Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/May 1881/The Will-O'-The-Wisp and its Folk-Lore
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The Will-O'-The-Wisp and its Folk-Lore
By Thomas Firminger Thiselton Dyer
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AMONG the many sources of superstition in this and other countries, the phenomenon well known as the Will-o'-the-Wisp has from time immemorial held a prominent place. Indeed, it would be no easy task to enumerate the various shapes in which the imagination has pictured this mysterious appearance, not to mention the manifold legends that have clustered round it. In days gone by, when our credulous forefathers believed in the intervention of fairies in human affairs, the Will-o'the-Wisp entered largely into their notions respecting the agency of these little beings in their dealings with mankind; and, as will be seen in the course of the present paper, numerous stories were often related in which some fairy disguised as Will-o'-the-Wisp was the chief character. It is worthy, too, of note that, although in these enlightened days every relic of primitive culture is gradually fading from our gaze, the old superstitious fancies associated with this nocturnal visitor still survive with more or less vigor, retaining that hold on the vulgar mind which they formerly possessed. Thus, in remote villages and secluded country nooks the peasant, while not forgetting the traditions handed down to him, continues to believe with implicit faith in those quaint and weird fancies which have invested the Will-o'-the-Wisp with such a peculiar dread. This terror, as we shall point out, in a great measure originated in the many tales and legends that were in past centuries framed to explain and account for this deceptive phenomenon.
Referring, then, in the first place, to the various names assigned to it—many of these are extremely curious, differing according to the country and locality. Its most popular appellation, Will-o'-the-Wisp, was probably derived from its customary appearance; this wandering meteor having been personified because it looked to the spectators like a person carrying a lighted straw torch in his hand. Hence it has been termed Jack, Gill, Joan, Will, or Robin, indifferently, in accordance with the fancy of the rustic mind; the supposed spirit of the lamp being thought to resemble either a male or female apparition. Hentzner, for instance, in his "Travels in England" (1598), relates how, returning from Canterbury to Dover, "there were a great many Jacka-lanthorns, so that we were quite seized with horror and amazement."
In Worcestershire, the phenomenon is termed by the several names of "Hob-and-his-Lanthorn," "Hobany's Lanthom," and "Hoberdy's Lanthorn"—the word Hob in each case being the same name as occurs in connection with the phrase hobgoblin. It appears that, in days gone by. Hob was a frequent name among common people, and, curiously enough, Coriolanus (Act ii, sc. 3) speaks of it as used by the citizens of Rome:
"Why in this wolvish gown should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick, that do appear
Subsequently, Hob seems to have been used as a substitute for Hobgoblin, as in Beaumont and Fletcher's "Monsieur Thomas" (Act iv, sc. 6):
"From elves, hobs, and fairies,
From fire-drakes or fiends.
A Northamptonshire name is Jinny Buntail, which is evidently a corruption of Jinn with the burnt tail, or "Wild burnt tail," an allusion to which occurs in Gayton's "Notes on Don Quixote" (1654, 97), where we read of "Will with the Wispe, or Gyl burnt tayle," and, again (268), of "An ignis fatuus, or exhalation, and Gillon a burnt tayle, or Will with the Wispe." The Somersetshire peasant talks of " Joan-in-the-Wad," and "Jack-a-Wad," Wad and Wisp being synonymous. In Suffolk it was known as "A Gylham lamp," in reference to which we are told in Gough's "Camden" (ii, 90) how, "in the low grounds at Syiham, just by AVingfield, are the i(/nes fatui, commonly called Syiham lamps, the terror and destruction of travelers, and even of the inhabitants, who are frequently misled by them."
Another of its popular nicknames in former years was "Kit of the Canstick "—i. e., candlestick; and, in "Poor Robin's Almanack" for 1777, it is styled "Peg-a-lantern":
"I should indeed as soon expect
That Peg-a-lantern would direct
The expression ignis fatuus, or foolish fire, originated in its leading men astray, as in the "Tempest" (Act iv, sc. 1), where Stephanio says, "Monster, your fairy, which you say is a harmless fairy, has done little better than played the jack with us"—a passage which is explained by Johnson thus: "He has played Jack-with-a-lantern; he has led us about like an ignis fatuus, by which travelers are decoyed into the mire." Thus Gray describes it:
"How Will-a'-Wisp misleads night-gazing clowns
O'er hills, and sinking bogs, and pathless downs."
