Shape Changes, Fear Does Not: The Mythical Monster Coco
Coco is also known in folklore as Cuco, Coca, Cuca, Cucuy. It is a mythical dragon or a ghost monster which is said to appear in many different shapes and forms.
There is no description of the beast which could be applied to all the places where it appears. The origins of Coco are in Portugal and Spanish Galicia, where it is called Coco, and appears as a monster with a pumpkin head, two eyes, and a mouth. In medieval times in the same area, it transformed into a female dragon, which used to take part in different celebrations. In Portugal it has remained popular until today.
The Fight of Saint George and Santa Coca
In the municipality of Monção, near the border with Spanish Galicia, Coco is known as the dragon who fought with Saint George. The feast called Corpus Christi is celebrated on Holy Thursday, and it includes a fight between George and Santa Coca (Coco). If Coco scares Saint George’s horse and defeats him, it is a prognosis for a bad year for the crops. If the horse doesn't react to Coco and Saint George is the winner of the fight by cutting off one of the Coco's ears and her tongue, the crops will be good.
"Festa da Coca" during the Corpus Christi celebration, in Monção, Portugal. ( Public Domain )
In Galicia in Spain, there are said to be two dragons, one in Betanzos and the second in Redondela in the Ria de Vigo. According to legend, the dragon arrived from the Ocean and was devouring young women, until he was killed by a group of young men from the cities nearby.
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Historical Records of the Beast
The tradition connected with Coco comes from ancient times. The story of Coco was most probably described by Diodorus Sicilus (XIII.56.5; 57.3) first. He spoke of the Iberian warriors, who hang the heads of their enemies on their spears. This custom perhaps created the idea of putting heads on sticks as an offering for the beast. The example recorded by Diodorus was the battle of Selinute, which took place in 469 BC, but similar situations happened during many ancient battles in the Iberian Peninsula. According to some researchers, the idea of hanging heads on spears is connected with the Celtiberian culture.
Diodorus Siculus as depicted in a 19th-century fresco. ( Public Domain )
The monster perhaps had many other names before the 15th century, when it was called Coco for the first time. The name is said to come from the word ''coconut'' which was given to the fruit by the sailors of Vasco da Gama, but that’s not necessarily the truth. In the book Livro 3 de Doações de D. Afonso III from the year 1274, there is a description of the monster with the use of the name Coca.
The same dragon, named in medieval times as Cog, was a very common motif in medieval warfare and piracy decor. It appears as a decoration, showing the dragon in both genders. In Catalonia, Coco appears as a zoomorphic figure, which is very similar to a turtle with a dragon head.
Historiated initial R from the frontispiece of a 12th-century manuscript of St. Gregory's Moralia in Job, Dijon, Bibl. Municipale, MS 2. (12th Century). ( Public Domain )
A Dragon Which Transformed in the Americas
In Mexico, the fame of Coco arrived with the conquistadors from Spain. Mexican mentality based on traditions with roots in the mythology of the Aztecs and Mayas, understood the topic of a dragon-monster in a completely different way.
It was now considered as an opposite to something like a guardian angel - sort of a boogeyman. There it became an amorphous creature, shaped in different scary forms of dangerous animals. Some folklore legends of Coco from Mexico show the beast as having red eyes and say that it can hide anywhere, even behind the curtains. This Coco hunts for children who misbehave. However, the naughtiest children were said to be hunted by the hungriest and scariest version of Coco - El Cucuy. The child who met him was thought to never return home.
Que viene el coco (Here Comes the Bogey-Man (1799) by Francisco Goya. ( Public Domain )
In Brazil, Coco is interpreted as a female alligator known as Cuca. She appears as the villain in many books for children. The story of Cuca is understood the same as in Mexico, but with Portuguese symbolism brought to Brazil through the galleons of the first Europeans.