Will-o'-the-Wisp

ignis fatuus (foolish fire)

legends about fiery fairies
translated and/or edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2009-2014


Will-o'-the-Wisp is the most common English designation for a family of fairy-beings characterized by their fiery appearance and their tendency to lead nighttime wayfarers astray. The term wisp refers to a twist of straw, used as a torch. Other names for these apparitions include Hobby-Lantern, Jack-o'-Lantern, Jenny-Burnt-Tale, Kitty-Candlestick, Peg-a-Lantern, and many more.


Contents

  1. The Will-o'-the-Wisp (Scotland).

  2. The Ellylldan (Wales).

  3. The Origin of the Jack-o'-Lantern (Wales).

  4. The Jack o' Lantern (Denmark).

  5. Will-o-the-Wisps (Netherlands).

  6. Jack o' Lanterns Baptized (Netherlands).

  7. The Will-o'-the-Wisp (Germany/Poland).

  8. Will-o'-the-Wisps with Long Legs (Germany)

  9. Will-o'-the-Wisps Banned with a Curse (Germany)

  10. Godorf: The Will-o'-the-Wisp (Germany).

  11. Links to additional texts and illustrations.


Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

The Will-o'-the-Wisp

Scotland

The will o' the wisp (called in Gaelic Teine biorach = sharp fire) is said to be of quite modern appearance, at least in South Uist. It was first seen, it is said, in 1812, and is the haunting spirit of a young girl from Benbecula, who frequented the machair, or sandy plain beside the sea, in search of the galium verum, used in the dyeing of the local cloth or tweed. Her sin was that of seeking to get an undue share of a product which should have been equally divided for the common good, and which has at all times to be husbanded as one of the plants which bind the sandy soil together where it has been redeemed from the sea.

There is, however, another story as to the origin of the jack o' lantern. The haunting spirit is that of a blacksmith, who could get no admittance even into hell. He was very cold, and begged for a single ember to warm himself, and at last one was given him, and he has gone shivering about with it ever since.

A special interest of this story is that it tells against the common Hebridean tradition of a cold hell, a tradition one soon learns to accept in South Uist, the land of cold mist and sweeping winds, and damp, and drafts, and rain, where even the nether regions with a fire in them have a suggestion of comfort. Hell is therefore discouragingly known as "the place of the wind of the cold passages, or the wind of the cold channels."




The Ellylldan

Wales

The Ellylldan is a species of elf exactly corresponding to the English will-o'-wisp.
...

Like all goblins of this class, the Ellylldan was, of course, seen dancing about in marshy grounds, into which it led the belated wanderer; but, as a distinguished resident in Wales has wittily said, the poor elf "is now starved to death, and his breath is taken from him; his light is quenched for ever by the improving farmer, who has drained the bog; and, instead of the rank decaying vegetation of the autumn, where bitterns and snipes delighted to secrete themselves, crops of corn and potatoes are grown."

...

Pwca, or Pooka, is but another name for the Ellylldan, as our Puck is another name for the will-o'-wisp; but in both cases the shorter term has a more poetic flavor and a wider latitude…. The most familiar form of the Pwca story is one which I have encountered in several localities, varying so little in its details that each account would be interchangeable with another by the alteration of local names. This form presents a peasant who is returning home from his work, or from a fair, when he sees a light traveling before him. Looking closer he perceives that it is carried by a dusky little figure, holding a lantern or candle at arm's length over its head. He follows it for several miles, and suddenly finds himself on the brink of a frightful precipice. From far down below, there rises to his ears the sound of a foaming torrent. At the same moment the little goblin with the lantern springs across the chasm, alighting on the opposite side; raises the light again high over its head, utters a loud and malicious laugh, blows out its candle, and disappears up the opposite hill, leaving the awestruck peasant to get home as best he can.




The Origin of the Jack-o'-Lantern

Wales

A popular legend giving the origin of the jack-o'-lantern in Wales deals with the idea of a stupid devil: A long time ago there lived on the hills of Arfon an old man of the name of Sion Dafydd, who used to converse much with one of the children of the bottomless pit.

