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W.B. and The Waterboys, from the Weeping World, with fairies....

W is for Will-o'-the-Wisp.....

Also known as corpse candles, jack o' lanterns, or friar's lantern. It's a term given to the ghostly light phenomena sometimes seen at night over bogs, marshes. The ghostly light is said to resemble a flickering lamp that appears to withdraw as a person moves toward it. In other words, it appears to be leading curious travelers away from the safety of solid ground and out into the treacherous trap of the mire.

A wisp is a bundle of sticks or paper used as torches, thus we get Will of the wisp (or torches).

I did a short post on marshes, here, for the letter M and gathered a few artist-rendered images of what the lights look like over water.

There are a couple of folklore tales that try to explain the existence of these mysterious lights. The parallel that two of the most well known stories share is that of an evil, wicked man who is forced to wander the earth with a single coal.

---Will, a blacksmith, in one tale, is given a second chance at life by St. Peter, but he leads such a wicked life that he is cursed to wander the earth forever. The devil gives him a single hot coal to keep himself warm and he uses it to lure unsuspecting travelers out into the marshes.

---Jack, in another version of the tale, offers his soul to the devil in exchange for paying his pub tab. The devil agrees. But, when he returns to collect his part of the bargain, Jack tricks the devil into climbing a tree and quickly carves a cross into the tree, trapping the devil. The devil then barters his freedom and returns Jack's soul when Jack removes the cross. However, Jack's evil life would never allow him into heaven, so upon his death, Jack is forced to ask the devil for a place in hell. The devil, of course, denies him entrance and instead gives him a single hellfire coal to light his way through the twilight world.....which he eventually places inside a carved-out turnip (perhaps the predecessor of the carved-out pumpkin, or Jack of the lantern....Jack o' lantern).

Science offers a less hauntingly romantic explanation that would not have been understood and definitely not accepted by our imaginative ancestors. The boring oxidation of phosphine and methane (by-products of organic decay) can, it seems, cause photon emissions. As phosphine spontaneously ignites when it comes in contact with oxygen and as very little of it is needed to ignite the abundant quantity of methane in a mire, the resulting ephemeral fire could be bewitching enough to be confused for an infernal hellfire flame....

And, because I can't end a discussion about fairy lights without bringing up one of my favorite poems by one of my favorite poets, I'll end with W.B. Yeats' Stolen Child. It may not be about Will o' the Wisp exactly, but it is about fairies luring children to the waters and the wild.... which is close enough for me. And, The Waterboys, do a wonderful job in conveying the haunting feel of the words through their music. Enjoy!


  1. There is a phenomenon in my state called the Paulding Light. I would love to go see it. Apparently a light appears along a power line trail. It's said to be the ghost of a train signaler still doing his duty. I would love to go see if for myself someday!

  2. I've seen one of those! Or one quite like it...where I went to college, there's a railroad crossing that unwary freshmen are taken to. The car is parked on the railway and the engine killed. Once they step outside and look down the railroad, a light suddenly appears, swinging along-- much like a 'ghost train signaler'.... phenomena like this are so much fun to witness and partake in...

  3. Thanks for introducing me to the Waterboys, I'd never heard of them before! It's haunting, yet oddly uplifting.

  4. Welcome! They're one of my favorites :-)

  5. What a wonderful post. So that's how the pumpkins got their name. When I was a child I would carve out a pumpkin and sit it beside my bed at nighttime with a candle burning inside. I can still remember the smell.


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