Emerald Isle

Stingy Jack and His Lantern

Irish and Celtic myths and legends, Irish folklore and Irish fairy tales and Irish Ghost Stories

Some people are too smart for their own good

Every year around Halloween, people carve pumpkins or turnips into faces and put candles inside them, but not many know that this custom came from Ireland originally, or the story behind it!

They say there was a blacksmith many years gone who was fond of his drink, and a mean drunk he was too, and tight with it. Not many friends did stingy Jack have, sober or otherwise, and he loved to play practical jokes on people.

Well, before too long his fame reached the devil himself, and old Nick clambered up out of his hole to have a chat with Jack. This didn't faze Jack in the slightest, and he ran up a mighty tab drinking with the evil one. But then the night was done and it was time to go, and the devil declared that Jack should pay the bill!

But Jack was a crafty old fellow, and said he'd barter his soul for the coin to cover the night's festivities. The devil readily agreed, and turned himself into a coin, but Jack slipped it into his pocket alongside a silver crucifix, before slipping out the back window. So caught in close quarters with the sign of his enemy and eventual demise, the devil had nowhere to go but down, and down he went.

Fuming at this trickery, the devil came back the very next night and demanded Jack's soul! Jack agreed, but asked if he could have but a taste of a sweet apple from the top of a tree before he went to his judgement, and up the devil went.

Quick as a flash Jack had carved crosses into every side of the tree and so blocked the devil form coming down until he swore to leave Jack be to live his mortal life, and so it was agreed.

Upon his death, Jack went to the gates of Heaven, but he was told there was no place for such a mean and uncharitable fellow, as lacking in virtue as he was. So he turned around and went down the wide and winding gloomy steps to hell, where the devil laughed and not only refused to let him in, but hurled an ember from the fires at him!

It lodged in his head and now his phantom walks the earth mournfully forever more with the light of hell burning from his empty eye sockets.

However and on an even more sinister note, other stories suggest that the carving of turnips into heads was based on a much older Gaelic custom!

Those parts of Irelands, Scotland and England where the Samhain lantern tradition was practiced are places where the Gaels once held sway, and where Gaelic culture wasn't completed subsumed by subsequent invaders. In that Gaelic culture, the taking of heads as trophies was the norm!

Diodorus Siculus of Greece wrote about the Celts in the first century:

"They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold…"

Another Greek called Strabo claims:

"There is also that custom, barbarous and exotic, which attends most of the northern tribes… when they depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses, and when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrance of their houses."

It is believed that the Celts thought the soul or life spark was seated in the head, and by taking a head, they could claim the soul within as well. Legends say that many heads kept talking long after separation from their bodies, by druid magic!

And of course there is the translation of the ancient and dreaded Gaelic god Crom Cruach, old black stoop of the many glooms, whose name means "the bloody head"...

Jack may well have walked the road below!

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