Will-O’-Wisp – Ghostly LightsSuppose you saw a flickering flight hovering over a pond. What would you think it was? A fairy? A dead soul? A spirit luring you toward it? According to some legends all of these might be true, because you may just have witnessed a will-o’-wisp.
What is it?
A will-o’-wisp, also known as will-o’-the-wisp, 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. Though this theory is debatable, as some believe they are the glow of fairies, or lamps carried by the fae. While others say they’re the souls of the dead who take the form of spectral lights.
This phenomenon has a variant of names – Jack-O’-Lantern, Hinkypunk, Hobby Lantern, Faery Lights, St. Elmo’s Fire, Bob-A-Longs, Jenny Burnt-Tail, Teine Sith, Huckpoten, Irrbloss, Eclaireux, Candelas and Ruskaly.
Those who follow these lights find the lights teasing them – appearing and disappearing the closer they get to them. Some say anyone successful in tracking down the lights will witness a gathering of fairies during a celebration. Though this varies depending on each culture.
European folklore sees these lights as either mischievous spirits of the dead, or other supernatural beings or spirits such as fairies, attempting to lead travellers astray.
Scandinavian folklore 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.
In Welsh folklore, the light is a “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.
In Bengal, the Aleya (or marsh ghost-light) is the name given to an unexplained strange light phenomena occurring over the marshes as observed.
South America has the Boi-tatá (fiery serpent), which is a ”boiguaçu” (a cave anaconda) left its cave after a great 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.
Australia has the Min Min Light an unusual light formation that has been reported numerous times in eastern Australia. According to folklore, the lights sometime follow or approached people and have disappeared when fired upon, only to reappear later on. The number of sightings has increased alongside the increasing ingression of Europeans into the region.
They typically appear as a cluster of tiny, bright lights around a body of water.
Appearances In Culture
- In literature, Will o’ the wisp sometimes has a metaphorical meaning, describing a hope or goal that leads one on but is impossible to reach, or something one finds sinister and confounding. In Book IX of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is compared to a “will-o-the-wisp” in tempting of Eve to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil.
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner describes the Will o’ the wisp.
- 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 creatureGollum 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.
- Will-o’-the-wisp phenomena have appeared in Gothic II: Night of the Raven, EverQuest, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Mario RPG, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness,Pokémon (as a status-inflicting skill), Skies of Arcadia, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Chrono Cross, the Legacy of Kain series and the trading card game Magic: the Gathering. The Final Fantasy Series also pays tribute to the will-o’-the-wisp character with the Tonberry creature. In Fable II, Will-o’-the-wisps are passive but frequently malignant spirits. Willo the Wisp appeared as a short cartoon series on BBC TV in the 1980s, voiced by Kenneth Williams. A will o’ the wisp called Bricriu appeared in three episodes of Disney Channel’s So Weird.
Did you know? Modern science has explained that these orbs of lights seen is an effect of a chemical reaction that is created when certain gases are released from a marsh or swamp.