What Is a Will-o’-the-wisp?
A will-o’-the-wisp, or “foolish fire” is an atmospheric ghost light seen by travelers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travelers from the safe paths.
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-torch”. The term jack-o’-lantern “Jack of [the] lantern” has a similar meaning.
It is the name given to the bluish flame sometimes seen flickering over swamps and marshes. There is no satisfactory explanation for this phenomenon. One theory is that it is caused by the spontaneous burning of gases produced by the decay of plant and animal life. Another is that it may be a form of phosphorescence.
There are many superstitions about will-o’-the-wisp. Some people say that they are march sprites that lure people to their death in marshes. Others say that they are “corpse candles” carried by ghosts.
The phenomenon is known by a variety of names, including jack-o’-lantern, friar’s lantern, hinkypunk, and hobby lantern in English folk belief, well attested in English folklore and in much of European folklore.
In the United States, they are often called “spook-lights”, “ghost-lights”, or “orbs” by folklorists and paranormal enthusiasts.
Folk belief attributes the phenomenon to fairies or elemental spirits, explicitly in the term “hobby lanterns” found in the 19th century Denham Tracts.
Briggs’ A Dictionary of Fairies provides an extensive list of other names for the same phenomenon, though the place where they are observed (graveyard, bogs, etc.) influences the naming considerably. When observed on graveyards, they are known as “ghost candles”, also a term from the Denham Tracts.
The names will-o’-the-wisp and jack-o’-lantern are explained in etiological folk-tales, recorded in many variant forms in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Appalachia, and Newfoundland. In these tales, protagonists named either Will or Jack are doomed to haunt the marshes with a light for some misdeed.
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 uses to lure foolish travelers 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.