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Will-o'-the-wisp

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Christa Ewing
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« on: October 23, 2007, 09:15:48 pm »



Will-o'-the-wisp (reenacted)


The will-o'-the-wisp or ignis fatuus, or in plural form as ignes fatui ("fool's fire(s)") refers to the ghostly lights sometimes seen at night or twilight that hover over damp ground in still air — often over bogs. It looks like a flickering lamp, and is sometimes said to recede if approached. Much folklore surrounds the legend, but science has offered several potential explanations.

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Christa Ewing
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« Reply #1 on: October 23, 2007, 09:16:14 pm »

The term will-o'-the-wisp comes from wisp, a bundle of hay or straw sometimes used as a torch, and will-o' ("Will of").

The phenomenon will-o'-the-wisp (will of the wisp) is sometimes referred to as Jack o' lantern (Jack of the lantern), and indeed the two terms were originally synonymous. In fact the names "Jacky Lantern" and "Jack the Lantern" are still present in the oral tradition of Newfoundland. These lights are also sometimes referred to as "corpse candles" or "hobby lanterns", two monikers found in the Denham Tracts. Sometimes the phenomenon is classified by the observer as a ghost, fairy, or elemental, and a different name is used. Briggs' "A Dictionary of Fairies" provides an extensive list of other names for the same phenomenon.
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Christa Ewing
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« Reply #2 on: October 23, 2007, 09:16:48 pm »

The names will-o'-the-wisp and jack-o'-lantern refer to an old folktale, retold in different forms across Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Appalachia and Newfoundland.

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 (compare Wayland Smith).

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, as 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.


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Christa Ewing
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« Reply #3 on: October 23, 2007, 09:17:38 pm »

Among European rural people, especially in Gaelic and Slavic folk cultures, the will-o'-the-wisps are held to be mischievous spirits of the dead or other supernatural beings attempting to lead travellers astray (compare Puck). Sometimes they are believed to be the spirits of unbaptized or stillborn children, flitting between heaven and hell (compare Wilis). 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, 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 were required as well, to uncover the treasure. In Finland and other northern countries it was believed that midsummer 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, (s)he made the treasure available only at the midsummer, and set will-o'-the-wisp to mark the exact place and time so that (s)he could come to take the treasure back. Finns also believed that the creature guarding the treasure used fire to clean precious metals bright again.

The will-o'-the-wisp can be found in numerous folk tales around the British Isles, and is often a malicious character in the stories. Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblins mentions a Welsh tale about a will-o'-the-wisp (Pwca). A peasant travelling home at dusk spots a bright light travelling 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 travellers 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.

In Indonesia, especially Central Java, the light is known as Gandaspati, a wicked spirit in flame that can take the form a dragon. Supposedly the spirit causes the death of whomever touches it.

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.

One Asian theologist ponders the relation of will-o'-the-wisp to that of the foxfire produced by kitsune, an interesting way of combining mythology of the West with that of the East.

In addition to Kitsunebi (aka Foxfire) described above, additional similar phenomena are described in Japanese folklore, including Hitodama (literally "Human ball" as in 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)
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Christa Ewing
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« Reply #4 on: October 23, 2007, 09:18:16 pm »

One possible naturalistic and scientific explanation for such phenomena is that the oxidation of hydrogen phosphide and methane gases produced by the decay of organic material may cause glowing lights to appear in the air. Experiments, for example, done by the Italian chemists Luigi Garlaschelli and Paolo Boschetti, have replicated the lights by adding chemicals to the gases formed by rotting compounds. Critics claim that this theory does not easily account for reported cases which claim lights bob, swoop, soar upwards or downwards, or move against the wind.

William Corliss writes, in Remarkable Luminous Phenomena in Nature (Sourcebook Project,[1] Glen Arm, MD, 2001:290): "No satisfactory mechanism has been demonstrated whereby gases escaping from marshy areas will spontaneously ignite. Furthermore, most low-level nocturnal lights are cold—not what one would expect from burning methane. Also, no one has explained how clouds of luminous gas can maintain size and shape while engaging in erratic maneuvers over many minutes."

Others believe bioluminescent effects (e.g. honey fungus) cause the light. Other explanations include causes similar to ball lightning.

More recently, under the broader banner of "Earth Lights," pseudoscientific theories as to how they are produced have been put forward by Professors Derr & Persinger, and Paul Devereux (who, in some circles, is considered the 'authority' on earth lights of various kinds, including ball lightning, St. Elmo's Fire and lights associated with earthquakes). Derr & Persinger put forward the theory that earth lights may be generated by tectonic strain. (These are faults in the earth's crust, including earthquake faults.) The theory goes that the strain causes heat in the rocks, vaporising the water in them. Piezoelectric rocks such as quartz then produce electricity, which is channeled up through this column of vaporised water, until it reaches the surface—somehow displaying itself in the form of earth lights. This theory would assert that the majority of earth lights are seen over places of tectonic strain. If it is correct, it would explain why such lights often behave in an erratic and even seemingly intelligent manner, often defying the laws of gravity. Paul Devereux's explanation, however, is much broader. He thinks that the link between the lights and the landscape is more tenuous. He says that they are probably related to many things: tectonic strain, weather conditions, local geography, 'ley lines', terrain, water table depth and so forth. This explanation, however, is rejected by most experts as highly unscientific.

Another theory was put forward claiming these lights are barn owls with luminescent plumage. Hence the possibility of them floating around, reacting to other lights, etc. See A Review of accounts of luminosity in Barn Owls Tyto alba.
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