The Will-o'-the-Wisp is out on the marsh,
And all alone he goes;
There's not a sight of his glimmering light
From break of day to close;
But all night long, from dusk till dawn,
He drifts where the night wind blows.
Excerpt from The Will O’ The Wisp, by Annie Campbell Huestis
If you travel near a bog or swamp at night, beware of the small flickering lights you see. These are the will-o’-the-wisps and will lead you astray. At least, that’s what the stories say. In most stories, the will-o’-the-wisp is a mysterious light appearing to travelers. If you follow the light, you’ll find yourself in trouble. The will-o’-the-wisp most often appears in marshes, swamps, and bogs, but may show up anywhere.
In Wales, the pwca is said to be a goblin-like fairy carrying a lantern to lead travelers off the safe path. As the traveler follows the pwca further into the marsh or bog, the light is suddenly extinguished, leaving the traveler lost and without any way to return to the safe path.
One story tells of a peasant traveling home one evening when he sees a bright light ahead of him. Looking closely, he can see the light is a lantern carried by a small figure. He follows the light for several miles until suddenly finding himself at the edge of a vast chasm. The little creature hops the chasm, laughing, and blows out the light. The peasant is left a long way from home, in the pitch darkness, standing on the edge of a precipice.
This type of warning story is fairly common. The details change, but the purpose remains the same.
In Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands near the French coast, the light is known as the faeu boulanger and is believed to be a lost soul. If you were to encounter the light, there are two possible ways to protect yourself. The first is to turn your coat inside out, which will stop the faeu boulanger in its tracks. The other method is to stick a knife in the ground, blade up, which the faeu boulanger will attack.
Will-o'-the-wisps aren’t limited to the UK though. In Germany and Poland, the will-o’-the-wisp is a mischievous gnome who will lead people astray at night or in fog. The person who follows the will-o’-the-wisp will end up in a swamp or simply lose their way. It is said that a way to avoid them or render them harmless is to keep one foot in a wagon rut at all times when traveling. Sometimes, if you are lost, they will actually help you find your way if you speak kindly and offer generous payment.
Another story tells of a man who while traveling home lost his way. He came upon a will-o’-the-wisp and offered them two silver coins to help him find his way home. The will-o’-the-wisp agreed and began to lead the man. Finally, they came within sight of the man’s house, and happy that he no longer needed assistance, the man thanked his guide. However, instead of the promised payment, the man only offered a small copper coin. The will-o'-the-wisp accepted it, then asked the man if he could find his way home by himself now. The man was assured that he could, for he could see his own front door. He stepped forward and fell into the water, his house disappearing as it was only an illusion.
In several English-speaking areas, there are variant stories that say the will-o’-the-wisp is not a fairy at all, but the soul or souls of the dead. Most variants of the story say that either a Will or a Jack is doomed to haunt the marshes for some misdeed. He carries a lantern or coal and lures unwary travelers to their untimely demise. The name Will or Jack leads to the name of the phenomenon, will-o’-the-wisp or sometimes jack’o’lantern.
Louisiana is rich in folklore and is no exception when it comes to the will-o'-the-wisp. Here, the little lights go by feu follet, which translates to “marsh fire” or “crazy fire”. They could also be called swamp fairies. The feu follet is described in varying sizes, but the average is that of a candle flame.
One origin story of the feu follet is that it is the spirit of a loved one who has passed away, coming to give their final goodbyes. Another story says they are evil entities laying a trap to lure people deep into the bayou. The feu follet is also reported in cemeteries and graveyards of the American South. From a blog post on VisitLakeCharles.Org, “One of the very oldest private cemeteries, Bilbo Cemetery in Lake Charles, has had reports of the mysterious glowing lights since the 1840s. Here at the Bilbo Family Cemetery, the feu follet is the otherworldly equivalent of “leaving the light on” to welcome-in new visitors.”
In Mexico, another variant of the will-o'-the-wisp is called luces del dinero which translates to money lights or luces del tesoro, or treasure lights. This is due to the lights being seen where buried treasure or hidden gold can be found. Interestingly, these treasures can only be found with the help of children.
Further south, in Brazil, you can also find a local variant of the will-o'-the-wisp called the Boi-tatá. Unlike other will-o’-the-wisps, this variant is thought to be a great serpent with fiery eyes. The legend goes that the Boi-tatá was a giant serpent that survived a great flood. The snake left its cave after the deluge and went through the land preying on animals and scavenging from corpses, eating only the eyes. The collected light from the eyes gave the Boi-tatá its fiery gaze, which leaves the great snake blind by day, but able to see anything at night.
In Japan, the foxes are responsible for kitsunebi, which are floating orbs of light. These orbs are usually small, just a few centimeters in diameter and appear about a meter above the ground. The orbs appear red-orange or blue-green and are as bright as lanterns. The lore says that foxes breathe out the ball of light and use it to light their way. It’s also considered a sign that there are a large number of yokai, or spirits, nearby. When hundreds or thousands of kitsunebi are seen, it is said that there is a yokai event being lit up, such as the night parade of one hundred demons, a yokai wedding, or any other processions or meetings. But those are all topics for another episode.
Kitsunebi aren’t inherently dangerous to humans, but the foxes that created them may be. Just like all will-o’-the-wisps, sometimes kitsunebi are used to trick humans off of their paths at night as a malicious prank. They may also be used to lure humans into a group of hungry yokai. Generally, following a kitsunebi will only lead you to places you shouldn’t be.
