A lantern is a portable lighting device consisting of a light source protected by a translucent cover. The lantern can either be used as a source of illumination or for decorative lighting.
The light source can consist of anything from a candle to an electrically powered LED lamp (historically oil lamps were quite popular) and the cover of horn, glass, plastic or virtually anything else that lets light through - the Chinese in particular were fond of paper.
A common fantasy trope is the lantern powered by fireflies or gloworms (or similar creatures) - these exist in real life, but don't give enough light for anything but decoration. In fantasy settings they can be used for illumination as well.
Primarily the lantern cover serves to protect the light source from draughts that would otherwise cause the flame to burn unevenly or go out - and equally from other forms of hostile weather such as rain. Many designs also include opaque shutters and/or reflectors that allow the light from the lantern to be focused down into a directional beam (or at least hidden from some angles) for purposes of signalling and/or concealement - the bullseye lantern is a good example of this, emitting light only in a single, round beam and the dark lantern (essentially fully shuttered and allowing only enough gap for the flame to breathe) probably the epitome.
Also of interest is the Davy Lamp - named after its inventor this design uses a mesh screen to limit gas-air mixing, allowing a lamp to burn relatively safely in explosive atmospheres of the sort commonly found in coal mines.
The lantern (perhaps specifically the bullseye lantern) is the direct ancestor of the modern flashlight but has not been entirely replaced where all-round lighting is required.
Lanterns carved from fruits or vegetables (originally a turnip, but a pumpkin is now a lot more prevalent) are a horror staple - at least partially from the myth of Jack O'Lantern, but from plenty of other sources as well. This is especially true when they double as the heads of malicious constructs. For obvious reasons it is hard to determine if they were ever a particularly common form of improvised lantern for practical use, but it seems unlikely. It does, however, appear that grotesque turnip lamps have long been a staple of Celtic day-of-the-dead celebrations (specifically Samhain) for a very long time - generally as a ward against evil spirits, although some legends suggest that they were more of a "candle in the window" for the spirits of deceased ancestors that might care to visit.
Game and Story Use
- These should be standard fare in any campaign or part thereof with a tech level much below that of 1960s Europe. Quality, design and fuel will vary accordingly.
- These are also likely to be fairly expensive bits of kit for their era - many users will restrict themselves to torches or unshielded candles, especially when indoors.
- With shutters and/or coloured filters these make fairly versatile signalling devices.