In Scotland, one of the names for this appearance is "Dank Will," and in Ireland it is known as "Miscann Many," an allusion to which occurs in Croker's "Fairy Legends of the South of Ireland" in the story of the "Spirit Horse," where Morty Sullivan is so sadly deluded by it.
Again, the term "Fire-drake," which is jocularly used in "Henry VIII" (Act V, sc. 4) for a man with a red face, was one of the popular names for the Will-o'-the-Wisp; in allusion to which Burton, in his "Anatomic of Melancholy," says, "Fiery spirits or devils are such as commonly work by fire-drakes or ignes fatui, which lead men often in flumina et prœcipitia." It appears, also, that in Shakespeare's day "a walking fire" was another common name for the Will-o'-the-Wisp, to which he probably refers in "King Lear" (Act iv, sc. 3), where, Gloster's torch being seen in the distance, the fool says, "Look, here comes a walking fire"; whereupon Edgar replies: "This is the foul fiend Flibbertigibet; he begins at Curfew and walks till the first cock." Hence Mr. Hunter considers that Flibbertigibet was a name for the Will-o'-the-Wisp. That, however, this phenomenon was known as the "Walking Fire" is evident from the old story "How Robin Goodfellow led a company of Fellowes out of their way": "A company of yoimg men having been making merry with their sweethearts, were, at their coming home, to come over a heath. Robin Goodfellow, knowing of it, met them, and, to make some pastime, he led them up and down the heath a whole night, so that they could not get out of it; for he went before them in the shape of 'a walking fire,' which they all saw and followed till the day did appear; then Robin left them, and at his departure spake these words:
'Get home, you merry lads,
Tell your mammies and your dads,
The Will-o'-the-Wisp is not, it would seem, confined to land, sailors often meeting with it at sea, an elegant description of which is given by Ariel in "The Tempest" (Act i, sc. 2):
". . . Sometimes I'd divide
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
It is called, by the French and Spaniards inhabiting the coasts of the Mediterranean, St. Helene's or St. Telme's fires; by the Italians, the fire of St. Peter and St. Nicholas. It is also known as the fire of St. Helen, St. Herm, and St. Clare. Whenever it appeared as a single flame it was supposed by the ancients to be Helena, the sister of Castor and Pollux, and to bring ill luck, from the calamities which this lady is known to have caused in the Trojan war. When it came as a double flame, it was called Castor and Pollux, and accounted a good omen. It has also been described as a little blaze of fire, sometimes appearing by night on the tops of soldiers' lances, or at sea on masts and sail-yards, whirling and leaping in the twinkling of an eye from one place to another. According to some, it never appears but after a tempest, and is supposed to lead people to suicide by drowning. Douce, commenting on the passage in "The Tempest" quoted above, thinks that Shakespeare consulted Batman's "Golden Books of the Leaden Gōddes," who, speaking of Castor and Pollux, says, "They were figured like two lamps or crescent lights, one on the top of a mast, the other on the stem or foreship." He adds that, if the first light appears on the foreship and ascends upward, it is a sign of good luck; if either light begins at the topmast and descends toward the sea, it is a sign of a tempest. In taking, therefore, the latter position, Ariel had fulfilled the commands of Prospero to raise a storm. This, then, coincides with the following lines:
"Last night I saw Saint Elmo's stars,
With their glittering lanterns all at play
A curious illustration of this phenomenon is recorded in "Hakluyt's Voyages" (1598, iii, 450): "I do remember that in the great and boisterous storm of this foul weather, in the night there came upon the top of our mainyard and mainmast a certain little light, much like unto the light of a little candle, which the Spaniards call the Cuerpo Santo. This light continued aboord our ship about three houres, flying from mast to mast, and from top to top; and sometimes it would be in two or three places at once." This meteor was by some supposed to be a spirit, and by others an exhalation of moist vapors, thought to be engendered by foul and tempestuous weather.
