Will o' the wisp

From Academic Kids

For other uses, see Will o' the wisp (disambiguation).

A will o' the wisp or ignis fatuus ("fool's fire") is a ghostly light sometimes seen at night or in twilight hovering over damp ground in still air. Will o' the wisps are said to recede if approached. Much folklore has attached to them, and scientific explanations are less than satisfactory.



Among European rural people, especially in Gaelic and Slavic folk cultures, will o' the wisps are held to be mischievous spirits of the dead or other supernatural beings attempting to lead travellers astray (compare Puck.) Sometimes they 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 (elemental), a type of spirit wholly independent from humans (unlike ghosts, which are presumed to have been humans at some point in the past). They also fit the description of certain types of fairy, which may or may not have originated as human souls.

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 and lets out a malicious laughter, after which the figure 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 phenomena, however, the Ignis Fatuus were 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 travelers 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.

Katherine Briggs mentions the Shropshire Will the Smith in her book A Dictionary of Fairies. In this case 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.


In literature Will o' the wisp often has a metaphorical meaning: describing any hope or goal that leads one on but is impossible to reach. Or to describe something sinister and confounding to the character concerned.

Some examples of references in literature are:

   "About, about in reel and rout,
      The death-fires danced at night;
   The water, like a witch's oils,
      Burnt green, and blue and white"
  • "The race yearns to adore. Can it adore the simple or venerate the obvious? All mythology and folk lore rise in indignant protest at the thought. The sun gave light, therefore he was not hot gas nor a flame, but a god or a chariot. The "ignus fatuus" deluded men of nights. It was a spirit; nothing so simple as decomposition could serve the need." - The Secret of Victory by George Smith Patton, Jr, written on March 26, 1926.
      "At last Sam could bear it no longer. 'What's all this, Gollum?' he said in a whisper. 'These lights? They're all round us now. Are we trapped? Who are they?'
      Gollum looked up. A dark water was before him, and he was crawling on the ground, this way and that, doubtful of the way. 'Yes, they are all round us,' he whispered. 'The tricksy lights. Candles of corpses, yes, yes. Don't you heed them! Don't look! Don't follow them! Where's the master?'
      Sam looked back and found that Frodo had lagged again. He could not see him. He went some paces back into the darkness, not daring to move far, or to call in more than a hoarse whisper. Suddenly he stumbled against Frodo, who was standing lost in thought, looking at the pale lights. His hands hung stiff at his sides; water and slime were dripping from them.
      'Come, Mr. Frodo!' said Sam. 'Don't look at them! Gollum says we mustn't." -The Dead Marshes, The Return of the King

Theories of origin

One possible naturalistic 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. This theory does not easily account for reported cases in which such lights bob, swoop, soar upwards or downwards, or move against the wind.

William Corliss writes, in Remarkable Luminous Phenomena in Nature (Sourcebook Project, Glen Arm, MD, 2001:290): "No satisfactory mechanism has been demonstrated whereby gases escaping from marshy areas will spontaneously ignite. Furthermore, most low-level nocturnal lights are cold--not what one would expect from burning methane. Also, no one has explained how clouds of luminous gas can maintain size and shape while engaging in erratic maneuvers over many minutes."

Others believe bioluminescent effects e.g. by honey fungus cause the light.

More recently, under the broader banner of 'Earth Lights', pseudoscientific theories as to how they are produced have been put forward by Professors Derr & Persinger, and Paul Deveraux (who, in some circles, is considered the 'authority' on earth lights of various kinds, including ball lightning, St. Elmo's Fire and lights associated with earthquakes). Derr & Persinger put forwards the theory that earth lights may be generated by tectonic strain. (NB. These are faults in the earths crust, similar to, indeed including, earthquake faults.) The theory goes that the strain causes heat in the rocks, vaporising the water in them. Piezoelectric rocks such as quartz then produce electricity, which is channeled up through this coloumn of vaporised water, until it reaches the surface - somehow displaying itself in the form of earth lights. This theory would assert that the majority of earth lights are seen over places of tectonic strain. If it is correct, it would explain why such lights often behave in an erratic and even seemingly intelligent manner, often defying the laws of gravity. Paul Deveraux's explanation, however, is much broader. He thinks that the link between the lights and the landscape is more tenuous. He says that they are probably related to many things: tectonic strain, weather Conditions, local geography, 'ley lines', terrain, water table depth and so forth. This explanation, however, is rejected by most experts as highly unscientific.

Other titles

The phenomenon is also known as:

See also


de:Irrlicht es:Fuego fatuo fi:Virvatuli fr:Feu follet la:Ignis fatuus nl:Dwaallicht pt:Fogo ftuo sv:Lyktgubbe


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