There are many hypotheses as to the origin of Arlecchino’s name. The most probable one is that Arlecchino is based on the myth of the ‘damned devils’ – Germanic knights that fought against the Normans and died. These warriors, it was believed , would rise from the dead to play tricks on the living.
The linguistic roots of the name Arlecchino also trace his birth in Medieval Italy and France, where popular legends about a spirit named Hellequin, whose deeds are similar to those of Shakespeare’s Puck , circulated in both Langue D’Oc and Langue D’Oil. Hellequin was a pagan spirit of the earth, connected with nature and crops. However beneficial though, Hellequin’s spriting was to be contained well under the earth, with otherwise disastrous consequences. Slowly, partly to do with the influence of the Church against paganism, the spirit of Hellequin was demonised: in Italy a famous “Alichino” made it into Dante’s Inferno among other devils:
Tra’ti avante, Alichino et Calcabrina
cominciò elli a dire, et tu Cagnazzo;
e Barbariccia guidi la decina
Roughly at the same time as Dante’ writing, Italian sacred drama began to flourish in the cities; the perception of devils as something too evil to be imagined and represented on the stage by a human being began to dictate the necessity for the use of a mask to perform the Devil character. If Hellequin/Alichino was by this time a traditional devil, it is likely that he was represented on stage alongside colleagues, now wearing a mask.
As it turns out this is my 1666th post!