Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.
Jack-o’-lanterns are one of the most ubiquitous symbols of Halloween. Most of us carve one every year, ritualistically — almost unconsciously — whether we have children or not, and never stop to wonder, why? Where did this tradition begin? And who’s Jack?
Most of us were taught that Halloween is the night where the boundary between our world and the spirit world is thinnest, and that we dress up to avoid the attention of any imps or demons that have found their way across the veil. Jack-o’-lanterns are part of that, scowling on stoops and through windows, to ward off evil spirits.
But the jack-o’-lantern actually has its roots in old European legends about the will-o’-the-wisp. And tales of the will-o’-the-wisp spring from a natural phenomenon that in medieval times was called ignis fatuus, or foolish fire. And while the occult-minded throughout history and across cultures have dubbed these natural marvels as spook lights or ghost lights, everyone’s talking about the same thing: swamp gas.
Foolish fire traditionally appears over marshes. And the scientific explanation is that decomposing plants produce methane, which occasionally ignites. But elaborate myths have arisen the world over to explain these flickering balls of light, which are often seen as malicious beacons designed to lure unwary travelers to their deaths.
In India, they’re called chir-batti; in Bangladesh, aleya. Japanese call them hitodama. In every case the translation is some variation of soul light or ghost light, oftentimes associated with the restless souls of the dead.
South American cultures have given their legends a neat twist, saying the orbs are the flaming eyes of a boi-tata, or giant fiery serpent, that emerged from its cave after a great flood and started feeding on the eyes of bloated corpses.
In some European folk traditions, the lights are markers for treasures or faerie gold. Welsh folklore attributes them to pixies or hobgoblins, twisted faeries that use a glowing coal to lure travelers into a marsh or a bog, only to put the light out and leave them hopelessly lost.
J.R.R. Tolkien even put his own riff on these legends. The Dead Marshes didn’t wind up on the outskirts of Mordor by accident. Tolkien was mining the darkest corners of mythology to make Sauron’s domain touch a primal nerve in readers.
Most European folklore regarding ignis fatuus is a variation on this theme of malicious beings carrying flickering lights. Which bring us to will-o’-the-wisp, which translates to Will of the torch, and our old friend Jack of the lantern. Both Will and Jack are said to be wandering spirits who’ve been banned from both Heaven and Hell.
In one story, Will was a wicked blacksmith that convinced St. Peter to give him a second chance at a virtuous life. But he squandered that life in evil, too, and was sentenced to wander the Earth in purgatory. As a boon, the Devil gave him a coal from Hell to warm him and light his way, and Will uses the coal to lure travelers to a marshy death.
Irish variations of the story revolve around Stingy Jack, a lazy thief who managed to fool the devil not once, but twice.
The first time, he was having a drink with the Devil and didn’t want to pay. So cunning Jack urged the devil to turn himself into a coin that they could use to buy the drinks and fool the bartender; in another version of the coin story, Jack was fleeing from a village that he’d robbed when he met the Devil on the road. Again, he suggested that the Devil turn himself into a coin that he could use to pay for the stolen items and fool the villagers. Both stories end the same. The Devil agreed and turned himself into a coin — which Jack promptly put into his wallet next to a cross, trapping the Devil in that form.
To win his freedom, the Devil agreed not to bother Jack for 10 years.
A decade later, when the Devil returned to claim Jack’s soul, Jack acquiesced, requesting only a last meal. But when the Devil to climbed up a tree to pick him an apple, Jack carved a cross in the bark, trapping his adversary once again. This time Jack demanded an even higher ransom — that the Devil could never collect his soul. Again, the Devil agreed.
Eventually, Stingy Jack died. But Heaven told him to get lost and, true to his word, the Devil wouldn’t take Jack into Hell. But he did give him an ember from the pit. Jack took the glowing coal and put it into a hollowed-out turnip, making a lantern to light his eternal path. And he has since been known as Jack of the lantern, carrying his lonely light across the marshes of the night.
Soon people began carving their own lanterns out of potatoes and turnips, to ward off Jack’s wandering spirit, and any others that might happen by. And a new tradition was born, migrating across years and continents.
So let’s recap: marsh gas turns into ignis fatuus which turns into restless souls which turns into will-o’-the-wisp, which turns into Stingy Jack, which turns into a glowing gourd on your front stoop that some punk who’s too old to be trick or treating will probably smash because you gave him a bag of Utz pretzels instead of a Snickers Bar. Wandering Jack’s lantern has led him onto a strange byway indeed.
May your foolish fire burn bright and ward off the denizens of the night.