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Stories of the Jack-o-Lantern

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Being Halloween (and Samhain) I figured I would offer two stories about the Jack-o-Lantern, one a christian version and one a pagan version, with a bit of history.



The Jack-o-Lantern, as we know it, has its roots in the traditions of Ireland where the people would hollow out turnips and place either a glowing cole, some sort of flame, or a candle inside to light the way for the souls seeking the afterlife. This was most commonly done during the time the Irish Pagans believed the veil between the lands of the living and the dead were at its thinnest- a holiday known as Samhain. As Christianity made its way into Ireland Samhain rituals were discouraged and a new holiday was created, eventually called Halloween and the people of Ireland transfered some of their old traditions to this new holiday- Jack-o-Lanterns being one of them. When the Irish began coming to North America they found pumpkins were more prevelant than turnips- this coupled with the comercialization of the new holiday in North America- is why today Jack-o-Lanterns are made most commanly of pumpkins.


Christian Version


The story of the Jack O' Lantern originates from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed "Stingy Jack." According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the devil to have a drink with him, but Jack didn't want to pay for his drink. He convinced the devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the devil did just that, Jack kept the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the devil from changing back into his original form.


Eventually, Jack freed the devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and, in the event Jack should die, the devil not claim his soul.


The next year, Jack again tricked the devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit, but kept him up there by carving a cross into the tree bark. Jack freed him upon the devil's promise of not bothering him for 10 more years.


Not long after that event, Jack died, and due to his behavior, would not be allowed into heaven. The devil, upset by the tricks Jack played on him, would not allow Jack into hell. Instead, he 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 has been roaming the Earth ever since.


Pagan Version

Long ago there lived a man named Jack.


Jack was a handsome man, big and strong, equal in prowess both in battle and in bed. He had many friends, and many a young lass pined after him.


It so happened once, when Jack was in the midst of a battle, laying low the foes of his tribe, that he suddenly saw a wondrous vision. A woman, beautiful beyond his wildest dreams, dark of hair and eye, and with skin as pale as virgin snow, riding a flaming chariot, spear in hand, and a raven on each shoulder.


As the chariot drew close, the woman spoke to Jack.


"Come with me," she said, "for I love Thee, and would have Thee with me for all time."


But Jack was frightened, for he recognized the woman for what She was. "I don't want to go with Thee," he answered in a shaking voice, "I know Thee - Thou art the Morrighan, the Chooser of the Slain, and I am not ready to die."


Bright sparked the eyes of the Goddess in pride and anger, and She wheeled her chariot and was gone from Jack's vision.


But as he stood there, frozen in awe, an enemy warrior struck him a great sword blow across the face. Jack did not die from his wound, but his face was forever ruined, and the lasses that pined after him before, now ran from him in fear. And so Jack did not marry.


Time passed. Jack learned the art of a harper, and became known across the land for his beautiful melodies, for though he could not sing, his hands were skilled and gentle on the strings, and his lilting tunes brought both joy and sadness to the heart.


It so happened once, that when Jack was travelling, he stopped at an Inn on the crossroads. He was served his dinner by a beautiful middle-aged woman, full of figure, with dark, all-knowing eyes, and raven tresses braided in a crown around her pale face.


When Jack got into his wagon, and was ready to travel on, this same woman, wearing a dark cloak, stepped from the shadow of a nearest tree.


"Do not travel further, Jack," she said in a husky voice, "Come with me instead, for I love Thee, and I would have Thee with me for all time."


But Jack was frightened, for he recognized the woman for what She was. "I don't want to go with Thee," he answered in a shaking voice, "I know Thee - Thou art the Morrighan, the Fantom Queen, and I am not ready to die."


Bright sparked the eyes of the Goddess in pride and anger, and She whirled around, her dark cloak flaring around her like the wing of a raven, and disappeared into the shadow.


Jack continued on, but not half a mile along the road his horses spooked and ran wild, his wagon overturned, and he was gravely wounded when he fell out and was caught under the wheel. He did not die, but he lost his arm, and could play his harp no more after that.


