In the hungry decades approaching the Great Famine, many Irish natives fled the impending disease and starvation of their homeland in the early to mid-1800s, for the promise of plenty in the newly opened United States of America.
Unable to bring most of home along with them, they held onto its essence, stuffing suitcases and satchels with customs and traditions. One such tradition was the seasonal celebration of All Hallows’ Eve. Already evolved under Christianity’s influence from old Gaelic festivities, Halloween blossomed once more in the US of A. And from these Halloween blossoms, a new Halloween fruit; a long-standing staple for Natives of the Americas, the pumpkin was crowned Halloween King.
The pumpkin was heralded as a magical fruit, with medicinal powers… and delicious flesh. Most importantly, however, was its face – smooth and wide, as if designed for carving. And so they did, as we still do, annually around the globe. We remove the innards, cut out a face, put in a candle and refer to it by name: Jack O’Lantern – the pumpkins carved at Halloween. But the Halloween King was not the first. He was not carried across the Atlantic in Irish suitcases, packed along with all other customs and traditions. Before the pumpkin was claimed, we knew Jack as another.
Thousands of years ago, during the Gaelic Festival of Samhain (from which contemporary Halloween customs were born), the early folk of Ireland were back home, carving turnips. Guisers or mummers (from whom we received the tradition of dressing up in Halloween costumes), and pranksters would carry carved & candle-lit turnips as lanterns to light their mischievous way in the dark.
Over the centuries, the turnips, the earlier Jack O’Lanterns that is, made their way indoors. As many do today, they found themselves carved and lit, as before, but now stationary, guarding autumnal windows and doors. Their task was simple: to ward off evil spirits that, whilst the gateways between worlds briefly flicker open, freely walk the earth.
Whilst the duties of these early Jack O’Lanterns was indeed an honourable one, it still does not explain their name… For that, we must look to the lore behind the lanterns – the tale of Jack himself!
Lock the windows, draw the curtains, and light a candle. The real myth begins with neither pumpkin nor turnip but a man, named Jack…
The Tale of Jack O’Lantern
The legend goes that in 18th century Ireland, there lived a cruel and malevolent man; a drunkard named Jack. The devil, himself cruel and malevolent, took an interest in our protagonist, and devised a plan to steal Jack’s soul.
One drunken night whilst stumbling through the countryside, Jack happened upon a body recumbent, as if dead, before him on the ground. The lifeless face snarled at Jack, and he recognised the devil in him. Gravely aware that the devil was here for his soul, Jack bargained with the beast, requesting one last drink. The devil obliged, so: off to the pub! Pint after pint the devil allowed, until his patience grew thin. The malevolent man was not only drunk, but also penniless, and so he made a second request of the beast. Boldly, he encouraged the devil to transform himself into a round, silver coin, which, Jack promised, he would use to pay to the bartender. Jack would wait outside, the plan went, whilst the devil transformed back into himself and slipped away. Delighted by the scheme, once more, the devil obliged. But Jack did not keep his word. He pocketed the devil-coin, and went on his merry, drunken way. Beside him, in Jack’s pocket, the devil felt the burning presence of a crucifix locking him in his helpless, metamorphosed state. Angered, and fearful, the devil agreed to a third bargain – his immediate freedom in exchange for another decade on earth for Jack.
Ten tiresome years passed, of malevolence and alcohol and little much else. As agreed the devil returned, appearing lifeless across the path of an older, drunken, stumbling Jack. Initially startled, Jack expressed resignation to his fate, and so the devil began preparations to take the man’s soul down to Hell. But… Jack was hungry; would the devil not afford the man just one last apple before his departure from earth for all eternity? At first reluctant, the devil spotted an apple tree nearby and hastily began climbing it to avoid further delay. As he reached out for the fruit, he realised his mistake. Beneath him, the malevolent man was encircling the trunk with crucifixes. Furious, and terrified, the devil agreed to a fifth bargain – his immediate freedom in exchange for Jack’s freedom from Hell.
Many more tiresome years passed, of malevolence and alcohol and little much else. As agreed the devil did not return, even upon Jack’s death. Thinking his soul saved, Jack’s spirit rose from his body upwards, to the heavenly gates of St. Peter. God was waiting for him; Jack was elated – surely Heaven would be overflowing with ale, and no need for money! But Jack had been a cruel and malevolent man, a drunkard, and there was, God told him, no place for him in Heaven. No matter – Hell, of course, is where the ale would be. And so down his spirit dived, to Hades’ gates of Hell. But the devil and he had made a bargain; Satan would not take his soul. Instead, he bequeathed the dead man an ever-glowing ember, marking him out as of, although not actually welcome in, Hell. Too hot for even his cold dead hands to hold, Jack placed the unfading ember into a hollowed out turnip. A dead man, who bargained for freedom, cursed to roam the black void between worlds for all eternity, alone, save the light from his glowing turnip. Jack and his lantern. Jack O’Lantern.
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