1.an illusion that misleads
2.a pale light sometimes seen at night over marshy ground
Will-o'-the-wispWill"-o'-the-wisp` (?), n. See Ignis fatuus.
definition of Wikipedia
light; visible light; visible radiation[ClasseHyper.]
actinic radiation, actinic ray[Hyper.]
natural philosophy, physics[Domaine]
An 1882 oil painting of a will-o'-the-wisp by Arnold Böcklin
|See also||Naga fireball
Min Min light
St. Elmo's fire
A will-o'-the-wisp / / or ignis fatuus ( / /; Medieval Latin: "foolish fire") is a ghostly light seen by travellers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travellers from the safe paths. A folk belief well attested in English folklore and in much of European folklore, the phenomenon is known by a variety of names, including jack-o'-lantern, hinkypunk, hobby lantern in English.
Scientifically, "marsh gas" is methane that bubbles out of marshes; this gas is contaminated with phosphine (PH3) and diphosphane (P2H4) which, when brought in contact with air, can spontaneously catch fire. This sudden burst of flame can potentially explain many will-o'-the-wisp sightings.
The term "will-o'-the-wisp" comes from "wisp", a bundle of sticks or paper sometimes used as a torch, and the name "Will": thus, "Will-of-the-torch". The term jack-o'-lantern "Jack of [the] lantern" has a similar meaning. Its application to carved pumpkins in American English is an innovation of the 19th century.
Folk belief attributes the phenomenon to fairies or elemental spirits, explicitly in the term "hobby lanterns" found in the 19th century Denham Tracts. Briggs' A Dictionary of Fairies provides an extensive list of other names for the same phenomenon, though the place where they are observed (graveyard, bogs, etc.) influences the naming considerably. When observed on graveyards, they are known as "ghost candles", also a term from the Denham Tracts.
The names will-o'-the-wisp and jack-o'-lantern are explained in aitiological folk-tales, recorded in many variant forms in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Appalachia, and Newfoundland. In these tales, protagonists named either Will or Jack are doomed to haunt the marshes with a light for some misdeed.
One version, from Shropshire, recounted by K. M. Briggs in her book A Dictionary of Fairies, refers to Will the Smith. Will is a wicked blacksmith who is given a second chance by Saint Peter at the gates to Heaven, but leads such a bad life that he ends up being doomed to wander the Earth. The Devil provides him with a single burning coal with which to warm himself, which he then used to lure foolish travellers into the marshes.
An Irish version of the tale has a ne'er-do-well named Drunk Jack or Stingy Jack who makes a deal with the Devil, offering up his soul in exchange for payment of his pub tab. When the Devil comes to collect his due, Jack tricks him by making him climb a tree and then carving a cross underneath, preventing him from climbing down. In exchange for removing the cross, the Devil forgives Jack's debt. However, because no one as bad as Jack would ever be allowed into Heaven, Jack is forced upon his death to travel to Hell and ask for a place there. The Devil denies him entrance in revenge, but, as a boon, grants Jack an ember from the fires of Hell to light his way through the twilight world to which lost souls are forever condemned. Jack places it in a carved turnip to serve as a lantern. Another version of the tale, "Willy the Whisp", is related in Irish Folktales by Henry Glassie. The first modern novel in the Irish language, Séadna by Peadar Ua Laoghaire, is a version of the tale.
A modern Americanized adaptation of this travellers' association frequently places swaying ghost-lights along roadsides and railroad tracks. Here a swaying movement of the lights is alleged to be that of 19th- and early 20th-century railway workers supposedly killed on the job.
Sometimes the lights are believed to be the spirits of unbaptized or stillborn children, flitting between heaven and hell. Modern occultist elaborations bracket them with the salamander, a type of spirit wholly independent from humans (unlike ghosts, which are presumed to have been humans at some point in the past).
Danes, Finns, Swedes, Estonians, and Latvians amongst some other groups believed that a will-o'-the-wisp marked the location of a treasure deep in ground or water, which could be taken only when the fire was there. Sometimes magical tricks, and even dead man's hand, were required as well, to uncover the treasure. In Finland and other northern countries it was believed that early autumn was the best time to search for will-o'-the-wisps and treasures below them. It was believed that when someone hid treasure, in the ground, he made the treasure available only at the midsummer, and set will-o'-the-wisp to mark the exact place and time so that he could come to take the treasure back. Finns also believed that the creature guarding the treasure, aarni, used fire (aarnivalkea) to clean precious metals.