Time passed. Though Jack was never again a warrior or a harper, his family, his kin, cared kindly for him. But everyone grows old, and in time, his brothers got old, and his sisters got old, and the younger generation no longer cared for him as well as his own siblings.


It so happened once, that right after his last brother's death, Jack was crossing a small river at a ford. It was late Autumn, and he paused on the bank to take off his shoes and socks, and roll up his breaches before wading into the almost-freezing water. Then, when he looked up again, he noticed something strange. Where the bank he was on was still red and gold with Autumn leaves, the other bank was white with snow, which lay in a thick blanket, as if it had been there for weeks. Amidst the snows, behind the dark shapes of old, gnarled trees, he saw a village, half-hidden in the mist. Warm, golden light shined from the windows of the houses that seemed familiar and welcoming to him. In front of one the houses he thought he saw his dead brother wave and fade into the gathering gloom. He also noticed an old woman on the other side, crouched by the water, and covered in dark, shapeless rags. She seemed to be washing something in the river, and her arms were red up to the elbows, and where she touched the water, the river ran red as blood. To his horror, Jack noticed that what she was washing looked very much like his own best embroidered tunic that he was wearing for his brother's funeral. The old woman looked up, and her face was as white as snow and deeply lined, with grey wisps of hair framing it like a halo, and deeply sunken black eyes that seemed like the pits of the night.


"Cross the river, and come to me, Jack," she said in a harsh, raspy voice, "for I love Thee, and I would have Thee with me for all time."


But Jack was frightened, for he recognized the woman for what She was. "I don't want to go with Thee," he answered in a shaking voice, "I know Thee - Thou art the Morrigan, the Hag, the Washer at the Ford, and I am not ready to die."


Suddenly, where before there was an old woman, The Great Queen stood in all Her Otherworldly majesty, the dark rags magically transforming into the dark wings of a raven.


"Thou art a fool, Jack!" She raged, as her black tresses flew wildly around Her face, and her eyes flamed like stars at midnight. "Thrice thy time came, and thrice I offered thee my love, for I had chosen thee as a wife would choose a husband. Thou could have been a young warrior at my side. Thou could have woven songs of splendor at my feast. Thou could have lived with me in peace and with thy family about thee. And thrice you rejected me out of fear. Now I reject thee. Never more shall I come to thee. Never more shall I call to thee. But by my curse thou shalt live for as long as this candle burns."


She reached across the river - it seemed easy now, for She was more then human - and placed a candle on the ground at Jack's feet. Then she was gone, snow and the misty village disappearing with Her, leaving nothing but an Autumn forest behind.


At first, Jack was terrified. The candle was small - surely it would burn down and die within minutes, and Jack along with it. But as minutes passed, he felt great relief, for not a drop of wax rolled down the side of the candle, and it did not seem to be burning down at all.


Carefully guarding the flame of the candle, Jack went home.


Time passed. Year after year, rolling in unending cycles. Everyone whom Jack had known as a young man had long since passed away. No one was left who even knew who he was, and in his small village he was just treated as a crazy old man, a burden on everyone, and a helper to none, for while he lived on and on, he also got older and older, and weaker and weaker, and even his mind started giving out after awhile. After a very long time, all he knew was that he had to keep his candle burning, lest he die.


His house fell into ruin, his field went untended, and all that would grow there were some turnips that his neighbors planted for him out of kindness. One night, a lightening bolt struck his house, and it burned down. Jack then took one of the turnips from his field, carved it into a lantern, and put his candle there, so that it would be protected from the rain.


He left his village and started wondering about with his lantern, looking and calling to friends and family long gone. His body grew older and older, until even his flesh disappeared, leaving only a spirit without physical substance. He hardly even noticed, for even as a spirit he still could not pass to the Other World, wondering this one with his lantern, a sad and lonely ghost, forever cursed from his fate by his fear.


And that is why turnip lanterns - now pumpkin lanterns - are called Jack-o-lanterns, and that is why we light them on Samhain - to remember Jack and his great fear, and to light the way for all the lost souls wondering about in the darkness looking for the passage to the Otherworld.


I hope you have enjoyed these stories as they are two of my favorites about the origin of the Jack-o-Lantern.

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