(Wild speculation and dubious etymology)

According to Webster's dictionary, the name "Jack" is probably derived from "Jacob" (via the French "Jacques"). Alternatively, it may be derived from "Jankin" meaning literally "Little John". The surname "Jenkins" also derives from "Jankin". Looking up "Jack" and related words in the dictionary is very interesting ("jack-ass", and "jack-rabbit" for instance), but ultimately unsatisfying. Webster's dictionary states that it means "a man" or alternatively "an object or device". This seems to cover most things. Brewers dictionary of phrase and fable adds
"Jack-a-Lent. A half-starved, sheepish booby. Shakespeare says: "You little Jack-a-lent, have you been true to us?" (Merry Wives of Windsor, iii. 3.) A kind of Aunt Sally which was thrown at in Lent. (See Cleveland's Poems [1660], p. 64.)"

I had an idea that the word "jackal" might be related. The "Set-animal" has a body like a dog or jackal, a tail like a jack-ass, and jack-rabbits, jack-asses and jackals all have upright pointing ears. Was I onto something? "Jack-rabbit" is supposedly a corruption of "jack-ass-rabbit", a name coined by the first white settlers in North America [1] but I doubt this explanation. Male hares in Europe are traditionally known as "jacks"[2], so the connection must go back further than Columbus. However, "jackal" derives from the Persian "chagal" meaning "scavenger", so I was wrong about that.

But then there is the game of "Jacks". Jacks and dice probably have the same origin, they were both originally made from the "knucklebones" or heel bones of sheep. "Jacob" means "heel" This is often explained by the story that Jacob grasped his twin, Esau's heel as they were being born. Jacob later cheats Esau out of his inheritance, he is a supplanter (from the latin sub plantem, meaning to place ones hand beneath the sole of someones foot - to trip them up). Jacob also wrestles with an angel, and dislocates his hip. In the Arab version of the story, this results in him being unable to touch his heel to the ground.

Robert Graves goes into the subject of the sacred heel in The White Goddess in great detail. Suffice it to say that Achilles, Cheiron the Centaur, Ra the Egyptian sun god, the Welsh hero's Bran and Math (who was obliged to keep his feet in the lap of a virgin at all times), Krishna, Talus (the bronze man of Crete who was destroyed by the argonauts), Adam*, Orion** and numerous others all seem to be vulnerable to injuries to their feet or heels. Then there are all the goat-footed, bull-footed and horse-footed gods, demons and satyrs (I think there may be modern parallels to this in characters like Captain Ahab in Moby Dick and Lieutenant Dan in Forrest Gump, who resembles a latter day Fisher King). In the light of all this, the Irish story of The Liar is interesting.

Another thing: Jack 'o lantern is associated with Hallowe'en; Jack in the Green***was a character who used to dress in foliage at May-day, appearing alongside people dressed as Robin Hood and Marian, and the mad merry morris men****; and then there is Jack Straw. There is a place called Jack Straw's Castle in London and an Iron Age hillfort of the same name in Wiltshire. Jack Straw was apparently one of the leaders of the 1381 peasants revolt, although "Jack Straw" may have been a nickname of Wat Tyler (ref.Oman, The Great Revolt of 1381, p. 44., footnote quoting Hist. Rev. for January, 1906, by Doctor F.W. Brie. Haven't checked this ref. out yet - Ian)

Websters dictionary has the following entry:
jack'straw, n. 1. An effigy stuffed with straw; a man of straw; a man without property, worth or influence. Milton.
2. One of a set of straws or of strips of ivory, bone, wood, etc., for playing a game, the jackstraws being thrown in a heap on a table, to be gathered up singly by a hooked instrument, without disturbing the rest of the pile; also pl., the game so played.
3. Any of several small European birds; esp., the whitethroat, the garden warbler, or the blackcap, which use bedstraw (Galium) in their nests. Local, Eng.
4. A flower spike of the common ribwort. Dial, Eng.
The effigy of straw connects Jack Straw firmly with the harvest, and the game of jack straws is another instance of "Jack" connected with games and gambling.

