Jack-O-Lanterns and Will-O-the Wisps
New Hampshire Folk Tales and Beyond
New Hampshire Folk Tales is a compilation of old stories complied by the New Hampshire Federation of Woman’s Clubs in 1932. Since we are approaching Halloween, I thought I would start with this folk-tale found in the chapter on Witchcraft in New Hampshire.
“… Joseph Gage, the father of Betsy, had been working one day for somebody who lived on the back road. On his way home after dusk he saw what appeared to be two balls of fire in the road in front of him. He had in his hand an edged carpenter’s tool, called a draw-shave, which he held up and said, ‘Stand off!’ He went home unmolested. What he saw might have been inflammable marsh gas, or Jack-o-Lanterns, as they are sometimes called…”
Whoa, wait a minute, fiery Jack-O-Lanterns; what the heck is this all about? This isn’t the cute Jack-O-Lantern I’ve grown to know and love.
Centuries ago in a village in Ireland, there lived a drunkard known as “Stingy Jack”. “Jack was known throughout the land as a deceiver, manipulator and otherwise dreg of society. On a fateful night, Satan overheard the tale of Jack’s evil deeds and silver tongue. Unconvinced (and envious) of the rumors, the devil went to find out for himself whether or not Jack lived up to his vile reputation. Typical of Jack, he was drunk and wandering through the countryside at night when he came upon a body on his cobblestone path. The body with an eerie grimace on its face turned out to be Satan. Jack realized somberly this was his end; Satan had finally come to collect his malevolent soul. Jack made a last request: he asked Satan to let him drink ale before he departed to Hades. Finding no reason not to acquiesce the request, Satan took Jack to the local pub and supplied him with many alcoholic drinks. Upon quenching his thirst, Jack asked Satan to pay the tab on the ale, to Satan’s surprise. Jack convinced Satan to metamorphose into a silver coin with which to pay the bartender (impressed upon by Jack’s unyielding nefarious tactics). Shrewdly, Jack stuck the now transmogrified Satan (coin) into his pocket, which also contained a crucifix. The crucifix’s presence kept Satan from escaping his form. This coerced Satan to agree to Jack’s demand: in exchange for Satan’s freedom, he had to spare Jack’s soul for ten years.
“Ten years later to the date when Jack originally struck his deal, he found himself once again in Satan’s presence. Jack happened upon Satan in the same setting as before and seemingly accepted it was his time to go to Hades for good. As Satan prepared to take him to hell, Jack asked if he could have one apple to feed his starving belly. Foolishly Satan once again agreed to this request. As Satan climbed up the branches of a nearby apple tree, Jack surrounded its base with crucifixes. Satan, frustrated at the fact that he been entrapped again, demanded his release. As Jack did before, he made a demand: that his soul never be taken by Satan into Hades. Satan agreed and was set free. Eventually the drinking took its toll on Jack and he died. Jack’s soul prepared to enter heaven through the gates of St. Peter, but he was stopped. And Jack was told by God that because of his sinful lifestyle of deceitfulness and drinking, he was not allowed into Heaven. Jack then went down to the Gates of Hell and begged for commission into the underworld. Satan, fulfilling his obligation to Jack, could not take his soul. To warn others, he gave Jack an ember, marking him a denizen of the netherworld. From that day on until eternity’s end, Jack is doomed to roam the world between the planes of good and evil, with only an ember inside a hollowed turnip (“turnip” actually referring to a large rutabaga) to light his way.” One of many versions as told in Wikipedia.
In Ireland, people would carve out root vegetables and place them by their doors to ward of evil spirits. Once in America, the huge pumpkin became the vegetable of choice. By now you may have guessed that there is much more to this Jack-O-Lantern story, hidden in the deep, dark, recesses of ancient history.
Here’s more, as related at Gnostic Warrior.com. “In my last article on the mythology of the hidden meaning of the Jack-o-lantern I explained how this was really an ancient gnostic story that was developed by the Phoenician-Hebrew Druids who were known biblically as the children of Jacob (Jack). It is a tale of the, as within as without gnosis, in which Jack roams the dark countryside with a lantern in search of his soul with the light of his spirit.”
“It was in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales and other countries where the Druids had observed during the dark autumn nights a mysterious phenomenon of lights shooting from the swamps and marshes. These lights burned blue and gave the appearance of spirits rising from the swamps into the air where they would roam and disappear.
“There is also a mysterious science behind these gnostic myths that may indicate to us exactly why the Druids had developed this story of the Jack-o’-lantern. After all, the Druids were the sacred science keepers and priests of Europe who had valued knowledge and truth above all other worldly attributes.”
“To them, knowledge was not just power, but a key to the underworld and their immortality. The science of the Jack-o-lantern is centered around what is called swamp gas, which is also known by several other names such as ignis fatuus, marsh gas, will-o’-the-wisp, corpse candles, and a jack-o’-lantern. They are also called spook-lights, orbs, and ghost-lights that can be seen in graveyards and are known as ‘ghost candles.’ The will-o’-the-wisp and graveyard ghost candles are the basis of the myth that brought us our holiday of All Hallows Eve that is now known as Halloween, and the symbol of the Jack-o-lantern.”
In Fireballs: A History of Meteors and other Atmospheric Phenomena, Craig Hipkin states, “The ignis fatuus or will-o-the wisp is know by many other names around the world. In Ireland, England and Scotland and many Scandinavian countries it is sometimes referred to as ‘Jack-with-a-Lantern…’ In Japan these mysterious balls of fire are known as ‘Hitodama’ which translated into English means ‘human soul.’ They are believed to be the lost souls of the dead searching for a passageway into the spirit world…” So there you have it, you now can tell the tale of Stingy Jack, the Will-O-the Wisps and flaming orbs at pumpkin carving time.
New Hampshire Folk Tales, Mrs. Guy Spear, New Hampshire Federation of Woman’s Clubs, 1932