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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Shadow of Samhain: The Jack O'Lantern

After a little post-Halloween breather, The Shadow of Samhain once against casts a pall over the land! Yes, we're continuing into November...just a few more excellent entries to go. This time, Paul Bibeau, best-selling author of Sundays with Vlad and a blogger in his own right, shares with us one of Halloween's most tried-and-true legends...

The cheery, gap-toothed pumpkin you see on every doorstep conceals a dark history. According to the excellent Halloween by Lesley Bannatyne, we’ve inherited Jack from an Irish folktale about a man thought he could trick the devil.

Stingy and mean-spirited, Jack found himself face to face with Scratch, who told him his time on the earth was up. Jack requested one last drink at the local tavern, and Satan obliged – changing himself into a few coins in Jack’s purse to speed up the transaction and bring him on his way. But the devil found himself trapped by the cross that lay there among Jack’s belongings. In exchange for his freedom, the devil grudgingly granted Jack another year.

When the time passed, he confronted Jack again – and this time Jack’s last request was for the devil to climb up a tree and obtain a delicious apple. Jack whipped out his penknife and carved a cross on the trunk, again trapping the poor Prince of Lies. And this time, Jack’s bargain was to be left alone. When he finally died, Jack was refused admittance into heaven, but the devil couldn’t house him either. He sent him on his way through a dark and windy afterlife, with only a lantern carved out of a turnip and lit with a single ember from hell itself to guide him.

The story is part of a long line of folktales about mortals attempting to trick the devils – or the gods – and gamble with their own fate. And there’s usually a punishment. Because we intuitively understand, in that deep, dark place we don’t visit very often, or willingly… that we aren’t really in control of what happens to us. No matter what you do for the next few decades, or years, or even moments… soon you’ll find yourself, like Jack, being taken by the hand and told it’s time to go. No trick will save you.

A funny thing happened when the Irish came to the new world. They fell in love with these magnificent new world pumpkins, and substituted them for their turnip lanterns. And then the carvings of human faces became more elaborate. Jack became, in a curious way, trapped in his own lantern. Remember that as you trick or treat through a dozen country fields or suburban lawns this season. Because as you pass all those cheery, happy, well-lit faces, you might just hear one of them whisper your name as ask you:

Please. Please let me out.

Paul Bibeau blogs about horror folklore and posts his own scary, funny stories at www.goblinbooks.com.


William Malmborg said...

Great post. There is a funny Civil War story about jack-o-lanterns that frightened a few Confederate soldiers who were scouting out a Union position late in the war. The Union regiment was made up of Irish immigrants who had carved the pumpkins earlier in the day and lined the edge of the camp with them, and when the young Confederate soldiers saw them from a distance they had no idea what they were and fled.

B-Sol said...


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