9E Wisp RobAlexander The will-o'-the-wisp, sometimes will-o'-wisp or ignis fatuus Latin, from ignis ("fire") + fatuus ("foolish"), plural ignes fatui) refers to the ghostly lights sometimes seen at night or twilight over bogs, swamps, or marshes. It looks like a flickering lamp, and is sometimes said to recede if approached. Much folklore surrounds the phenomenon.

Terminology Edit

The term will-o'-the-wisp comes from wisp, a bundle of sticks or paper sometimes used as a torch, and the name Will; thus "Will of the wisp (or torch)." The term "Jack-o-lantern" ("Jack of the lantern") was originally synonymous with "will-o'-the-wisp." 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 spook-lights or ghost-lights by folklorists and paranormal enthusiasts in the United States.[1][2] 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.Willow the-Wisp


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, 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.[3] Another version of the tale, "Willy the Whisp", is related in Irish Folktales by Henry Glassie.

Other traditionsEdit

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). 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 early autumn 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, he made the treasure available only at the midsummer, and set will-o'-the-wisp to mark the exact place and time so that he could come to take the treasure back. Finns also believed that the creature guarding the treasure used fire to clean precious metals.

The will-o'-the-wisp can be found in numerous folk tales around the United Kingdom, 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 Brazilian folklore, there is the Boi-tatá. The name comes from the Old Tupi language and means "fiery serpent" (mboî tatá). It has great fiery eyes, by day almost blind, but by night, it sees everything. According to legend, Boi-tatá was a big serpent which survived a great deluge. To save itself, it entered a cave and rested in the darkness for centuries, so that its eyes grew. After it left the cave, it went through the fields looking for the bodies of animals to eat, but also sometimes attacked people and animals. It's not like a dragon but most like "Anaconda" the giant snake, that in native language is called "boa" or "mboi" or "mboa".

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.[4]

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.[5]

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)[6]

Also related, the Pixy-light which led people from the path was exactly like that of the Will O' The Wisp. They frequently stole children and often "Pixy-led" travellers. Like Poltergeist they generated uncanny sounds between the walls in order to frighten people. They were less serious than their German kin frequently blowing out candles on courting couples or producing obscene kissing sounds which were always misinterpreted by parents.

Dragons. "This is a name that is sometimes applied to a phenomenon perhaps more frequently called Jack-o'-the-Lantern, or Will-o'-the-Wisp. It seems to be a ball of fire, varying in size from that of a candle-flame to that of a man's head. It is generally observed in damp, marshy places, moving to and fro; but it has been known to stand perfectly still and send off scintillations. As you approach it, it will move on, keeping just beyond your reach; if you retire, it will follow you. That these fireballs do occur, and that they will repeat your motion, seems to be established, but no satisfactory explanation has yet been offered that I have heard. Those who are little superstitious say that it is the ignition of the gases rising from the marsh. But how a light produced from burning gas could have the form described and move as described, advancing as you advance, receding as you recede, and at other times remaining stationary, without having any visible connection with the earth, is not clear to me."[7]


The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause glowing light. The Italian chemists Luigi Garlaschelli and Paolo Boschetti have replicated the lights by adding some chemicals to gases from rotting compoundsTemplate:Citation needed.

In 1993 professors Derr and Persinger proposed that the lights are piezoelectrically generated under a tectonic strain. The strains that move faults would also heat up the rocks, vaporizing the water in them. Rock or soil containing something piezoelectric, like quartz or silicon, may also produce electricity, channeled up to the surface through the soil via a column of vaporised water, there somehow appearing as earth lights. This would explain why the lights appear electrical, erratic, or even intelligent in their behavior.[8][9]

Others explanations link will-o'-the-wisps to bioluminescence (e.g. honey fungus). Barn owls also have luminescent plumage with a high albedo that can reflect enough light from sources such as the moon to appear as a will-o'-the-wisp. Hence the possibility of the lights moving, reacting to other lights, etc.[10]

In literatureEdit

Main article: Will-o'-the-wisps in popular culture

The will o' the wisp has made appearances in many guises across many genres and forms of literature. In literature, the 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.[11][12]

A partial list of literary references includes:

  • Two will-o-the-wisps appear in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's fairy tale of The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily (1795) [13] while another one puts in an appearance in the Walpurgisnacht scene of his Faust, Part 1.
  • 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." [14]
  • "Das Irrlicht," a poem by Wilhelm Müller (1794-1827), gives a will-o'-the-wisp the role of leading the narrator on a chance journey. The poem is perhaps best known as the text to the ninth song in Franz Schubert's song cycle, Winterreise.
  • The will o' the wisp 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" is found in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre in chapter 22, and 28 when she is lost in the moor.
  • In Lewis Carroll's ballad The Hunting of the Snark, the "Bellman" describes "a flavour of Will o' the wisp" as one of the snark's features which helps one recognize the beast.
  • Will o' the wisps are mentioned in Diterlizzi's "The Care and Feeding of Sprites".
  • 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.[15]. 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.
  • Will o' the wisps appear in Elven Exiles of the Dragonlance series, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. They are presented as multi-colored mysterious lights that serve as guards over the ghosts dwelling in a hidden valley. At their touch, the victim disappears along with the light. The will o' the wisps are drawn to movement and animal life is non-existent in the valley because of the guardian lights.
  • 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 Fantasia. 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 travelled 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.
  • In Blindness (novel), by José Saramago, on pages 313-314, the doctor's wife notices will-o'-the-wisps around a supermarket basement door: "A few minutes later she said, They are dead, Did you see anything, did you open the door, asked her husband, No, I only saw will-o'-the-wisps around the doors, they clung there and danced around and did not let go, I think it must have been the phosphorised hydgrogen as a result of the decomposition of the bodies, What could have happened, They must have found the basement, rushed down the stairs looking for food".[16]

