Origins and comparative folklore
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is "unsettled"; it is compared to Old Norse puki (Old Swedish puke, Icelandic puki, Frisian Puk). Celtic origins (based on Welsh pwca, Cornish Bucca and Irish púca) have also been proposed, but as the Old English and Old Norse attestations are considerably older than the Celtic ones, loan from Germanic to Celtic seems more probable. The Old English púcel is a kind of half-tamed woodland spirit, leading folk astray with echoes and lights in nighttime woodlands (like the German and Dutch "Weisse Frauen" and "Witte Wieven" and the French "Dames Blanches," all "White Ladies"), or coming into the farmstead and souring milk in the churn. The etymology of Puck is examined by Katharine Mary Briggs, in Anatomy of Puck (New York: Arno) 1977. The term pixie is in origin a diminutive of puck (compared to Swedish word "pyske" meaning "small fairy").
Puck may also be called "Robin Goodfellow" or "Hobgoblin", in which "Hob" may substitute for "Rob" or may simply refer to the "goblin of the hearth" or hob. 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. 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, Le 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 then 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.
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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 fell out of favour with him 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.
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.
In English literature
- As Robin Goodfellow, Puck appears in a roughly contemporaneous Elizabethan 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 reflects the influence of Pan imagery giving Puck the hindquarters, cloven hooves and horns of a goat.
- Paul Devereux, Spirit Roads (2007) London : Collins & Brown
- An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Germanic Lexicon Project.
- Katharine Mary Briggs, Anatomy of Puck. New York: Arno, 1977c1959. ISBN 0405100825 OCLC 2876094
- Keightley, Thomas. The Fairy Mythology, London, H. G. Bohn, 1870
- Shakespeare's sources for Puck were assembled and analysed by Winifried Schleiner, "Imaginative Sources For Shakespeare's Puck" Shakespeare Quarterly 36.1 (Spring 1985:65-68).
- Folklore - Robin Goodfellow (Puck) University of Victoria/Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada