Here’s a little info you may not have known: another name for the will-o’-the-wisp is the jack-o-lantern, which is the same name as carved pumpkins. The term “will-o’-the-wisp” comes from “wisp,” which is a bundle of sticks used as a torch, and “Will,” the Germanic name. But what’s the similarity to jack-o-lantern?
Well, jack-o-lantern means “Jack of the Lantern,” just as will-o’-the-wisp means “Will of the Wisp.” You can’t get much more similar, unless, of course, you also factor in the carved pumpkin’s history.
Various folk-tales from Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Appalachia, and Newfoundland involve the jack-o-lanterns and will-o’-the-wisps. In these tales, a hero either named Will or Jack is doomed to haunt marshes with a light for some misdeed.
These tales involve life recommendations, lessons, and other moral tidbits of information. The stories were designed to be easily remembered and passed down for generations.
One of the most common tales involves Drunk Jack, an individual who encounters the Devil and tricks the Devil out of taking his soul. The Devil eventually agrees not to take Jack’s soul, though when Jack dies, Heaven denies Jack entrance, for he was a drunk. When Jack approaches Hell, the Devil, too denies him entrance, since Jack made a deal. Instead, the Devil banishes Jack to the world of man, where he is to carry a lantern as a warning to all onlookers.
Every culture has their own story about the will-o’-the-wisp or the jack-o-lantern, but they all involve the same themes: a doomed spirit that must carry a lantern as a warning for others. Often, farmers and peasants within the story are told to keep the doomed spirit away by lighting their own lantern, which acts as a ward.
So next time you go carving up pumpkins, you won’t have to wonder about the origin of the carved pumpkin tradition.