The will-o'-the-wisp, sometimes will-o'-wisp or ignis fatuus (modern Latin, from ignis ("fire") + fatuus ("foolish"), plural ignes fatui) refers to the ghostly lights sometimes seen at night or twilight — 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.
The term will-o'-the-wisp comes from wisp, a bundle of sticks or paper sometimes used as a torch, and will-o' ("Will of").
The folklore 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. They are often called spooklights or ghost lights by folklorists and paranormal enthusiasts in the United States. 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 though the place they are observed (graveyard, bogs etc.) influences the naming considerably.
FolkloreThe 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, 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.
Other traditionsAmong 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). 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 supposed to have been killed on the job.
Sometimes the lights 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, 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 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)
Theories of originOne popular 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.
More recently Professors Derr and Persinger put forward a theory that earth lights may be generated piezoelectrically under a tectonic strain. This theory suggests that the strains which move faults also causes heat in the rocks, vaporising the water in them. Rocks and soils containing piezoelectric elements such as quartz (or silicon) may also produce electricity, which is channeled up through soils via a column of vaporised water until it reaches the surface — somehow displaying itself in the form of earth lights. If correct, this explains why such lights can behave in an electrical and erratic - or even apparently intelligent - manner.
Others explanations suggest that the effect is bioluminescent in nature (e.g. honey fungus): A 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.
In literatureThe will o' the wisp has made appearances in many guises across many genres and forms of literature.
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. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner describes the Will o' the wisp, and two Will-o-the-wisps appear in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's fairy tale of The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily (1795). John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester satirically refers to human reason as "an ignis fatuus in the mind" in his 1670 poem "A Satyre Against Reason and Mankind." The Will o' the wisp also makes an appearance in the first chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula, wherein the Count, masquerading as his own coach driver, takes Jonathan Harker to his castle in the night. "Ignis Fatuus" can also be seen in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in chapter 28 when she is lost in the moor.
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.. Here, the Hinkypunk is a translucent creature that bears a lantern in one hand and hops on a single foot. Humans who follow this light may find themselves immersed in marsh. In J.R.R Tolkien's work The Lord of the Rings, Will o' the wisps are present as "candles lit by the dead" in the Dead Marshes outside of Mordor.
In Michael Ende's fantasy novel, The Neverending Story, a Will o' the Wisp is one of the many species of creatures living in the land of Fantastica. The Will o' the Wisp described in the novel is a messenger sent to visit the Childlike Empress. He is described as being a small man inside an orb of light, who traveled by bouncing irregularly through the woods.
Will-o'-the-Wisps are mentioned as magical creatures in Cornelia Funke's novel Dragon Rider. No comprehensive description is given, though they are implied to be tiny, luminous creatures who are equally likely to be found in mountains and in deserts.
The "light flyers", who are firefly-like organisms featured by T.A. Barron's The Lost Years of Merlin book series, may be a reference to the Will o' the Wisp.
Other namesUnexplained lights have been reported under a variety of names, such as:
- Arbyrd/Senath Ghost Light of Missouri
- Boitatá(Tupi-guarani:fire snake) of Brazil, a fire snake who protects the wild life.
- Bragg Road ghost light ( Light of Saratoga ) of Texas
- Brown Mountain Lights of North Carolina
- Candileja (kan-dee-leh-has) in Colombia
- Cohoke light of Virginia
- Corpse Fire – this name comes from lights appearing specifically within graveyards where it was believed the lights were an omen of death or coming tragedy and would mark the route or Corpse road of a future funeral, from the victim's house to the graveyard.
- Corpse Light or Corpse Candle (in Scotland and late 19th and early 20th century Newfoundland)
- Crossett Light of Arkansas
- Dwaallicht, meaning "wandering light" in Dutch, luring people deep into peat bogs for no apparent reason.
- Fair Maids of Ireland in parts of Great Britain.
- Feux Follets, literally "Merry Fires," in French and French-Canadian folklore. Despite the cheerful-sounding name, in French-Canadian folklore Feux Follets were believed to be the damned spirits of criminals or bad Catholics who served Satan and sometimes worked in concert with the Loup Garou, or Werewolf, in pursuit of wayward souls.
- Fogos-Fátuos in Portugal and Brazil.
- Friar's Lantern
- Fireship of Baie des Chaleurs in Canada
- Hinkypunk in the West Country (probably derived from the Welsh Pwca)
- Hobby lantern - used in Hertfordshire, East Anglia, and in Warwickshire & Gloucestershire as Hobbedy's Lantern
- Hornet ghost light of Missouri-Oklahoma stateline (also known just as the spooklight).
- Irrlicht, German expression which derives from "irre(n)" with several meanings such as crazy, foolish, to get lost or to err and "Licht" equal to light. It is a malicious ghost in German medieval fairy tales appearing as a glowing sphere of light in the dark woods, seducing people to leave the roads and pass into the woods.
