By Mark Sundaram
Happy Hallowe’en! Welcome to the Endless Knot. Today we cast a light on the Jack-o’-lantern.
“Jack-o’-lantern” is just a shortening of “Jack of the Lantern” — a guy with a light. Originally someone like a night watchman, holding a lantern, it only later became a hollowed-out vegetable with a face carved into it used as a lamp, now most associated with Hallowe’en.
There’s an Irish folktale about the origin of the Jack-o’-lantern. The wicked reputation of a rakish hero known as “Stingy Jack” or “Drunk Jack” catches the Devil’s attention. To stop the Devil taking his soul, Jack convinces the Devil to turn himself temporarily into a coin so he can buy one last drink— remember, Jack is both drunk and stingy. Cleverly he then slips the coin into his own pocket beside a cross, trapping the Devil. Jack lets him go in exchange for being left alone for 10 years, and when the Devil returns, Stingy Jack tricks him into climbing a tree to get one last apple, then traps him again by carving a cross into the tree. This time Jack makes the Devil promise never to take his soul to hell. Soon after, Jack dies, and the gates of heaven are closed to him because he’s a sinner, but the Devil can’t let him into hell, so he is trapped wandering the earth forever. The Devil gives him a coal from hell to light his way, which he carries in a hollowed out turnip as his only light.
So, that’s one origin story — though it’s probably more recent than the tradition it supposedly explains. But still, why is he called Jack?
Jack is a pet-name for John. Surprisingly it doesn’t seem to be from the French Jacques, which actually comes from Jacob, but is a diminutive of John with the suffix -kin—so Jack means “little John”. It became a generic name for an ordinary man in medieval Britain. Unsurprisingly then, the name is used for the hero of folktales in England, and some parts of North America (particularly the Appalachians). Unlike fairy tales with their princes, Jack tales always feature a lower-class figure as the wily and cunning (but also sometimes bumbling) trickster figure. Think “Jack the Giant Killer” or “Jack and Jill” and expressions like Jack of all trades or lumberjack.
Oh, and there’s the Jack in a deck of cards, which was originally known as the Knave, but because “K” for “King” and “Kn” for “Knave” was confusing, the Knave was changed to the Jack. There was a tradition in French playing cards for the face cards to represent specific historical people; for instance, the Jack of Diamonds was Hector, from the Iliad, and the Jack of Clubs was Sir Lancelot. In some card games, such as Euchre and Cribbage, the Jack (normally the lowest face card) is sometimes elevated to the highest, perhaps a reflection of the Jack hero, whose cleverness beats his higher-status opponents.
So, that explains the “Jack” element of “Jack-o’-lantern”. But what about the “lantern”? Well, it comes from the Latin word lanterna, through Greek, from lampo (hence also the word “lamp”), ultimately from a Proto-European root that means ‘to burn’ or ‘to shine’. However, when lampter goes from Greek to Latin, it gets the “erna” stuck on the end because of the similar Latin word lucerna, which also means ‘lamp’. It comes from the word lux meaning ‘light’, which gives us the name Lucifer, one of the names for the Devil, which brings us back to the story of Stingy Jack.
Now you’ll remember that Stingy Jack carries his light in a hollowed=out turnip. The word “turnip” means literally ‘a turned neep’, as in the root vegetable called the neep (a Greek word meaning ‘mustard’ which came to English through Latin) turned on the lathe, a machine used to carve things like table legs, referring to the turnip’s round shape. So a jack-o’-lantern made from a turnip is, I suppose, doubly “carved”.
When the jack-o’-lantern tradition moved to North America (brought over in part by Irish immigrants driven by the failure of another root vegetable crop, the potato), where Hallowe’en took on its modern form, and where it’s still most commonly celebrated, the pumpkin replaced the turnip as the carving vegetable of choice. Well, they were readily available and a lot easier to carve! Gourds such as pumpkins, squashes, and melons, by the way, seem to have been one of the first domesticated plants, and along with many other culinary and household uses such as containers or musical instruments, have sometimes been used for lanterns. It’s been pointed out, for instance, that the Maori word for ‘gourd’ means ‘lampshade’.
The word pumpkin itself comes from a Greek word for ‘melon’, pepon, from the Proto-Indo-European root meaning ‘to cook or ripen’, and comes through Latin and French into English as pompion. Then the diminutive suffix ‘-kin’ — remember that suffix from the name Jack — was added, so a pumpkin means a ‘little melon’. Initially the word was used for any edible gourd, but it now mostly refers to the orange North American squash.
