Is it swamp gas or a mystical presence? A natural phenomenon of decomposing organic material or spirits of the dead? I wasn’t sure when I started my research into The Will-‘o-the-wisp but what I found was that, perhaps, they are a bit of both.
In folklore, the Will-‘o-the-wisp is a light in the dark seen by night travelers. Among other things, it has gotten grief for steering folks in the wrong direction when followed. These lights are often seen around bogs, marshes, and swamps, which lends to the theory that they are a natural phenomenon caused by the gases in those types of environments. However, many cultures believe that the lights are spirits of the departed since there have been some accounts of these magical lights being seen in and around cemeteries. Other cultures believe that the lights are fairies or other supernatural creatures that are up to mischief.
In Sweden, the lights were thought to be the soul of an unbaptized person which led unsuspecting travelers into the water in the hopes they would finally be baptized. Finnish mythology claims that the lights mark places where fairie gold is buried and in Germany, they were known to blow the candles out around courting couples and make kissing noises, which were always misinterpreted by the parents. *Wink Wink* Sure it was the Will-‘o-the-wisp doing that…you naughty kids!
In Britain, the Will-‘o-the-wisp is often a malicious character and in Welsh folklore, the light is held in the hand of a small goblin-like creature that leads you into trouble then douses the light. What a stinker! In the Scottish Highlands, the Will-‘o-the-wisp’s equivalent was the Spunkie, which was often blamed for shipwrecks when the sailors spied them from the sea. And stories of these lights show up in aboriginal myth pre-dating the western settlement of Australia.
As naughty as they seem to be in some of these cultures, in my book Winds of Change, the Will-‘o-the-wisps are helpful. They lead Amie to a magical door that can only be seen when she taps into her element and becomes Air. My thought was that these glowing lights would be helpful to those who truly needed them and meant them no harm. I think they would appreciate that since they have gotten such a bad reputation over the centuries. Honestly, they were probably just floating around and minding their own business the entire time, laughing at all of the stories we made up about them. You can see where my head goes when I research these things!
In modern science, the phenomenon is explained off by a mix of gases being released from organic decay which spontaneously combusts and lights the methane present. However, some dispute this theory as the light has been described to move as you approach it, always staying just out of touch. Another idea is that a luminous and widespread fungus is the culprit, gathering its light during the day and glowing by night. My guess is that would be easy to walk up to and take with you, which is so unlike the stories that we hear in folklore. It is possible that the stories were made up to warn children away from dangerous waters, but with the sightings worldwide, long before we had social media to pass it along, you have to wonder.
It is clear that the Will-‘o-the-wisp is one of those mysteries that we may never fully understand. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing wrong with that, we can all use a little magic in our lives. What is the explanation for these type of lights in your part of the world? I would love to hear!
As always, Happy Writing! XO