictured as a female humanoid alligator, derived from the Portuguese coca,[17] a dragon.


In Spain, Portugal, and Latin America (including Brazil), 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 it 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.[18] 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.[19]

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...
Else Coco comes and will eat you.

The Portuguese lullaby recorded by José 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.[20]

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

The traditional Brazilian lullaby is as follows:

Dorme neném
Que a Cuca vem pegar
Papai foi pra roça
Mamãe foi trabalhar

Sleep little baby
That Cuca comes to capture
Daddy went to the farm
Mommy went to work

Brazilians also have the boogeyman version, that sometimes acquires regional colors where the Bogeyman (shape-shifting Bicho Papão is a monster that is shaped by what the child fears most) is a small owl, murucututu, or other birds of prey that could be on the roof of homes at night.

Bicho papão
Em cima do telhado
Deixa meu menino dormir
Sono sossegado

Atop the roof
Let my child have
A quiet sleep

Verses and songs were used in pre-Roman Iberia to transmit history to the younger generations, as told by ancient authors. Sallust said the mothers sang the military feats of the fathers to incite the children to battle.[21] He was later quoted by Servius who emphasised that it was the role of the mothers to remembered and teach the young men about the war feats of their fathers.[22] Silius Italicus added more; he said that the young warriors sang songs in their native language while hitting their shields in the rhythm of the songs and that they were well versed in magic.[23] Strabo too, commented that history was recorded in verse.[24]

During the Portuguese and Spanish colonization of Latin America, the legend of the Coco was spread to countries such as Mexico, Argentina and Chile.

Physical representations[edit]

"Festa da Coca" during the Corpus Christi celebration, in Monção, Portugal
Cucafera during the "Fiesta Mayor de Santa Tecla" in Tarragona, Spain

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.

Mythical animals[edit]

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,[25] or "Coca rabicha" (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.[26][27] Oddly enough the people cheer for Saint Coca. In Galicia there are still two dragon cocas, one in Betanzos the other in Redondela.[28] 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 the Minho; in Redondela she lives in the Ria of Vigo[29] 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.[30][31]

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:[32] "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.[33][34] 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 Tarasque.

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.


In Portuguese, the skull-like carved vegetable lanterns are called "coco" or "coca".
Bronze Celtiberian fibula representing a warrior carrying a severed head [35]
A galaico-lusitanian 'severed head' from castro culture
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.[36] 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.[37]

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.[38] According to Rafael López Loureiro, this carving representation would be a milenar tradition from the Celtiberian region that spread all over the Iberian Peninsula.[39][40]

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.[41]

This representation would be related to the Celtic cult of the severed heads in the Iberian peninsula.[42][43] 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.[44][45]

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.[46]

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[47]

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,[48] 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.[49][50][51][52] In Portugal, depending of the region, the Pão-por-Deus assumes different names: santoro or santorinho,[53] dia dos bolinhos (cookies day), fieis de deus.[54] This same tradition extends to Galicia where it is called migallo.[55][56][57] It has a close resemblance with the tradition of souling or nowadays Trick-or-treating.[58] 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.[59][60]

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.[61]

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.[62]

To ensure that the souls don't get astray and find their way back home the "Botador de almas", whose mission was to lay souls (botar almas), would go every night through valleys and mountains and up on trees ringing his little bell or carrying a lantern and singing a pray to the souls. Every Portuguese village had one. But calling and singing to the souls is an ancient tradition done either by one person alone or in groups and it also has many names: "lançar as almas", "encomendar as almas", "amentar as almas", "deitar as almas", "cantar às almas santas".[63][64][65]

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.[66][67][68] The serandeiros represent the spirit of the dead, the spirits of nature.[69]

The heads would have protective and healing powers, protecting people and communities. They would also be cherished for their divinatory, prophetic and healing powers.[70][71] 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.[72]

Our Ladies[edit]

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.[73] 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.[74][75][76][77]

