“Down, down to Hell, from whence ye rose.”
When the god Mercury speaks these words of damnation in the final scene of Harlequin Student; or The Fall of Pantomime, with the Restoration of the Drama he is addressing Harlequin and his fellows, English pantomime players out of the commedia dell’arte tradition. The Greek god’s vituperation speaks to what was once generally known but has lately been forgotten: the origin of Harlequin is demonic and lies within the dark recesses of antiquity. Mercury’s words may be ironic in that a pagan deity damns the players to hell, but the anonymous dramatist is, after all, addressing a Christian audience. The damnatory words are, consequently, effective in tying together the various religious and cultural traditions at play in the evolution of Harlequin from pre-Christian daemon to commedia dell’arte and pantomime jester.
The epithet commedia dell’arte defines and allies the peripatetic Italian theater companies that, from the sixteenth century through the eighteenth, traversed the continent of Europe performing comic scenarios that were largely improvisational in nature, first on outdoor platforms, carts, or other makeshift stages, and later indoors in the drawing rooms, salons, and theaters of the palaces of nobles and high churchmen. It was largely through the commedia dell’arte troupes, following on medieval pageants, that the secular theater of Europe was reinstated after the long hiatus caused by the church’s condemnation of all manner of public entertainments owing to excesses during the decline of Rome. In bringing popular theater back to the populace, the commedia dell’arte in effect revived the Western tradition of comedy, which had been born in ancient Greece and had lain moribund since the fifth century of the common era.
The outstanding comic figure of the commedia dell’arte stage was the masked, motley-dressed, acrobatic character known as Alrecchino on the Italian Peninsula, as Harlekin in Germany, as Harlequin in France and England, and as Arlequín in Spain, these being among the most prominent of his stage identities. The doings of Arlecchino and his cronies were promulgated by such as the I Comici Confidenti, the I Comici Gelosi (at one time I Comici Uniti) and the I Comici Fedeli, which, along with the famed sixteenth-century troupe, that led by Alberto Ganassa, were the leading Italian theater companies of this kind.
Such was the popularity of Arlecchino that the character, who had a secondary role at first (he was usually the second zanni, a buffoon or clown), soon took center stage and was often portrayed by the company’s leading actor, as in the case of Ganassa. Furthermore, Arlecchino’s uniqueness soon made him the subject of both anonymous illustrators and eminent painters from the sixteenth century forward, even to the present.
Arlecchino was not only the most memorable of the masked characters of the commedia dell’arte but also the most enigmatic owing to the shroud of mystery surrounding his origin, name, manner, costume and mien. The Italian Arlecchino had existed in other guises and functioned in other venues long before he became the dominant male figure on the stage of the European Renaissance. In previous antique manifestations he was anything but the zany, doltish servant, said to be from lower Bergamo, who entertained the populace and royalty alike at street and court performances.
To fathom the complex essence of Arlecchino, therefore, it is requisite that the elements contributing to the holism of his character be assessed fully. To that end, the delineation of the genealogy, the derivation of the appellation, the conventions of the manner, and the conceptualization of the costume, head cover, and mask of Alrecchino will each be treated separately.
The ancestral lineage of Arlecchino is both ancient and exotic. There are two principal veins in his bloodline, the first being the Central and Northern European barbaric culture, the second the classical tradition of the Mediterranean. Each contributed disparate elements to the evolution of the complex figure that ultimately established itself in the forefront of the commedia dell’arte scenarios.
Belief in nature deities in pagan times often became transformed in the Christian era. There are numerous instances in which such gods and goddesses became transmogrified, being given the role of purveyors of evil in the new faith. Among these is the figure that has come to be known as Harlequin.
The oldest known references that relate to Arlecchino’s barbaric lineage clearly show his ancestors to be daemonic. The Historiae ecclesiasticae libri XIII, a Norman manuscript by Ordericus Vitalis (1075-1143?), is the earliest extant written reference in this context. The Anglo-Norman monk who is its author narrates a legend – perhaps based on a real-life incident – centering on a supernatural encounter experienced by a certain Gauchelin, a French monk, when he was returning late at night to his abode in Bonneval, near Chartres. The text refers to his being accosted by a hellish band: “Haec sine dubio familia Herlichini est” (3.376). Clearly, the monk in the narrative had been beset by the “family of Herlichin”, a “spectral host of relentless demons who marauded the countryside on certain winter nights, at the same time of year as the Carnival celebrations, rampaging through forests and valleys, destroying everything in their path” (Husband, 152-53). Gauchelin recognizes his assailants as the nefarious group that had come to be known among the populace as the Wild Horde, infamous beings out of a very widespread European folkloric tradition. The procession of damned souls is led by a gigantic figure with a club whose proper name is given as “Hellekins.” This will prove to be the earliest-known written version of the name that would ultimately become Arlecchino.
