Wight of the Living Dead

The Corpse Candle preceded the carved pumpkin
Halloween Pumpkins
Carving Jack-o’-Lanterns is a Halloween tradition.

I once spent a misty October 31st at the cottage of a friend in Cornwall, England, enumerating Yankee Halloween customs. In a fit of nostalgia, I ventured that every front porch in America would be displaying the Jack-o’-Lantern.

This intrigued my friend. In England, he told me, Jack-o’-Lantern was another name for the Will-o’-the-Wisp or in church Latin, ignis fatuus (foolish fire). When I described a carved pumpkin with a candle in it, his face brightened. Fetching a penknife and choosing a tangerine from a fruit bowl, he set to work. Minutes later, he had lighted a thimbleful of cooking oil inside the hollow, deftly incised skin, and set the diminutive Jack-o’-Lantern on the fireplace mantel.

“The old folks used to carve heads from potatoes or turnips,” he explained. “Why not pumpkin heads?”

The following Halloween, back in the United States, I found myself looking at Jack-o’-Lanterns in a fresh light. I had assumed that the carving of vegetable lanterns was Celtic in origin. But how had Veg-o’-Lanterns become Jack-o’-Lanterns, much less Will-o’-the-Wisps, when they were traditionally called “heads” in the Celtic fringe counties of Wales and England?

Irish traditional tales suggest that the Jack-o’-Lantern got its name from the mythical figure who carried it. “Jack” is a time-honored generic for man. So, Jack-o’-Lantern glosses as The Man with the Lantern.

A quintessential Irish yarn tells of Jack being doomed, for various offenses against God and the Devil, to wander between Heaven and Hell until Resurrection Day. In the darkness, Jack improvises a lantern out of a turnip and lights it with a coal wheedled from the Devil, himself.

Aside from ignis fatuus and Will-o’-the-Wisp, various local names evolved for the mysterious wandering light, among them Peg-o’-Lantern. All shared in common the impression of someone carrying a ghostly blue flame through the night. Another wayfaring ghost in Celtic-Irish lore, the Corpse Candle, is said to light the way before funeral processions with a lantern made from a candle in a skull.

It is believed that “All Hallow E’en” evolved from Celtic New Year’s observances called Samhain. Samhain also means Lord of the Dead and Lord of the Coming-Together. For the ancient Celts, the old year gave way to the new year every Oct. 31st, creating a hiatus in the cycle of the seasons. Supernatural beings trouped through the countryside, and the year’s dead visited their homes before being led away by the pale blue light from the Lord of the Dead’s lantern.

The Celts regarded the head as the seat of one’s spiritual powers, a belief expressed clearly in their practice of decapitating and preserving the heads of enemies slain in battle, and later in the recurring head motif found in their temple architecture and artwork. The Celtic torque, a neck ornament, is typically shown around the throats of decapitated gods and cultural heroes.

Surviving Welsh and Irish myths credit the head with a life independent of the body. So, it is no great leap to envision Samhain’s lantern as a skull, like the Corpse Candle’s. Under Christianity, skulls lighted by candles would become vegetable simulacra.

Yet, not until one considers the Bog People discovered in northern Europe and the British Isles do such impressions begin to make sense. Believed to have been human sacrifices made between 100 B.C. and 500 A.D., the bodies were partially preserved in peat bogs. Some were headless, some partially decapitated and others had torque-like ropes knotted around their necks.

Partial decomposition of the bodies, sealed in bog ponds that gradually filled with plant debris, would have released methane gas. The marsh-dwelling Will-o’-the-Wisp and Corpse Candle could have been specters resulting from the spontaneous igniting of methane as it mixed with air.

When some Celtic progenitor spotted a flame dancing over a sacred bog, he knew who had come to lead the dead away. … Did he call it Samhain, Will-o’-the-Wisp or perchance, Jack-o’-Lantern?

This article was first published in Archaeology magazine. It appears here with the permission of the writer Wynn Parks, a folklorist, novelist, and freelancer who lives in Santa Rosa Beach.


Categories: Decorating, History