The Lady of the Head and Lady of the Heads are two of the many names given to Our Lady. Several of her names are thought to be of pre-Roman origin. Names like Senhora da Noite, (Lady of the Night),[78] Senhora da Luz (Lady of the Light), Señora de Carbayo (Lady of the Oak tree)are spread all over the peninsula. In Portugal alone were collected 972 titles for Our Lady in churches, altars and images not including the names of villages and places.[79] Spain will also have an equivalent number of titles for Our Lady.[80]

The common element to all these names is the title Lady. But the title Senhora (pt.),Señora (Sp.) is of Latin origin, and derives from lat. senior,[81] thus there had to be another one of pre-Roman origin. In ancient times the titles that were used in Portugal by the ladies of the court were Meana (me Ana) or Miana (mi Ana) and Meona (me Ona) these words meant the same as miLady, that is, Ana and Ona were synonys of Senhora and Dona.[82] Ana is the name of the river Guadiana thus pre-Roman in origin.[83] Ana is also the name of a goddess of the Irish mythology.[84]

In the village of Ponte, parish of Mouçós, on a hill that overlooks River Corgo, there is a chapel called santo Cabeço which legend says was built by the mouros encantados. On the wall facing south there is a hole where legend says the mouros used to put their head to hear the sound of the sea. The local people also have the custom of putting their head inside the hole: some to hear the whisper that is similar to the waves of the sea, others to heal the headaches.[85]

In Alcuéscar, Spain, a legend says that a princess exhibits a stall of skulls and human bones.[86]

Hooded cloak[edit]

The Farricoco in the procession "Ecce Homo" on Maundy Thursday, in Braga, Portugal

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.[87] 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[88] and coco) or death. The name coca was given to the cloak and to the man who wore the cloak.[89]

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.[90] The brotherhood in a procession, known as Procissão dos Ossos, were followed by the farricocos, who carried the tombs and collected the bones.[91][92][93][94]

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.[95]"[...] 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".[96]


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.[97][98]

The land of the dead[edit]

The 'land of the dead' is a mythic land which appears in traditions from various cultures around the ancient world.[99][100]

Probably the oldest mention of a mythic land of the dead located in the Iberian Peninsula is in the Lebor Gabála Érenn.[101]

The legends of Portugal and Spain speak of an enchanted land, the Mourama, the land where an enchanted people, the Mouros (Celtic *MRVOS)[102][103] dwell under the earth in Portugal and Galicia. The lore of Galicia says that "In Galicia there are two overlapped people: a part lives on the surface of the land; they are the Galician people, and the other in the subsoil, the Mouros". Mourama is the otherworld, the world of the dead from where everything comes back.[104][105][106]

The Mourama is ruled by an enchanted being who is called rei Mouro, (king Mouro). His daughter is the princesa Moura, (princess Moura), a shapeshifter who changes herself into a snake, also called bicha Moura, or can even be seen riding a dragon.[107]

In literature and arts[edit]

In the last chapter of the work of Miguel de Cervantes, the epitaph of Don Quijote identifies him as the scarecrow and el coco.[108]

Tuvo a todo el mundo en poco,
fue el espantajo y el coco
del mundo, en tal coyuntura,
que acreditó su ventura
morir cuerdo y vivir loco


He had the whole world in little,
he was the scarecrow and the coco of the world,
in such a conjuncture,
that he credited his fortune
to die sane and to live insane

Que Viene el Coco, a painting that depicts a cloaked, menacing figure, was painted by Goya in 1799.[109]

In popular culture[edit]