Referring, in the next place, to the legends associated with the Will-o'-the-Wisp, we may mention that these, although differing in many respects, generally invest this strange mimicry in nature with the supernatural element, which is said to be generally exercised for the purpose of deluding, in some way or other, the benighted traveler. Indeed, it would seem that in past centuries whatever phenomena were of an apparently illusive or hostile character were regarded by primitive science as specially designed to work pain or evil, even although, by way of treacherous bait, they might possess, the most attractive qualities. Thus, as Mr. Conway has pointed out in his excellent work on "Demonology and Devil Lore" (1880, ii, 212), because many a pilgrim "perished through a confidence in the lake-pictures of the mirage which led to carelessness about economizing his skin of water, the mirage gained its present name—Bahr Sheitan, or Devil's Water." Thus, oftentimes, the harmless and beautiful phenomena in nature have been invested with an evil name, simply because our ancestors, living in the childhood of the world, were unable to comprehend their meaning, and so, in all the freshness of their creative fancy, regarded them as demoniacal agencies to thwart and hinder man's progress in moral culture. Strange, therefore, as it may seem, we in our nineteenth century have in many of the legends that survive in this and other countries relics of Aryan science, which, although meaningless to the casual observer, yet embody the teaching of primitive man.
In this country the Will-o'-the-Wisp has been connected with the fairy race from early times, a fact proved by its old name of Elf-fire. The same notion, too, existed in Germany; for Grimm informs us that it was there formerly known as Elglicht, and in Denmark as Vaettylis. On this point Mr. Brand has rightly remarked that the naturalists of the dark ages "owed many obligations to our fairies, for, whatever they found wonderful and could not account for, they easily got rid of by charging to their account. Thus they called those which have since been supposed to have been the heads of arrows or spears, before the use of iron was known, Elfshots." In the same way Shakespeare uses the expression "Elfish-marked"; and also speaks of Elf-locks in "Romeo and Juliet":
". . . This is that very Mab
That plats the manes of horses in the night
A disease, too, consisting of a hardness of the side was in days gone by termed Elf-cake. Just, then, as the fairies were supposed to be guilty of committing various pranks as seen in the sundry mishaps that befall humanity, so the Will-o'-the-Wisp with its treacherous light was reckoned among them. Thus Shakespeare represents Puck as transforming himself into a fire, by which he clearly alluded to the Will-o'-the-Wisp; and it may be remembered how the fairy asks him—
". . . Are you not he
That fright the maidens of the villagery,
We have already noticed, too, Shakespeare's allusion to Ariel's assuming this form, who, like Puck, is a fairy. The term Puck, which is evidently the same as the old word "Pouke," a devil or evil spirit, still survives, although its spelling in lapse of years has become somewhat altered. The following passage from a modern writer proves, too, that in some places the idea of Puck as a delusive fairy haunting the woods and fields is not yet extinct: "The peasants in certain districts of Worcestershire say that they are sometimes what they call 'Poake-ledden,' that is, they are occasionally waylaid in the night by a mischievous sprite whom they call Poake, who leads them into ditches, bogs, pools, and other such scrapes, often sets up a loud laugh, and leaves them, quite bewildered, in the lurch." This corresponds with what in Devon is called being Pixy-led; and various stories are told how the frolicsome pixies deceive travelers with the Will-o'-the-Wisp, and chuckle over their dismay when they are lost for a time on the moor. By moonlight the Pixy-Monarch was supposed to hold his court, where, like Titania, he gave his subjects their several charges. Some were sent to the mines, where they either good-naturedly led the miner to the richest lode, or maliciously, by noises imitating the stroke of the hammer, and by "false fires," drew Mm on to the worst ore in the mine. Countless are the stories told in Devonshire of these Pixy illusions; and a popular means of counteracting them was to turn one's coat inside out—a remedy which appears to have been in use in other parts of England, being mentioned by Bishop Corbet in his "Iter Boreale":
". . . William found
A mean for our deliverance. Turne your cloakes,
In Cornwall, a strong belief prevails about the mischievous pranks of the piskies, and they are the subject of numerous superstitions. They are said to control the mist, and to have the power, when so disposed, of casting a thick veil over the traveler as he returns home after sunset. Hence the peasant may occasionally be heard uttering the following petition with a certain degree of faith:
"Jack o' the Lantern, Joan the wad,
Who tickled the maid and made her mad,
By the Dorsetshire folk, this mysterious fairy is called a Pexy and Colpexy; and in Hampshire the Colt-pixy was the supposed sprite who led horses into bogs and other outlandish places. Once more, as a further proof of the connection of the elfin or fairy-face with the ignis fatuus, it may be noted that "Mab-led," pronounced Mob-led, signified led astray by a Will-o'-the-Wisp. Why, however, the fairy Queen Mab should be thus introduced originated, no doubt, in her fondness for playing jokes, as alluded to by Shakespeare in the passage already quoted above from "A Midsummer-Night's Dream."