Our modern world is not without the will-o'-the-wisp. More often called spooklights or ghost lights today, they can be found in many places. One that is close to my home is the Joplin Spooklight, which is also known as The Spooklight of Southwestern Missouri or the Tri-State Spooklight. The light itself appears in Oklahoma, but is often seen from the small town of Hornet, MO near the larger city of Joplin, MO. According to the stories, the light appears in the center of a dirt road called The Devil’s Promenade. The light dances and spins, sometimes swaying like a lantern being held by some unseen entity.
It was first recorded as far back as 1881, though there are some stories saying it could be seen during the Trail of Tears. There are several origin stories for the Spooklight. Some say it’s a ghostly lantern carried by a woman who died in a nearby farmhouse, others say a Civil War hero or a Native American chief. None of this can be verified, of course, it’s just local legend. Some more modern studies have been done and report that the lights are an atmospheric phenomenon reflecting car headlights on nearby Route 66. Others claim that the lights are caused by escaping natural gas. A third theory says the lights are electrical atmospheric charges caused by seismic activity.
A more famous ghost light is that of the Marfa lights in Texas. These were first observed in 1883 by a young cowherd in the area who was driving cattle through Paisano Pass. Another pair of early settlers also spotted the lights in 1885. The lights were investigated multiple times in history and no discernible source was found. Now, you can try to view the lights yourself at a roadside parking area on US Highway 90. Like the Joplin Spooklight, the Marfa lights are thought to be due to reflected car headlights, escaping natural gas, or electrical discharges. The Marfa lights are also occasionally attributed to UFOs.
Ghost lights aren’t unique to the United States. One, which appears in India is the Chir Batti. Chir Batti means “ghost light” in the Kutchhi-Sindhi language spoken in the region where the lights appear. This particular version shows itself as a ball of light and is said to change colors to blue, red, and yellow. Local lore says this phenomenon has been part of this region for centuries.
The Naga fireballs are another Asian ghost light. These fireballs range from small sparkles to the size of basketballs and are said to rise from the Mekong river several hundred feet in the air before disappearing. Local lore attributes these fireballs to a giant serpent creature known as the Nāga.
In Australia, the Min Min lights are a phenomenon that has been reported in the outback. These lights appear like most ghost lights, but have been reported to possibly chase travelers instead of being benign. Also unlike most ghost lights, the Min Min lights predate European colonizers. One researcher has potentially linked the Min Min lights to stories of the rainbow serpent in Aboriginal folklore due to the way the lights move in a serpentine fashion. The rainbow serpent may take on a guardian type role for sacred sites, scaring off those who shouldn’t be there.
A Fata Morgana is often an explanation for ghost lights appearing in desert regions. The name Fata Morgana hails back to fairies still, being an Italian translation of Morgan Le Fay from Arthurian legend. This is due to the belief that these mirages were fairy castles in the air or false land conjured up by her witchcraft to lure sailors to their deaths. The mirage occurs because rays of light bend when they pass through air layers of different temperatures.
For the will-o’-the-wisp found in marshes, swamps, and bogs, science has an explanation as well. Modern science explains the light aspect as natural phenomena such as chemiluminescence, caused by the oxidation of phosphine, diphosphane, and methane produced by organic decay.
There is also foxfire, a bioluminescent fungus that grows on decaying trees. The "fox" of foxfire is probably derived from the French "faux" meaning “false” rather than the animal. However, foxes are often associated with fire in mythology, such as the Japanese kitsune we discussed before.
When night's dark mantle has covered all
I come in fire arrayed ;
Many a victim I've seen fall,
Or fly from me dismay'd.
Will-o'-the-wisp ! they trembling cry,
Will-o'-the-wisp ! 'tis he !
To mark their fright as off they fly
Is merry sport for me.
I dance, I dance, I'm here, I'm there,
Who tries to catch me catches but air ;
The mortal who follows me follows in vain,
For I laugh, ha ! ha ! I laugh, ho ! ho !
I laugh at their folly and pain.
Many a traveller I deceive,
And with their parting breath
I hear them call in vain for help,
And dance round them in death.
Will-o'-the-wisp ! they trembling cry,
Will-o'-the wisp ! 'tis he !
To mark their shriek as they sink and die
Is merry sport for me.
Lyrics taken from a broadside ballad, published 1869
One of my favorite television shows and a great one for listeners of this podcast is Lost Girl. The second episode of the very first season depicts a unique version of the will-o’-the-wisp as a character.
From IMdB: Lost Girl focuses on the gorgeous and charismatic Bo, a supernatural being called a succubus who feeds on the energy of humans, sometimes with fatal results. Refusing to embrace her supernatural clan system and its rigid hierarchy, Bo is a renegade who takes up the fight for the underdog while searching for the truth about her own mysterious origins.
In the first season’s second episode, Where There’s a Will, There’s a Fae, the will-o’-the-wisp, named Will, approaches Bo in order to receive help recovering his lost treasure of jewels in exchange for information about Bo’s past. Will’s power manifests as the ability to spark random fires, which causes plenty of problems in the course of the episode.
The episode, and the entire show, is well worth watching. The show itself will feature in upcoming episodes as well as an episode all its own.