Scary, Scarier & Scariest: Halloween lanterns to Celtic headhunters!

I’ve had a little question running on Twitter and Facebook:

Jack-o'-Lantern c. Toby Ord, taken at Holywell Manor Halloween celebtrations in 2003.

Jack-o'-Lantern c. Toby Ord

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.

Celtic head from Longtown, Cumbria (Tullie House, Carlisle)

1st c. Celtic head from Longtown, Cumbria

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.’

Celtic head from Burgh-by-Sands, Cumbria (Tullie House)

3rd c. Celtic head from Burgh-by-Sands, Cumbria

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.

© DianeMcIlmoyle 20.10.11 


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

21 thoughts on “Scary, Scarier & Scariest: Halloween lanterns to Celtic headhunters!

  1. Very interesting article, thanks for sharing!! 😀 Nice to see that so many adults carved jack o’ lanterns as children! Might have to ask a few relatives in the south and see if they did too! I’m 29 but as a kid in the westcountry remember carving beets and turnips rather than pumpkins, as my dad knew a farmer and would give us a couple for free! Lot harder to cut than pumpkins if I remember rightly!!

    • Aha! Although my survey didn’t track any down, various books have said that there was an isolated patch of English lantern making in Somerset – looks like that was you! That was also where they used a non turnip/swede with a weird name – that must be the beet you mention. But did you collect and dry your enemies’ heads as well, I wonder? 😉

  2. Fascinating piece, Diane – thanks for sharing.

    Interestingly, I’ve come across Jack O’ Lantern referenced in Irish and American folklore (not surprising considering Jack was assumed of Irish origin) but never in Scottish. (Not even Jock O ‘Lantern!)

    It must be difficult to extrapolate any “truth” from Celtic lore – we were famed for our story-telling for good reason (possibly to baffle historians-to-come?)!

    • Hi Clare! 🙂

      You’re right, Jack is more Irish and American than anything else. I find that story odd, in folklore terms – it seems relatively recent (by which I mean post-Reformation). There’s a whopping great gap between the Year 0 – or earlier – and the mid-16th century!

      It could be, of course, that some wag just came up with the carved turnip + candle, stuck them under a hedge, scared the girls and started a trend. But I *want* to believe in the Celtic head idea… 😉

  3. I know exactly what you mean, Diane – the Celtic head idea appeals to me too and it actually seemed quite “logical” when I read your post.

    What fascinates me must frustrate you…:
    ) (I wonder what historians in the future will make of your avatar? 😉 )

  4. Ahh that’ll be the Somerset custom of Punkie Night you’re thinking of 😀 Happens 3rd Thursday in october if I remember rightly… they carve turnips etc and have a parade and party I think… theres a few places that celebrate it but I think the main one is Hinton St George! Strangely enough, only heard about Punkie Night about 3 years ago and never made it along to see the event for myself, so it’s not all that well publicised or at least it wasn’t when I was a kid! Unless my parents just never told me about it as they knew i’d want to go along!! 😀 Will have to go along if i’m ever visiting down south at the same time it’s on! Think we just carved beets as a kid purely as my dad got them for free… in my teenage years I carved pumpkins from Tescos like everyone else did! I think they were called sugarbeets or something like that… will have to ask my dad!

  5. Interesting, and something I’d always suspected – that jack o’lanterns are a memory of Celtic headhunting. To add to your list – I noticed in Derbyshire some years back that many houses and wall there, some even newish ones, have small stone heads placed into the stonework, often near or over doors — the same places Celtic warriors would have put their prized heads so that the spirits of the dead would protect their houses from evil. Turns out that part of Derbyshire is thought to have been home to an isolated population of ‘Celtic’ Britons well into the Anglo-Saxon period.

    And don’t forget the OTHER Halloween here in Britain: Bonfire Night traces right back to Samhain as well!

    • Greetings to Gododdin! 😉

      Funnily enough I had seen sporadic reference to the Peak District area, and indeed other pockets in roughly the Midlands.

      I’m not entirely sure my link between lanterns and headhunting would wash with an academic historian given there are many centuries between them, but I like it!

      I’d love to hear if there’s any very solid evidence of bonfires at Samhain, as Ronald Hutton is quite sceptical. Perhaps the Highlands, I think he said, but not England.

      Thanks for coming over and please bring your Gododdin knowledge here again! 🙂

    • Turns out that part of Derbyshire is thought to have been home to an isolated population of ‘Celtic’ Britons well into the Anglo-Saxon period.

      I don’t suppose you could say where you found that idea and what it was based on, could you? I’d be interested to follow it up a little.

      • I’d be interested in learning more, too. I’m not up to date with current thinking on the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the Peak District. My knowledge of the ‘Pecsaete’ begins and ends with Audrey Ozanne’s classic paper ‘The Peak Dwellers’ of forty years ago. I don’t recall any mention there of a British enclave among all the descriptions of 7th century pagan burials (identified by Ozanne as Anglo-Saxon) but maybe things have moved on since then.

  6. Just been to Balquhidder in the Scottish Trossachs this past week, and there’s a fairy hill there called Tom-nan-Aingeal, or the knoll of fire. It’s said that from early days right up to the beginning of the 19th century, fires were held on the knoll every Beltane and Samhain, and that all fires in the village were put out and the folk went to the knoll of fire to recieve new fire to rekindle their hearths. The source, Braes of Balquhidder by Elizabeth Beauchamp, also says that the knoll probably had druid associations. This book was written in the late 70s / early 80s I think, and haven’t researched deep enough yet to look for earlier sources and information, sounds quite convincing though, especially considering the name of the knoll! There were also said to be fires held on the nearby Ben Ledi, or ‘Hill of God’, to worship Baal. How about this for a strange and disturbing custom (from Scotland By William Beattie, 1838)…

    “On All-Saints’ eve, also, numerous bonfires were lighted, and the ashes of each collected into a circular heap, in which a stone was put near the edge for every person in the hamlet, and the individual whose stone-representative happened to be displaced by the following morning, was regarded as fey – that is, one whose days were numbered, and might be expected to die within twelve months.”

    Bit morbid!! and nothing compared to the horrors they apparently did at Beltane, when they used an oatcake to pick a “victim” to sacrifice to baal, apparently! Gotta take it all with a pinch of salt I think, though would love to know if its true!

    • Thank you, Laura – that’s excellent. I seem to recall that Ronald said that the only place that had a definite tradition of Samhain fires was the Highlands, and there you’ve found it. There are other rituals at Samhain to do with forecasting the next year’s deaths, and I guess this is just one of them. It’s funny how Victorian books have them worshipping Baal rather than Bel… still, I guess ideas have moved on a bit.

      I still suspect that the real fire festival was Beltane, just we’ve all convinced ourselves that there must be one at Samhain to link to Bonfire Night.

      Thanks for coming over and please come again soon 🙂

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  9. Hi Diane. Fascinating as ever. For the record, I grew up in Blackpool and, as a child, we used turnips for Jack O’Lantens. There was no trick or treat back then, but games such as bobbing for apples. Think I will try re introducing the turnip to Samhain this year. Maybe I will finally get to try turnip mash.

    • Great idea, Barry! So many people ‘of our age’ commented that they were sad that the traditional turnip/swede lantern seems to have gone out of fashion. Although I have it on good authority that you need to buy a pack of elastoplast before you start carving 🙂

      Have fun!

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