The National Museum of Ireland—Country Life, near the town of Castlebar, displays a plaster cast of an early 1900s Jack O’Lantern, known as a “ghost turnip.”

Although the legendary Headless Horseman and his hurled pumpkin have been scaring humans for generations, jack-o’-lanterns actually trace their origins back centuries to Old World traditions in countries including Ireland, England, and Scotland. Along the way, pagan rituals, freaky folktales, and natural phenomena have interwoven to create a fascinating history that’s part fact, part fiction, and all frightfully fun.

A far cry from the grinning pumpkins of Halloween today, the original folklore version of Jack-o-Lanterns, named for Jack O’Lantern of the Irish myth, were actually quite terrifying. They were carved from turnips or beets rather than festive orange pumpkins and were intended to ward off unwanted visitors.

The Jack-o-Lantern story in Irish folklore

According to Irish folklore dating back hundreds of years in Irish history, a man called Jack O’Lantern was sentenced to roam the earth for eternity. A ghostly figure of the night, O’Lantern walks with a burning coal inside of a carved-out turnip to light his way.

As the tale goes, a miserable old drunk man called Stingy Jack invited the devil for a drink and convinced him to shape-shift into a coin to pay with. When the devil obliged, Jack decided he wanted the coin for other purposes and kept it in his pocket alongside a small, silver cross to prevent it from turning back into the Devil.

Jack eventually freed the Devil under the condition that he wouldn’t bother Jack for one year and wouldn’t claim Jack’s soul once he died. The next year, Jack tricked the devil once more by convincing him to climb up an apple tree to fetch a piece of fruit. When he was up in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the trunk so the devil couldn’t come down until he promised he wouldn’t bother Stingy Jack for another 10 years.

When Jack died, God wouldn’t allow him into Heaven as he was mean, cruel, and had led a miserable, worthless life on Earth, and the Devil wouldn’t allow him into Hell as he had promised Jack that he would not take his soul. He was instead sent into the eternal night, with a burning ember (from the flames of Hell) inside a carved-out turnip to light his way. From that day onward, he’s been roaming the Earth without a resting place, with only his dim turnip lighting the way. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” which then became “Jack O’Lantern.”

What was the original purpose for the use of the Jack-o-Lantern at Halloween?

This legend is why people in Ireland and Scotland began to make their own versions of Jack’s lantern by carving grotesque faces into turnips, mangelwurzels, potatoes, and beets, placing them beside their homes to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits and travelers.
Once this became a Halloween tradition, Jack-o-Lanterns were used as guides for people dressed in costume on Samhain (Oct 31 – Nov 1), a traditional Gaelic version of Halloween, seen as a night when the divide between the worlds of the living and the dead is especially thin. The Samhain festival marks the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter, the “darker half” of the year.

When the Irish and Scots immigrated to America in the 1800’s, bringing the tradition with them, they found that pumpkins, native to America, made perfect fruits for carving. Pumpkin Jack-o-Lanterns have been an integral part of Halloween festivities ever since.

Some believe that the Jack-o-Lanterns originated with All Saints’ Day and represent Christian souls in purgatory. Roaming Stingy Jack is in, after all, what would be considered purgatory.