The will-o'-the-wisp can be found in numerous folk tales around the United Kingdom, and is often a malicious character in the stories. In Welsh folklore, it is said that the light is "fairy fire" held in the hand of a púca, or pwca, a small goblin-like fairy that mischievously leads lone travelers off the beaten path at night. As the traveler follows the púca through the marsh or bog, the fire is extinguished, leaving the man lost. The púca is said to be one of the Tylwyth Teg, or fairy family. In Wales the light predicts a funeral that will take place soon in the locality. Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblins mentions the following Welsh tale about púca.
A peasant traveling home at dusk spots a bright light traveling along ahead of him. Looking closer, he sees that the light is a lantern held by a "dusky little figure", which he follows for several miles. All of a sudden he finds himself standing on the edge of a vast chasm with a roaring torrent of water rushing below him. At that precise moment the lantern-carrier leaps across the gap, lifts the light high over its head, lets out a malicious laugh and blows out the light, leaving the poor peasant a long way from home, standing in pitch darkness at the edge of a precipice. This is a fairly common cautionary tale concerning the phenomenon; however, the ignis fatuus was not always considered dangerous. There are some tales told about the will-o'-the-wisp being guardians of treasure, much like the Irish leprechaun leading those brave enough to follow them to sure riches. Other stories tell of travelers getting lost in the woodland and coming upon a will-o'-the-wisp, and depending on how they treated the will-o'-the-wisp, the spirit would either get them lost further in the woods or guide them out.
Also related, the Pixy-light from Devon and Cornwall is most often associated with the Pixie who often has "pixie-led" travelers away from the safe and reliable route, and into the bogs with glowing lights.
"Like Poltergeist they can generate uncanny sounds. They were less serious than their German Weisse Frauen kin, frequently blowing out candles on unsuspecting courting couples or producing obscene kissing sounds, which were always misinterpreted by parents." Pixy-Light was also associated with "lambent light" which the "Old Norse" might have seen guarding their tombs.
In Cornish folklore, Pixy-Light also has associations with the Colt Pixy. "A colt pixie is a pixie that has taken the shape of a horse and enjoys playing tricks such as neighing at the other horses to lead them astray". It may well be said that the wild colt pixy would sometimes bedevil regular horses on a ride and cause them to lead their human masters into a predicament or hazard, and might have yielded the pixy - horse name variation.
In Guernsey, the light is known as the faeu boulanger (rolling fire), and is believed to be a lost soul. On being confronted with the spectre, tradition prescribes two remedies. The first is to turn one's cap or coat inside out. This has the effect of stopping the faeu boulanger in its tracks. The other solution is to stick a knife into the ground, blade up. The faeu, in an attempt to kill itself, will attack the blade.
Aleya (or marsh ghost-light) is the name given to an unexplained strange light phenomena occurring over the marshes as observed by the Bengali people, specially the fishermen of Bengal. This marsh light is attributed to some kind of unexplained marsh gas apparitions that confuse fishermen, make them lose their bearings and may even lead to drowning if one decided to follow it moving over the marshes. Local communities in the region believe that these strange hovering marsh-lights are in fact Ghost-lights representing the ghosts of fisherman who died fishing, some times they confuse the fishermen and some times they help them avoid future dangers.
Chir batti (ghost-light), also spelled chhir batti or cheer batti, is a yet unexplained strange dancing light phenomena occurring on dark nights reported from the Banni grasslands, its seasonal marshy wetlands and the adjoining desert of the marshy salt flats of the Rann of Kutch near Indo-Pakistani border in Kutch district, Gujarat State, India. Local villagers have been seeing these sometimes hovering, sometimes flying balls of lights since time immemorial, and call it Chir Batti in their Kutchhi–Sindhi language, with Chir meaning ghost and Batti meaning light.
Similar phenomena are described in Japanese folklore, including Hitodama (literally "Human Soul" as a ball of energy), Hi no Tama (Ball of Flame), Aburagae, Koemonbi, Ushionibi, etc. All these phenomena are described as balls of flame or light, at times associated with graveyards, but occurring across Japan as a whole in a wide variety of situations and locations. These phenomena are described in Shigeru Mizuki's 1985 book Graphic World of Japanese Phantoms (妖怪伝 in Japanese).