  • Dominican salsa-merengue musician and singer Cuco Valoy makes several humorous references to the myth in some of his songs (¡ahí viene el cuco, mamá!).
  • In the novel Thief of Midnight, the main adversary is El Cucuy, a psychotic, power-hungry bogeyman in the form of a dead child.
  • In the book series Sítio do Picapau Amarelo, Cuca is the main antagonist of the novel O Saci. In this version, she is an arrogant and narcissistic witch who appears as an anthropomorphized alligator and is obsessed by kidnapping children in order to devour them. She is portrayed in a more comical light in both the live-action and animated adaptations of the book series for television, where she is a regular character and the primary antagonist.
  • In season 4, episode 2 of the popular children's television series Wizards of Waverly Place, Cucuys are portrayed as wealthy Latino versions of a bogeyman.
  • According to social sciences professor Manuel Medrano, popular legend describes cucuy as a small humanoid with glowing red eyes that hides in closets or under the bed. "'Some lore has him as a kid who was the victim of violence ... and now he’s alive, but he’s not,' Medrano said, citing Xavier Garza’s 2004 book Creepy Creatures and other Cucuys."[110]
  • The Ultimate Fighter 13 winner and former Interim UFC Lightweight Champion Tony Ferguson uses "El Cucuy" as his nickname.
  • El Cucuy (The Boogeyman) is a short film that premiered at the 2012 South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas. It is directed by Chris Ambriz and tells the story of a bad little girl named Ally (played by horror actress Priscilla Iden), who fails to heed warnings about el Cucuy as a child. Once Ally grows up to be a horrible adult, she is tormented by her evil actions. Soon she is confronted by el Cucuy, who has come to claim her after missing his chance.
  • The Cuco appears in AdventureQuest Worlds. It is among the creatures that attack Terra da Festa before the Carnaval Party. The Cuco resembles a Carnaval version of Blister.
  • Erotic burlesque rumba "Que viene el coco, mamá" ("Here Comes the Bogeyman, mom") from Spanish revue "¡A La Habana me voy!", depicts a lady who is gladly carried away in the Coco's arms.[111]
  • The band "Coal Chamber" has a song named "El Cu Cuy" on their 1999 album Chamber Music.
  • The East Los Angeles Trio El-Haru Kuroi has a song named "El Cucui" on their 2006 album Sabung, referencing for women not to go out into the night because the Cucui will get them. They Release A video for the song in 2014
  • On August 22, 2013, it was revealed that El Cucuy's story will be turned into a maze which will be narrated by Danny Trejo for Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood.
  • In 2013, the television series Grimm aired an episode called "El Cucuy", in which the titular creature is a rare wandering vigilante Wesen that can hear the cries of women in sorrow, and brutally mauls any criminals in the area.
  • American comedian George Lopez mentions the Cucuy in two of his specials, Why You Crying? and America's Mexican.
  • American guitarist John Lowery (John 5) composed a track for his 2014 album Careful with That Axe entitled "El Cucuy".
  • The Outsider, a horror novel by American author Stephen King (published on May 22, 2018), uses aspects of the El Cuco legend as a primary storyline.
  • In October 2018, Syfy, will premiere a new movie called "Cucuy: The Boogeyman" about El Cucuy terrorizing a small town.

See also[edit]


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    Nesta mesma cidade de Coimbra, onde hoje nos encontramos, é costume andarem grupos de crianças pelas ruas, nos dias 31 de Outubro e 1 e 2 de Novembro, ao cair da noite, com uma abóbora oca e com buracos recortados a fazer de olhos, nariz e boca, como se fosse uma caveira, e com um coto de vela aceso por dentro, para lhe dar um ar mais macabro.

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    Em Coimbra o peditório menciona «Bolinhos, bolinhós», e o grupo traz uma abóbora esvaziada com dois buracos a figurarem os olhos de um personagem e uma vela acesa dentro[...]outro exemplo da utilização da abóbora ou cabaço como figuração humana, nas máscaras dos embuçados das esfolhadas de Santo Tirso de Prazins (Guimaräes), que depois, estes passeiam, alçadas num pau e com uma vela dentro, e deixam espetados em qualquer sitio mais ermo, para meterem medo a quem passa.

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    A subrayar un par de licencias cronológicas: la habanera "Yo te diré" fue compuesta en 1945 (letra de Enrique Llovet y música de Jorge Halpern) para la película de Antonio Román "Los últimos de Filipinas", por lo que no pudo ser cantada durante la Guerra Civil, igual que la graciosa rumba "Que viene el coco, mamá", deliciosamente interpretada por Inma Cuesta, que pertenece a la revista de 1948 "¡A la Habana me voy!", de Antonio y Manuel Paso, con música de Francisco Alonso y Daniel Montorio.