Puck (folklore)

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Illustration from the title page of Robin Goodfellow: His Mad Pranks and Merry Jests (1629)

In English folklore, Puck (/pʌk/), sometimes known as Robin Goodfellow, is a domestic and nature sprite, demon, or fairy.

Origins and comparative folklore[edit]


The etymology of puck is uncertain.[1] The modern English word is attested already in Old English as puca (with a diminutive form pucel). Similar words are attested later in Old Norse (púki, with related forms including Old Swedish puke, Icelandic púki, and Frisian puk) but also in the Celtic languages (Welsh pwca, Cornish bucca and Irish púca). Most commentators think that the word was borrowed from one of these neighbouring north-west European languages into the others, but it is not certain in what direction the borrowing went, and all vectors have been proposed by scholars. The Oxford English Dictionary favoured a Scandinavian origin, while the scholarly study by Erin Sebo of Flinders University argues for an Irish origin, on the basis that the word is widely distributed in Irish place-names, whereas puck-place-names in English are rare and late in the areas showing Old Norse influence, and seem rather to radiate outwards from the south-west of England, which she argues had Irish influence during the early medieval period.[2]

The term pixie is in origin a diminutive of puck.[2]

Alternative names[edit]

Puck may also be called "Robin Goodfellow" or "Hobgoblin",[3] in which "Hob" may substitute for "Rob" or "Robin". The name Robin is Middle English in origin, deriving from Old French Robin, the pet form for the name Robert. The earliest reference to "Robin Goodfellow" cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1531. Anthony Munday mentions Robin Goodfellow in his play The Two Italian Gentlemen, 1584, and he appears in Skialtheia, or a Shadowe of Truth in 1598. William Shakespeare may have had access to the manuscript of Lewes Lewkenor's translation of The Spanish Mandevile of Miracles, or, The Garden of Curious Flowers (1600) a translation of Antonio de Torquemada's, Jardin Flores Curiosas. The following passage from The Spanish Mandeville discusses the mischievous spirits:

Luduvico: I pray you let me somewhat understand your opinion as concerning Robingoodfellowes and Hobgoblins, which are said to be so common, that there is scarcely any man but will tell you one tale or other of them, of which for my own part, I believe none, but do make reckoning that every man forgeth herein, what pleaseth him.

Antonio: Many of them without doubt are forged, and many also true, for these kinds of Spirits are more familiar and domestical than the others, and for some causes to us unknown, abide in one place, more than in another, so that some never almost depart from some particular houses, as though they were their proper mansions, making in them sundry noises, rumours, mockeries, gawdes and jests, without doing any harm at all: and though I am not myself witness thereof, yet I have heard many persons of credit affirm that they have heard them play as it were on Gyterns & Jews Harps, and ring Bells, and that they answer to those that call them, and speak with certain signs, laughters and merry gestures, so that those of the house come at last to be so familiar and well acquainted with them that they fear them not at all. But in truth, as I said before, if they had free power to put in practice their malicious desire, we should find these pranks of theirs, not to be jests, but earnest indeed, tending to the destruction of both our body and soul, but as I told you before, this power of theirs is so restrained and tied, that they can pass no farther than to jests and gawdes: and if they do any harm or hurt at all, it is certain very little, as by experience we daily see.

After Meyerbeer's successful opera Robert le Diable (1831), neo-medievalists and occultists began to apply the name Robin Goodfellow to the Devil, with appropriately extravagant imagery.


If you had the knack, Puck might do minor housework for you, quick fine needlework or butter-churning, which could be undone in a moment by his knavish tricks if you displeased him.[4][citation needed] He may also do work for you if you leave him small gifts, such as a glass of milk or other such treats, otherwise he may do the opposite by "make[ing] the drink[beer] to bear no barm" and other such fiendish acts. Pucks are also known to be inherently lonely creatures, and often share the goal of acquiring friends. "Those that Hob-goblin call you, and sweet Puck, / You do their work, and they shall have good luck" said one of William Shakespeare's fairies. Shakespeare's characterization of "shrewd and knavish" Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream may have revived flagging interest in Puck.[5]

According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable (1898):

[Robin Goodfellow is a] "drudging fiend", and merry domestic fairy, famous for mischievous pranks and practical jokes. At night-time he will sometimes do little services for the family over which he presides. The Scots call this domestic spirit a brownie; the Germans, Kobold or Knecht Ruprecht. Scandinavians called it Nissë God-dreng. Puck, the jester of Fairy-court, is the same.

Notable cultural references[edit]

16th century[edit]

  • Puck, referred to as Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin, appears as a vassal of the Fairy King Oberon in William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, and is responsible for the mischief that occurs.

17th century[edit]

  • As Robin Goodfellow, Puck appears in a roughly contemporaneous play, Grim the Collier of Croydon (1600). It is unknown how Shakespeare's Puck appeared on the stage; but the figure in Grim was costumed "in a suit of leather close to his body; his face and hands coloured russet-coloured, with a flail."
  • An early 17th century broadside ballad, "The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow" describes Puck/Robin Goodfellow as the emissary of Oberon, the Fairy King of the Night, inspiring night-terrors in old women but also carding their wool while they sleep, leading travellers astray, taking the shape of animals, blowing out the candles to kiss the girls in the darkness, twitching off their bedclothes, or making them fall out of bed on the cold floor, tattling secrets, and changing babes in cradles with elflings.
  • Robin Goodfellow is the main speaker in Jonson's 1612 masque Love Restored.
  • John Milton, in L'Allegro tells "how the drudging Goblin swet / To earn his cream-bowle" by threshing a week's worth of grain in a night, and then, "Basks at the fire his hairy strength." Milton's Puck is not small and sprightly, but nearer to a Green Man or a hairy woodwose. An illustration of Robin Goodfellow from 1639 represents the influence of Pan imagery giving Puck the hindquarters, cloven hooves and horns of a goat.[6]

19th century[edit]

  • Robin Goodfellow appears in an 1856 speech by Karl Marx: "In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy and the poor profits of regression, we recognize our brave friend Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer – the Revolution."[7]

20th century[edit]

21st century[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ See for example Katharine Mary Briggs, Anatomy of Puck. New York: Arno, 1977c1959. ISBN 0405100825 OCLC 2876094
  2. ^ a b Sebo, Erin (2017). "Does OE Puca Have an Irish Origin?", Studia Neophilologica 87(2): 167-175. doi:10.1080/00393274.2017.1314773
  3. ^ Keightley, Thomas. The Fairy Mythology, London, H. G. Bohn, 1870
  4. ^ Wall, Wendy (Spring 2001). "Why Does Puck Sweep?: Fairylore, Merry Wives, and Social Struggle". Shakespeare Quarterly. 52 (1): 67–106. Retrieved 2019-07-16.
  5. ^ Shakespeare's sources for Puck were assembled and analysed by Winifried Schleiner (1985). "Imaginative Sources For Shakespeare's Puck" Shakespeare Quarterly 36(1): 65–68. doi:10.2307/2870083. JSTOR 2870083.
  6. ^ Folklore – Robin Goodfellow (Puck) University of Victoria/Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada
  7. ^ Karl, Marx (1856). "Speech at anniversary of the People's Paper".