Bogles & Buggaboos

I’ve discussed the list of British faery types compiled by Michael Aislabie Denham in two previous posts. It’s notable how many terms his catalogue contains that denote various sorts of bogles and bogies. Here’s a heavily very edited version of the list:

“the whole earth was [once] so overrun with… boggles, bugbears, barguests, boggy-boes, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, bugs, bull-beggars, flay-boggarts, boguests, gally-beggars, buggaboes, buckies, boggleboes, bogies…and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker.”

What’s clear to us, if we weren’t already vaguely aware of it before, is that there are numerous closely related terms for different sorts of ‘goblins.’  Furthermore, as I’ve described before, bogies and bogles are very broad categories that tend to incorporate a variety of more precisely labelled creatures, such as the shocks, shugs and galley trots. What I want to do in this posting is to try to distinguish the many types- if possible- and to survey the key features of the family as a whole.

Bogey, bogy or bogy-beast– these words can mean both a devil and an evil goblin (something we’ll see several times as we work our way through Denham’s list)).  Elizabeth Wright, recording English ‘rustic speech’ in Edwardian times, recorded the Northern saying to a child that, “If tha doesna leave off skrikin’, I’ll fetch a black bogy to thee.”  Bogies may be solitary or may go about in troops; their mission, whether alone or collectively, is to cause mischief, terror- or even greater harm- to humans.

Bogles, likewise, are predominantly evil goblins, verging into demons, that instil fear in people.  For instance, Hector Boece’s Chronicle of Scotland (1535, III, 134) mentions “ane bogill all of ratland banis [rattling bones].”  Robert Bailie’s Anabaptism of 1646 assures its readers that “Devils are nothing but only boggles in the night to terrifie men” and in 1696 John Aubrey recorded that the second sight was “assigned… to Bugles or Ghosts.” In this case, he may mean the power of prophecy. (Miscellanies 192).

A closely related word is boggle-bo.  It can- again- denote an image (mental or physical) used to scare children or it can refer to an actual, vicious being.  Coles English Dictionary of 1678 defines ‘boggle-bo’ as an “ugly wide-mouthed picture carried about with May games” and Bailey’s Dictionarium Britannicum of 1730 gives the meaning “a bugbear to fright children.”  However, a Berwickshire rhyme recorded in about 1800 mentioned the threat of a real and predatory monster- “The bogle bo’ of Billy Mire/ Wha kills our bairns a’.”

Another version of the same word is ‘bugaboo;’ its meaning will be familiar by now- it’s a kind of nursery spriteThe True Description of the Mint (1710, vi, 18) explains how for debtors pursued by creditors, “As other People terrify their Children with the tremendous Names of Bugaboo, and Raw-Head and Bloody Bones, so they use theirs with the hideous Word Bailiff.”  Long’s History of Jamaica (1774, vol.2, 416) tells us that the “spectres of deceased friends are duppies; others, like our raw-head-and-bloody-bones, are called bugaboos.”  In William Lisle’s 1625 translation of Guillaume de Salluste Du Bartas’ Noe he describes a character who “hath his moods/ And, like a Buggle boo, straies ever through the woods.”

The change of the first vowel in the last few words leads us to another very important term, ‘bug.’ This is a very old word indeed, although today we only apply it (strictly) to a class of beetles.  Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible in 1395 describes a bug as “a man of raggis in a place where gourdis wexen”- in other words, a scarecrow (hence the ‘scar-bug’ in Denham’s list).  Thomas More’s Dialoge of Comfort (1535, vol.1, xviii, D, vii) takes us back to familiar ground: “Leste there happe to be such blacke bugges in dede as folke cal devilles,” as does Coverdale’s version of the Bible in the same year: “Thou shalt not nede to be afrayed for eny bugges by night” (Psalm 91).  Fairly quickly, it seems the supernatural being was demoted from demon to a means of keeping children and livestock in check: see, for example, Jewel’s Defence of the Apolostolic Churche (1567,ii, xvi) “A bugge meete onely to frate Children,” Glanvill’s Blow at Modern Sadducism (1668,149) “Timerous Fools, that are afraid of Buggs,” or dialect terms recorded in Victorian times in the English Midlands- ‘bug’ and ‘boog,’ meaning something that scares a horse.

