Halloween history: The myth of the Jack-o-lantern and spooky lights
Jack-o’-lantern from the early 20th century
How did the custom of carving pumpkins with frightening faces become a part of our Halloween festivities?
For centuries, stories of the mysterious Jack-o’-lantern are recorded in folkloric anecdotes from dozens of cultures around the world: Stories of mysterious lights that drift about at night and scare travelers until they are lost; stories of a soul denied entry into both heaven and hell, doomed to roam the earth carrying a lighted wisp of straw and the famous ignis fatuus or the spooky Will-o’-the-wisp, even mentioned by Sir Isaac Newton in his 1704 opus Opticks and Shakespeare in Henry IV Part I, Act III.
The most common story attributed to the “Jack-o’-lantern” is found in Irish folklore which recounts a story about a drunkard named Jack who slipped out of his body on All Hallows’ Eve from his alcoholic excess.
When the Devil came to claim Jack’s soul, Jack begged for one last drink. The Devil agrees but makes Jack pay for it. Jack short of the sixpence persuades the Devil (who could change form) to turn into a coin so he could pay for the drink. The Devil agreed, turned into a sixpence and Jack snatched the coin, put it into his wallet that had a cross and trapped the Devil. The Devil made a deal to let Jack live for a year and let him go.
During the year, Jack tried to reform but slipped back into his drunken ways and the Devil appeared, to once again, claim his soul. Jack pulled another stunt on the Devil and offered to let the Devil stand on his shoulders so they could eat an apple off a nearby tree. As the Devil climbed up the tree, Jack carves a cross on the trunk and traps the Devil again.
The Devil finally agrees to “never bother Jack again.’ Of course, Jack finally dies but can’t enter heaven because he was such a bad guy and can’t enter Hell because the Devil agreed to not bother him. The Devil took pity on Jack and throws him a burning coal from Hell to see in the dark and Jack stuck it into a carved out turnip (there is an Irish custom of using carved out turnips for lanterns (see photo), later in America a pumpkin was used).
So, Jack wanders eternally around the earth.
Somehow these stories of Jack got mixed up with stories of the will-o-the-wisp or the ignis fatuus that is normally seen in marshes and bogs.
J.B. Calbert mentions the Will-o’-th’-Wisp :
You have seen Will-o’-th’-Wisp, the “Spunkie” dreaded of superstitious Scottish children, he who wishes to lead them away into the swamp, never to return. Many of their elders shudder, pray and quicken their steps to put the bog behind them, and seek out the warmth of their hearths. The spectre is also called Jack-o’-Lantern in England, and Ignis Fatuus, the “fool’s fire,” by those with some Latin. A wisp is a handful of tow, broken flax waste, ignited to make a light, carried by the terrible William. Or else it’s some changeling Jack, gesturing with a lantern to ensorcell you. In the States, a Jack-o’-Lantern is a hollowed-out pumpkin, with facial features pierced through the shell, and containing a candle. They no longer scare people, even small children, because they are too familiar, and their meaning has been forgotten.
He goes on to describe the origin of these lights as gas from decaying organic matter:
Michael Quinion mentions:
“We know now that the flames are methane (marsh gas), ignited by the traces of hydrogen phosphide sometimes found near decaying organic matter. Both will-o’-the-wisp and ignis fatuus are used figuratively for some false idea or influence that leads people astray.”
And finally, sometimes these spooky lights in the forest are attributable to Foxfire, which is caused by bioluminescent fungi in special conditions?usually on rotting bark. For a bit of trivia, Foxfire is mentioned in an old episode of Lassie (“Trapped” 10/26/58), where Timmy and Boomer hunt for foxfire so as to scare the girls into not kissing them at the Halloween party.
Foxfire on rotting bark used for a bonfire.
Author: Bruce McAdam. Creative Commons license.
How did these spooky lights get associated with Halloween?
From the Worcester Newspapers in 1840 the author states:
From all the circumstances stated, it appears probable that these meteors rise in exhalations of electric, and, perhaps, other matter, out of the earth, particularly in or near the winter season; and that they generally occur a day or two after considerable rain and on a change from a cold to a warmer atmosphere.
Very near the weather conditions we find around All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) or what historically is the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain marking “summer’s end” when the “lighter half” of the year ends and the “darker half” begins. The Celts believed the border between this world and the Otherworld became thin on Samhain which lets the spirits (both good and bad) pass through the veil. So, wearing costumes and masks was a way to disguise oneself from the harmful spirits.
James Motley (1848), Notes to the Canwyll Corph; Note 3 in Tales of the Cymry. London: Longmans, and Hughes; Swansea: Brewster; and Llanelly: Thomas. pp.112-115
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons: A traditional Irish turnip Jack-o’-lantern from the early 20th century. Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland.
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