Other namesEdit

Unexplained lights have been reported under a variety of names, such as

  • Aleya in Bengal
  • Bataklık yakamozu (phosphorescence in the swamp) in Turkish
  • Błędny ognik (plural: błędne ogniki) in Poland
  • Boitatá (Tupi-guarani: fire snake) of Brazil, a fire snake who protects the wild life.
  • Brujas in Mexico, literally witches, said to be seen mainly in desertic areas and in the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains.
  • Candileja ("candeelaha") in Colombia
  • Cannwyll Gorff in Wales
  • Corpse Fire, lights appearing in graveyards; 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
  • Doggaebi bul (도깨비불) in Korea, "Doggaebi" being a traditional friendly monster with one or two horns on the head, and "bul" meaning fire
  • Dwaallicht, meaning wandering light in Dutch, luring people deep into peat bogs for no apparent reason.
  • Fair Maids of Ireland in Ireland.
  • 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.
  • Foxfire
  • Friar's Lantern
  • Hinkypunk in the West Country (probably derived from the Welsh Pwca or Old English Puca)
  • Hobby lantern, used in Hertfordshire, East Anglia, and in Warwickshire & Gloucestershire as Hobbedy's Lantern
  • Gandaspati in Indonesia, especially Central Java, a wicked spirit in flame that can take the form a dragon, and causes the death of whoever touches it.
  • Irrlicht, German derived from irre(n) (crazy, foolish, to get lost, or to err) and licht (light). It is a malicious ghost in German medieval fairy tales appearing as a ball of light in 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
  • Ghost Light
  • El Jacho (Spanish: 'The Torch) in Puerto Rico, mainly in the vicinities of Aibonito, Orocovis and other areas of the central mountain zone. It 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.
  • 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 will-o'-the-wisp and kolli vai pisaasu are the same.
  • Lân tinh in Vietnam.
  • 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.
  • Lygtemænd (Danish), lyktemenn (Norwegian) or lyktgubbar (Swedish), meaning lantern-men. The traditions are similar to the other North-Western European traditions
  • Min-min, in some Australian Aborigine societies describes phenonema similar to ball lightning or Will o'the Wisps; at one time believed to be the spirits of lost or stillborn children. The Min-min were believed to be dangerous to humans, especially young children.
  • Mekong lights (Nekha lights) in Thailand.
  • Peg-a-Lantern in Lancashire, or Jenny-with-the-lantern in Northumbria and Yorkshire
  • incorrectly identified Saint Elmo's Fire
  • Pixy-light glimmering lights of lure.
  • Santelmo in the Philippines
  • Spunkie – a Scots name used in the Scottish Lowlands.
  • Vettelys 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.[17]
  • 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
  • Witte wieven in Twente: white women who are said to lure lost travellers into bogs and marshes
  • Yan-gant-y-tan, demon mentioned in Collin de Plancy's Dictionnaire Infernal similar 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 spin quickly.
  • Guǐ huǒ (鬼火) Chinese, literally 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 in hot weather, the flames producing the sporadic lights seen in hot summer nights. Sometimes also referring to the completely different phenomena of phosphorescence or more rarely, ball lightning.
  • Žaltvykslė Lithuanian, it translates roughly as blinking green light.
  • Onibi (鬼火) Japanese meaning 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.[5]
  • The Ignis Erraticus - A Bibliographic Survey of the names of the Will-'o-the-wisp

Reported locationsEdit

Canadian light locationsEdit

European light locationsEdit

United States light locationsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. Template:Cite web
  2. Template:Cite web
  3. Template:Cite web
  4. Folklore of Guernsey by Marie de Garis (1986) ASIN: B0000EE6P8.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Hall, Jamie. Half Human, Half Animal: Tales of Werewolves and Related Creatures. Bloomington, Indiana: Authorhouse, 2003. 142.
  6. Mizuki, Shigeru. "Graphic World of Japanese Phantoms". 講談社, 1985. ISBN 978-4-06-202381-8 (4-06-202381-4).
  7. Owens, J.G.1891. "Folk-Lore from Buffalo Valley." Journal of American Folk-lore. 4:123-4.
  8. Template:Cite book
  9. Template:Cite book
  10. A Review of accounts of luminosity in Barn Owls Tyto alba.
  11. entry on will-o'-the-wisp in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2007, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2007. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.
  12. Thomas Henry Huxley, 1860: "The fruitless search after final causes leads their pursuers a long way; but even those hardy teleologists, who are ready to break through all the laws of physics in chase of their favourite will-o'-the-wisp", Darwin on the origin of Species. Westminster Review, 17 (n.s.): 541-70
  13. Template:Cite web
  14. See The Complete Poems of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester (Ed. David Vieth, Yale University Press, 1975).
  15. Template:Cite book
  16. Saramago, Jose. (1999 edition). Blindness. Translated from the Portuguese by Giovanni Pontiero. Harcourt, Inc.
  17. Notes and Queries Vol. 6 (140) July 3, 1852 p. 17.

Sources Edit

bn:আলেয়া ca:Foc follet cs:Bludička de:Irrlicht es:Fuego fatuo eo:Vaglumo fr:Feu follet fur:Liende dal Fûc Voladi it:Fuoco fatuo la:Ignis fatuus lv:Malduguns hu:Lidérc nl:Dwaallicht ja:ウィルオウィスプ nrm:Bélengi pl:Ognik (demon) pt:Fogo-fátuo simple:Will o' the wisp fi:Virvatuli sv:Irrbloss uk:Вогники мандрівні

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