The fact that this episode, narrated in the twelfth century, is so well delineated indicated that the belief in the Wild Horde and its daemonic leader had currency much earlier. Ordericus Vitalis’s account is surely not an isolated one, only the earliest found to date. It is followed by others, narratives that show how deeply embedded was the belief in the Wild Horde and its leader in the imagination of the Middle Ages, particularly in France.
The continuity of the topos can be seen in the thirteenth century, which provides further folkloric and literary references to Hellekin and his cohorts in the works of several church and secular authorities. For one, Wilhelm of Auvergne, bishop of Paris at his death in 1248, verifies the wide range of the belief in the daemonic figures when he refers to the tradition in Spain in his Tractatus de universo: “De equitibus vero nocturnis qui vulgari gallicano ‘Hellequin’ et vulgari hispanico ‘exercitus antiquus’ vocantur, nondum tibi satisfeci, quia nondum declarare intend qui sint; nectamen certum est eos malignos spiritus esse” (par. 2. Chap. 12). That the folkloric figure crossed over into literature proper is also evident in the same century. The Norman poet Bourdet narrates in the verse Lay de Luque la Maudite the tale of a lascivious old witch of Rouen who on her deathbed calls on “Hellequin” to marry her. In response, the daemon leads three thousand of his hellish kin to the wedding feast and, ultimately, takes her soul into his realm, hell. In this text, as elsewhere, Hellequin has an obvious appeal as a sexual being to a dying woman; in being tied to the lure of death, he also represents the daemon-lover, which is what Hades is in the Persephone myth.
Another telling identification of Arlecchino with the daemonic in the thirteenth century is found in Le jeu de la feuillée (Play of the Bower) ascribed to Adam de la Halle, in which “Herlequin”, the ruler of the underworld, seeks to woo the fairy Morgue through the agency of the daemon Crokesot (Croquesot in later texts) rather than in person. Unfortunately, Harlequin himself does not appear onstage, choosing to remain invisibly ensconced in his nether kingdom.
The ascendant of the medieval French daemon evolved out of Norse and Teutonic mythological beings who came to be known in Germany and adjacent areas as the “Teufel Herlekin” or Hellekin (i.e. “Kin of Hel”), Hel or Hela being the goddess of the Norse underworld. As Hel’s consort Ellerkonge (variant Elverkonge) was the male deity of the sacred alder (elder) tree and of the land of the dead. The mistranslation of the Danish Ellerkonge gave Erlkönig, king of the elves in a Germanic saga. As Erl King, yet another variant, he was a German and Scandinavian spirit or personified natural power akin to Odin who led a band of ghostly riders across the night sky. In Middle English he is Herleking, while King Herla is the name of another mythical manifestation of the deity in England.
Herlekin is the probable source of Herne the Hunter, the phallic horned god variously known in the British Isles under such names as the Green Man, Jack-in-the-Green, Robin-of-the-Wood, Robin Goodfellow and Robin Hood. These are all manifestations of the King of the May, the ancient fertility deity whose phallus became the symbolic maypole featured in May Day celebrations held throughout Europe to welcome the rebirth (and impregnation) of Mother Earth in spring. The magical season of nature’s fecundity was emulated in rituals of sympathetic magic that culminated in sexual coupling.
Such fertility figures in the British Isles and on the Continent derive from a very early, perhaps Paleolithic, being known as the Wild Man, a larger-than-life, often gigantic creature covered in hair, fur, lichen, twigs or leaves whose primal identity was tied to woodlands, symbolized by the uprooted tree he carried, usually over his shoulder or in his hand. Later, in Carnival celebrations, in the wedding-night pandemonium called a charivari (chivaree), and in rites known as the Wild Man Hunt, a massive studded club was often substituted for the traditional tree. Paraphrasing Chrétien de Troyes, Husband describes this elemental being as “an ogrish wild man, black like a Moor, large and hideous, sitting on a tree stump and holding a large club in his hand” while Bernheimer cites the anonymous medieval French Renaud de Montaubon for its description of such marginal beings as noir et velu com ours enchainé (“black and hairy like a chained bear”).
In one of the strange symbioses that sometimes occur in folklore, the Wild Man came to be associated with mythological beings and himself was held to be daemonic. One of the identities of the savage is Orcus (literally, Wild Man), a telluric deity out of the Gallo-Roman era who led the processions of the dead and who, as a daemon of death, had an association with Pluto or Hades, the lord of the underworld in classical mythology. In the Tyrolean Virginal the epic gives the variant Orkise as the name of a cannibalistic hunter in the form of an ogre. The functions of Orcus as leader of the Wild Horde came to be preempted by the daemon Hellekin, and Herlequin or Harlequin in medieval France.
Similarly in the second vein, the complex world of classical and Eastern mythologies, there are several figures who are clearly antecedents of Arlecchino’s earliest relative, the Wild Man.
[Leaving out his discussion of Enkidu, Polyphemus and Hercules]
So too were the woodland deities Silvanus, who had the sapling of a cypress in his hand, and especially Silenus, who, like the Wild Man, carried an uprooted tree from his forest realm and was depicted with a thick coat of hair on Greek and Roman kraters, sculptures and murals.
