What is Will o’ the Wisp? An illuminating folklore guide

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Will o’ the Wisp is a ghostly light or flame seen by travellers at night over bogs and marshes.

What is the Will o' the wisp that glows above marshes, moors and swamps across the British Isles and other parts of the world?
What is the Will o’ the wisp that glows above marshes, moors and swamps across the British Isles and other parts of the world?

Will o’ the Wisp is quite a difficult term to define. But you can describe it as mysterious atmospheric ghost lights that appear around bogs, marshes, and swamps, with the primary aim of leading travellers away from their routes and off track.

Will o’ the Wisp meaning

The Will o’ the wisp – also Will o wisp – is sometimes referred to as the Jack O’ Lantern, or the Peg a Lantern, the Hobby Lantern, the Friar’s Lantern, the Kitty Candlestick, and many other names. The Will o’ the Wisp is very popular in English and European folklore and it’s used to signify some paranormal existence that creates a fiery appearance and leads travellers astray, especially at night time.

Tales of the Will o’ the wisp, however, come in different forms in different areas.

There are several explanations about what exactly the Will o’ the Wisp is and how it came about. The general belief is that it came as a result of evil spirits who look to draw unsuspecting travellers into harmful situations. But the tales about the Will o’ the Wisp all have a general context, being light is used to draw people into dangerous positions.

Tales of bright lights over marshes

In one of these tales, which was in a book written by Wirt Sikes, a man was traveling home in the dark and as he was walking, he saw a bright light a bit far off and he decided to follow it for a few miles.

He saw that the light was coming from a lantern that was held by a shadowy figure, and after following it for quite a distance, he found himself standing on the edge of a gorge with water violently rushing just below him.

All of a sudden, the shadowy figure appeared beside him, carrying the lantern, and then laughed evilly before blowing out the light of the lantern, and then leaving the man all by himself on the edge very far away from his home.

In other tales, the Will o Wisp has been related to spirits of people that were not allowed to enter Heaven or Hell, and are now forced to live on Earth, leading foolish travellers astray.

In some scenarios, it is believed that the devil himself has instructed some spirits to come back to earth with the sole intention of drawing people out to dangerous places using a burning piece of coal. The lights that come shine from the Will O’ the Wisp have also been said to serve as bad omens, forecasting a tragedy before it happens.

These lights have been known to shine at some graveyards as well as at funerals. Although, not all tales are so negative about the Will O’ the Wisp with some talking about the Will O’ the Wisp being a guardian of treasures and leading brave people to these treasures. 

Science behind Will o’ the Wisp

Many explanations go along with Will O’ the Wisp, but modern science has also given its definition of what it is. Science believes that these flames come from natural phenomena like bioluminescence, which is caused by the oxidation of phosphine, methane, and diphosphane, from rotting vegetation and organic decay.

The gas is believed to ignite on its own and form those flames that are believed to be the Will o’ the Wisp.

Science has also purported the possibility of these sightings being a result of ball lightning. 

Willo the Wisp TV cartoon

Willo the Wisp
Kenneth Williams as Willo The Wisp in the 1980s children cartoon series.

Willo the Wisp was a BBC cartoon series narrated by Kenneth Williams, originally produced in 1981. Kenneth Williams voiced all the characters, including Wilo the Wisp, who was a blue, floating creature who looked Williams. A second series, voiced by James Dreyfus, was produced in 2015.

Other names for Will o’ the Wisp

Throughout Great Britain, there are many different names for Will-o-wisp phenomona. Some of them include:

  • Cornwall: Joan the Wad
  • Devon: Hinky Punk
  • East Anglia: The Lantern Man, The Hobby Lantern
  • Gloucestershire: Hobbedy’s Lantern
  • Hertfordshire: The Hobby Lantern
  • Lancashire: Peg-a-Lantern
  • Lowland Scotland: Spunkies
  • Norfolk: Will o’ the Wikes
  • North Yorkshire: Jenny with the Lantern
  • Northumberland: Jenny with the Lantern
  • Shropshire: Will the Smith
  • Somerset: Hinky Pink, Joan the Wad
  • Warwickshire: Hobbedy’s Lantern
  • Wales: Pwca, Ellylldan
  • West Country: Jacky Lantern, Jack-a-Lantern
  • Worcestershire: Pinket

Conclusion

The Will O’ the Wisp is a fiery light that leads people off the correct direction in their trips and into harmful circumstances. But it has also been used in literary terms, to describe a goal that leads one on but that one is never able to achieve.

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