Friday, October 26, 2018

The Origin of the Jack O'Lantern

The first pumpkins:
Archaeologists discovered the oldest domesticated pumpkin seeds in the Oaxaca Highlands of Mexico. It's believed that they originated in Central America around 8000 years ago. Pre-Columbian natives used the seeds from these pumpkins to grow them as a domesticated crop.The first pumpkins were not the bright orange variety we recognize as "pumpkins. The original pumpkins were small and firm, often greenish coloured with a rather bitter flavor. It's believed that pumpkins were among the first crops grown for human consumption in North America. I would imagine that Spaniards brought seeds back to Europe. 

Pumpkins today, are large hollow orange squashes with tough skin, seeds clinging to the dark moist inside walls made of a dense pithy flesh.  Most are used for decoration and are not edible, except for their seeds which can be soaked in a salt brine and then roasted - but the sweet and much smaller "pie pumpkins" are very edible and used for pies, desserts, soft breads and muffins. 

All Hallow's Eve vs Hallowe'en:

 The word Halloween or Hallowe'en is of Christian origin.The word "Hallowe'en" means "hallowed evening" or "holy evening". It comes from a Scottish term for All Hallows' Eve.  In Scotland the word "eve" translates "even" as in eventide, and this was shortened to e'en or een. Over time, (All) Hallow(s) E(v)en evolved into Hallowe'en. Although the phrase "All Hallows'" is found in Old English the term "All Hallows' Eve" is itself not seen in writings until the mid-16th C.
Today's Hallowe'en customs were likely influenced by beliefs from Celtic speaking countries, that had deep pagan roots which were eventually carried over into Christian beliefs. 
The festival included mumming and guising (disguising) in Ireland, Scotland, the Isle of Man and Wales. It involved people going from home to home in costume - usually reciting verses or songs in exchange for food.

This event most likely came from a tradition when people impersonated the souls of the dead, and received offerings from villagers on their behalf. Impersonating dead souls by wearing a disguise, was also believed to protect the wearer from evil ghosts. Mummers and guisers also personified the old spirits of the winter, demanding rewards in exchange for good fortune.

The first "Jack O'Lanterns" or "All Hallows Lights" were created in Ireland and Scotland; usually of turnips and other root vegetables, and were used during All Hallow's Eve.  So, when and why were they first carved with grinning faces and lit with candles and called Jack O'Lanterns? 

A turnip Jack O'Lantern

Another Turnip Jack O'Lantern 
(that looks to me like a mummified head!)
“Be silent in that solitude,
Which is not loneliness—for then
The spirits of the dead, who stood
In life before thee, are again
In death around thee, and their will
Shall overshadow thee; be still.”
"From Spirits of the Dead" Edgar Allan Poe

I love this little turnip head. She looks 
rather rakish and yet also innocent. 

So... is it possible these hollowed out vegetables were used to form a human-like head in order to make scarecrows to keep away greedy blackbirds from corn and other vegetables as they ripened in late summer? And then extended into the idea of carrying a small lantern with a face to represent a soul? They would have been very small heads...

And where did the idea of the pumpkin as a Jack O'Lantern come from? From a legend about a man named Stingy Jack.

The Legend of “Stingy Jack”

The practice of wandering around carrying lanterns to ward off evil spirits , apparently originated around an Irish myth about a grubby little reprobate called “Stingy Jack.”  
The story says that Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. However, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for their drinks, so he somehow managed to entice the Devil to turn himself into a coin. Jack planned to use the coin to pay for their drinks.  
Instead of paying for the drinks, Jack (not too bright to say the least) decided to keep the money instead and he put it into his pocket next to a silver cross which he apparently carried with him. (Clearly he was poor but he had a silver cross - mmmm -  that could have bought a lot of drinks!) - He slid the coin beside the cross and this prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. 

"Aha! Got you!" thought Jack  - no doubt. 
Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he wouldn't bother Jack for one year,  and that if Jack should die, the devil would not claim his soul.

The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil (the devil doesn't seem terribly bright either!) into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved the sign of the cross into the tree's bark and that silly old devil couldn't come down until he promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years. 
After much carousing and trouble making, Jack eventually died before the tens years was up.

As the story goes, Jack approached God, but God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven.

So, Jack's death put him between the devil and heaven, not the deep blue sea. The Devil, upset by the tricks Jack had played on him curiously kept his word (how honourable of him...) not to claim his soul, but he would not allow Jack into hell, either. 
The devious devil sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and he allegedly has been roaming the Earth for all these many years with his lit turnip lantern alight.

The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”

The Devil sends Jack off with his Turnip Lantern.

The Scots and Irish began to make their own version of Jack's lantern by carving faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or doorways hoping to scare Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits away. 
In England, large beets were eventually used. Immigrants from these countries brought the Jack O'Lantern tradition with them when they came to North America. They soon found that pumpkins, native to America, made the best Jack O’Lanterns of all.

Pumpkin Head
We bought a pumpkin big and round
that lived the summer through
without an eye to look at things...
and now it looks through two.
It used to be all dark inside
when growing on the vine,
but now it has a toothy smile
and face that's full of shine.

Aileen Fisher

Pumpkins and Jack O'Lanterns

A traditional carved pumpkin. 

When greeting cards grew in popularity in the late Victorian era 
and early 20th C,  they often had Jack O'Lanterns on them. 

Mr. Macklin’s Jack O’Lantern
David McCord

Mr. Macklin takes his knife
And carves the yellow pumpkin face:
Three holes bring eyes and nose to life,
The mouth has thirteen teeth in place.
Then Mr. Macklin just for fun
Transfers the corn-cob pipe from his
Wry mouth to Jack’s, and everyone
Dies laughing! O what fun it is
Till Mr. Macklin draws the shade
And lights the candle in Jack’s skull.
Then all the inside dark is made
As spooky and as horrorful
As Halloween, and creepy crawl
The shadows on the tool-house floor,
With Jack’s face dancing on the wall.
O Mr. Macklin! where’s the door?

This would make a nice  Mr. Macklin's Pumpkin!


"Pumpkin Head" by Jamie Wyeth, 1972

Hallowe’en Charm

Fern seed, hemp seed, water of the well,
   Bark of wizard hazel-wand, berry of the bay,
Let the fairy gifts of you mingle with the spell,
   Guard the precious life and soul of him that’s far away!

Oak slip, thorn slip, crystal of the dew,
   Morsel of his native earth, shoot of mountain pine,
Lend his arm the strength of you, let his eye be true,
   Send him like the thunderbolt to break the foeman’s line!

Rose leaf, elm leaf, kernel of the wheat,
   Airy waft of thistledown, feather of the wren,
Bring him peace and happiness, let his dream be sweet,
   Take my secret thought to him and call him home again.

1 comment:

Jane B said...

Love when you search out interesting things like this. I have never heard of Stingy Jack. Now I can add that to my Halloween knowledge. I always like the pictures, too!