According to Sir Walter Scott, the Will-o'-the-Wisp is a strolling demon or specter, bent upon doing mischief, who once upon a time gained admittance into a monastery as a scullion and played the monks all kinds of pranks. The followers of Marmion attributed the mysterious disasters that befell them at Gifford Castle to the guidance of the assumed ecclesiastic—"The Cursed Palmer"—and expressed the belief that it had been better for them had they been lantern-led by Friar Rush:
"What else but evil could betide,
With that cursed Palmer for our guide?
The wandering demon, it seems, was known in many parts of Scotland by the familiar name of "Spunkie," whose freaks and mischievous character form the subject-matter of numerous lengthened tales. Mr. Guthrie, in his "Scenes and Legends of the Yale of Strathmore" (1875, page 100), tells us how "many a poor benighted wight hath this uncannie warlock driven to his wits'-end by his uncouth gambols and deceptive light, and many a bold and valiant knight hath he laid hors de combat on the marshy plain." Milton in his "Paradise Lost" (book ix, page 634), while explaining the philosophy of this superstitious appearance, alludes to the notion which associates it with an evil spirit in the well-known lines:
". . . A wandering fire,
Compact of unctuous vapor, which the night
In Normandy, the peasant believes that the Will-o'-the-Wisp is a cruel and malicious spirit whom it is highly dangerous to encounter. Mademoiselle Bosquet, in her "Normandie Romanesque et Merveilleuse," says that it follows and persecutes any unfortunate person who runs away from it; his only chance of escape, when sore-pressed, being to throw himself on his face and to invoke the Divine assistance. Hence the Feux Follet, as it is called, is a source of terror, and its weird appearance is much dreaded by old and young; many stories being told of the injury done to unwary travelers by its wicked knavery.
