Foolish Fire

Updated: Oct 2, 2021


by Elizabeth Faris

The very first Jack O’Lantern came complete with brain and central nervous system. He was self-propelled and bore wick in oil to light his worthy way on his rounds as night watchman. It was the unsung work of a mere mortal. Just Jack, his halberd, and his solitary shadow.

By the mid-1600s, however, he seemed to have risen from the lackluster ranks of the local constabulary to forge a shiny new name for himself in the realm of the ephemeral. The term Jack O'Lantern was among several that were lately being applied to one of Mother Nature's most scintillating spectacles. For if you were to venture after dark to the brink of a peat bog and peer across its umbral reach, you might chance to glimpse a ghostly plume of incandescent light fizzing to life before your very eyes. And it would doubtless bring to mind one of a dozen ghoulish yarns its enigma has engendered. It turns out, however, that what you have witnessed is really nothing supernatural at all. Formally-speaking, it is an ignis fatuus (giddy flame or foolish fire), or more colloquially, a hinkypunk, corpse candle, hobby lantern, friar’s lantern, Jack o'Lantern or Will-o'-the-Wisp. Now - as then - it is merely the eye-popping product of the combustion that occurs when decomposing plant matter undergoes oxidization. Still, one has only to stand alone in the chill dead of night and watch it crackling eerily through a web of blackened branches for time and the comfortable cloak of common sense to start to fall away.

Ignis Fatuus

It wasn't until the late 18th century that our man Jack finally broke from the bog to blaze his ultimate trail as Chief Dissuader of Demons. From antiquity, the peoples of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man had been convening on the last day of October to celebrate the halfway point between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. This pagan festival was known as Samhain, a name derived from ancient Irish samain, samuin, or samfuin (sam meaning 'summer' and fuin meaning 'end'). Coinciding with the end of harvest and the beginning of the darker half of the year, it was a time for mass gatherings with roaring bonfires and copious feasting. It was also the optimal moment for summoning the spirits of the Otherworld, for it was believed that on this particular night the veil between living and dead became so diaphanous as to allow them access to mingle in our midst. Indeed, Irish literature dating back to the 9th century alludes to ceremonial openings of Neolithic passage tombs that survive to today, and whose points of entry still align closely with sunrise on Samhain.

The souls that were supposed to emerge from these portals, whether of deity or just everyday departed, could take the form of friend or foe. Those of the Aos Sí (or pagan gods) would be received in an appropriate posture of fear and trembling and lavished with hospitality in the hope of securing the safety and comfort of one's family and livestock for the harsh winter to come. Others of a more personal nature were either warmly welcomed or hotly repelled, depending on whether they were perceived to have come in a spirit of fond reunion or fierce reprisal. The latter, of course, takes us back at last to Jack, whose job it was to perch upon step, stump, post or rail in locations these hellish vigilantes were most likely to frequent, assuming the most malevolent countenance his sculptors could contrive. In those days, their medium was turnip or mangel wurzel, which, although challenging to carve, seemed to yield an effect far more intimidating than our pumpkins do today.

Plaster cast of the original turnip Jack O'Lantern

Celtic legend has rendered many a kooky caricature of the original demon for whom the preemptive powers of the pugnacious turnip were intended. One of the most memorable from the mid-18th century features a lazy (but sly) blacksmith known as Stingy Jack, who, in his eternal quest for a freebie, finds an inventive way to dupe the Devil himself. Inviting the archfiend to the pub for a flagon of ale, he manages to charm him into morphing into a coin that they can use to foot the bill. With remarkably little effort, all goes according to plan. However, instead of using said coin for appointed purpose, the shameless trickster pockets it along with a silver cross designed to keep the Devil from reverting to his original form. He then strikes a bargain for his release on condition that he will, first, leave him to his own devices for an entire year and, second, not lay claim to his soul when he dies. By now, we have to assume that our protagonist has been endowed with unprecedented powers of persuasion, for once again he is successful in securing his outrageous terms. Indeed, after the year is up, instead of quitting while he's ahead, he decides to give the game another go round. This time he convinces the Devil to climb a tree in pursuit of some tantalizing fruit. Once he is fully ensconced in branches, Jack scratches the sign of the cross in the trunk, so that the fool may only descend if he promises to leave him be for a further ten years. However, here is where Jack's luck finally takes a turn. For all the while, God has been watching (as God tends to do). When, in the course of destiny, it seems the time has come for Jack to meet his Maker, he is summarily refused admittance to heaven, inveterate liar that he has shown himself to be. The Devil, meanwhile, is more than happy to keep his part in the second clause of the original bargain. He bars the doors of hell and sends the hapless conniver out into the night with nothing but a lump of burning coal to light his way. Stingy Jack is said to have put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been wandering abroad with it ever since, acting out a bootless discontent on the evening of Samhain.

The God-fearing tenor of the legend of Stingy Jack is testament to how the pagan traditions of Samhain were destined to meld with those of Christianity once that faith had made its way to Ireland. Monotheists had their own take on themes pertaining to death and the afterlife. In 1000 AD, the Roman Catholic Church designated November 1st and 2nd (All Souls' Day and All Saints' Day) a time for communal remembrance of dead saints, martyrs, and the faithful since departed. Consequently, for adherents, Jack O'Lantern became more symbolic of soul in purgatory than spurner of sundry spooks. Our own annual observance is an offshoot of this tradition, minus the Christian overtones. The name Hallowe'en, coined in 1745, is an abridgment of All Hallow Even, the Scots name for All Souls' Eve, which marks the beginning of Allhallowtide (All Saints' Time).

This is by no means to suggest that the urge to connect with the souls of the deceased is exclusive to cultures of Europe, Canada and America. In Mexico, for instance, on Dia de los Muertos, the gates of heaven are believed to open at midnight so that late loved ones may be reunited with their families. Likewise, in India, Nigeria, and Hong Kong spirits are given free reign during Pitru Pashka, Awuru Odo, and the Hungry Ghost Festival. Indeed, rituals that seek to bridge the gap between living and dead are conducted annually in every corner of the globe. There are no geographical constraints on the shadowy sway of Jack and his kind, for in truth, they are an extricable part of the nature of man. For as long as we live on, so will the raw instincts they represent, feared and revered by all who, by virtue of our shared inheritance, crave a means to comprehend the burning mystery of our own mortality.

Dia de los Muertos celebrated in Mexico

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