Folklore of Samhain
The Jack-o'-Lantern

Folklorists have not been able to pinpoint the birth
of the tale of Jack and his frightening lantern.

Folklore of Samhain, the jack-o' -lantern.

     Copyright © 1999 Silver Ravenwolf
Pumpkins smiling, pumpkins leering, fun pumpkins, sad pumpkins, mean pumpkins, exotic pumpkins-where did this fascination come from? We certainly can't have Halloween without our friend the pumpkin.

The centerpiece of the American Halloween tradition is the jack-o' -lantern-the gutted pumpkin carved with a delightful design that glows by the insertion of a candle or battery-operated light. Many historians in our century claim that the original idea for the jack-o' -lantern came from the Celts, who hollowed out apples and vegetables (even turnips) and used them as safe candle holders, which were later used by medieval Europeans as small lanterns. Whether or not the early Celts carved faces in the apples, turnips, or beets to ward off evil is debatable. Have you ever tried to carve a turnip? It ain't easy. The pumpkin is an American vegetable, and therefore the pumpkin-carving fun you experience today belongs on the long list of American inventions. A background check on carving faces to scare away evil, ghosts, Witches, and black cats shows us that the early Celts did not believe in Witches, they had no cats, and they liked the ghosts of their ancestors. With the insistence of the Christian church to attach all Pagan-related practices to negative superstition, it is hard to determine just why faces were carved in the vegetables, if at all. 

Mysterious, eerie lights that appeared floating in the Halloween fog, bobbing along on the crest of the marshes and swamps, were called will-o' -the-wisps, corpse candles, lantern men, hob-o' -lanterns, jack-o' -lanterns, or, simply, will. Scientifically we know that these unusual manifestations are a product of ignis fatuus (foolish fire) created by decaying matter that releases a spontaneous, combustible gas; however, the unexplainable has always led to spectacular folk tales, and in the case of the jack-o'lantern, the physical creation of the hollowed -out turnip, beet, or pumpkin depicting the face of a skull came to be an added bonus in the storytelling! In Scotland, the carved turnips are called "bogies:' and in England, the hollowed beets are "punkies:' So just think-you can tell the PTA this year that you are bringing punkies and bogies for the children's party. Some of you may look at the turnips in the grocery store and think, "That's not big enough to carve:' I can truly tell you that the turnips and beets in my garden last year grew as large as a small pumpkin-too tough to eat, but perfect for that Samhain fest!

Folklorists have not been able to pinpoint the birth of the tale of Jack and his frightening lantern, and several renditions can be found in historical interview accounts, popular books on Halloween, and even on the Internet. It is believed that the story is European driven, easing into America as various immigrants crossed the waters to their new home. The theme of the story appears to have Christian roots (or at least was Christianized at some point), as the significant antagonist is the devil (who did not romp through original Celtic mythos). I have given you my version of the story here:

Once upon a time there was farmer by the name of Jack. He wasn't an unlikable fellow, no he wasn't, but he was the sort of fella that would run from honest work faster than a youngin' can run from bath water. Tall and lanky, Jack had a lopsided smile and a missin' tooth. A nice laugh-one that rumbled deep from the belly and danced about the barn quicker than a fellow with a fiddle in his hand. His hair was limp and his face was creased-yep, that was our Jack all right.

One fine day, the devil ... well, he got bored. Temptin' the rich folk got far too easy, so he set out to find hisself a poor boy. That old devil, he spied Jack sleepin' under the big old oak tree out there by the garden. "Jack," he says, "I've come to take your soul." "If'n you can climb that oak tree and touch the top, then you kin have it;' said Jack. "Ain't no never-mind to me."

Ain't no one in the county able to climb to the top of that big ole tree, and Jack, well ... he knew that, yes he did.

So the devil, he climbs the tree, but he gets stuck and cain't git down. "Jack, help me down;' says the devil.

"Nope;' says Jack, "because if'n I do, you'll want to take my soul. If'n you stay in that tree, you cain't git me."

Now the devil, he thinks and thinks, and then he says, "If'n you help me down, I'll give you anythin' you want. Just name it."

Jack walks around the tree, lookin' up at the devil from different angles. He scratches his beard and cocks his head. "Okay;' says Jack, "If'n I let you down, you have to promise me that you'll never allow me into hell."

"Done!" says the devil, and Jack helps him down.

"Well now;' thought Jack, "this is mighty fine, I kin do as I please!" And so he did. Poor Jack. Nobody believe his story, so he took to drinkin' and then to gamblin' and I hear tell he coveted the wife of a neighbor man, and ran off with another-! ain't rightly sure. Anyway, Jack finally up and died.

Well now, Jack went to heaven and stood in front of them pearly gates and the angel there said, "You cain't come in here. We's only got room for good people, and Jack, you weren't so good down there on earth. I'm afraid you'll have to go to the other place."

Jack stood in front of the gates of hell, but the demon said, "Sorry Jack, you cain't come in here. You made a deal with the devil. There's no roo m at this end unless, of course, you can exchange your soul for another's."

"But it's dark down here and I cain't see:' said Jack. "How will I find someone to take my place?''

"Here:' said the demon, and threw Jack a glowing coal.

Now Jack, he wasn't a stupid fellow, so he took hisself a turnip outta the garden and hollowed it out, then put that hot coal in the turnip so's he could see, as the world of in-between is mighty dark. On Halloween night, when the veil between the worlds is thin, you kin see Jack and his little light, across the fields and in the woods, roamin' in the night, searchin' for someone to take his place.

Now, if you hollow out that there turnip, and put a candle in it, then Jack will think you're lost too, and he won't pay you no never mind. He never was a really smart fella.


The traditional jack-o' -lantern takes a strange twist in southern America, in such states as Mississippi and Louisiana, where African American lore collided with European legend. Jack's story takes on a different twist here, and he is described as a sort of gnome or goblin (much like the southern version of a pookha). A cross between a dog, a human, and a cartoon character, this munchkin has sports-goggle eyes, sausage lips, and is covered in fur. This Jack was swift of foot and could outrun the fastest horse in the country.

Today, pumpkin carving has turned into an art form of its own with national contests, exotic designs, and even special tools. We've got pumpkin scoopers, pumpkin saws, and way-cool pumpkin patterns to launch any Halloween party or trick-or-treating extravaganza. And pumpkins are far easier to carve than turnips!

This and more can be found here:


          by Silver Ravenwolf
     Witches' hats and harvest moon
     Ghosts that dance to haunted tune
     Apples, goodies, food galore
     Halloween has this and more!

Just where did the autumn gaiety begin? Let Silver RavenWolf guide you through the cobwebby corners of time to uncover the history behind Halloween. Honor the spirit of this hallowed harvest holiday with:

   * Halloween magick: Prosperity Pumpkin Spell, Corn Husk Dolly, Solitary Harvest Moon Ritual
   * Magickal goodies: Candied Love Apples, Witches' Brew, Sugar Snakes in Graveyard Dust
   * Halloween myths and superstitions: Black cats, scarecrows, pitchforks, witches, ghosts, and haints
   * Divination: Circle of Ashes and Stones, Magick Mirrors, Apple, Pumpkin Seed, and Water Divination
   * Rituals to Honor the Dead: The Dumb Supper, Samhain Fire, Soul Lights, Spirit Rattles and Spirit Bowls 

Halloween! (Holiday Series, 1) by Silver RavenWolf.