Home > History > Will-o'-the-wisps


Will-o’-the-wisps are strange glowing lights found in swamps and marshes. There’s no universally accepted theory for what they are, especially given some of the unique characteristics that they have. They’re said to be able to run away from individuals that attempt to chase them down, and follow victims that back away. In popular folklore they’re considered to be malevolent disembodied spirits who will lead wayward travelers to getting hopelessly lost in the swamps.

The folklore behind them is pretty interesting. My favorite story involves a man named (wait for it) Will.  Will is a thief who manages to anger a number of random villagers. As they’re chasing him out of town with torches and pitchforks, they trap him. Before the villagers can get him, Will makes a deal with the devil. In exchange for his soul, Will asks the Devil to take a form of a gold coin so that he can pay the villagers back. Once Will is let off the hook by the villagers, the Devil can takes his own form and leave the townspeople robbed again. The devil agrees to the deal, Will puts the gold coin in his wallet, which contains a cross, preventing the devil from reverting back to his real form. The devil then must make a deal with Will to be let out of the purse. Will gets his soul back, and escapes from the villagers. However, once Will dies, he’s led such a pitiful life that he’s not allowed into heaven. He goes to Hell but the Devil, a man of his word, won’t take Will’s soul. Will is forced to spend eternity wandering the Earth. To help him out, the Devil gives him an ember from Hell, which can never go out. To pay the devil back for this kindness, Will uses this ember to entice travelers into a trap so that they devil may take their souls.

In some variations, the main character is named Jack, and he puts the ember into a carved turnip, which is where we get the term Jack-o’-Lantern.

What Will-o’-the-wisps really are is fairly interesting. The decaying organic matter found in swamps gives off a lot of random gases. Two of these are phosphine and methane. Phosphine by itself can phosphoresce when it oxidizes, throwing off a bit of light, but it can also spontaneously ignite in the atmosphere. This ignition can also cause a bit of a chain reaction that ignites methane gas in the area. In lab experiments, these gas bursts often burn at a much lower temperature than most fires, which explains how these fires can occur without doing any noticeable damage to the surroundings.

One of the other theories is that tectonic shifting can cause a release of piezoelectricity and water vapor.  When these two elements are released from the grounds surface and meet in the lower atmosphere, they can create strange lights. No one is sure exactly how, but it’s still an interesting theory. Especially given the awesomeness of piezoelectricity, which is what gives quartz its unique characteristics.

What I find most interesting about all this is that swamp gas is often given as an explanation for the lights associated with UFOs. In my experience, swamp gas was always seen as a convenient cover up excuse, and not something that people really took seriously (not that I ever took UFO claims very seriously, but swamp gas just seemed like such a cop out of an excuse. I think it’s fascinating how our folklore has changed. Disembodied spirits leading people to their deaths and making deals with the Devil are seen as hokum now, while men from other planets  in flying saucers abducting citizens become more and more accepted. The phenomenons haven’t changed, but the story giving some sort of rational explanations for those phenomenon has.

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