Boi-tatá (Portuguese pronunciation: [bojtaˈta]) is the Brazilian equivalent of the will-o'-the-wisp. Regionally it is called Boitatá, Baitatá, Batatá, Bitatá, Batatão, Biatatá, M'boiguaçu, Mboitatá and Mbaê-Tata. The name comes from the Old Tupi language and means "fiery serpent" (mboî tatá). It has great fiery eyes, leave it almost blind by day, but by night, it can see everything. According to legend, Boi-tatá was a big serpent which survived a great deluge. A "boiguaçu" (a cave anaconda) left its cave after the deluge and, in the dark, went through the fields preying on the animals and corpses, eating exclusively its favorite morsel, the eyes. The collected light from the eaten eyes gave "Boitatá" its fiery gaze. Not really a dragon but a giant snake (in the native language, "boa" or "mboi" or "mboa").
The expression "fogo-fátuo" is also used ("fake fire", from the Latin "ignis fatuus") throughout Brazil.
In Argentina the will-o'-the-wisp phenomenon is known as Luz Mala (evil light) or Fuego Fatuo and is one of the most important myths in Argentine and Uruguayan Folklore. This phenomenon is quite feared and is mostly seen on Argentine rural areas. It consists of an extremely shiny ball of light floating a few inches from the ground. Traditionally is said that "If the light is white, it implies a soul in pain and is recommended to say a prayer, but if the light is red, the witness must flee immediately, thus the phenomenon represents the temptation of Satan.."
Min Min Light is the name given to an unusual light formation that has been reported numerous times in eastern Australia. The lights have been reported from as far south as Brewarrina in western New South Wales, to as far north as Boulia in northern Queensland. The majority of sightings are reported to have occurred in Channel Country.
Stories about the lights can be found in aboriginal myth pre-dating western settlement of the region and have since become part of wider Australian folklore. Indigenous Australians hold that the number of sightings has increased alongside the increasing ingression of Europeans into the region. According to folklore, the lights sometime follow or approached people and have disappeared when fired upon, only to reappear later on.
The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine spontaneously ignites on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires. Chemists have replicated the lights by adding some chemicals to gases from rotting compounds. They argue that the combustion can be sustained at lower temperatures than those found in traditional fires. Taken together, these findings seem to explain two of the more puzzling aspects of the will-o'-the-wisp — its spontaneous, transient nature and its low-temperature "flame" that doesn't seem to burn close-by ignitable items.
Writing in the Journal of American Folklore in 1891, J.G. Owens contested the marsh-gas hypothesis:
This is a name that is sometimes applied to a phenomenon perhaps more frequently called Jack-o'-the-Lantern, or Will-o'-the-Wisp. It seems to be a ball of fire, varying in size from that of a candle-flame to that of a man's head. It is generally observed in damp, marshy places, moving to and fro; but it has been known to stand perfectly still and send off scintillations. As you approach it, it will move on, keeping just beyond your reach; if you retire, it will follow you. That these fireballs do occur, and that they will repeat your motion, seems to be established, but no satisfactory explanation has yet been offered that I have heard. Those who are less superstitious say that it is the ignition of the gases rising from the marsh. But how a light produced from burning gas could have the form described and move as described, advancing as you advance, receding as you recede, and at other times remaining stationary, without having any visible connection with the earth, is not clear to me.
In 1993, professors Derr and Persinger proposed that the lights are piezoelectrically generated under a tectonic strain. The strains that move faults would also heat up the rocks, vaporizing the water in them. Rock or soil containing something piezoelectric, like quartz, silicon or arsenic, may also produce electricity, channeled up to the surface through the soil via a column of vaporized water, there somehow appearing as earth lights. This would explain why the lights appear electrical, erratic, or even intelligent in their behavior.
Others explanations link will-o'-the-wisps to bioluminescence, e.g., honey fungus. Barn owls also have white plumage that may reflect enough light from sources such as the moon to appear as a will-o'-the-wisp; hence the possibility of the lights moving, reacting to other lights, etc.
[...] He, leading, swiftly rolled
In tangles, and made intricate seem straight,There swallowed up and lost, from succour far.
To mischief swift. Hope elevates, and joy
Brightens his crest; as when a wandering fire,
Compact of unctuous vapour, which the night
Condenses, and the cold environs round,
Kindled through agitation to a flame,
Which oft, they say, some evil Spirit attends,
Hovering and blazing with delusive light,
Misleads the amazed night-wanderer from his way
To bogs and mires, and oft through pond or pool;—9.631-642
Two Will-o-the-wisps appear in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's fairy tale The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily (1795). They are described as lights which consume gold, and are capable of shaking gold pieces again from themselves.
