A Will-o’-the-wisp, or ignis fatuus (Medieval Latin for “foolish fire”), is a phantom light that hovers around, often 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 a variety of different names.
They are very simple apparitions, and 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, even a dark figure has been seen carrying the light, as if it was a torch or a lantern but, although it carrying a light, it is always too dark to be described in detail.
Despite a light floating in the darkness might seem innocent, even friendly, don’t be deceived, as these attractive entities 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 backstory of Will-o’-the-wisps can shed some light on their cruel nature.
In fact, as story goes, lights are carried by spirits who are shut out of both heaven and hell.
The classic Will-o’-the-wisp is carried by a blacksmith named Will.
Our 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, his 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.
According to another similar, but more popular story, also the Jack-o’-lantern is carried by a curious character, this time 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 his 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, thus 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 any case, 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. For example, 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, but 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 popular are the “Jack-o’-Lantern,” “Peg-a’-Lantern,” “Joan the Wad,” “Jenny with the Lantern,” “Hobbedy’s Lantern”, “Hinky Punk,” and “Spunkies”, and 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, but 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 while, 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.
Mexico has two equivalents as well. In one they are called brujas (witches), folklore explains the phenomenon to be witches who transformed into these lights. The reason for this, however, varies according to the region.
Another explanation refers to the lights as indicators to places where gold or hidden treasures are buried which can be found only with the help of children, in this one they are called luces del dinero (money lights) or luces del tesoro (treasure lights).
Boi-tatá is the Brazilian equivalent of the will-o’-the-wisp. The name comes from the Old Tupi language and means “fiery serpent” (mboî tatá). Its 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, who left its cave and, in the dark, went through the fields preying on the animals and corpses, eating exclusively its favourite morsel, the eyes.
In Colombia, La Candileja is the will-o’-the-wisp ghost of a vicious grandmother who raised her grandchildren without morals, and as such they became thieves and murderers. In the afterlife the grandmother’s spirit was condemned to wander the world surrounded in flames.
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.
For example, 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.
Alhough 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 that could only be explained through superstition.
In modern science, it is generally accepted that will-o’-the-wisp phenomena are caused by the oxidation of phosphine (PH3), diphosphane (P2H4), and methane (CH4). These compounds, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine and diphosphane mixtures spontaneously ignite on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ghostly fires.
However, Ignis fatuus sightings are rarely reported today, and it is believed to be the result of the draining and reclamation of swamplands in recent centuries, such as the formerly vast Fenlands of eastern England which have now been converted to farmlands.
Either way, although Will-o’-the-wisps appear in Europe’s written record around the thirteenth century, their legend was well known, around the world, long before pen was put to paper.
With the oral traditions of Cornish, Nordic, and Aborigine people that warn against the dangers of these phantom lights….
Images from web – Google Research