Folklore Thursday: Ignis Fatuus: Jack o’Lantern and Joan the Wad
In fairy lore, there is a phenomenon known as Ignis Fatuus, which means ‘the foolish fire’, and the name can be applied to several different types of creatures that haunt the lonely moors, paths, hilltops, forests and marshes of England. Most famous of these are the Will o’the Wisps (as seen in the Disney Pixar film Brave), the Pixies (Piskies in Cornish folklore), and the Hobgoblins, all of whom delight in playing tricks on unfortunate mortals they meet, and use small, brighlty lit lanterns and disguised voices to lure weary night travellers off their paths into bogs and ditches. Many of these fairies have become associated with certain areas of England, such as Jenny Burnt-Tail of Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, Kit-with-the-Canstick in Hampshire, and Hinky Punk in Somerset. Puck or Robin Goodfellow, the fairy trickster who appears in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a Hobgoblin of this variety and as such he also appears in other subsequent works of literature, including a poem attributed to Ben Jonson, in which Robin recounts his mischievous pranks with glee:
That from their night-sport do trudge home,
With counterfeiting voice I greet,
And cause them on with me to roam;
Through woods, through lakes,
Through bogs, through brakes,
O’er bush and brier, with them I go,
I call upon
Them to come on,
And wend me laughing, ho, ho, ho!”
Some creatures of the Ignis Fatuus can be distinctly unpleasant. Friar Rush, originally a demon adapted from Danish legend, is a malevolent spirit who, in the guise of a friar, led an abbey of monks into sin and dissolution before being cast out, and gradually shape-shifted into a Robin Goodfellow type, referred to as “friar’s lanthorn” by Milton in the latter’s pastoral poem L’Allegro. Boggarts, the poltergeist type of fairies who feature in the Harry Potter series, can similarly be placed in the Ignis Fatuus category: in the English Midlands and East Anglia, where they are known as Hobbledy’s Lantern, the Ignis Fatuus are seen as ghosts; souls of the troubled and sinful dead who cannot rest.
One of these souls is Jack o’Lantern, perhaps the most famous of all Ignis Fatuus. According to legend, he was originally a farmer named Stingy Jack who led such an evil life that the Devil himself came for his soul. But Jack was cunning. He tricked the Devil into climbing a apple tree and then carved crosses on the trunk, making it impossible for the Devil to get down. When Satan pleaded with Jack to let him down, Jack said that he would only do so on the condition that the Devil never take his soul into Hell. The Devil agreed and Jack removed the crosses to free him.
Years later, after a terrible life of wicked deeds, Jack died and went up to Heaven. So bad had been his sins that God did not allow him to enter. Jack then went down to Hell, but the Devil kept his promise and did not let him in there either. Frightened and with nowhere to go, Jack asked the Devil how he would find his way through the world. The Devil threw him a piece of the fires of Hell that never burnt out and Jack, using a turnip he had with him, hollowed it out to create a lantern that would guide him through the nowhere world between Heaven and Hell where he was condemned to wander forever. Thus, Jack gave his name to the Jack o’Lantern, the hollowed-out turnip or pumpkin symbol of Halloween. Jack can still be seen on the marshes at night, his glowing flame drawing travellers to disaster and death in the mire. Shakespeare makes reference to Jack in Act IV Scene I of The Tempest, where Stephano says to Caliban, “Monster, your fairy, which you say is a harmless fairy, has done little better than played the Jack with us.”
Jack appears as a Piskie boy in Books I and III of the Fata Morgana series. The story of Stingy Jack is told to Morgan by Father Elfodd in Book II.
Joan the Wad (sometimes also known as Joan in the Wad or Joan o’the Wad) is a Will o’the Wisp from the English West Country, most closely associated with Cornwall and Devon. The word ‘wad’ is a Cornish dialect word for ‘torch’, the symbol associated with Joan. She is the Queen of the Pixies, a tiny fairy race, and has a connection to Jack o’Lantern, who in some folk traditions appears as her consort. In Cornwall, small white moths that appear in the evenings are called ‘piskgies’ and are believed to be the souls of unbaptised children, just as a number of the Ignis Fatuus are thought to be ghosts. Unlike Jack, little is known about Joan’s origins, though it has been suggested that there may be a link between her and the Ancient Greek goddess of witchcraft, Hecate, a liminal deity of boundaries; the goddess of ‘between’, of the realms in between the mortal and the divine. One of Hecate’s symbols is the flaming torch, which she is often depicted holding, just as Joan is associated with the torch she wields. The case for a link between the great Greek goddess and the tiny fairy queen is strengthened by the fact that Joan, as a Pixy, is also an immortal being who rules a realm in between the worlds of the living and the dead.
Although like others of her kind, Joan is prone to leading people astray at night with her torch as well as tickling and pinching them, she is more ambivalent than other fairies of the Ignis Fatuus, as she can also be benevolent and help lost travellers find their way again. A rhyme invokes both her and Jack, acknowledging their mischievous ways, but also asking for their help:
That tickled the maid and made her mad,
Light me home, the weather’s bad.”
Joan is also believed to use her torch to lead people to good luck and fortune. To that end, people would carry small charms of Joan the Wad for good luck, and would place them on their front door as door knockers or above their house entrances as totems, hence the rhyme, “Good fortune will nod, if you carry upon you Joan the Wad.” To this day, figurines of Joan the Wad are sold as lucky charms in Cornwall. A collection of these charms can be found at the Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall.
Joan appears as a Piskie girl in Books I, II and III of the Fata Morgana series.