Ignis Fatuus

Why having explained certain kind of phenomena in a scientific way when you can have a more interesting and fanciful version? In this case folklore does help a lot!

Science explains the Will O’ The Wisp (or Ignis Fatuus – Latin for “foolish fire”) event as atmospherical lights hoovering over marshes, cemeteries and bogs caused by burning gases that develops from the breakdown of organic matter in wet areas.

But, as for me, I really do prefer folkloristic “explainations” when these lights are often attributed  to mischievous spirits attempting to lead travelers astray and where we can read about ghosts, fairies and even the Devil himself. Sometimes the lights are believed to be the spirits of unbaptized or stillborn children, flitting between heaven and hell.

So, lets’ start with Europe: in Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Estonia and Ireland it is believed that these lights mark the location of a treasure deep in ground or water; or as the Finnish mythology says there are spots where an eternal flame associated with will o’ the wisps burns, called Aarnivalkea where you could find fairies gold.

Britain has the highest number of folk tales about the Will O’ The Wisp phenomenon and is often a malicious character in the stories. For example in Welsh folkore it is said that the light is “fairy fire” held in the hand of a Púca, a small goblin that mischievously leads lone travellers off the beaten path at night. As the traveller follows the púca through the marsh or bog, the fire is extinguished and leaves them lost.

In Ireland there’s another great tale and it is based on the story of a trickster named Stingy Jack or Drunk Jack; one dark, Halloween night, Jack ran into the Devil himself in a local public house. Jack tricked the Devil by offering his soul in exchange for one last drink, the Devil quickly turned himself into a sixpence to pay the bartender, but Jack immediately snatched the coin and deposited it into his pocket, next to a silver cross that he was carrying. Thus, the Devil could not change himself back and Jack refused to allow the Devil to go free until the he had promised not to claim Jack’s soul for ten years. The Devil agreed, and ten years later Jack again came across the Devil, he tried collecting what he was due, but Jack thinking quickly asked: “I’ll go, but before I do, will you get me an apple from that tree?”.

The Devil, thinking he had nothing to lose, jumped up into the tree to retrieve an apple and as soon as he did, Jack placed crosses all around the trunk of the tree, thus trapping the Devil once again. This time, Jack made the Devil promise that he would not take his soul when he finally died. Seeing no way around his predicament, the Devil grudgingly agreed. When Stingy Jack eventually passed away several years later, he went to the Gates of Heaven but because of his sinful lifestyle of deceitfulness and drinking, he was not allowed into Heaven. So, Jack then went down to Hell to see the Devil and find out whether it were possible to gain entrance into the depths of Hell, but the Devil kept the promise that had been made to Jack years earlier, and would not let him enter. To warn others, he gave Jack an ember, marking him a denizen of the netherworld and from that day on until eternity’s end, Jack is doomed to roam the world between the planes of good and evil, with only an ember inside a hollowed turnip to light his way.

Our modern-day pumpkin carving at Halloween is associated with this old story and tradition.Will-o-the-wisp and jack-o-lantern meant the same thing in old England. Turnip lanterns, sometimes with faces carved into them, were made on the festival of Samhain, which took place around the same time as our Halloween, a time when fairies and spirits were said to inhabit the night.

Now, let us go in Asia! Aleya is the name given to unexplained strange lights phenomena occurring over the marshes as observed by the Bengali people, local communities in the region believe that these strange hovering marsh-lights are in fact ghost-lights representing the ghosts of fishermen who died fishing, sometimes they confuse the fishermen, and sometimes they help them avoid future dangers.

Chir batti (ghost-light) is described as an unexplained light occurring on dark nights as bright as a mercury lamp that changes its colour to blue, red and yellow and resembles a moving ball. Witnesses claim the lights at times appear to be playing hide and seek or following them. Similar phenomena are described in Japanese folklore, called Hitodama (“Human Soul” as a ball of energy) and described as balls of flame or light, at times associated with graveyards.

There are still loads of other stories about the Will-O-The-Wisp: in Mexico there are two versions to explain this event. In one they are called brujas (witches), folklore explains  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.

Have you ever heard about this kind of phenomenon? Does your country have folk tales about it? Plese let me know in the comments as I’m terribly curious!

Elle. x

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