I have gleaned much of this from a discussion of the Grateful dead song "Jack Straw" at http://arts.ucsc.edu/GDead/AGDL/jstraw.html#jack, where one of the correspondants, Dale G. Hoyt recalls seeing "jack straw" defined as "the straw discarded after harvest, of no further use or something like that". I suspect that Jack Straw was the original "straw man", meaning (rhetorically) someone who only exists so as to be ridiculed and brought down, a kind of scapegoat. Private Eye magazine (16th Nov 2001, #1041) records with amusement a Royal Shakespeare Company Programme note:
"Jack-Straw worthless man"
(I believe the play referred to is Henry VI).

Just in case I have completely lost all of my non-British readers, I ought to explain that Jack Straw is also the name of a British politician. He was born John Straw, but apparently prefers to be known as Jack. In his student days he was a radical left-winger, but during his time as home secretary (c. 1996-2000) and as foreign secretary (c.2000-), he has shown himself to be somewhere to the right of Mussolini. His draconian anti-drugs policies were undermined when his son was caught dealing cannabis! Did he knowingly choose to be identified with the peasant rebel during his student days, only to prove himself to be a straw man? There is a curious poetic irony in all this. I can see analogies between Jack Straw and Guy Fawkes, Robin Hood and Ned Ludd - semi-mythical rebels turned scapegoats

The four cross quarter days (dates falling half way between solstices and equinoxes) were celebrated by the Celts as Beltaine on May 1st, corresponding to May Day; Llugnasad on August 2nd, a harvest festival and the date of the mysterious death of William Rufus, red haired son of William the Conqueror*****; Samhain (pronounced "Sowain") in early November, corresponding to Hallowe'en or bonfire night; and Imbolc on Febuary 2nd******, known in England as Candlemass and the USA as Groundhog day*******. Jack appears at all of these festivals except Imbolc. Was Jack Frost the ghost of Winter banished by the coming of spring at Imbolc?

In modern day Britain, (allowing for slight errors due to changes in the calendar) Samhain is celebrated both with halloween and the mock human sacrifice of Bonfire night, The winter solstice is celebrated with Christmas and New Year, Imbolc is celebrated as St.Valentines day and the Spring equinox as April Fools day and also as Easter (a solar-lunar festival determined by the moon as well as the sun). Mayday is a bank holiday and occasion for Morris dancing and riots in London, but these barely register with most of the population. The summer solsticer is likewise not widely celebrated, and Llugnasad and the autumn equinox also little known except to neo pagans. Why are the summer time festivals so much less important than the winter festivals nowadays?

And then there is Jack who climbed the Beanstalk******** to heaven.....

*In Genesis, God curses the serpent saying "crawl on your belly in the dust, you shall strike at man's heel, and he shall crush your head" (something like that anyway). The massive stone circles at Avebury (much more rugged and moon orientated than stonehenge), in Wiltshire (where the people are known as moonrakers are approached by a winding avenue of stones. The whole structure resembles a massive coiled serpent. At the start of the avenue, where the Serpent's head would be, is the site of a smaller circle known as the "sanctuary", which is right by the ancient Ridgeway. The Ridgeway is one of several ancient routes, which follow the watersheds formed by ridges of chalk hills (the valleys would have been impassable forest and swamp when Avebury was built). All the ridges of chalk hills in the south of England meet at Avebury. To the neolithic/bronze age people, Avebury would have been the centre of the world. tracks would run from here north west along the Mendip hills; south west along the Dorset downs to Lyme Regis; east along the North and south Kent downs; north east to the flint mines of Grimes Graves, and beyond to a part of the Norfolk coast, where recent low tides revealed a circle of oak posts surrounding a wooden platform or altar on the beach; and north as far as the Humber estuary. Where was I? Oh yes. On the side of Avebury church font (within the main circle, like the rest of the village) is a carving of a figure dressed like a bishop or saint. There is a serpent biting his heel, and he is crushing its head with his crozier.[back]

