An artist's rendering of will-o'-the-wisp.
|Coined by||Folklore (various)|
|AKA||Ignis fatuus, ghost-light, spook-light, orb|
|Definition||A mysterious light associated with spirits, found in various folklore tales|
|Signature||Soft and illusive light with no determinable source|
A will-o'-the-wisp or ignis fatuus (Latin, from ignis, "fire" + fatuus, "foolish"), also called will-o'-wisp, jack-o'-lantern, friar's lantern, hinkypunk, and wisp, is a ghostly light sometimes seen at night or twilight over bogs, swamps, and marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is sometimes said to recede if approached. Much folklore surrounds the phenomenon.
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. In the United States, they are often called spook-lights, ghost-lights, or orbs by folklorists and paranormal enthusiasts. 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.
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.
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. The first modern novel in the Irish language, Séadna by Peadar Ua Laoghaire, is a version of the tale.
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. In Welsh folklore, it is said that the light is 'fairy fire' held in the hand of a pwca (compare Puck), a small goblin-like fairy that mischievously leads lone travellers off the beaten path at night. As the traveller follows the pwca through the marsh or bog, the fire is extinguished, leaving the man lost. The pwca is said to be one of the Tylwyth Teg, or fairy family. In Wales the light predicts a funeral that will take place soon in the locality. Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblins mentions a Welsh tale about 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.
Also related, the Pixy-light from Devon and Cornwall is most often associated with the Pixie who often has "pixie-led" travelers away from the safe and reliable route, and into the bogs with glowing lights.
"Like Poltergeist they can generate uncanny sounds. They were less serious than their German Weisse Frauen kin, frequently blowing out candles on unsuspecting courting couples or producing obscene kissing sounds, which were always misinterpreted by parents."  Pixy-Light was also associated with "lambent light"  which the "Old Norse" might have seen guarding their tombs.
In Cornish folklore, Pixy-Light also has associations with the Colt Pixy. "A colt pixie is a pixie that has taken the shape of a horse and enjoys playing tricks such as neighing at the other horses to lead them astray". It may well be said that the wild colt pixy would sometimes bedevil regular horses on a ride and cause them to lead their human masters into a predicament or hazard, and might have yielded the pixy - horse name variation.
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.
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. 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.
Aleya (or marsh ghost light) is the name given to an unexplained strange light phenomena occurring over the marshes as observed by the Bengali people, specially the fishermen of Bengal. This marsh light is attributed to some kind of unexplained marsh gas apparitions that confuse fishermen, make them lose their bearings and may even lead to drowning if one decided to follow it moving over the marshes. Local communities in the region believe that these strange hovering marsh-lights are in fact Ghost-lights representing the ghosts of fisherman who died fishing, some times they confuse the fishermen and some times they help them avoid future dangers.
Chir Batti, Chhir Batti or Cheer batti (Ghost light) is a yet unexplained strange dancing light phenomena occurring on dark nights reported from the Banni grasslands, its seasonal marshy wetlands and the adjoining desert of the marshy salt flats of the Rann of Kutch near Indo-Pak border in Kutch district, Gujarat State, India. Local villagers have been seeing these sometimes hovering, sometimes flying balls of lights since time immemorial, and call it Chir Batti in their Kutchhi-Sindhi language, with Chir meaning ghost and Batti meaning light.
In addition to Kitsunebi (aka Foxfire) described above, additional similar phenomena are described in Japanese folklore, including Hitodama (literally "Human Soul" as a 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)
Boi-tatá (Portuguese pronunciation: [bojtaˈta]) is the Brazilian equivalent of the will-o'-the-wisp. Regionally it is called Boitatá, Baitatá, Batatá, Bitatá, Batatão, Biatatá, M'boiguaçu, Mboitatá and Mbaê-Tata. 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 Cyprian folklore, this is referred to as "Horkatos" ("Χόρκατος" in Greek), which cooks souvla in the middle of the night.
The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause glowing light. Since phosphine spontaneously ignites on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires. The Italian chemists Luigi Garlaschelli and Paolo Boschetti have replicated the lights by adding some chemicals to gases from rotting compounds. They argue that the combustion can be sustained at lower temperatures than those found in traditional fires. Taken together, these findings seem to explain two of the more puzzling aspects of the Will o'the wisp, its spontaneous, transient nature and low temperature "flame" that doesn't seem to burn items close by. As such, it shares definition with the Chinese 靈火.
Writing in the Journal of American Folklore in 1891, JG Owens contested this hypothesis: "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 less 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."
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, silicon or arsenic, 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.
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.
Two Will-o-the-wisps appear in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's fairy tale The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily (1795). They are described as lights which consume gold, and are capable of shaking gold pieces again from themselves.
It is seen in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre when Jane Eyre is unsure if it is a candle or a Will-o-the-wisp.
The Will o' the wisp makes an appearance in the first chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula, as the Count, masquerading as his own coach driver, takes Jonathan Harker to his castle in the night.The following night, when Harker asks Dracula about the lights, the Count makes reference to a common folk belief about the phenomenon by saying that they mark where treasure is buried.
In J.R.R Tolkien's work The Lord of the Rings, will o' the wisps are present in the Dead Marshes outside of Mordor. When Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee make their way through the bogs the spindly creature Gollum tells them "not to follow the lights" meaning the will o' the wisps. He tells them that if they do, they will keep the dead company and have little candles of their own.
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. In the books, a hinkypunk is a one-legged, frail-looking creature that appears to be made of smoke.
The children's fantasy series "The Spiderwick Chronicles", by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, includes will o'the wisps; they are listed in "Arthur Spiderwick's Guide to the Fantastical World Around You." In the series, Will O' The Wisps are described as fat fireflies that lead travellers astray.
Will-o'-the-wisp phenomenena make several appearances in popular culture, including in the games Super Mario RPG, World of Warcraft, and the trading card game Magic: the Gathering. Several bands have written songs about or referring to will-o'-the-wisps, such as Magnolia electric Co., and Yes. The phenomenon also appears in Manuel de Falla's ballet El amor brujo..
Unexplained lights have been reported worldwide with various names, such as the following:
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Ghost lights are lights in the air that are not well understood by scientists. Ghost lights are not seen much. Ghost light can be close to ground or in the sky. Ghost light close to ground is mostly called "will o' the wisp". Ghost light in the sky is often called UFOs. There are very different kinds of ghost lights. Some are like balls of light, others look like flame, and some look like a bright cloud. Many ghost lights move.
Different cultures have understood ghost lights differently. People believed that they are dragons, spirits or ghosts. Today some believe they are spaceships. There are many theories about what ghost lights are. Some people say they are methane gas that comes from ground and burns in the air. Others say they are electric things like ball lightning. The fact that some animals and fungus glows may explain some ghost lights.
These are examples of known ghost lights at different places: