The name Harlequin is taken from that of a mischievous “devil” or “demon” character in popular French passion plays. It originates with an Old French term herlequin, hellequin, first attested in the 11th century, by the chronistOrderic Vitalis, who recounts that he was pursued by a troop of demons when wandering on the coast of Normandy at night. These demons were led by a masked, club-wielding giant and they were known as familia herlequin(var. familia herlethingi). This medieval French version of the Germanic Wild Hunt, Mesnée d’Hellequin, has been connected to the English figure of Herla cyning (“host-king”; German Erlkönig). Hellequin was depicted a black-faced emissary of the devil, roaming 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 red-and-black mask.
The first known appearance on stage of a Harlequin figure is dated to 1262, the character of a masked and hooded devil in Jeu da la Feuillière by Adam de la Halle, and it became a stock character in French passion plays. The name also appears as that of a devil, as Alichino, in Dante’s Inferno (cantos 21 to 23).