Witchtober Day 31 – Pumpkin

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

The pumpkin, that ubiquitous orange symbol of Hallowe’en, is of course an American import, a winter squash native to the US and Mexico, and now seen worldwide carved into grinning and grimacing faces on Hallowe’en night.

The tradition of carving these faces pre-dates the use of pumpkins for this, and derives from Irish and Scottish tradition, where “turnips or mangel wurzels, hollowed out to act as lanterns and often carved with grotesque faces” (Hutton, 1996) were used for apotropaic magic, to ward off evil spirits that may have been wandering the earth on Samhain night.

The popularity of the pumpkin as the vegetable of choice to carve into Jack o’ Lanterns today may have as much to do with it being easier to carve than a turnip as it has to do with the Americanisation of Hallowe’en traditions! Although, the turnip ones can be absolutely terrifying as the image below shows.

A traditional Irish turnip Jack-o’-lantern from the early 20th century. Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland. Credit: rannṗáirtí anaiṫnid via Wikipedia (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

It is unclear how ancient this tradition may be – records of it date back only to around the 19th century, but it may have derived from much older Samhain traditions. The name “Jack o’ Lantern” for these vegetable lanterns comes from various folktales featuring the character Stingy Jack, Jack the Smith, or Jack o’ Lantern who, in various ways, makes a deal with the Devil then tricks him so that he agrees to not take his soul. When Jack dies, he is deemed too sinful to be let into Heaven, and the Devil refuses him entry into Hell, so that he has nowhere to go and instead wanders the earth carrying a single burning coal from Hell in a lantern as his only light, hence the name Jack of the Lantern. This story was recounted by “E.W.” in an 1835 edition of the Dublin Penny Journal, though this version makes no mention of the lantern being carved from a turnip.

Interestingly, the folktale of Jack may itself be a later formulation of an earlier belief as the term Jack o’ Lantern was used, especially in East Anglia, as a word for the phenomenon known as a Will o’ the Wisp, or ignis fatuus since at least the 1600s (Douglas, 2013).

Writing for the Woodland Trust, Danielle Wesley (2019) points out that around 18,000 tons of pumpkins go to waste in the UK each year once Hallowe’en is over. While a pumpkin that has sat on the doorstep in the rain overnight might not make the best pumpkin soup the following day, it can be recycled to benefit wildlife, by turning it into a bird feeder or cutting into pieces to add to compost piles for minibeasts, while the seeds can be left on bird tables to be enjoyed by passing sparrows and finches.

May your Jack o’ Lanterns burn bright this Hallowe’en night!

References:

E.W. (1835) “History of Jack o’-the-lantern”, Dublin Penny Journal vol. 3-4.

Harper, Douglas (2013), “Jack-o’-lantern”, Online Etymology Dictionary: https://www.etymonline.com/word/Jack-o’-lantern#etymonline_v_1626

Hutton, Ronald (1996), The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford University Press.

Wesley, Danielle (2019), “What to do with pumpkins and pumpkin seeds”, The Woodland Trust: https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/blog/2019/10/what-to-do-with-pumpkins/

That’s the end of my Witchtober 2021 blog posts: many thanks to @MatlockHare and @saffrussellart for coming up with the prompts and sharing them online.

3 comments

  1. Thoroughly enjoyed this series of blogs! I’ve tried very hard to not comment on every one so I don’t come across as an insufferable know-it-all. Thank you very much for the very interesting articles!

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.