Again, a Danish tradition affirms that Jack-o'-lanterns are the spirits of unrighteous men, who by a false glimmer seek to mislead the wayfarer and to decoy him into bogs and moors. The best safeguard against them, when they appear, is to turn one's cap inside out. One should never point at them, as they will come if pointed at. It is also said that, if any one calls them, they will come and light the person who called. A popular belief in Sweden says that "Jack-with-the-Lantern" was formerly a mover of landmarks, and for his unjust acts is doomed to wander backward and forward with a light in his hand, as if he were in search of something. Thus he who in his lifetime has been guilty of such a crime is believed to have no peace or rest in his grave after death, but to rise every midnight, and, with a lantern in his hand, to proceed to the spot where in days gone by the landmark had stood which he had fraudulently removed. On reaching the place, however, he is seized, says Mr. Thorpe, with the same desire which instigated him in his lifetime when he went forth to remove his neighbor's landmark, and he says as he goes, in a harsh, hoarse voice: "It is right! it is right! it is right!" But, on his returning, qualms of conscience and anguish seize him, and he then exclaims: "It is wrong! it is wrong! it is wrong!" There is also a Danish tradition which informs us that near Skovby, on the Isle of Falster, there are many Jack-o'-Lanterns. They are believed to be the souls of land-measurers, who, having in their lifetime perpetrated injustice in their measurements, are doomed to run up Skovby bakke at midnight, which they measure with red-hot irons, exclaiming, "Here is the clear and right boundary! from here to there." By another curious notion the Will-o'-the-Wisps are represented to be the souls of unbaptized children. On one occasion, a Dutch parson, happening to go home to his village late one evening, fell in with no less than three of these fiery phenomena. Remembering them to be the souls of unbaptized children, he solemnly stretched out his hand and pronounced the words of baptism over them. Much, however, to his consternation and surprise, in the twinkling of an eye a thousand or more of these apparitions suddenly made their appearance—no doubt all earnestly wanting to be baptized. The good man, runs the story, was so terribly frightened, that, forgetting all his kind intentions, he took to his heels and ran home as fast as his legs could take him. In Lusatia, where the same superstition prevails, these fires are supposed to be quite harmless, and the souls of the unbaptized children to be relieved from their destined wanderings so soon as any pious hand throws a handful of consecrated ground after them. A Brittany piece of folk-lore is that the "Porte-brandon" appears in the form of a child bearing a torch, which he turns round like a burning wheel—occasionally setting fire to the villages which from some inexplicable cause are suddenly wrapped in flames. According to a Netherlandish tradition, because the souls of these wretched children can not enter heaven, they, under the form of "Jack-o'-Lanterns," take their abode in forests, and in dark and desert places, where they mourn over their bitter lot. Whenever they are fortunate enough to see any one, they run up and hasten before him, in order to show the way to some water, that they may get baptized. Should no one take compassion on them, it is said that they must for ever remain without the gates of paradise.
Among other legends connected with this subject, we may mention one current on the Continent, thus recorded by Carl Engel: On the ridge of the high Rhön, near Bischofsheim, there are two morasses—known as the red and black morass—where two villages are reported to have stood which sunk into the earth on account of the dissolute life of the inhabitants. On these two morasses there appear at night maidens in the shape of dazzling apparitions of light. They float and flutter over the light of their former home, but are now less frequently seen than in the olden time. A good many years ago, two or three of these fiery maidens came occasionally to the village of Wüstersachsen and mingled with the dancers at wakes. They sang with inexpressible sweetness; but they never remained beyond midnight. When their allowed time had elapsed there always came flying a white dove, which they followed. Then they went to the mountain singing, and soon vanished out of the sight of the people who followed, watching them with curiosity. A Normandy tradition says that the ignis fatuus is the spirit of some unhappy woman, who, as a punishment, is destined to run la fourolle to expiate her intrigues with a minister of the church; and on this account it is designated La Fourolle. A somewhat similar belief once prevailed in this country, for we are told that the lights which are usually seen in churchyards and moorish places were represented by the popish clergy to be "souls come out of purgatory all in flame, to move the people to pray for their entire deliverance; by which they gulled them of much money to say mass for them, every one thinking it might be the soul of his or her deceased relations." This superstition is alluded to in the "Comical Pilgrim's Pilgrimage into Ireland" (1723, page 92): "An ignis fatuus the silly people deem to be a soul broken out of purgatory." It is also said that the Will o'-the-Wisp is the soul of a priest who has been condemned to expiate his vows of perpetual chastity by wandering about; and Mr. Thoms says it is very probable that it is to some similar belief existing in this country at the time when he wrote that Milton alludes in "L'Allegro," when he says:
"She was pinched and pulled, she said.
And he by Friar's lanthorn led."
Once more, in Altmark, Will-o'-the-Wisps are supposed to be souls of lunatics unable to rest in their graves, and are known as "Lightmen." Although they may sometimes mislead, they often guide rightly, especially if a small coin be thrown them.
