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As mentioned in last year’s post concerning pumpkins, the original Irish jack o’lanterns were not carved from the familiar orange gourds (which only made their way to Europe after the discovery of the Americas), but rather were cut from turnips, swedes, or mangelwurzels.   I have illustrated this post with a little gallery of turnip lanterns.   I was hoping to find a mangelwurzel to carve up for an original photo, but it seems like the hurricane has prevented adequate supplies of these medieval vegetables from reaching the city—so that will have to wait till next year.  In the meantime, here is a folktale about how jack o’lanterns originated.

The story of the origin of the jack o’lantern is a stirring tale of greed, guile, and the restless undead.  Jack was a trickster, a fraud, and an unrepentant sinner who roamed around Ireland scamming honest folks and selling mortgage-backed securities & other poorly structured equities.  One day, Jack was running from a mob of creditors (which should immediately recommend the story to contemporary American mores) when he encountered the devil traveling along the bog road.  Jack convinced Satan that it would be to the latter’s advantage to infiltrate society in a more subtle form than that of scary red guy with horns.

Jack’s plan was that the devil should pretend to be a golden coin.  Jack could present this to the angry mob, who would then begin to argue and fight over the coin thus leading them inexorably into the devil’s clutches.  The devil shapeshifted into coin form and presto, Jack grabbed him and stuffed him into a purse with a cross sewn on it (which he had probably stolen from a clergyman or a church-run orphanage).  The devil was unable to escape Jack’s clutches. In order to get out of this predicament, Lucifer had to promise Jack never to collect his soul and take it to hell.

After many financial shenanigans and dodgy schemes, Jack eventually died–as all men must.  His spirit wandered the gray earth in a dark fog, unable to find any succor or happiness in the lands of the living.  At length he made his way to the gates of heaven but he was not wanted there and was chased off by saints and angels.  Jack drifted through different realms but could never escape the chill of death and the inchoate miseries of the grave.  Finally, defeated, he went to hell and begged for entrance.

Turnip lantern by Nathan deGargoyle.

But the devil remembered his promise (and was pleased by Jack’s misery).  Satan barred Jack from hell and sent him on his way, but first he mockingly threw the specter a blazing coal from the inferno–which can never be extinguished.   Jack tried to clutch the red ember and it burned and seared his flesh even though that flesh was ghostly and insubstantial.  Yet the coal was better than nothing, so Jack carried it in his hands even though it caused him agony. Finally in a flash of inspiration, the con-man snatched a turnip from a garden and carved it into a little lamp to hold the coal.

Jack never could find peace–his spirit still roams to this day, but over the different eras his lamp has become an enduring symbol of the Halloween season.  The devil, however, greatly appreciated Jack’s plan to infiltrate society in the form of money and he made many bold innovations in this direction (while being always watchful to steer clear of churches and cleric’s purses).  He’s probably lurking somewhere in my bank balance and in yours too.

Happy Halloween!

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