It is seen in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre when Jane Eyre is unsure if it is a candle or a Will-o-the-wisp.
"Mother Carey" wrote a popular 19th century poem titled "Will-O'-The-Wisp".
The Will o' the wisp makes an appearance in the first chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula, as the Count, masquerading as his own coach driver, takes Jonathan Harker to his castle in the night. The following night, when Harker asks Dracula about the lights, the Count makes reference to a common folk belief about the phenomenon by saying that they mark where treasure is buried.
In J. R. R. Tolkien's work The Lord of the Rings, will o' the wisps are present in the Dead Marshes outside of Mordor. When Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee make their way through the bogs the spindly creature Gollum tells them "not to follow the lights" meaning the will o' the wisps. He tells them that if they do, they will keep the dead company and have little candles of their own. Also, Gandalf guides the Fellowship through the darkness of Moria (A Journey in the Dark) and his "wizard's light" is compared to a will-o'-the-wisp. Given that Moria was an ancient source of mithril, this might be a nod to Scandinavian associations of the will-o'-the-wisp with treasure.
The hinkypunk, the name for a Will o' the wisp in South West England has achieved fame as a magical beast in JK Rowling's Harry Potter series. In the books, a hinkypunk is a one-legged, frail-looking creature that appears to be made of smoke. It is said to carry a lantern and mislead travelers.
The children's fantasy series "The Spiderwick Chronicles", by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, includes will o'the wisps; they are listed in "Arthur Spiderwick's Guide to the Fantastical World Around You." In the series, Will O' The Wisps are described as fat fireflies that lead travellers astray.
The German fantasy novel by Michael Ende The Neverending Story (German: Die unendliche Geschichte 1979 and Ralph Manheim's English translation 1983) begins in Fantastica, when a will-o'-the-wisp goes to ask the Childlike Empress for help against the Nothing, which is spreading over the land. The film based on the book does not contain the Will -o'-the-wisp.
In Italo Calvino's novella, The Cloven Viscount, the narrator describes assisting Dr. Trelawney, a doctor-cum-amateur-scientist, in his hunt for will-o'-the-wisps in cemeteries. Calvino implies a connection between the number of fresh corpses in a graveyard and the frequency of will-o'-the-wisps.
In Julie Kagawa's Iron Fey series, will-o'-the-wisps are very commom creatures in the the land of Faery, and are meant to mislead travellers.
In classical music, one of Franz Liszt's most challenging piano studies (the Transcendental Etude No.5), known for its flighty and mysterious quality, bears the title "Feux Follets" (the French term for Will-o'-the-wisp). The phenomenon also appears in "Canción del fuego fatuo" ('Song of the will-o'-the-wisp') in Manuel de Falla's ballet El amor brujo, later covered by Miles Davis as "Will-O'-The-Wisp" on Sketches Of Spain. The German name of the phenomenon, Irrlicht, has been the name of a song by the classical composer Franz Schubert in his song cycle Winterreise. Additionally, the first solo album of electronic musician Klaus Schulze is named Irrlicht.
Several bands have written songs about or referring to will-o'-the-wisps, such as Magnolia electric Co., Verdunkeln, Leon Russell and Yes. The will-o'-the-wisp is also referred to during the song "Maria" in The Sound of Music.
The will o' the wisp also appears in the song "skylark" sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Maxine Sullivan and others
Part 3, Scene 12 of Berlioz' "The Damnation of Faust" is entitled "Menuet des follets" - "Minuet of the Wills-o'-the-Wisp".
Will-o'-the-wisp phenomena have appeared in numerous computer games (such as Everquest and the Elder Scrolls series) and tabletop games (including Dungeons and Dragons and Magic: the Gathering), frequently with reference to folklore of the phenomena misleading or harming travellers. The Final Fantasy series also pays tribute to the tradition of a will-o'-the-wisp being a lantern-carrying individual, with the Tonberry creature.
Will-o'-the-wisps also make an appearance in the Disney/Pixar film Brave.
Three Pokemon (Litwick, Lampent, and Chandelure) are modeled off Will-O'-the-Wisps.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Will-o'-the-wisps|
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