One morning Sion was on his way to Llanfair-Fechan, carrying a flail on his shoulder, for he had corn there, when whom should he meet but his old friend from the pit, with a bag on his back, and in it two little devils like himself. After conversing for some time they began to quarrel, and presently were in the midst of a terrible fight. Sion fell to basting the devils with his flail, until the bag containing the two little ones went all to pieces, and the two tumbling out, fled for their lives to Rhiwgyfylchi, which village is considered to this day a very wicked place from this fact.

Sion then went his way rejoicing, and did not for a long time encounter his adversary. Eventually, however, they met, and this time Sion had his gun on his shoulder.

"What's that long thing you're carrying?" inquired the devil.

"That's my pipe," said Sion.

Then the devil asked, "Shall I have a whiff out of it?"

"You shall," was Sion's reply, and he placed the mouth of his gun in the devil's throat and drew the trigger. Well; that was the loudest report from a gun that was ever heard on this earth.

"Ach!—tw!—tw!" exclaimed the smoker, "your pipe is very foul," and he disappeared in a flame.

After a lapse of time, Sion met him again in the guise of a gentleman, but the Welshman knew it was the tempter. This time he made a bargain for which he was ever afterwards sorry, i.e., he sold himself to the devil for a sum down, but with the understanding that whenever he could cling to something the devil should not then control him.

One day when Sion was busily gardening, the evil one snatched him away into the air without warning, and Sion was about giving up all hopes of again returning to earth, when he thought to himself, "I'll ask the devil one last favor."

The stupid devil listened.

"All I want is an apple," said Sion, "to moisten my lips a bit down below; let me go to the top of my apple tree, and I'll pick one."

"Is that all?" quoth the diawl, and consented.

Of course Sion laid hold of the apple tree, and hung on. The devil had to leave him there. But the old reprobate was too wicked for heaven, and the devil having failed to take him to the other place, he was turned into a fairy, and is now the jack-o'- lantern.




The Jack o' Lantern

Denmark

Jack o' lanterns are the spirits of unrighteous men, which by a false glimmer seek to mislead the traveler, and to decoy him into bogs and moors. The best safeguard against them, when they appear, is to turn one's cap inside out. When any one sees a Jack o' lantern, let him take care not to point at him, for he will come if pointed at. It is also said that if any one calls him, he will come and light him who called; but then let him be very cautious.


Near Skovby on the isle of Falster there are many Jack o' lanterns. The peasants say they are the souls of land-measurers who in their lifetime had perpetrated injustice in their measurements, and therefore run up Skovby bakke at midnight, which they measure with red hot iron rods, crying, "Here is the clear and right boundary! from here to there!"




Will-o-the-Wisps

Netherlands

Late one evening a man was walking across a field, returning to Gandshoven from Molenbeek. Suddenly three will-o'-the-wisps came running toward him. Because this good man was accustomed to baptizing such, in order to redeem all three, he said, "I baptize you all in the name of the father and the son and the holy ghost."

But then it did not go well for him, for in the same instant he saw that he was surrounded by more than a thousand will-o'-the-wisps, all wanting to be baptized. He baptized unceasingly, but ever more of them approached him, and this did not end until the cock crowed. Thus the man had to spend the entire night in the field.




Jack o' Lanterns Baptized

Netherlands

Jack o' Lanterns are, as tradition tells us, the souls of unbaptized children. Because these souls cannot enter heaven, they take their abode in forests, and in dark and desert places, where they mourn over their hard lot. If at night they get sight of any person, they run up to him, and then hasten on before him, to show him the way to some water, that he may baptize them therewith. And that no one should neglect to do, because the poor beings must remain without the gates of paradise until some one takes pity on them.




The Will-o'-the-Wisp

Germany/Poland

The will-o'-the-wisp is a mischievous gnome who leads people astray at nighttime or in the fog, causing them to loose their way and end up in a swamp. He does this foremost with inquisitive people who purposely follow him. The best way to avoid him or to render him harmless is to stay away from the footpaths where he has power, and always to keep one foot in a wagon rut. He helps some people who have lost their way by leading them home, if they speak to him kindly and offer him a generous payment.

