If you have ever tramped around the woods after dark, you may have noticed an erie glowing substance on the forest floor. This is the light from luminescent fungi—foxfire. One of the most common fungi responsible for foxfire is Clitocybe illudens, also known as the Jack ‘o Lantern mushroom. Makes complete sense that it would be named that: it’s orange, it glows in the dark. But did you ever stop to wonder where the phrase “Jack ‘o Lantern” came from?
There’s an old Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” Stingy Jack was a drunken brawler who found great enjoyment from playing tricks on anyone who crossed his path. Jack also had the great misfortune of running into the Devil more than once.
Jack’s first encounter with the Devil happened at a local Irish pub within the village. Obviously Stingy Jack was called “Stingy Jack” for a reason, and he wasn’t about to change now in the face of the devil. Jack convinced the Devil to transform into a sixpence piece so that Jack could use him to pay for their drinks. In exchange for this transaction, the Devil would receive Jack’s soul. Little did the Devil know, Jack still had a few tricks up his sleeve.
After changing into the sixpence piece, Jack quickly tossed the Devil into his pocket next to a silver cross – thus preventing the Devil from returning to his original form. Jack then bargained with the Devil to keep his soul for 10 more years – in return for the Devil’s freedom. The Devil reluctantly agrees and Jack frees him. 10 years pass and Jack crosses paths with the Devil a second time. With the Devil ready to claim his soul, Jack made a last request: “I’ll go, but before I do – will you retrieve an apple from that tree for me? I’m awfully hungry!”
The Devil began to climb the tree, and while the Devil was climbing to the top of the tree, Jack carved a large cross into the back of the tree. Again, the Devil had been tricked and could not get down.
Jack; being quite pleased with himself; bargained yet again with the Devil – this time for the promise that the Devil would never, ever try to take his soul again. With no way out of the tree, the Devil agreed.
Years pass and Jack finally passes away. Unfortunately for Jack, all of his evil trickery and horrible deeds – God did not allow Jack into Heaven. The Devil, still bitter at Jack and his bag of tricks, kept his word and did not claim his soul. Jack was unable to get into Heaven, and unable to get into Hell.
“Wherever shall I go?” Jack asked the Devil, confused and afraid.
“Back to where you came from!” The Devil growled angrily at Jack and sent him on his way back to earth.
Jack’s journey back was very dark, and he begged for the Devil to lend him a light to help him lead the way. The Devil provided Stingy jack with a coal from the fires of Hell – which Jack then placed into a turnip he had in his pocket. The carved out turnip lead the way back to earth. Since then; Jack appears every Halloween, doomed to roam the earth in search of eternal rest – leading the way with his turnip lamp.
The Irish people began to refer to the ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and soon: “Jack O’Lantern.”
Traditionally on All Hallows Eve, many Irishmen make their own versions of Jack’s lantern by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them near doors and windows to scare away the body-snatching spirits.
Pumpkins weren’t actually used until the Irish immigrants brought the tradition of Jack-o-Lanterns with them to America – only to discover that pumpkins were easier to carve than their traditional turnips and potatoes. The traditional Jack-o-Lantern was a turnip!