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Portrait of the Harlequin one eye blue one eye green, Illustration by Bob Orsillo
The name of Harlequin derives from Old French Hellequin, leader of la maisnie Hellequin, thought to be related to the Old English Herla, a character often identified with Woden.
Italian Arlecchino by folk etymology was associated with Latin Herculinus, "little Hercules".
Although illustrations of Arlecchino have only been dated as far back as 1572, the character had existed before this date. The origins of the name are uncertain: some say it comes from Dante's Inferno, XXI, XXII and XXIII; one of the devils in Hell having the name Alichino.
Popular theories suggest that he may have come from France, Africa, or Italy.
The notion that the Harlequin motif grew out of France is evidenced by Hellequin, a stock character in French passion plays. Hellequin, a black-faced emissary of the devil, is said to have roamed the countryside with a group of demons chasing the damned souls of evil people to Hell. The physical appearance of Hellequin offers an explanation for the traditional colours of Harlequin's mask (red and black).
The Harlequin character may have been based on or influenced by the Zanni archetype who, although a slow thinker, was acrobatic and nimble. Interpreted thus, Harlequin's distinctive motley costume may be a stylized variant of Zanni's plain white garb, designed to reflect the ad-hoc patching necessary to prevent the garment's degradation.
December 3rd, 2010
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