So, that’s where the term jack-o’-lantern comes from — but though the Stingy Jack story is filled with supernatural and creepy elements, what’s the specific link to Hallowe’en? Well, to start off with, the word Hallowe’en means “Hallows’ Eve”, the evening before All Hallows Day. Hallow means Saint, related to the word ‘holy’, coming from an Old English word, and ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root which gives us words such as whole, hale, healthy, and holiday. The Christian Allhallowtide is a three day festival to remember and pray for the dead, including all the saints without their own feast days and all good Christian souls. The saints and martyrs honoured on All Saints’ Day, were often asked to intercede for the souls of deceased loved ones in Purgatory earning their way into heaven.
The beginning of All Saints’ Day was when Pope Boniface IV, on May 13, 609, reconsecrated the Pantheon at Rome, which had been a pagan temple, as a Christian church to “Mary and the Martyrs” and declared an annual festival in their honour. This is one of the first examples of what became a common procedure of the Christian church to absorb and re-purpose pagan shrines and celebrations, turning them towards Christian worship. And the reason that Boniface chose that date, May 13, may lie in a Roman festival of the dead called Lemuria.
For the ancient Romans, Lemuria, which culminated on May 13th, was a festival to exorcise the restless and malevolent ghosts of the dead, and included a ritual of walking around the house in bare feet throwing black beans over the shoulder. These ghosts were known as Lemures. The great taxonomist Carl Linnaeus borrowed this Roman word for ghosts to name the primates lemurs, because of their nocturnal habits, though their ghostly appearance and cries, and the legend of the Malagasy people of Madagascar that lemurs were the souls of their ancestors, are a fitting coincidence. The Latin Lemures were also known as Larvae, a word related to Lares, the Roman household gods, that could also refer to scary masks. Once again Linnaeus picked up on the word larva, in its mask sense, to refer to the juvenile form of animals which “mask” their adult forms. But this scary mask sense fits well with our modern Hallowe’en tradition of scary costumes.
The Romans had another festival of the dead that contributes to the Hallowe’en tradition called Feralia, the final ceremony of the nine-day festival Parentalia starting February 13th, which honours the Manes (which etymologically means ‘good’), the spirits of their ancestors, with offerings of food, drink, and flowers at their tombs outside the city’s sacred boundaries.
Now you’ll remember that the annual celebration of the saints and martyrs was first held on May 13th, not even close to modern Hallowe’en. In the year 835, Pope Gregory III moved All Saints’ Day to November 1st, which happens to be the same date as the Irish Samhain, a pagan festival with its own supernatural aspects, eventually leading to the merging of the similarly-themed festivals in the British Isles. Though it’s uncertain if this is another example of the Christian re-purposing of a pagan festival — the date actually seems to have been changed in Germanic and English areas before Celtic ones — the outcome of the merging of these two traditions is our next stop in the journey towards modern Hallowe’en.
Samhain is the Celtic seasonal festival that marks the end of the harvest, when the herd was brought in from the summer pasture, and excess animals were slaughtered before winter. The word Samhain either means ‘summer’s end’ or comes from a root that means ‘together’. Though it’s been argued that Samhain was a kind of Celtic New Year and a festival of the dead, the evidence is thin. Nevertheless, in addition to the pastoral and harvest associations, it does seem to have had supernatural associations, as a liminal or boundary time when spirits or fairies could cross over into the human world, and so may have developed rituals propitiating these spirits to protect the people and livestock.
A number of modern Hallowe’en traditions may come, at least in part, from Samhain. Dressing up in scary disguises seems to have been a part of Samhain, either to blend in with the other spirits who are walking around, or to scare them off. Also offerings of food or sweets, to propitiate the gods or spirits, may lie behind Hallowe’en candy. Since Samhain came at the end of the harvest season and involved slaughtering animals, the bones and other agricultural refuse were burned in a ‘bone fire’ or ‘bonfire’, which may also have scared away evil spirits. Bonfires continue to be an autumn tradition, and specifically a Hallowe’en custom in many places. In fact almost the only element of Samhain ritual that we have good evidence for is the use of fire, and that may also lie behind the jack-o’-lantern tradition, which may have started as lights or lanterns in the window to ward off evil spirits.
Also, Samhain was a time of prophecy, especially concerning marriage; several rituals involved apples, either seeds or peels, and this comes down to us as bobbing for apples, also known as ‘dooking’ or ‘ducking’ in some parts of Britain, or as ‘snapapple’ in Ireland as well as inNewfoundland, where it survived as a popular name for Hallowe’en “Snapapple Night”.