- Irrbloss, Swedish word that is a contraction of the words "irra" (wander randomly) and "bloss" (torch).
- Fuegos fatuos (in Spain)
- Fuoco Fatuo (Plural: Fuochi Fatui) (in Italy)
- Gurdon light of Arkansas
- Ghost Light
- El Jacho : (Spanish: 'The Torch) A similar phenomenon in Puerto Rico, mainly sighted in the vicinities of Aibonito, Orocovis and other areas of the central mountain zone. It mainly serves as a boogieman-like figure to scare children and is described as a ghostly humanoid figure of a man engulfed in flames. According to folklore, he is the ghost of a man who was cursed to wander the land searching for the ashes of a cross he burned.
- Hessdalen light in Norway
- Jack-o'-lantern, Jacky Lantern or Jack the Lantern (in Newfoundland)
- Kitty-with-a-Wick in Cornish folklore.
- Kolli vai pisaasu - a Tamil term used to describe a ghost (pisaasu) with burning embers (kolli) in its mouth (vai). There is a contention whether both will-o'-the-wisp and kolli vai pisaasu are the same.
- Lidérc, a demon of Hungarian folklore that flies at night in the form of fiery light, scattering flames.
- Luz Mala, meaning "evil light" in Argentina and some parts of South America. They are believed to be wandering, malevolent ghosts.
- Lyktemenn (Norwegian) or lyktgubbar (Swedish) , meaning "men with torches". The traditions are similar to the other North-Western European traditions
- Maco light of North Carolina
- Marfa lights of Texas
- Martebo lights in Sweden
- Min-min: a term used by some Australian Aborigine societies to describe atmospheric phenonema similar to ball lightning or Will o'the Wisps; at one time believed to be the spirits of lost (or stillborn) children. As in many other cultures, the Min-min were believed to be dangerous to human beings, especially young children.
- Moody's light of Indiana
- Mekong lights (Nekha lights) in Thailand.
- Ozark spooklight of Missouri
- Paasselkä devil in Finland
- The Paulding Light of Michigan's Upper Peninsula
- Peg-a-Lantern in Lancashire, or Jenny-with-the-lantern in Northumbria and Yorkshire
- incorrectly identified Saint Elmo's Fire
- St. Louis Light in Canada
- Skinwalker Ranch lights of Utah.
- Spunkie – a Scots name used in the Scottish Lowlands.
- Surrency Spooklight of Georgia
- Vettelys is another name given to Will o'the Wisp in Norway, having the literal meaning of "Vette's Candle," the Vette being a kind of goblin of dwarfish stature, believed to dwell in mounds.
- Virvatuli "flickering fire" and aarnivalkea "treasure fire" are amongst the many Finnish names for this phenomenon. It is also called liekkiö ("flamey") when it is believed to be a ghost of a murdered child.
- "Ken Yang Ba-Shing"(In Taiwan)
- Walking Fire
- Yan-gant-y-tan : Demon mentioned in Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal similar in nature to will-o'-the-wisp. Yan-gant-y-tan wanders the nights in Finistere and is considered an omen among the Breton people. He holds five candles on his five fingers, which he is able to turn quickly.
- 鬼火 (gwei-huo) Chinese, literally meaning "ghost fire". Often seen in graveyards or other places where dead bodies gather. As the dead bodies rot and decay phosphine is produced which spontaneously ignites in air under hot weather, the flames thus producing the sporadic lights (usually seen in hot summer nights). Sometimes also referring to the completely different phenomena of phosphorescence or more rarely, ball lightning.
- Žaltvykslė Lithuanian for Will o'Wisp, it translates roughly as "blinking green light".
- 鬼火 (onibi) Japanese for Will o'Wisp, it translates to "ghost/demon fire." It's sometimes associated with or mistaken for the trickster 人魂 (hitodama or "human soul"), blue or green floating balls of fire assumed to be souls of people with unfinished business. Other Japanese myths consider the phenomenon a trick of the kitsune, employing their "fox-fire" (kitsune-bi) to lead travelers astray.
spunkie in Bengali: আলেয়া
spunkie in Catalan: Focs follets
spunkie in German: Irrlicht
spunkie in Spanish: Fuego fatuo
spunkie in Esperanto: Vaglumo
spunkie in French: Feu follet
spunkie in Italian: Fuochi fatui
spunkie in Latin: Ignis fatuus
spunkie in Hungarian: Lidérc
spunkie in Dutch: Dwaallicht
spunkie in Japanese: ウィルオウィスプ
spunkie in Narom: Bélengi
spunkie in Polish: Błędne Ogniki
spunkie in Portuguese: Fogo fátuo
spunkie in Finnish: Virvatuli
spunkie in Swedish: Irrbloss
spunkie in Ukrainian: Вогники мандрівні