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.
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."
His light was seen on dark nights like a lighted lantern on the sheep-paths on the hillsides. If he happened to be far off, no one was deceived, as his ungainly movements betrayed him as "Lantern Jack in search of his sheep," and as the saying goes:
An ignis fatuusThe time when he generally succeeded with his mischief was when he found someone all alone travelling a path on open fields. He would begin by appearing as a small speck of fire, of a clear blue flame, which he moved before the wayfarer along the middle of the path until his attention had been secured; then the flame would gradually grow until its brightness would completely blind him, after which the traveller was entirely at Jack's mercy, and he would lead him where he pleased.
Deceives not many of us.
Stories are related of men who have been led miles out of their way in this manner, especially young men going to see their sweethearts on dark winter nights.
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.
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.
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.
The horse refused to advance a single step forwards. It reared up as though it were standing before a ditch.
The peasant was now in grave danger. He sat there with his hair standing on end, shivering in fear. What could he do? He climbed down from the sled to see what was the matter. There was no ditch crossing the route, but rather an open pit.
The peasant would have driven around the pit, but he discovered deep water on both sides. Looking around, he saw that the blue light had flamed up as large as a pitch torch. Suddenly a second and a third fire rose up, and then many, many fires were dancing across the moor.
"Father, son, and holy ghost! What is happening here tonight?" he called out.
Hardly had he said these words when his horse jumped ahead as though it had been stuck with a needle. The peasant was barely able to jump back onto the sled, and away he sped in a furious galop.
It is fortunate that the peasant was able to utter the name of God just in time.
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.
At the place where this light appears there was formerly a pond, and still earlier a hill was there. There was a chapel on this hill (before there was a monastery in the forest). All Christians in the area, including the young girls, would go to this chapel to pray and for confession. The priest there was a crude fellow, and he presented the young maidens with more than just the mass. He defiled them.
When his sinfulness became unbearable, the earth opened one terrible night, and he was was swallowed underground, complete with the hill and the chapel.
Since that night the will-o'-the-wisp hovers over the area as a sign of God's punishment.
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.
If they show themselves, which normally happens only at nighttime, the people there have a ridiculing rhyme:
Heerwisch, Heerwisch, hah, hah, hah!
You're afire like straw, straw, straw!
You can hit me black and blaw!
More than one person came to misfortune because of this.
More than thirty years ago a young girl was walking by a swamp near Hänlein. She saw a will-o'-the wisp hopping along, and she rudely shouted out the rhyme. The will-o'-the wisp suddenly came fluttering toward her. The girl became frightened and ran as fast as she could toward her parents' house. The will-o'-the wisp was right behind her, beating at her with its fiery wings like a huge swamp-bird.
Deathly afraid, she reached the house and slipped inside, but the will-o'-the wisp came in with her, illuminating the entire entryway. He followed her into the main room. He struck with flames at everyone who got in his way, then flew up the chimney. Finally he danced across the rooftops like a fiery dragon.
The next day everyone, and the girl most of all, was black and blue from the will-o'-the wisp's blows.
It is believed that the will-o'-the wisps and fiery men are dead people who cannot find their eternal rest because of evil deeds that they committed while alive. Above all, they are dishonest land surveyors and those who moved boundary boundary stones, as well as farmers who plowed away land from their neighbors' fields. Everywhere in Germany such sinners are believed to be the fiery men.
In northern Germany will-o'-the wisps are believed to be the souls of unbaptized children.
In Thuringia [Thüringen] they say to someone who is running very fast, "You are running like a fiery man."
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.
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Revised February 22, 2021.