Once a person who had lost his way offered him two silver groschens if he would lead him home safely. The will-o'-the-wisp agreed, and finally they arrived at the lost man's house. Happy that he was no longer in need of help, he thanked his guide; but instead of the promised payment, he gave him only a small copper coin. The will-o'-the-wisp accepted it, then asked if he could now find his way home by himself.

He answered, "Yes! I can already see my open front door." But stepping toward it, he fell into some water, for everything he had seen had been only an illusion.

The will-o'-the-wisp takes special delight in tormenting drunks making their way homeward from a fair or an evening of drinking. He leads them astray, and when in their drunkenness they can go no further, preferring instead to sleep off their binge out of doors, then he burns them on the soles of their feet. In some regions the people believe that will-o'-the-wisps are the souls of children who died without being baptized. They are seen especially atop graveyard walls. They disappear when one throws a handful of graveyard soil at them.




Will-o'-the-Wisps with Long Legs

Germany

A peasant from Hermsdorf was going home late one evening when he saw a will-o'-the-wisp. Being of a daring nature, he approached it. Without hesitating, the will-o'-the-wisp fled, and the peasant quickly followed after him. Thick on his heels, he saw that it had tremendously long legs, and that its head consisted of tips of glowing fire. However, it instantly disappeared, and the peasant was barely able to find his way home in the dark.




Will-o'-the-Wisps Banned with a Curse

Germany

In the vicinity of Storkow a preacher was driving home late one evening with his servant. Arriving at a certain place they saw a will-o'-the-wisp approaching them. It hopped about merrily in front of the horses. Soon there were more of them, and finally there were so many of them that the horses took fright and would not continue onward.

The pastor became frightend as well, and therefore he began to pray aloud, but the more he prayed, the more of them came.

Finally the servant said, "No. Stop that. You're not making them go away. I'll get rid of them!"

With that he shouted, "Go away, in the devil's name!" and they immediately disappeared.




Godorf: The Will-o'-the-Wisp

Germany

The marshy peninsula which extends between Godorf and Rodenkirchen is said to be the favorite resort of the sprite known all along the Rhine as the Herwisch, and in England as the will-o'-the-wisp. This mischievous little creature is said to delight in leading unsuspecting travelers astray, and in playing all manner of pranks, but, like most practical jokers, he is quick to resent any attempt to make fun of him.

One day a maiden, passing across this stretch of ground at nightfall, began to sing all the songs she knew, to beguile the loneliness of the way and inspire her with courage. Having soon come to the end of her scanty repertoire, she carelessly sang a mocking ditty about the Herwisch, who, enraged at her impudence, came rushing toward her threateningly brandishing his tiny lantern.

With a cry of terror, the girl began to run, closely pursued by the sprite, who, in punishment for her derisive song, napped his wings in her face and frightened her so badly that she became an idiot.

Since then, the young people of Germany have never dared to sing the mocking refrain, and carefully avoid mentioning the Herwisch's name after nightfall, lest they should in some way arouse his anger.




Links to additional texts and illustrations

  1. Bechstein, Bechstein. Deutsches Sagenbuch (Leipzig: Verlag von Georg Wigand, 1853), frontispiece woodcut by A. Ehrhardt of a will-o'-the-wisp.

  2. Burne, Charlotte Sophia. "Legends and Traditions: Will-o'-the-Wisp," Shropshire Folk-Lore: A Sheaf of Gleanings from the Collections of Georgina F. Jackson (London: Trübner and Company, 1883), pp. 33-38.

  3. Dyer, T. F. Thiselton. "The Will-o'-the-Wisp and Its Folk-Lore," The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 250 (January - June 1881), edited by Sylvanus Urban (London: Chatto and Windus, 1881), pp. 335-46.

  4. Hazlitt, William Carew. "Will o' the Wisp; or, Kit with the Canstick (Candlestick)," Myths and Folklore: A Dictionary of National Beliefs, Superstitions, and Popular Customs, Past and Current, with Their Classical and Foreign Analogues, Described and Illustrated, vol. 2 (London: Reeves and Turner, 1905), pp. 635-38.

  5. Wright, Elizabeth Mary. "Dialect Terms Denoting the Ignis Fatuus, or Will-o'-the-Wisp," Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore (London: Oxford University Press, 1913), pp. 200-201.



Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Revised November 9, 2014.