Haec sine dubio familia Herlichini est


Relevant to the last post, here are some selections from Robert Lima’s Stages of Evil: Occultism in Western Theater and Drama on the Northern roots of Harlequin. 

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.

4 thoughts on “Haec sine dubio familia Herlichini est

  1. While the “Hellekin” = “Hel’s kin” thing (to put it rather simply) makes a lot of sense, I kind of wonder if there’s another linguistic thing going on in some of the earlier forms of the name…

    If the earlier forms of “Herlequin” and Herlekin” and so forth are to be taken seriously, then I wonder if we don’t have an echo of Herakles in this…given his form is described as being gigantic and with a club, and those tend to be things associated in the ancient world foremost with that particular Hero/Deity, there is the possibility that the linguistic phenomenon of metathesis ended up occurring, so that “Herakles” got the consonants of the middle cluster reversed, so that it becomes “Herlakes” and then via the similarities to “Hel’s kin” mentioned in the article, becomes conflated with the latter. Given that the giant chalk figures such as the one at Cerne Abbas in the U.K. are now thought to be Herakles rather than anything or anyone else, as a kind of Romano-British interpretation of Hercules, it could all connect in…After all, Herakles was far-traveled, went to Hades, went crazy for a while (in the same way that the Irish geilta, “wild men” also did), and so forth…?!?

    Just spit-balling there…but, honestly, I could probably get an academic article out of that at some point! ;)


    1. Sannion only posted a portion of the source. I’ve read the entire chapter in the original text and I’m very certain I remember it mentioning several other deities including Herakles in Harlequin’s make-up


    2. Yup. Just verified that. Herakles is mentioned several times in the original text and a hypothesis suggesting a link between the names Herakles and Herlakin is among the many discussed


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