What is a Will-o’-the-wisp?
A Will-o’-the-wisp is a phantom light that hovers in the wilderness, luring travelers away from the beaten path. Most of these lights haunt the moors and bogs of England, but they have been reported all over the world, under various names.
Will-o’-the-wisps are very simple apparitions. They appear as balls of light, sometimes so bright that they hurt your eyes and other times so dim that you have to squint to see them. They usually have a blue-ish gleam to them, although red has also been reported.
In some rare sightings, a dark figure has been seen carrying the light, as if it was a torch or a lantern. Despite carrying a light, the figure is always too dark to be described in detail.
A light floating in the darkness might seem innocent, even friendly, but don’t be deceived. These attractive lights are almost always malevolent. They lead travelers onto dangerous land, perhaps a deep hole in a bog or a kingdom ruled by vicious fairies.
The classic Will-o’-the-wisp is carried by a blacksmith named Will. Will was such a troublemaker that, when he died and went to heaven, he was sent back by Saint Peter, who told him to reform during his second life. Unfortunately, Will’s second life was even more monstrous than his first, so Saint Peter cursed him to roam the earth forever. The devil, impressed by Will’s evildoing, gave him a coal to warm himself on the cold earth nights. Instead, Will decided to use the coal to make a torch and lure innocent travelers into danger.
The Jack-o’-lantern is carried by a drunkard named Jack. Jack sold his soul to the devil, so that the devil would pay his pub tab. When the devil returned from the pub to collect Jack’s soul, the man tricked him into climbing a tree, then drew a cross under the tree, trapping the furious devil in its branches. Later, when Jack died and was rejected at heaven’s gates, he had to beg the devil for a place in hell. The devil was delighted at his chance to get revenge. He cursed Jack to wander the earth, with only a small frame for light. Jack put this flame in a carved turnip and used it as a lantern.
In other places, goblins, pixies, witches, un-Baptized children, and even the devil are blamed for carrying these dangerous lights.
Aside from their ability to dazzle and tantalize travelers, Will-o’-the-wisps are also powerful omens. They appear to be able to predict the future, appearing to people before their deaths or flocking to the sight of a tragedy before it takes place. They might also reveal the place where a thief or a fairy has buried golden treasure.
In the Britain and Ireland alone, there are dozens of variations of the Will-o’-the-wisp. The most famous are the “Jack-o’-Lantern,” “Peg-a’-Lantern,” “Joan the Wad,” “Jenny with the Lantern,” “Hobbedy’s Lantern”, “Hinky Punk,” and “Spunkies.” They are, for the most part, believed to be carried by souls barred from heaven and hell or by devious fairy-folk.
In the Netherlands, the “Irrbloss,” “Iiekko,” and “Iygtemand” are said to be the souls of un-Baptized children, who try to lead travelers to water, where they can be Baptized. They might also be lights guarding buried treasure, which can only be found using a dead man’s hand or after eating seeds from a magical fern.
In Asia, the “aleya” and the “chir batti” are used by dead souls to mark the place where they died.
In Australia, “min min” lights follow travelers once they are spotted. If the traveler turns and tries to follow the light, however, they will never be seen again.
In South America, the “luz mala” and “la candileja” are evil spirits who carry ghost lights after death.
In the United States, ghost hunters prize any photo which has captured an “orb,” a ball of colored light which is believed to reveal the presence of a dead soul in the room. In the swampland of Louisiana, a phantom light called “fifollet” represents dark souls who have been sent back from heaven to do penance on earth.
Will-o’-the-wisps appear in Europe’s written record around the thirteenth century, but their legend was well known, all across the world, long before pen was put to paper. The oral traditions of Cornish, Nordic, and Aborigine people warn against the dangers of these phantom lights.
The Will-o’-the-wisp has been written into some of history’s most influential novels. In the sixteenth century, Shakespeare mentioned the lights by their Latin name, “ignus fatuus,” in his play King Henry IV. In the seventeenth century, they were used by John Milton in Paradise Lost.
In the nineteenth century, the immortal lights made yet another appearance in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. This time, they were not merely referenced, they played an important role in foretelling the misfortune which the main character would find in Dracula’s castle.
Finally, in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, the lights assaulted characters in JRR Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and in JK Rowlings Harry Potter franchise.
Explanations of the Myth
Although they may not be trapped in lanterns held by the devil or hover over sunken fairy gold, Will-o’-the-wisps are a very real phenomenon. These mysterious lights do exist, and for a long time, they could only be explained through superstition.
Today, science has a few explanations (which don’t involve ghosts, devils, witches, or fairies) for the lights.
Some scientists believe that the light is produced by a type of bioluminescent fungus or algae that grows in marshy areas. Just like fireflies or angler fish, these plants could undergo a unique chemical process to produce light.
Still more scientists claim that a mixture of gases is responsible for the lights. In marshes, plant material often sinks underwater before it can decompose. In the water, the material undergoes an unusual type of decomposition, which releases methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphines into the air. Methane is a highly flammable gas, and phosphines have been known to spontaneously combust when they come into contact with air. Combine these two chemicals, and you could easily produce a burning ball of light hovering above a marsh.