We might also encounter the compound word ‘bug-boy’ as in Deacon and Walker’s Summarie Answere to Darel (page 222) “They will be deemed no better in effect than Hobgoblings, Bugboies, Night-sprites, or Fairies, to make the yoong children afraid with their supposed shadowes.” More familiar is the word ‘bugbear,’ which is still in occasional use today and which has a very similar meaning: Thomas Nashe in Pierce Penilesse (1592) referred disparagingly to “Meere bugge-beares to scare boyes,” Edward Topsell, in his History of Foure-footed Beastes (1658, 453) described “Certaine Lamiæ which, like Bug-beares, would eat up crying boies,” Hobbes in Leviathan (Book 1, xii, 55) dismissed superstitious belief in “Ghosts of men deceased, and a whole kingdome of Fayries and Bugbears” and, lastly, in 1758, Samuel Johnson noted in the Idler for June 24th how grown-ups “tell children of Bugbears and Goblings.”

In my previous posting on the Denham list, I discussed yet another ‘nursery sprite’ from Somerset called Tankerabogus; it seems highly probable that the final element of this name is derived from ‘bug.’

A bugaboo by JenL on DeviantArt

Bull-beggars are variants upon bugbears.  The name seems to derive from bull-bear or, even bull-boggart.  The being has two forms or aspects.  It can be the typical bogeyman- as may be seen in preacher Arthur Dent’s Plaine Man’s Path-way to Heaven (1601, 123)- “A mother, when her childe is waywarde, scareth it with some pokar, or bull-beggar” (‘Mum poker’ and ‘Tom poker’ are other nursery pristes found in Denham’s list). Secondly, bull-beggars may be a more malign presence.  In Sylvester Judd’s novel Margaret (1851, chapter 5) he described woods as being “The haunt of bul-beggars, witches, spirits, urchins, elves, hags, dwarves, giants, the spoorn, the puckle, the man in the oak, the will of the wisp…”  Readers may recognise many of these terms from Denham.

Bull-beggars seem to have haunted highways in particular, as was the case at Creech Hill, near Bruton in the east of Somerset.  Excavations in 1880 uncovered two burials and- after this- apparitions plagued travellers.  In one reported encounter, a farmer returning home at night saw what seemed to be a body lying in the roadway; approaching it, the shape leapt, swelled to abnormal height- and chased him all the way home. The dividing line between many bogles and ghosts can be uncertain.

Denham’s list also includes ‘buckies,’ a word now unfamiliar to us but which was once found in Devon in a children’s rhyme:

“Bucky, Bucky, biddy Bene,

Is the way now fair and clean?

Is the goose ygone to rest;

And the fox ygone to rest?
Shall I come away?”

This charm was recited before passing through dark places, the ‘biddy Bene’ being a sort of prayer to the bogie.  The shift in sounds in the word suggest that we are not far at all from ‘puck’ or from ‘pixie,’ and that all these supernatural beings are part of a larger family.  In Scotland, a buckie was a naughty boy- a ‘little devil.’

What can we conclude about bugs, bogles and their relatives?  They seem to inhabit a spectrum of entities, running from the reasonably friendly and brownie-like boggarts, who live in close proximity to humans, onwards through a range of increasingly alarming or malign beings, creatures that may haunt humans or may actively hunt them.  Many are only frightening to the young and impressionable; as Katherine Briggs observed, they denote “imaginary fears along the lines of ‘How easy is a bush supposed a bear.’”  However, the bugs shade into a menagerie of faery beasts- black dogs and such like- (as I’ve documented) and they are also synonymous or identical with demons and devils.  Just as their temperaments can vary, so may their appearance, shape and size.  Some of the more terrible shapes- hounds, headless men and suchlike monsters- even seem to be connected to the dead, especially murdered individuals, and so have some link to ghosts.  We’ve already seen the Creech Hill bull-beggar, another example was the Lumb Boggart of Bradwell in Derbyshire, which was associated with a young girl murdered in the vicinity.

