Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Stingy Jack...the Jack O' Lantern's spooky history

Photo by By Petar Milošević (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
So, does your Jack O' Lantern sport a Happy face? Creepy face? Goofy face? Donald Trump (or other presidential candidate of choice?) Harvest scene? Broom-riding Witch? Owl? Bats? Or, as we did for our daughter's October wedding thirteen years ago--Hearts? Bride and Groom? Monogram? Anyway you carve it, a Jack O' Lantern is an integral part of any Halloween celebration in most parts of America. Over the years, the simple, classic, snaggletoothed grin has transformed into complicated but often amazing vegetable art. BUT...Where did it all begin? When? And Who is Jack?

Where--- Ireland (well, of course.)
When-- Long ago (hundreds of years per my research.)  
Who-- Stingy Jack. 
By Toby Ord (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Seems there was this Irish fellow named Jack who spent a few years consorting with the Devil without paying the Devil his due. It all began when he invited Satan to a pub to share a pint and a bit of unholy camaraderie. At the end of the evening Jack turned out his pockets, empty except for a small silver cross, and showed his companion he had no way to pay the bill. The Devil wasn't in the habit of carrying around currency so Jack proposed that His Lowness could use some supernatural power and turn himself into a coin to pay the barman. And he did. But, instead of paying for the drinks, Jack slipped the coin into his pocket and exited the public house. Not sure how he got away with that, but perhaps the pub's owner recognized Jack's drinking buddy and decided not to press the issue. Jack was careful to put the demonic coin into the pocket holding the cross so, of course, the Devil could not return to his original form and escape. Jack made a deal with the Devil that he would release him under the condition he would not bother Jack for one year and he would not steal his soul when he died. Deal. Devil released.
"Our Scary Tree" photo by Terry Wood (author's brother)

By Bodrugan (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons
A year passed and the Devil once more shared a day with our Jack. This time Jack tricked him into climbing a tree to retrieve a piece of fruit. Perhaps Satan was tempted by the memory of Eden's Forbidden Fruit. While the Devil climbed into the tree's branches, Jack carved a cross into its trunk preventing the Horned One's escape until he promised not to bother Jack for ten more years. Deal. Devil released. (It's not clear how he removed the sign of the cross, trickier than just taking a cross out of one's pocket, but perhaps he added a few more marks rendering the cross into something less holy.)

As with all mortal beings Jack died and, true to his word, the Devil did not steal his soul and take him to Hell. But because of his previous lifestyle consorting with Satan, neither was he allowed into Heaven. Jack returned to the Devil for help but was merely given a lump of burning coal to light his way as he wandered eternally and aimlessly across the Earth. 

Seeing this unfortunate and creepy soul 
By Wyscan, via Wikimedia Commons
haunting the countryside, the Irish began calling him Jack of the lantern. Jack O' Lantern. Kind of like O'Brien or O'Malley. To keep spooky Mr. O'Lantern as well as evil spirits away from their doors especially on All Hallow's Eve, they carved out lanterns from turnips, gourds, rutabagas, and beets. The weird carved faces were meant to scare the spirits away. When Irish immigrants reached American shores and discovered pumpkins, they were able to carve out even more effective lanterns using those larger gourds.

By MANSOUR DE TOTH  (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

Happy pumpkin carving, my friends, and Happy Halloween! (Watch out for Jack though. Centuries of aimless wandering can make for a pretty testy spirit I think.)

Have a good couple weeks, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...y'all come back now! 


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Under the skin...Navajo Skinwalkers

"Navajo American Indian" The New Student's Reference Work (1914)
 via Wikimedia Commons
In Navajo legend, there are people who have the ability to transform themselves into any animal of their choosing. These are the Skinwalkers (Yee Naaldlooshi in the Navajo language.) Before you think of them in potentially cuddly terms of transformations into kittens and bunnies or romantic notions of deer running through the forests or eagles soaring majestically above the clouds, be aware they turn themselves into animals for evil purposes in order to inflict harm upon other people. The animal of choice is often an owl, crow, coyote, wolf, or fox. Not sure why these are all thought of as capable of evil but they do all have a high degree of intelligence and can be thought of as cunning. Perhaps that is why they make the Skinwalker's list of most popular creatures.

"Stalking Coyote" photo by KL Wood
Who are the Skinwalkers? They are men and, more rarely, women who have reached the highest level of supernatural powers. (Not to be confused with Medicine Men who are benevolent people. And unlike werewolves of European legend, Skinwalkers are not victims of circumstance or the lunar calendar. They turn into animals whenever they please.) In order to attain the ability to transform into animals they have to perform the most heinous of acts: killing members of their own families in order to capture their souls and destroy their own humanity. In order to make the transformation--under the cover of night--it is thought they must wear the pelt of the animal of choice. (Perhaps they wear the feathers of the birds.) For that reason, the Navajo do not wear animal skins except for ceremonial purposes in which they may wear the skins of sheep or deer. 
"Stygian Owl" photo by By Hector Bottai via Wikimedia Commons

Skinwalkers are not allowed into your home unless you invite them inside but they use devious means to lure their victims outside the safety of those walls. They will tap on the windows, bang on the walls, mimic the cry of a child, and even vocalize perfect imitations of the victim's loved ones. They are also said to be able to read your thoughts, another weapon in their arsenal of ways to get inside your head and do you harm. Sometimes a Skinwalker is injured while in his animal form and you may see a man nursing a similar injury. Stay away and keep your thoughts to youself! The Navajo avoid speaking of Skinwalkers for fear of evil retribution. According to Navajo legend, Skinwalkers are very cruel and vindictive and do not take kindly to being talked about. 

"Denali Fox" photo by KL Wood
So, if you are travelling in Navajo country, accidentally clip an animal running in front of your car and see it limp off with a hurt leg, be on the lookout for a man limping toward you the next day. Don't mention your suspicions unless you also find out his full name and announce it aloud. Once his full name is pronounced along with the exposure of his Skinwalker identity, he becomes sick and dies from the harm he has inflicted upon others. Hmmm...there was some other guy who didn't want you to guess his name and "skin" was part of it. Oh yeah--Rumplestiltskin

Have a good couple weeks, dear Reader. Thanks for stopping by...y'all come back now!