Blue balls of flames burn in the night, hovering over the marshes. They lure travelers into danger and soon you’re sinking in a peat bog or tumble off a cliff. Also called ignis fatuus (Medieval Latin: “foolish fire”), these tricksters prey on the unsuspecting.
A “wisp” is a bundle of sticks or twisted paper used as a torch. Combined with the name “Will” we get Will-o’-the-wisp (literally “Will-of-the-torch”). Originating in England, these floating lights have crossed the pond and are known as “spook-lights”, “ghost-lights”, or “orbs” in the States.
Other names for these mischievous nighttime tricksters are Hobby-Lantern, Jack-o’-Lantern, Jenny-Burnt-Tale, Kitty-Candlestick, and Peg-a-Lantern.
The Will-o’-the-wisps are considered a kind of evil spirits intent on diverting people off established roads. Their goal is to strand people in the wild with no hope of every reaching the land of the living again.
On origin story, from Scotland, claims this wispy spirit is actually a deceased blacksmith names Jack. He was denied admittance to hell (which in Scottish lore is known as “the place of the wind of the cold passages, or the wind of the cold channels”). The devil gave Jack a single ember to warm himself as he wandered the mortal plane. It’s this light you see floating over the marshes — the Jack o’Lanten.
Goblins with Lanterns
In Wales, the Will-o’-the-wisp goes by the name Ellylldan or Pooka (this is where we get the name Puck or Pwca). In this version, a farmer returns home after working the fields and sees a light bobbing before him. A small shadowy figure holds a lantern above its head.
The farmer follows the light for miles only to find himself on the edge of a high cliff. Far below, a river rages. At this moment, the goblin leaps across the chasm and lands on the opposite side. It utters a malevolent laugh and blows out the lantern, leaving the farmer stranded in the dark.
Other versions of this myth have it that the Will-o’-the-wisps are the souls of unbaptized children. They cannot enter heaven and thus must roam the earth forever. They linger in dark forests and deserted places.
If they spot a person at night, these lost souls hurry over and guide the traveler to water. Not in any attempt to drown the person, but in order to get baptized.
There is a story from the Netherlands involving a certain Gandshoven from Molenbeek. When he encountered three will-o’-the-wisps, he baptized them. In that instant, thousands more will-o’-the-wisps surrounded him, all wanting the same treatment. Gandshoven spent the whole night baptizing them until the sun rose.
So if you see a light bobbing mysteriously in the night, maybe leave it be. Who knows where it might lead you.