Nursery rhymes, fairy tales, and legends are an important part of our culture. While you may be familiar with those in your own area, Spain has its own unique legends and monsters that can thrill children and adults alike. One of the most popular and enduring legends is El Coco.
El Coco dates back centuries, and this tale has spread to many Spanish-speaking countries and areas around the world. So, millions of children worldwide learn about El Coco in their bedtime stories today. Here we’ll delve into the El Coco legend to help you learn more about this spooky Spanish monster.
Hi, I’m Timon!
I’ve experienced the heartbeat of Spain firsthand. Over the last five years, I’ve immersed myself in the dynamic cities of Spain, truly living the Spanish way. My insights into this beautiful country are rooted in genuine experience.
The Essence of “El Coco”
El Coco takes its name from the Spanish word for coconut. This is because El Coco shares some characteristics with the nut. The legend goes that El Coco has a brown hairy face that resembles a scary coconut, and this bogeyman is a mythical creature that may come into children’s bedrooms if they don’t sleep soundly or are not well-behaved.
Spanish-speaking parents may tell their children that El Coco is stalking the rooftops in the neighborhood, just looking for those who won’t go to bed or are being badly behaved. If the child becomes a target of El Coco, it may appear from under the bed or inside a cupboard to drag them away.
While this may seem gruesome, it carries a similar message to Spanish children, which English folk tales and nursery rhymes provide. It teaches the child that they need to learn to behave, listen to their parents, and even avoid strangers. These are essential lessons that children need to know to grow into sensible and capable adults.
The Legend of El Coco
The El Coco legend is almost a thousand years old, dating back centuries. The legend begins with the story of a child-scaring mythical creature called El Coco. This creature has Iberian origins, and its appearance varies according to the storyteller. However, in all tales, the monster has a hairy brown appearance.
In the legend, El Coco can appear when the child disobeys his parents. Whether he doesn’t want to eat his dinner, go to bed, or do as he is told. He can pop up at any time, as El Coco is always prowling the neighborhood, simply waiting to be drawn to a disobedient or naughty child.
The specific origins of the legend are not widely known. El Coco has been around for so long that no one can trace when or where it specifically began. In fact, Rodrigo Caro, a 17th-century historian, believed that children’s monster nursery rhymes and songs could date back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, while Persius Flaccus, a Roman poet, thought they could date back to the 1st century or earlier.
The earliest written reference to El Coco was in 1518 when playwright and poet Gil Vincente used El Coco in reference to the devil in his work “Auto da Barca do Purgatorio” or The Act of the Shop of Purgatory. There is no English translation of this manuscript, but it does suggest that Gil Vincente learned about El Coco in his childhood, and it had a lasting impression.
Before this written reference, the El Coco legend was likely passed down in person. Parents and grandparents likely shared the story with children in their family, who in turn, grew up to share it with their own children and grandchildren.
It is important to remember that in the past, families didn’t have the distractions we have today. There was no television, radio, internet, or social media. In the evenings, families would sit around the fire telling stories and sharing tales, so when the children called for a scary story, this is where El Coco would make an appearance.
Just imagine sitting in a darkened home with no street lights outside and the family huddled around the fire, hearing about a bogeyman. Whether you were a child or an adult, hearing the legend of El Coco and then hearing the wind whistling through the trees or an animal screeching would certainly be enough to make you behave and avoid meeting the monster!
“Que viene el coco”: The Cultural Interpretation
“Que Viene el coco” is a threatening phrase that adults exclaim when children behave badly. Essentially, this means El Coco is coming… So, it can be used when you’re being naughty, El Coco is coming, or El Coco is coming, you’d better stop crying.
This is a tried and tested parental technique that has been used throughout history. Many exasperated parents have used a third party to get their children to settle down or behave. This has been taken further in Spanish-speaking countries with the El Coco song or poem.
There is a song with the words “Que viene el coco,” which translates as “Go to sleep child, go to sleep now, el coco is coming, and he will eat you.” If you need any further encouragement to snuggle up and hide under the blankets, that is sure to do the trick. The song tells the child that if they don’t go to sleep, then El Coco will come for them and make them disappear.
This provides a cautionary warning for children who learn to listen to parents who want to protect them from danger. It can give them a nice little scare, ensuring that they stay in bed and sleep on time. The story can also add to the magic of special events and feasts like the Dia de los Muertos in Spain or misa de gallo.
El Coco Legend in Other Cultures
The El Coco legend is not exclusive to Spain, and it is part of the imagination of children and adults in countries around the world. While the names may be slightly different, these stories have a grounding in the original legend.
