Puck (mythology)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Puck is a mythological fairy or mischievous nature sprite. Puck is also a generalised personification of land spirits. Whilst being an aspect of Robin Goodfellow, he is also hob and Will-o'-the-wisp.



The pagan trickster was reimagined in Old English puca (Christianized as "devil") as a kind of half-tamed woodland sprite, 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.

Significantly for such a place-spirit or genius, the Old English word occurs mainly in placenames. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the name Puck is "unsettled", and it is not even clear whether its origin is Germanic (cf. Old Norse puki,, Old Swedish puke, Icelandic puki, Frisian Puk), or Celtic (Welsh pwca and Irish púca). Etymology Online is in favour of puck being the English cognate of the Norse puki (and thus the other Germanic variants of puck) A logical inference would surmise that the Proto-Indo-European origin for both is earlier than the linguistic split.

The names of various creatures from Celtic folklore, including the Irish, púca, Welsh, "pwca" or "pwca", could be from the same Celtic family as the term "pixies" (in Cornwall, "Piskies"), however "piskie" could be related to the Swedish word "pyske" meaning "small fairy".

Other likely names:

  • Bosworth and Toller list only "púcel" (puucel) in Old English.
  • In Friesland, there is a “Puk”
  • In old German, the “putz” or “butz” is a being not unlike the original English Puck.
  • In Icelandic a “Púki” is a little devil. “Púkinn” with the definite article suffix "-inn", "The Puck", means the Devil.
  • The “Puk” (or the Draug) in Norwegian is a water sprite, a supernatural being of evil power.
  • In modern Cornwall folklore are Buccas, good and bad.

The folklore of Puck was magisterially assembled by William Bell.

Since, if you "speak of the Devil" he will appear, Puck's euphemistic "disguised" name is "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 (which had cognates in the Old English Hrodberht and Old German Rodbert or Hrodebert, all derived from the Proto-Germanic hrôdberxtas. See Robert). The earliest reference to "Robin Goodfellow" cited by the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1531. 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.

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 favor with him. "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

Puck (Shakespeare)

Puck, also known as Robin Goodfellow, is a character in William Shakespeare's play A Midsummer Night's Dream, whose nature has been so clearly fixed in the English-speaking imagination that, as Katherine Briggs has remarked, "it no longer seems natural to talk as Robert Burton does in the Anatomie of Melancholy of a puck instead of 'Puck'". The audience is introduced to Puck in Act II Scene I when Puck encounters one of Titania's fairies. She recognizes Puck for

"that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call'd Robin Goodfellow: are not you he
That frights the maidens of the villagery;
Skim milk, and sometimes labour in the quern
And bootless make the breathless housewife churn;
And sometime make the drink to bear no barm;
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm?
Those that Hobgoblin call you and sweet Puck,
You do their work, and they shall have good luck:
Are not you he?

It is Puck's mistaken doings that provide the convolutions of the plot.

Aside from Shakespeare's famous use of Puck, many other writers have referred to the spirit as well. An early 17th century broadside ballad, "The Mad Merry Pranks of Robin Goodfellow"—which is so deft and literate it has been taken for the work of Ben Jonson—describes Puck/Robin Goodfellow as the emissary of Oberon, the Faery King, 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. All his work is done by moonlight, and his mocking, echoing laugh is "Ho ho ho!"

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 duly set" by threshing a week's worth of grain in a night, and then, "stretch'd out all the chimney's length, / 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. For followers of neo-Pagan imagery, sometimes the influence of Pan imagery has now given Puck the hindquarters and cloven hooves of a goat. He may even have small horns.

Goethe also used Puck in the first half of Faust, in a scene entitled "A Walpurgis Night Dream", where he played off of the spirit Ariel from The Tempest.

Puck's trademark laugh in the early ballads is "Ho ho ho." In modern mythology, the "merry old elf" who works with magical swiftness unseen in the night, who can "descry each thing that's done beneath the moone", whom we propitiate with a glass of milk, lest he put lumps of coal in the stockings we hang by the hob with care, and whose trademark laugh is "Ho ho ho"—is Santa Claus.

In Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill (1906), Puck, the last of the People of the Hills and "the oldest thing in England", charms the children Dan and Una with a collection of tales and visitors out of England's past.

Puck plays a central role in Mark Chadbourn's fantasy sequence, "Kingdom of the Serpent", comprising the novels "Jack of Ravens", "The Burning Man", and one yet to be published. Puck manipulates the heroes in an epic battle between good and evil over two thousand years of human history.

Pan, a Puck-like entity, is also a main character in Tom Robbins' novel Jitterbug Perfume.

The children's theater play Robin Goodfellow by Aurand Harris is a retelling of A Midsummer Night's Dream from the point of view of Puck.

Modern references

The Puck who appears in Neil Gaiman's The Sandman is close to the idea of Puck as a trickster and maker of mischief.

In Susanna Clarke's short story, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu," Robin Goodfellow appears as a mischievous yet caring servant to Auberon.

In Orson Scott Card's novel Magic Street, we meet Puck, Queen Titania, and Oberon in a modern, urban setting.

In Rob Thurman's novels, Nightlife and Moonshine, Robin Goodfellow and Hobgoblin are two separate beings, both remnants of the near-extinct race of pucks. In the novels, they are reimagined in a modern setting, the former as the slick owner of a car dealership, the latter as the owner of a seedy nightclub.

In Raymond E. Feist's novel, Faerie Tale, Puck is a fey being in the faerie court and is portrayed as a jester of sorts, and stays true to the mythology of him as a trickster. At times throughout the novel he is referred to as Puck, Putz, and Aerial, and assists the main characters to prevent a great evil (King Oberon) from seizing global power over humanity.

In Pamela Dean's Tam Lin (a modern retelling of the Scottish faerie ballad), the character of Robin Armin is implied to be Puck; he used the same name while performing as a singer and actor for The King's Men, and had been the inspiration for the Shakespearean Puck and several other comic characters, but he and the others of his troupe were unsuccessful in luring the Bard off to the Fair Lands.

In the animated series Gargoyles, Puck is a traditional Trickster and an important supporting character. During the long exile from Avalon, Puck comes across Queen Titania in the human guise of Anastasia Renard. He also meets a man named Preston Vogel in Anastasia's employ. Amused with the behavior of the mortal, Puck decides play the straight man for a while, and reinvents himself as Owen Burnett.

In the popular multiplayer game DotA, one of the heroes is named Puck.

In the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, one of the main characters, Neil Perry, brillantly plays the part of Puck against the wishes of this father in a secondary school rendition of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In Code Lyoko, Aelita's favorite doll is named after Puck.

In Kerry Clara's The Seal of Alvar, Puck is the name of one of the main characters; a psychic boy who is talented with a bow and arrow

In Mercedes Lackey's novel The Wizard of London Robin Goodfellow/Puck steps in to play himself in a boarding school's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream when no one suitable can be found for the part. He reappears throughout the novel mainly in his friendlier aspect, but becomes extremely dangerous when crossed.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Puck (mythology)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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