The tale of Jack O' Lantern is an old story, that goes back to the British Isles, and it has been told many different ways. This story about Jack O' Lantern is only one type of folklore about the Lantern Men or Will o' Wisps. They were spirits: either faeries or ghosts. In America, the name Jack O' Lantern is the label that seems to have stuck.
A long time ago in Ireland, there was a fellow known as Wicked Jack. Wicked Jack was a very bad man. He was a highwayman, a robber, and a murderer. He was often quite cruel. When in town, he kicked small dogs and was mean to children without any reason. He cheated at card games. Sometimes, he grabbed treats from the wee tots. (Yes! He even stole candy from a baby.)
Wicked Jack liked that everyone was afraid of him.
As a highwayman, Jack was often not content to simply rob travelers; he often slit their throats and tossed their bodies in the woods.
One Autumn, on a bright, crisp day, Jack was seated under an apple tree resting his eyes, enjoying the sunshine on his face, when someone suddenly tapped him on the shoulder.
He was astonished to see a powerful spirit with horns standing there. Wicked Jack knew who this spirit was--the leader of the Wild Hunt, the Lord of the Greenwood. If the Master of the Hunt collected someone, he would spirit that person away to his lair; later that person would become one of the spirits who rode under the command of the Master of the Hunt.
The spirit said gruffly, "Come along, Jack. You've been murdering too many people in my woods. I'm collecting you now. You're coming with me."
Wicked Jack was a crafty fellow, full of tricks. Jack looked up in the tree and said, "Alright then. But before we go, could I have that last apple up there in the tree? I bet it's a long trip to where we're headed and I'm awfully hungry. It looks like a tasty treat. We can share it."
Indeed, high up in the tree was one bright red apple, still hanging on the branches. Perhaps, this seemed like a reasonable request, for the spirit scrambled up the tree. Quickly, Jack pulled out his knife and carved a magic sign at the tree's base. Was it a rune or sol-kross? Whatever it was, it trapped the spirit up in the tree.
The spirit up in the tree howled in anger--and screeched, in rage, and then let out another howl.
Yet, Wicked Jack said, "You thought you had me. Now I've got you! Master of the Hunt, you won't be collecting me."
The spirit screeched and screamed, but Jack just laughed hard.
"Clever Jack, full of tricks!" snarled the spirit, "Fine! I release all claims on you!"
"Glad to hear it," answered Jack, "but you--you can just stay in that tree." And off he went, chuckling to himself as the spirit howled.
It'd be nice to say that Jack had learned his lesson and decided to change his wicked ways. But he did not. He was still a murderer and a robber and a card cheat. He still kicked small dogs and was mean to small children. If anything, he was worse then ever.
Years passed and, of course, Wicked Jack died, as all mortal men must. His soul journeyed up toward the bright and shining land. But the guardian of the gate stopped him when Jack arrived.
"Wicked Jack? What are you doing here? You can't come here. You've been a highwayman, a murderer and a robber. You're a card cheat and a bully--always full of mean tricks. You've shown no kindness or charity to anyone. You've been wicked and mean your whole life. Why, you even kicked small dogs for no reason. These are the pleasant plains and beautiful fields meant for kindly souls. You've done many evil deeds and you're not even the least bit sorry about it. No--You can't come here."
Jack wandered off, searching for somewhere else to go. Eventually, he found his way down to the underworld, to the realm of the mighty one, the Lord of Shadows, the Master of the Wild Hunt.
When he demanded entrance, the Lord himself came.
"You!" screeched the angry spirit. "You trapped me in that tree for two years, until I could grow the bark back over that sign you carved. What are you doing here?"
Jack answered, "I have no place to go."
"Oh, no! You come to my realm? And ask for entrance here after how you treated me? Be gone! I have no use for you!"
Jack said, "Where am I to go?"
"I care not. Off with you to the outer darkness!"
So Jack wandered off into the outer darkness between the worlds. There were terrible things there in the darkness and the cold. The dark faerie of the Unseely Court wandered here, and there were more terrible things still in the darkness. But Jack was a tough old dog. And he wandered for many years, over many lands, all over the British Isles and in time all over the world. He saw many frightening and terrible things.
Then one night, as he sat lonely and sad, a gentle faery spirit passed him. The faery spirit took pity upon him, there sitting alone in the dark. She plucked an Autumn vegetable from the field. Maybe it was a pumpkin or a gourd, some say it was a turnip. She hollowed it out, carved a face, and placed a glowing light inside.
"Here, Jack," and she handed him the glowing lamp, "this will light your way in the dark and protect you between the worlds."
THAT is the reason why--even today in America--we hollow out pumpkins and carve on faces to frighten away malignant spirits. The Irish custom, of course, was to place a lit candle in a hollowed-out turnip. If you put Jack's lantern outside your home, he'll know that you know his story--the story of Jack of the Lantern.
There are lots of versions of this story about the wandering spirit from the British Isles, sometimes called Wicked Jack, Wicked John, Stingy Jack, or just Jacky.
The earliest version recorded in the USA--that I know of--was published in 1880. It was probably brought by Irish immigrants to America. At that time, the story was not specifically attached to Halloween.
Likewise, there are published references to Americans carving faces into pumpkins and illuminating the carved pumpkins with candles since 1850.
Earlier in the British Isles, the turnip was used instead to fashion Jack-o'-lanterns. There is a lot more information about this on Wicca: Jack O' Lantern.
Well--in autumn when the nights first got cool--Jack liked to change the colors of the leaves on the trees before Old Man Winter caused them to turn brown and drop from the trees. Jack would paint them in colors of red, yellow, and orange, laughing all the time.
Yet, the most fun Jack had was playing in the farm fields. He would dash through the corn rows and make the dry stalks shiver like something much bigger than little Jack was passing through.
He played out in the moonlight and dark nights. Jack Frost especially liked running through pumpkin patches late at night, where the pumpkins had been turned orange. The October moon, when it was full, was big and round and as golden as a pumpkin. He would run up and down the rows in and out among the pumpkins playing hide and seek with his own shadow, and sometimes he would snap pumpkin vines.
Jack was a mischievous boy, full of tricks.
But Old Man Winter worried about his son, Jack, out there at night playing by himself. You see, Jack wasn't actually alone out there in the trees and farm fields. Other things walked abroad at night. The ghosts and goblins and other spirits wandered freely. Late autumn was when the dividing lines between the realms grew weak and thin. Not everything that was out and about was friendly towards Old Man Winter. A body doesn't get to be the king of winter without making a few enemies--and some of those enemies might have long memories.
Though Jack had tricks of his own, Old Man Winter decided he had to give Jack something to help keep him safe. He sat and thought and thought in his icy cave.
Then suddenly it came to him. Old Man Winter reached out his long hand and plucked an orange pumpkin from the fields [rather like this one here]. Then, he cut it open. He hollowed it out, and threw the seeds in the fields. He carved a face with a big toothy grin.
Then he grabbed a light and put it inside, and gave the pumpkin to Jack and told him he could use this lantern to light his way in the dark--and none of the ghosts and goblins would ever bother him, because they'd be scared of the light. From that time on, a carved pumpkin with a light inside was known as "Jack's Old Lantern."
Copyright September 21, 2013 Myth Woodling
This story is not nearly as old as the tale from the British Isles about Jack O' Lantern. I have written more about this story on Wicca: A Tale for Carving Pumpkins.
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