Will O' The Wisp Myths and Legends


The disembodied light of the Will O’ The Wisp, hovering over marshes and damp ground has tempted travellers off the beaten track for centuries, and is said to make them recede, vanish or reappear somewhere else. This legend appears in folklore all over Britain and throughout Europe, and is ancient in origin.

Contrary to popular belief, ‘Will O’ The Wisps’ is not a plural term, but means, ‘the will of the wisps’ and is the name of the phenomenon itself. Names given to Wisps in Britain include Joan the Wad (in Cornwall), Peg-a-Lantern (in Lancashire), and Jenny-with-the-Lantern (in Yorkshire).

The Myth is Gaelic and Slavic in origin and has been used often in literature; in Denham Tracts, the ‘Wisps are Hobby Lanterns’, while in Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’, they are called swamp lights and appear in the Dead Marshes. Wisps have come to have a metaphorical meaning, often to describe a hope that leads you on, but is impossible to reach.

Jack O’ Lantern Legend

One of the most popular Wisp legends is; Jack O’ Lantern, a damned soul doomed to wander forever, while his symbol, a carved Halloween pumpkin, is believed to hold souls.

…There was once a quick witted but lazy farmer, called Jack. One day the Devil appeared before him and tried to tempt him, but he tricked him into climbing a tree, which the Devil could not find a way back down from. The Devil was forced to ask Jack for help, which Jack only agreed to, on the condition that he would never be allowed into Hell. The Devil kept his word, but Jack had been so bad all his life, he wasn’t allowed into heaven either. So, Jack hollowed out a gourd to make a lantern and wanders the world looking for a place to stay…

Jack is personified in ‘The Halloween Tree’ by Ray Bradbury as Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud, and in the movie ‘The nightmare Before Christmas’ as Jack Skellington. He is sometimes known as ‘Jack O’ the Shadows’, or as Death itself.

There is a great deal of variation in the Will O’ The Wisp myth. Wisps were not always personified as evil creatures. Old tales tell of them guarding treasures and leading those brave enough to follow them to sure riches.

The most general explanation for them is that they are malevolent spirits, either of the dead, or non-human in origin. In some beliefs they are the spirits of stillborn or unbaptised children flitting between Heaven and earth, while in others they are fairies.

A popular explanation for presence of Wisps is that oxidation of hydrogen phosphide and methane over marshes, caused by decay of natural minerals, may cause lights to appear when they catch fire upon hitting the air.

Another consensus is that this does not explain why the lights are blue, and not the yellow of fire, and why sometimes these lights are seen away from marshes, such as in graveyards; also why it fails to account for cases where the lights have been reported to swoop, soar or move against the wind.

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