Lewis Spence recorded that March 29th used to be known as ‘Bogle Day’ in Scotland.  By 1948, when he noted this in his Minor Traditions of British Mythology, all the details and reasons for this tradition had been forgotten but he suspected that it reflected the need to show bogies proper respect- if not reverence.  In their guise as hobgoblins and brownies, they shared our homes and required propitiation; in their more terrifying forms we needed to appease and defend against them.

Members of ‘the hobgoblin society’
(membership details to follow?)

As Jennifer Westwood commented in The Lore of the Land, “the distinction between bogey beasts and hobgoblins is blurred.”  This uncertainty is made worse by the shape-shifting ability of most bogies, making it hard for us to determine what the ‘natural’ shape of any particular type ought to be.  They can appear as humans, as a range of animals or, in fact, as almost any object they choose (the Glassensikes bogie found near Darlington is a good example of this, being seen as a white rabbit and a black dog and many points in between).  Alternatively, the creature may simply grow in size, as the Frandley Boggart in Cheshire was wont to do, silently swelling from a small man of just four feet in height to a giant.  Another quality the bogles have in common may be the fact that they make noises as part of their strategy to scare us.  An example of this was the boggle of Lowther Castle in Westmorland, which prevented people and beasts sleeping.  One interpretation of the name Tankerabogus/ Tantarabogus is, simply, the ‘noisy bogie.’ What’s more, the boggle of Lowther Castle was never actually seen- perhaps adding to the terror it engendered. 

As a general statement, bogles and their ilk didn’t tend to be very bright, so that they could be tricked and out-witted and- if the worst came to the worst- they might be destroyed by violence or exorcised- as happened with the Lumb Boggart and the Lowther boggle.

As Denham said, almost every ancient building in Britain seemed to have its boggle.  The reason for this appears to be that they had multitudinous forms and habits, meaning that they could be found in almost any location.  However, since these creatures first came to haunt and to terrorise these spots, their reputation has (by and large) tended to decline, so that many are reduced to little more than ‘bogey-men,’ “things that go bump in the night,” and pose no real threat to human safety and sanity.  Not all, though, so beware…

For further reading, follow the links in this article or see my 2020 book, Beyond Faery, published by Llewellyn.

4 thoughts on “Bogles & Buggaboos

  1. I would like to comment on something. Disclaimer: I am not a linguist, and I only have high school education. English is not my first language, so I don’t even have the benefit of some specialized teaching one might get from English classes at school.

    What I’m writing here is highly speculative. I believe I read “somewhere” [citation needed] that the word bug is actually a catch all for all sorts of moving beings that are not vertebrates. It came to my attention that most of these terms have a b-vowel-g-suffix structure. Bug, boggart, boggle, buggaboos, etc. If you reverse b and g, you get g-vowel-b-suffix: goblin, etc. The same way fairies look like “a human but not quite so”, with a flaw somewhere, I speculate that these names are sort of a “glamourized” version of the word bug: “a bug, but not quite so.”

    In other words, how were the beings in these experiences named? It is the same process where you slightly change a word to provide it with a different meaning. I will refrain to provide real-life examples, because these are often loaded and flame-war inducing.


    1. Thanks for the comment. You’re certainly right that ‘bug’ has come to be used as a general term for invertebrates, although in British English and entomology the word is properly limited to certain species of insect (bed-bug, shield bug and a few others). Why the word has attached to insects is unclear, though.

      It looks as the word’s original meaning was a scary creature- as in bogle, boggle and boggart. What’s fascinating, though, is that there are equivalents in Indo-European languages across Europe- from Welsh ‘bwcca’ to Maharati ‘bugal. ‘ This seems to suggest that at a very deep level in cultures from India to Ireland, there’s an ancient idea of a fearsome or powerful spirit.


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