I’ve had a little question running on Twitter and Facebook:
If you’re over 40 and were brought up in Britain or Ireland, did you make Halloween lanterns when you were little?
I had over 300 responses and this, roughly speaking, is the result.
Scotland – all responded yes, with enthusiasm and lots of added detail.
Ireland – yes, except those that opted out for religious reasons.
Wales – a low response, but all yes.
England, northeast: yes.
England, old Cumberland: yes.
England, old Westmorland: one yes, the rest no.
England, Midlands: mixed.
England, south: one solitary yes; the rest, no.
Every positive respondent reported that their lanterns were made from turnips or swedes, not pumpkins.
What I found fascinating about this is that most of the English were convinced that the Halloween lantern is an uncomfortably commercial American invention. There was little knowledge that the Scots and Irish have made them for at least two or three hundred years and took the custom with them to the States, only for the Americans to jazz it up a bit and export it right back.
The history of the lantern is hazy. A clue is in the Halloween lantern’s alternative name, the ‘jack o’ lantern’. There are several different stories about ‘Jack’; they all say that he was a sinful lad who hadn’t a hope of entering heaven. He plotted to trick the devil – in one example, Jack chased the horny one up a tree, drew a cross on the trunk to stop him climbing down, and only agreed to remove it if the devil promised not to take Jack to hell – but the devil tricked him right back. He said that Jack wouldn’t be allowed into either heaven or hell, so he would be condemned to wander the earth for eternity. When Jack complained that he would be lost, the devil threw him a burning coal to light his way, turning him into the strange light – in reality, burning methane – seen on marshes and boggy ground at night. The Halloween lantern is supposed to be Jack’s skull, illuminated by the ever-burning hell coal.
We don’t know how far this tradition goes back. The name, ‘jack o’ lantern’, was in use at the end of the 17th century, but that referred to the marsh gas lights specifically, rather than the Halloween lantern. The earliest reference that I’ve been able to find of an actual lantern comes from the American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who wrote in 1837:
‘Hide it under thy cloak, say’st thou? Why, it will gleam through the holes, and make thee look like a jack o’ lantern!’
The parts of Britain and Ireland where the Halloween lantern tradition was practiced are so-called Celtic areas (including Cumbria), or, at least, areas where an underlying culture wasn’t wholly overrun by later (Viking and germanic) invaders from the continent. And Halloween lanterns were by no means the first head-shaped objects flaunted by the Celts… they used to flaunt actual heads.
The Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, wrote about the Celts in the first century BCE and he said,
‘They cut off the heads of enemies slain in battle and attach them to the necks of their horses. The blood-stained spoils they hand over to their attendants and striking up a paean and singing a song of victory; and they nail up these first fruits upon their houses, just as do those who lay low wild animals in certain kinds of hunting. They embalm in cedar oil the heads of the most distinguished enemies, and preserve them carefully in a chest, and display them with pride to strangers, saying that for this head one of their ancestors, or his father, or the man himself, refused the offer of a large sum of money. They say that some of them boast that they refused the weight of the head in gold…’
Strabo, another Greek historian of about the same era says that,
‘There is also that custom, barbarous and exotic, which attends most of the northern tribes… when they depart from the battle they hang the heads of their enemies from the necks of their horses, and when they have brought them home, nail the spectacle to the entrance of their houses.’
It is thought that the Celts believed that the head was the home of the soul, and that seizing heads implied that they had won a battle with that man’s soul and now had ownership of it.
Heads appear in Celtic mythology, too, most famously in the Old Welsh story of Bran and his sister, Branwen. The king of Ireland, Matholwch, comes to Wales to ask for Branwen’s hand in marriage, but Efnisien, Bran and Branwen’s half-brother, objected and mutilated Matholwch’s horses. The marriage went ahead, but Matholwch mistreated Branwen so her brother launched an expedition to rescue her. Bran was killed, but his head was removed, still talking, and taken home, where it continued to interract daily with his friends. Bran’s head was eventually buried where the Tower of London now stands.* This is relevant to Cumbria, because we spoke the same language as the Welsh until the 10th century, and we shared the same mythology.
The head of Urien Rheged, the great 6th-century Cumbrian ‘king’, was cut off after he was assassinated at Lindisfarne and brought back to Cumbria by his cousin, the neighbouring king, Llywarch Hen. Perhaps this was to ensure that the hero’s essence wasn’t captured by his enemies.
As well as capturing actual heads, the Celts made images of heads – not just the familiar facial depictions common to art, but stylised disembodied heads. Many of them are strikingly similar, with oddly-shaped, staring eyes. Some of them grimace, and quite a few have hilariously luxuriant moustaches. There is quite a collection of these ancient Celtic heads in Carlisle’s Tullie House Museum.
So, most historians would nail me to the entrance of my house for suggesting it, but I just wonder if those nations with a strong current of celticness – whether overtly, as in Scotland and Ireland, or more subtly in Cumbria – didn’t quite lose the habit of waving scary heads about, at least once a year.
Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1837
The Stations of the Sun by Ronald Hutton, 1996
Pagan Celtic Britain by Ann Ross, 1996
The Gods of the Celts by Miranda Green, 2004
Iron Age Britain by Barry Cunliffe, 2004
The Celts by Nora Chadwick, 1971
*As an aside, Bran’s name is derived from the Welsh for ‘raven’; the iron-age people of Cumbria, such as Urien of Rheged, were also described as ‘ravens’ by Taliesin. The Tower of London is home to many (feathered) ravens and it is said that there must always be six ravens, or ‘the kingdom will fall’. Historic Royal Palaces