Such, then, are some of the principal legends and superstitions that have been connected with this strange phenomenon, the majority of which, while investing it with a supernatural origin, regard it as an object of terror; and, on this account, in our own and other countries, the peasantry still look upon it as a thing to be avoided. It was formerly thought to have something ominous in its nature, and to presage death and other misfortune. Thus, in Buckingham shire, a species of this phenomenon, locally known as "the wat," was said to haunt prisons. Oftentimes before the arrival of the judges at the assizes it has, we are told, been known to make its appearance like a little flame, being considered fatal to every prisoner to whom it became visible. The same dread is attached to it in Sussex, and Mrs. Latham, in her "West Sussex Superstitions," tells us that in a village where she once resided the direction of its rapid, undulating movement was always carefully observed, from an anxiety to ascertain where it would disappear, as it was believed to be
"The hateful messenger of heavy things,
Of death and dolor telling"
to the inhabitants of the house nearest that spot. Considerable alarm was on one occasion created by a pale light being observed to move over the bed of a sick person, and, after flickering for some time in different parts of the room, to vanish through the window. It happened, however, that the mystery was soon afterward cleared up, for, as Mrs. Latham tells us, "when reading in her room after midnight, all at once something fell upon the open page and appeared to have ignited it. She soon perceived that the light proceeded from a luminous insect, which proved to be the male glowworm." In the same way the "corpse-candle" in Wales, also called the "fetch-light," or "dead-man's candle," is regarded as an ominous sign, and believed to be a forerunner of death. Sometimes it appears in the form of a plain tallow-candle in the hand of a ghost, and at other times it looks like a "stately flambeau, stalking along unsupported, burning with a ghastly blue flame." It is considered dangerous to interfere with this fatal portent; and persons who have attempted to check its course are reported to have come severely to grief, many actually being struck down where they stood, as a punishment for their audacity. A Carmarthenshire tradition, recorded by Mr. Wirt Sikes, relates that one day, when the coach which runs between Llandilo and Carmarthen was passing by Golden Grove, three corpse-candles were observed on the surface of the water gliding down the stream which runs near the road. All the passengers saw them. A few days after, some men were about to cross the river near there, when one of them expressed his fear at venturing, as the river was flooded, and he remained behind. Thus the fatal number crossed the river—three—three corpse-candles having foretold their fate; and all were drowned. In conclusion, we would only add that Will-o'-the-Wisps have long ago happily disappeared from all marshes and lowlands as soon as drained and brought under cultivation—these "wild-fires," as they have been called, preferring some supposed haunted and desolate bog for their habitation.—Gentleman's Magazine.
- A "Fire-drake" appears to have been also an artificial firework, as in Middleton's "Five Gallants":
"... But, like firedrakes,
Mounted a little, gave a crack, and fell."
- "New Illustrations of the Life, Studies, and Writings of Shakespeare," ii, 272.
- Hazlitt's "Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare," 1875, 186.
- Brand's "Popular Antiquities," 1849, iii, 400, 401.
- Douce's "Illustrations of Shakespeare," 1839, 3.
- Swainson's "Weather Lore," 193.
- "Popular Antiquities," 1849, ii, 490.
- "Richard III," Act i, sc. 3.
- "Romeo and Juliet," Act i, sc. 4.
- "Midsummer-Night's Dream," Act i, sc. 1.
- "Mr. J. Allies's "On the Ignis Fatuus."
- Thorpe's "North-German Mythology," 1851, ii, 211.
- Engel's "Musical Myths and Facts," 1876, i, 407.
- Thoms's "Notelets on Shakespeare," 1865, 63.
- Thorpe's "North-German Mythology," iii, 220.
- "Musical Myths and Facts," i, 208.
- Cf. similar tale in Hunt's "Popular Romances of the West of England."
- See Mademoiselle Bosquet's "Normandie Romanesque et Merveilleuse."
- "A Wonderful History of all the Storms, etc., and Lights that lead People out of their Way in the Night," 1704, 75, quoted by Brand, "Pop. Antiq." iii, 390.
- Thoms's "Notelets on Shakespeare," 65.
- Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," iii, 402.
- "Folk-Lore Record," i, 52.
- Wirt Sikes, "British Goblins," 139.