Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Halloween Legend of Stringy Jack by Sarah J. McNeal

Stringy Jack and the Devil

People have been making jack-o’-lanterns at Halloween for centuries. The practice originated from an Irish myth about a man nicknamed “Stingy Jack.” According to the story, Stingy Jack invited the Devil to have a drink with him. True to his name, Stingy Jack didn’t want to pay for his drink, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that Jack could use to buy their drinks. Once the Devil did so, Jack decided to keep the money and put it into his pocket next to a silver cross, which prevented the Devil from changing back into his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would not bother Jack for one year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree’s bark so that the Devil could not come down until the Devil promised Jack not to bother him for ten more years.

Another version of the coin story says that Jack was getting chased by some villagers from whom he had stolen, when he met Satan, who claimed it was time for him to die. However, the thief stalled his death by tempting Satan with a chance to bedevil the church-going villagers chasing him. Jack told Satan to turn into a coin with which he would pay for the stolen goods (Satan could take on any shape he wanted); later, when the coin (Satan) disappeared, the Christian villagers would fight over who had stolen it. The Devil agreed to this plan. He turned himself into a silver coin and jumped into Jack's wallet, only to find himself next to a cross Jack had also picked up in the village. Jack had closed the wallet tight, and the cross stripped the Devil of his powers; and so he was trapped.

In both folktales, Jack only lets Satan go when he agrees never to take his soul. After a while the thief died, as all living things do. Of course, his life had been too sinful for Jack to go to heaven; however, Satan had promised not to take his soul, and so he was barred from hell as well. Jack now had nowhere to go. He asked how he would see where to go, as he had no light, and Satan mockingly tossed him an ember from the flames of Hades, that would never burn out. Jack carved out one of his turnips (which were his favorite food), put the ember inside it, and began endlessly wandering the Earth for a resting place. He became known as "Jack of the Lantern", or Jack-o'-lantern.

Jack-o-lanterns were also a way of protecting your home against the Undead. Superstitious people used them specifically to ward away vampires. They thought this because it was said that the Jack-o-lantern's light was a way of identifying vampires and, once their identity was known, they would give up their hunt for you.

Did You Know?
Turnip Jack-O-Lanterns

The original jack-o'-lanterns were carved from turnips, potatoes or beets.
Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the trick Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved-out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as “Jack of the Lantern,” and then, simply “Jack O’Lantern.”
Potato and Turnip Jack-O-Lanterns in Scotland & Ireland

In Ireland and Scotland, people began to make their own versions of Jack’s lanterns by carving scary faces into turnips or potatoes and placing them into windows or near doors to frighten away Stingy Jack and other wandering evil spirits. In England, large beets are used. 

American Pumpkin Version of A Jack-O-Lantern

Immigrants from these countries brought the jack o’lantern tradition with them when they came to the United States. They soon found that pumpkins, a fruit native to America, make perfect jack-o’-lanterns.

These days people have become very creative carving up those Halloween Jack-O-Lanterns. Here are a few of my favorites.

This is me--not to be confused with the scary pumpkins above.

·          Sarah J. McNeal is a multi-published author of several genres including time travel, paranormal, western and historical fiction. She is a retired ER and Critical Care nurse who lives in North Carolina with her four-legged children, Lily, the Golden Retriever and Liberty, the cat. Besides her devotion to writing, she also has a great love of music and plays several instruments including violin, bagpipes, guitar and harmonica. Her books and short stories may be found at Prairie Rose Publications and its imprints Painted Pony Books, and Fire Star Press. She welcomes you to her website and social media:


  1. What a fascinating article on how Jack-0-lanterns came to be known. Amazing how myths, legends, & superstitions can travel through the centuries and influence our traditions. Great pumpkin heads; and a very nice photo of you, Sarah.

  2. Cheri, some years back there was a series on the History Channel where they researched how certain Legends/Myths got started. Many of them were based on a real person which amazed me. Robin Hood had some actual factoids in it.
    Yeah...I like Mr. Spiky Head best. Thank you for the compliment and for coming by, Cheri.

  3. Really, I wonder every year how the Halloween jack-0-lantern came to be and its significance....but never heard and never bothered to find out. Now I know. And what weird stories about the jack-o-lantern! Pooh, you don't look anything like a Jack-0-Lantern.

    1. I love researching this kind of thing. It's amazing how some legends and myths get started. This particular legend really is kinda weird in its conception--but then, the Irish got this one started and they have a way with weird.
      Thank you for coming, Celia.

  4. What an interesting post! And those are some grest pumpkin carvings, too. Thanks for sharing the legend of the Jack O Lantern

    1. Thank you, Ashley. I love these pumpkins, too. I appreciate you coming over to comment.


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