Besides such prominent deities, there are figures of lesser position in the pantheons of classical antiquity whose similarity to Arlecchino is suggestive of ancestry. Out of the Greek theater comes “an actor dressed now in the skin of a goat, now in the skin of a tiger, variegated in colour, which clung tightly to his body, armed with only a wooden staff, his head shaved, and covered by a white hat, his faced by a brown mask; he was called by the vulgar a young satyr” (Sand 59). Some of these beings of reduced status have survived into the present day in folk festivals and propitiatory rites. Among them are such fertility figures from across the Mediterranean as Sardinia’s Sos Mamuttones or Mamutti which means “daemon” or “spirit of the earth” and Kalogeros, from Greece, whose hairy costumes are accompanied by dark masks, large bells, and sticks with animal bladders. Strikingly similar figures are also found in Germany. To this day Venetian Carnevale features such hairy masked relatives of the Wild Man.
The title of the first extant manuscript of a play in which Harlequin actually appears is Lustige Geschicte von den Handlungen und Heldentaten Harlekins, italiensichen Komödianten. The play, discovered in Paris by Emile Picot, had been published in the French capital by Didier Millot in 1585 as Histoire plaisante des faicts et gestes de Harlequin commedien italien. Its play directly relates the protagonist to things hellish, if in a comic manner, when he descends into Pluto’s realm, charming his way across Styx and into Persephone’s bed, and rescuing the madam Mutter Cardine, who had been wed to Cerberus on her death, in a motif that gives an interesting variant of the thirteenth-century Luque la Maudite’s wedding with Hellekin, Lord of Hell.
[More speculation on the origin of his name. Discussion of his appearance in Dante’s Inferno and derivation from “little Hercules”]
Also discussing the origin of the name Arlecchino, M. L. Sainéan traces it to the dogs used in the hunt of birds and animals in France: “These popular traditions taken together reveal the predominance of the dog in his legend, which is entirely natural, since the subject is a hunt. Hellequin was in consequence interpreted as hélechien, literally a ‘dog-caller’ or ‘haloo-hound’ let loose on the game.”
[More speculation, including a potential link to the biblical Cain]
Again, the ancestral Wild Man, whose physique and strength were associated with the bear (there is a relation between the words orcus [wild man] and ursus [bear]) also looms large as the potential source of Arlecchino’s physical prowess since the gigantic being who uprooted trees and carried a massive club became associated with Hellekin, leader of the Wild Horde, as indicated by Ordericus Vitalis’s ecclesiastical history. And the contributory agency of Hercules should also be remembered in terms of Arlecchino’s strength.
Arlecchino could also manipulate situations as if he had superhuman powers, albeit in a comic manner. Some have associated these qualities in him with the Roman deity Mercury, who flew between the world of the gods and that of man, often as a messenger. As well, it may be that Arlecchino’s acrobatic ability was derived from his supernatural ancestor’s ability to fly, as his winged feet and helmet signified in the ancient world. Indeed, in Arlequin Mercure gallant (1682) he is dressed as the god and appears in midair mounted on Jupiter’s eagle. As Duchartre puts it: “He is without doubt of divine essence, if not, indeed, the god Mercury himself, patron of merchants, thieves, panders … Arlecchino, transformed into a citizen of Bergamo, made his appearance at the time when the ancient gods emerged from the fertile Latin soul.” Mercury carried his identifying wand or scepter – the caduceus – with the two entwined serpents. Similarly, the Greek Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans) had a thyrsus, a staff tipped with a pinecone and sometimes twined with ivy and vine branches. Both symbols of the authority of the deities have been held since ancient times to be emblematic of the male procreative member, the phallus. Male sexual potency is, therefore, paramount in the ancient worshippers’ conception of these gods, as the frequent representation of the phallus shows.
A purgated variant of Hermes’ caduceus and Dionysus’ thyrsus may be seen in Arlecchino’s principal stage property, the slapstick, which he often used lewdly after his leather phallus was no longer a part of his accoutrements. In this context, the manner of the commedia dell’arte character was openly sexual, and he pleased his audience, high and low, with energetic, satyr-like behavior, à la the Wild Man, of whose tree or club the slapstick is also reminiscent. All Arlecchino’s antics were carried out with a keen wit and rambunctious humor.
Arlecchino’s manner, therefore, was yet another remnant of his mixed deific and daemonic origins. It mingled elements out of classical Mediterranean tradition and barbaric Norse-Teutonic folklore: Hermes-Dionysus on the one hand, Orcus-Wild Man-Hellekin on the other.
– Robert Lima, Stages of Evil: Occultism in Western Theater and Drama pages 48-63
The section on Harlequin actually continues on for quite a while afterwards, but that seemed a good place to stop. Plenty of what Mr. Lima writes is … conjectural, shall we say — but a lot of it isn’t. Actually, he’s done a superb job of summarizing a large and disparate body of lore and scholarship on this figure. And hopefully after reading that you can better understand why I find Harlequin so utterly, utterly fascinating.