The Many Faces of the Jack-o'-Lantern

In honour of Halloween, this week's spooky etymology is Jack-o'-Lantern:

The underlying point of all this is a demonstration of how folk traditions develop. Many of the popular accounts of the history of Halloween that you may come across on the internet will claim that the "true" origin of Halloween lies in the Celtic Samhain or in Roman rituals, but looking for any one true origin misses the point of how folk traditions work. There is no one origin with a direct line to present day, but a confused mishmash of various traditions, including Celtic, Roman, and Christian. Indeed, any one such claim may be dubious, but looking at general patterns and possible influences is ultimately more interesting and revealing.

What lies at the heart of this story is the intersection of the jack-o'-lantern/will-o'-the-wisp bog light phenomenon and the carved vegetable lantern tradition, which may have separate origins but come together under the name Jack-o'-Lantern. The Stingy Jack story connected to the carved lantern may well be a later rationalization of an already existing tradition, but as is the case with folktales there are many variants and versions. William Wells Newell (see the show notes or online here) collates many of these variants. There are numerous different tricks that the hero of the story (who appears under different names) plays on the devil, such as trapping him in a magic chair or catching him in a bottle, but the core of the story is that the bog light is the soul of someone barred from both heaven and hell after tricking the devil (or sometimes death). The Dublin Penny Journal, in 1836 has another nice, and significantly different, retelling of the story. And as for the different but similar names for the bog lights, they include not only Jack-o'-lantern and Will-o'-the-wisp, but also Jenny-with-the-lantern, Kit with the candlestick, and Joan the wad (wad meaning bundle of straw or torch in Cornwall), along with many other names. And significantly another name is Hob-with-a-lantern or Hoberdy's Lantern, which brings us back to hobgoblin and Robin Goodfellow. I could go on, but we'd be here forever; but speaking of Robin Goodfellow, or Puck, I discuss the various similar terms such as Puck, Puca, boggart, and bugbear in my previous video "Bug", if you want to follow up on that some more.

But getting back to Jack, the word/name, of course, has many and varied uses, with some 34 separate senses in the Oxford English Dictionary. Of interest here perhaps is the expression "to play the jack" meaning "to play the knave, do a mean trick". I already mentioned the word jack-tar meaning sailor in the video "Raincheck". By the way, the various mechanical senses, like a car jack or lifting jack or jackhammer, come from the idea that the machine is replacing the job of a manual laborer. And there's one extra detail about the word lantern, while we're at it: the spelling "lanthorn" crops up in the 16th to 19th century as a folk etymology due to the fact that horn could be used as a translucent cover in lanterns. Another instance of how folk  traditions work.

It was Sir James Frazer, whose influential book The Golden Bough I mentioned in an earlier video "A Detective Story", who seems to have first made the claim that the Celtic Samhain was a festival of the dead, and not just a seasonal harvest festival. It's not an illogical idea per se, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of evidence to support it, and Ronald Hutton (whose book examining British seasonal festivals is listed in the show notes) sounds an important note of caution in this regard. The Christian Allhallowtide (and the Roman Lemuria which probably lies behind it, though specific links to Roman festivals or rituals, like the Pomona connection I make in the video, while plausible, also generally lack strong evidence) are festivals of the dead, and Samhain may have picked up those elements after contact with Christianity. Still, there must have been enough similarity and overlap for the merging to have occurred. There may also have been Germanic rituals at around that time of year that played into Halloween. Remember, though Pope Gregory III seems to have moved All Saint's Day to coincide with Samhain, this seems to have been put into practice in Germanic areas first. But then the Irish have a long history of disagreeing with Rome on the important dates of the Christian calendar, if you know anything about the Easter controversy and the Synod of Whitby, recounted in great detail by the Venerable Bede. And speaking of Bede, there is some slight evidence from him of the old Germanic associations of that time of year. He reports that the old Germanic names for the months that correspond to September, October, and November are Haligmonað "holy month" (for some pagan reason the details of which Bede was not aware), Winterfylleð "winter full moon" (presumably when the harvest comes in), and Blotmonað "blood or sacrifice month" (which Bede tells us is when excess livestock is slaughtered, an act that may have had ritual significance in Germanic paganism). And of course in Germanic paganism, the chief god Odin or Woden is among other things a god of death.

As a bit of a side note, though I mention only turnips and pumpkins in the video, there are other vegetables used for jack-o'-lanterns. For instance, the mangelworzel is particularly associated with the Somerset tradition of Punkie night. Here's a nice description with pictures of a contemporary Punkie night celebration.

One small clarification, Carl Linnaeus initially applied the name lemur to the otherwise unrelated slender loris, and only later to the Madagascar lemurs, but it's only with those that the name stuck. And speaking of Linnaeus, for those who are fans of tracking repeated references in a number of the videos, I've mentioned him a number of times, most recently in "Turkey" for the scientific naming of the turkey and the guinea fowl, and before that in "Fossil" for his development of the scientific binomial naming system itself, and Linnaeus also got a brief mention in the blog post for "Gimlet" for his naming of the cinchona plant, which produces quinine. And I've referred to the Puritan suppression of holidays a couple of times before, of Christmas in "Yule" and of Thanksgiving in "Turkey". So you can check those out if you want to know more.

There are interestingly a number of Canadian connections to this story, which I suppose isn't too surprising given that there was a great deal of immigration into Canada from Ireland and Scotland at just around the right period. (I should also note that one of my main scholarly sources for this video was written by a British-born scholar who moved to Canada, specifically Toronto -- Nicholas Rogers, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night (see show notes page) -- so this may have led to more of the specifically Canadian history being uncovered.) In any case, the first mention of the pumpkin as a Halloween tradition in North America seems to be in a Kingston, Ontario newspaper in 1866, and the first description of the guising or trick-or-treating tradition in its most common modern form of costumed small children asking for candy seems to be in a Kingston newspaper, in 1911. And though the earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary of the phrase “trick or treat” is in 1947 in an American source, Wikipedia lists a much earlier use of the term in 1927 once again in Canada, in an Alberta newspaper from 1927. If anyone has any more information on any of these possible Canadian connections, I'd love to hear it.

There's one last theme that I discuss only lightly in the video, that of boundaries. Samhain has been described as a liminal time, the boundary between summer and winter, and by extension it may have also been thought of as a time when the boundary between the living and the dead was open. As I mentioned in the video, one of the traditions of the will-o'-the-wisp is that they were the souls of those who moved boundary markers. The Roman Feralia rituals took place at the tombs located outside the city's sacred boundaries. And there may be a connection to another Roman festival Robigalia, which was meant to protect the grain crops by propitiating the god Robigus. In "Jack-o'-lanterns to Surveyors" (see the show notes), John R. Stilgoe discusses the Christian Rogationtide which develops from Robigalia, another example of the Christian repurposing of a pagan festival, which involved in part a procession around the boundary lines of properties. Though over time Rogationtide gradually turned from religious festival  to merrymaking and celebration, the tradition was exempt from the usual Puritan suppression of holidays because it served the practical purpose of keeping track of property boundaries., at least until the advent of more modern surveying techniques. Stilgoe places the belief that the will-o'-the-wisp or jack-o'-lantern were the souls of those who moved boundary markers in this context, as a holdover from the religious belief in sacred boundaries. But in a strange sort of way it's come full circle again to boundaries, or rather the breaking of boundaries, as the modern popularity of Halloween, which is increasingly also an adult event, is due in part to the freedom it gives people to break boundaries by wearing costumes, sometimes quite transgressive ones. It provides the opportunity to safely cross over boundaries we don't always feel free to violate.