**The constellation of Orion is next to the constellation Eridanus, which appears to flow out of Orion's heel. Orion was a giant from Crete, just like Talus.[back]

***Ronald Hutton completely disagrees with me on this one, claiming that the Jack in the Green evolved from a tradition of milkmaids wearing festive headdresses containing silverware
[3]. I find this hard to swallow, but he is right to point out that the "green man" fertility carvings in churches, only appeared in the late Norman period, and probably spread from Germany. They may not be directly linked to "Jack in the Green". His thesis was that most "British ancient traditions" don't pre-date the Industrial Revolution. The innoccuous "new-age-style" title ("Station's of the Sun") and cover art of his highly sceptical bombshell, allowed it to find it's way onto the mystical/occult/meditation/yogurt-weaving sections of many bookshops, disillusioning countless hippies. This marketing strategy has enormous potential: how about "The Loch Ness conspiracy" (in 1921 a shadowy group of Freemason's, Aliens and Scottish Tourist Board representatives met in secret and planned a hoax to attract thousands of tourists to a cold, wet and impoverished area of Scotland, by training otters to swim along one behind the other) or The Truth about Crop Circles (Shadowy group of EC Agriculture Ministers hit on a way to reduce the grain mountains) or even "The Conspiracy Conspiracy" (Shadowy alliance of leading publishers and traffic police hatch a secret plan to scare large numbers of Americans into spending New Years Eve 1999 in remote parts of Montana, thus reducing the number of revellers and easing congestion in the major cities).[back]

****The words "merry" and "morris", and the names "Mary" and "Marian" are all related, there probably never was a Maid Marian, but the earliest ballads of Robin Hood often speak of Robin's devotion to the Marian church. The cults of the virgin Mary ( The "Lady who is both Mother and May" as Robin calls her) , and of St. Mary Magdalane allowed many pagan traditions to survive[back]

*****O.K. take back what I said about conspiracy theory, the history books tell us that an arrow aimed at a stag glanced off a tree trunk at 45 degrees and hit the heir to the throne in the chest, killing him instantly. Maybe Jim Garrison had a point.[back]

******The tallest stone in Castlerigg stone circle in Cumbria, casts a shadow 1/4 of a mile long at sunrise on Imbolc. The shadow points to a spring and an ancient stone. [back]

*******Can anybody tell me about the origins of Groundhog day? Was it a Native American tradition, or was it brought from Europe? email me [back]

********But what kind of bean? The vining runner beans and French beans were unknown in Europe before Columbus. The only bean commonly grown in Europe before this was the broad or Faba bean, which grows on straight and relatively short stalks. I have heard it claimed that the bean in the story "must have been a broad bean". Does this mean that the story pre dates Columbus? Or did Jack climb some other sort of vine?

Living for 4 years in Aberdeen, made me realise that the giant who terrorises the land in the story is Scottish, specifically from Eastern Scotland. Natives of this area speak a dialect called Doric which seems to be a blend of English, gaelic and Norse. In Doric, "wh" is pronounced "f", (a common doric greeting is "foos yer doos?" meaning literally "how are your pigeons?"), so the giant's famous line: "Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman" should read "Fee?, Fi?, Fo? Fum? ......", meaning something like "Where? Why? How? Whom?.....". I take this to mean that the land in which the story is set is a disputed region in the east of the borders of England and Scotland, where English people were being ruled (or maybe just being ravaged by) the Scots. Berwick upon Tweed seems a likely spot, (Berwick has changed hands so many times that it is dealt with separately in international treaties I have heard a story that when Mikhail Gorbachev passed through the town on a tour of Britain in the 1980's, he signed a treaty, formally ending the Crimean war, which Berwick was technically still fighting!). As far as most english people would have been concerned, the story was set in the far distant north, see The Stairway to Heaven for more on this. [back]

[Notes Maslenitsa Russian festival. Blinis symbol of sun 15th Feb-March 18th ends with burning of straw effigy of Lady? Maslenitsa and any remaining Blinis

Links to other sites on the Web

Moby Dick online
Orkney harvest customs

(various links about harvest customs etc. around the world

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