In Columbia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Honduras, Nicaragua, Portugal, and El Salvador, the storytellers use the same name as El Coco. However, some of the details about the creature are different. In some versions of the story El Coco is a hooded man, but in others, it is a dark giant with fiery eyes or a dragon-like figure.
In many Latin American countries, including Bolivia, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic, the monster is called “El Cuco.” In Brazil, the monster is called la cuca or “El Bicho-papão,” and in Paraguay, el cuco is sometimes called El Cuculele.
However, the El Coco legend is not limited to Spanish or Portuguese-speaking countries. The story also appears in Eastern Europe. For example, in Bulgaria, where the creature is known as Torbalan, children are frightened by the creature with a big sack to carry away naughty children. Similar monsters also appear in Georgia, Armenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and even as far as Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine. In these countries, the details and names change slightly, but the general theme is that the “bag man” monster is hiding under the bed, ready to take away misbehaving children.
The Nordic countries also have their own versions of the El Coco legend. In Finland, mörkö is a dark blue, ghostly creature ready to frighten the children. In Norway and Denmark, the Bussemanden or bogeyman lurks under the bed to grab children who won’t sleep. The creature in this legend, the Bussemanden, has a backstory where he got burned as a child as he did not listen to his parents. He catches naughty children and will cook and eat them.
There are commonalities among all of these stories and legends, mainly that the monster is ready to grab unruly children who are not obeying their parents and won’t go to sleep. This theme is found in various urban legends, folk tales, and stories.
Songs and Narratives: El Coco’s Presence in Arts
Since el coco is so entrenched in cultures around the world, it is understandable that it has appeared in the arts throughout history. El coco is the ideal choice to appear in songs, paintings, plays, and other narratives to represent a malevolent threat.
El coco is an effective way to evoke that unreasonable and irrational fear we experience as children. Using el coco as a representation of evil or a harmful presence can quickly create that hair prickling on the back of your neck fear that has no logical cause.
In many versions of the El Coco tales, the monster takes away children who are eaten or never seen again. It becomes easier to see his presence in arts both in the past and in the modern day.
For example, in Francisco Goya’s 1799 painting, “Que viene el coco,” there is an ominous hooded figure looming towards a mother and cowering children. El coco also features in “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, appearing in the epigraph.
The most famous version of El Coco in Spain is from a child’s song. This song started out as a nursery rhyme, but it has developed into a chilling lullaby. The lyrics of the song are:
Duérmete niño (go to sleep child)
Duérmete ya (sleep now)
Que viene el coco (the coco is coming)
Y te llevará. (and it will take you)
Duérmete niño (go to sleep child)
Duérmete ya (sleep now)
Que viene el coco (the coco is coming)
Y te comerá. (and it will eat you)
Legend of El Coco Beyond the Myth
While many children enjoy a good scary story, there are reasons behind the legend of El Coco that are good lessons for life. Being able to tell children that there is a presence lurking that knows when they are being naughty, disobedient, and not going to sleep on time can be an effective way for parents to encourage good behavior.
The legend can also provide a solid foundation for safety. In most story versions, El Coco tends to loiter in places like under the bed, inside cupboards, or wardrobes. This will ingrain in children a wariness of dark, shadowy areas where they could be vulnerable to thieves or attackers in the real world.
Another moral of the story is for children to listen to their parents. This encourages children to understand that their parents have the child’s best interests at heart. After all, mom and dad are letting the child know that they don’t want their darling child to be carried away, so they should make sure that they listen and do as they are told.
Even though El Coco is an enduring legend, the details have remained fairly consistent over time. This is perhaps because the lessons in the story are universal and apply to children worldwide.
Modern-day References of El Coco
El Coco is not simply a traditional folk story; you can find modern-day references to this legend in modern media.
In recent years, the legend has inspired best-selling author Stephen King. In his “It” mini-series, Pennywise the Clown refers to himself when speaking to the Losers’ Club as “an eater of worlds and children.” An even more explicit reference is in “The Outsider,” published in 2018. In this novel, King creates a shapeshifting creature who murders people in Oklahoma.
While King does not refer to the monsters as el coco, there are some similarities with the legend that show that this centuries-old legend still has modern relevance. The main dangers are the same, dark and mysterious monsters who are lurking in the shadows to snatch unwitting victims. But, by following the lessons of the original legend to listen to their parents and stay safe in their beds, they could avoid falling prey to the scary bogeyman.
Whatever the reference, inspiration, or form, any inference of El Coco is sure to be spine-tingling and goosebump-inducing, taking us back to that childhood fear of not wanting to look under the bed or open up a wardrobe door.
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