Saturday, October 31, 2009

Wicked John and the Devil: A Halloween Tale

Last October readers of my blog were treated to the story of "Jack of the Lantern," an Irish folktale about an unlikeable man who tricks the devil into granting him amnesty from hell only to learn, upon death, that heaven doesn't want him either - seeing how he made a deal with the devil and all. Jack was thus doomed to walk the earth for all eternity carrying with him a lantern made from a turnip lit with a coal plucked from the fires of hell. Jack's turnip lantern was the first jack-o'-lantern which were originally made from turnips by the Irish until coming to America where they discovered the pumpkin, which was much easier to carve. I also told readers last year that the tale of "Jack of the Lantern" is one with many variations, including this one which I have not related before.

"Wicked John and the Devil" as told by Justin M...

A long time ago there was a wicked man named John who worked as a village blacksmith. John took great pride in his wickedness and practiced it with vigor, and it was because of this that no one in the village ever came to visit him, unless they needed a horseshoe made or a tool fixed and even then they never stuck around.

Now because on one ever came to visit and because John enjoyed being wicked so much John took to inviting strangers, who passed by his shop on the way into town, in for a free meal. Every time someone would accept, John would sit them down to a nice hot meal and as soon they were done eating would proceed to play all sorts of nasty tricks of them.

One day John saw an old man walking past his shop. John called out to the old man and asked if he would like a free hot meal. The man said yes but that he was to crippled to make it up the path to John's shop, so John went down the path and carried the old man up. John then took the man inside and gave him some hot soup, but the man said that his fingers were to cripple to lift the spoon, so John had to feed him. Just as John was starting to think that he was going to far to much trouble just to play a few mean-spirited pranks on this old man John's kitchen lit up with bright white light and where the old man had been hunched over a different old man with a long white beard, a rings of keys hung around his waist, and a back as strait as a stick now sat.

"Who the hell are you?," asked John. "I'm St. Peter; heaven's gatekeeper," replied the old man, still glowing. St. Peter then explain to John that because of his kindness to him he would grant him three wishes, thus giving John a chance to turn his life around. But all John could think about was how much more wickedness he could with those three wishes.

First John asked St. Peter for a rocking chair that would rock and rock with the sitter trapped in it and that the only way they could get out is if John had mercy on them. The second wish was for a sledgehammer that wouldn't let go of the user's hands and would keep hammering until John had mercy them too. The third and final wish was for a prickly firebush that would sit out in front of his shop and that would pull anyone who touched it in and not let them go until John had mercy and freed them. St. Peter granted everyone of John's three wishes even though he knew that all three would only be used to create more wickedness. After granting John's wishes St. Peter departed and returned to heaven.

It wasn't long before John's seemingly endless ability to cause wickedness caught up with him and the Devil, not wishing to be outdone by a mere mortal, sent his youngest son to go fetch John and bring his soul to hell. The Devil's youngest son then made his way to John's workshop where John was hard at work on a horseshoe. "You're coming with me," said the little demon to John. "Oh? Alright," said John, "Just let me finish this here horseshoe and I'll come straight to hell with ya, and while you wait why don't you have a seat in my rocking chair over there." "Don't mind if I do." said the little demon and no sooner did he sit down in the chair then did he find himself stuck fast. Then the chair began to rock back and forth, faster and faster rattling the little demon. "Let me go!" he cried out to John. "Only if you promise never to come for my soul again." said John. "Alright" said the little demon and John had mercy and let him go.

The next day the Devil sent his eldest son to go fetch John's soul. He also found John in his workshop hard at work. "You're coming with me," said the eldest demon to John. "Oh? Alright," said John, "Just hand me that sledgehammer over there so I can finish this horseshoe, unless it's too big for ya." And the demon, not wanting John to think he was a weakling, grabbed the sledgehammer only to discover that he could not let go. Then the hammer began to hammer up and down knocking all of the demon about. "Let me go!" he cried out to John. "Only if you promise never to come for my soul again." said John. "Alright" said the eldest demon and John had mercy and let the him go too.