And those apples are a link to another Roman influence on Hallowe’en; it was the Romans who imported the domesticated apple tree to Britain, and along with itthe celebration of the Roman goddess of fruit and orchards, Pomona, and her worship may be the origin of the apple rituals in Britain.
But getting back to the development of modern Hallowe’en, trick or treating may come in part from the disguises of Samhain, but is also influenced by many other separate but related traditions. For instance, there’s ‘Souling’, going door-to-door in costumes during Hallowtide, carrying turnip lanterns representing the souls in Purgatory, and offering blessings or songs in return for soul-cakes. There’s the Scottish and Irish tradition of Guising, going door-to-door in costumes, asking for handouts; and by the 19th century Guisers also used turnip lanterns. In England there’s Mumming, an old tradition of costumed dances and little plays performed at various seasons of the year, sometimes in public places, sometimes going door to door. In Northern counties of England, there’s Mischief Night at the beginning of November, when children played tricks and vandalized neighbours’ houses. And then there’s Guy Fawkes night, November 5, commemorating a failed plot to blow up the Parliament Buildings, which is celebrated with bonfires and fireworks; just before it, children go door to door collecting “pennies for the Guy”, that is, money to pay for making and burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes. Since the Gunpowder Plot was a Catholic conspiracy, Guy Fawkes Night was particularly popular in Protestant England, where it took over some of the elements of the Hallowtide festivities which had been suppressed by the Puritan rejection of saints’ days and Purgatory, while in Ireland and Scotland the earlier holidays remained strong. Indeed, all over the British Isles there are local events and celebrations around Hallowtide that feature some combination of these activities, with elements of misrule, role reversal, and confusion of status, and all of them probably contributed to the development of the common modern practice of costumed small children asking for candy with the phrase “Trick or Treat”, which became widespread in North America around the beginning of the 20th cent.
So, trying to pin down any one source for any particular aspect of Hallowe’en, like the jack-o’-lantern or trick or treating, is like following a will-o’-the-wisp through the darkness, and leaves us bogged down in confusing folktales, scraps of evidence, and modern rationalizations and made-up origin stories. Which is fitting, since another term for ‘will-o’-the-wisp’ is, in fact, ‘jack-o’-lantern’!
Actually, it turns out that ‘a flickering light over a bog’ is an earlier meaning for Jack-o’-Lantern than its Hallowe’en connection. There are in fact many names for this phenomenon, which is probably really produced by spontaneous ignition of methane coming from the decomposing vegetation of the bog, such as ignis fatuus (meaning “foolish fire”), or corpse candles. The most well-known modern term, Will-o’-the-Wisp, was used especially in East England; wisp means ‘a bundle of straw’, hence ‘torch’. So “Jack of the Lantern” and “Will of the Torch” are essentially the same. One folk explanation for the lights is that they are the wandering spirits of people who are being punished for moving landmarks or boundary stones in life. The bog-light phenomenon is also associated with the mischievous spirit Puck or Puca, which leads travellers off the path to their death. Such mischievous spirits and tricksters, also known as fairies or hobgoblins, are of course perennial Hallowe’en fixtures.
Hobgoblin is itself an interesting word: the ‘goblin’ part comes from a medieval Latin word (that might go back to a Greek word meaning “rogue or knave”, like the playing card) and/or might be cognate with Kobold, the germanic spirit that was thought to live in rocks and mines, and gives us “cobalt” for the mineral that is sometimes found mixed with silver ore, making it tricky and dangerous for miners to get out the valuable metal; this is parallel to the mineral name “nickel”, short for “kupfernickel” which meant ‘the devil’s copper’, since nickel mixed with copper ores made it hard to refine. Old Nick was a Germanic name for the Devil, bringing us back to the story of Stingy Jack. And speaking of Jack, the ‘hob’ part of hobgoblin is a short form of Robin or Robert, commonly used as a generic name for a lower-class ‘guy’, just like Jack. Hob also became a general name for a horse, and so also gives us ‘hobby’, short for ‘hobby horse’—a character in those old Mummer’s plays— as well as being associated with mischievous spirits, like Robin Goodfellow, also known as Puck, and trickster figures, which may have influenced Robin Hood’s name; and don’t forget his right hand man Little John— or should that be Jack?!
So, Hallowe’en can’t be considered only pagan or only Christian; it’s the interaction between the various customs and beliefs that seems to have produced the modern traditions. And since the theme of all those customs was confusion, mischief, and breaking of boundaries, it’s not surprising that the history of Hallowe’en, and of the Jack-o’-Lantern, is itself full of confusion, false trails, and mixed up cultures.
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