The next day the Devil himself came to fetch John's soul. Again John was found in his workshop hard at work. "You're coming with me," said the Devil to John. "Oh? Alright," said John, "Just let me finish this here horseshoe and I'll come straight to hell with ya, and while you wait why don't you have a seat in my rocking chair over there." "No thank you," said the Devil, "I don't feel like sitting, now lets go." "Oh? Alright," said John, "Just hand me that sledgehammer over there so I can finish this horseshoe, unless it's too big for ya." "No," said the Devil, "I'm not handing you any hammers because you're not finishing any horseshoes, you're coming with me to hell right now."

"Oh? Alright," said John and put down his tongs and headed outside with the Devil. However, as soon as they were outside John gave the Devil a push and knocked him right into the prickly firebush which pulled the Devil in and would not let go. The Devil struggled for what seemed like hours to try and free himself from the bush but the more he struggled the more confined he became. Finally the Devil cried out to John "Let me go!" to which John replied "Only if you promise I'll never have to serve one single day in hell." "Alright" said the Devil and John had mercy and let the him go as well.

Finally the day came, many years later, when John died and found himself standing before the pearly gates with St. Peter looking down at him. "What are you doing here John?" asked St. Peter. John explained that he had died and was here to take his place in heaven. St. Peter took and long, hard look at John and then explained that they couldn't let him in. John had lived a life filled with too much wickedness to be allowed into heaven - plus he had made a deal with the Devil to boot. John tried to argue with St. Peter but to no avail.

So John turned around and headed for hell to see if the Devil would let him in, but when he got there the Devil informed him that their agreement still stood and that John could not enter hell - ever. John asked the Devil what he should do having been denied both salvation in heaven and damnation in hell. The Devil only laughed and then gave John a red hot piece of coal and told him to go make his own hell on earth. John then returned to earth where he found a gourd which he hollowed out and placed the coal inside so he could use it as a lantern to light his path as he wandered the earth for all eternity. And the light from that lantern? Well some say it can still be seen on Halloween night to this very day.

The story of "Wicked John and the Devil" is a variation of the story of "Jack of the Lantern." It is a tale told in both American and on the British Ilse. It is hard to say which tale, "Wicked John" or "Jack," is older. Some evidence which would suggest that "Wicked John" is the older of the two tales include the fact that semantically speaking the name John predates the name Jack, but that doesn't necessarily mean that John's story came first, especially when you can find versions of either story with either man's attached, i.e. "Wick Jack and the Devil."

Another point of interest, which may also help lean credence to John's story being the older version of the two, is the fact that John's profession is that of a blacksmith. The role of blacksmith was once a time honored profession in the days predating the industrial revolution. In the ancient world blacksmiths were revered for their seemingly magical abilities to manipulate both fire and metal. This is why many cultures had gods who specifically looked over the profession of smith. Some of these gods included; Hephaestus (Greco-Roman), Ilmarinen (Finish), Ogun (West Africa), and the Wayland Smith of Scandinavia - just to name a few.

During the medieval period when Christianity dominated the European landscape blacksmiths came to be regarded as having a connection with the Devil, again because of their ability to manipulate both fire and metal. However, this association was not negative and did not make blacksmith a target of medieval persecution but rather resulted in numerous folktales and legends of heroic blacksmiths who defeated devils in various bouts - similar to Wicked John's.

One of these legendary blacksmiths was St. Dunstan, today the patron saint of goldsmiths, who is said to have been visited by the Devil while at work in his blacksmith's shop. The Devil came to Dunstan in the form of a beautiful woman and tried to seduce him, but Dunstan saw through the disguise and with a pair of red hot tongs grabbed the devil by the nose and refused to let go until he promised never to bother him again. Thus one can see that the basic framework for John's tale had already been laid.


Unknown said...

Do you know the name the devil took up as he tempted St. Dunstun?

Justin M... said...

@ firstmatevalandi - To my knowledge the devil who tempted St. Dunstun has never been assigned a specific name.

However in Mike Mignola's comic book series Hellboy the devil was said to be Valac who is a demon described in classical grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon. Clearly that's hardly an authoritative source but it does represent a new and interesting take on the legend.

kamagra said...

I love Halloween tyales, I think they are an important part of this tradition. Also I like to share this tales with my children, they ended up so scared.

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