Strange New England

A Compendium of History, Folklore, and Evidence of the Unexplained

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Will-o-the-Wisp: An Ancient Flame

In ancient times when the night was so much darker than it is today, stories were told that endure to this day. It’s easy for scholars to assume that, because written records are a permanent way to record history of any kind, many folktales from literary cultures are assumed to be recent ones. Familiar fairytales such as the ones The Brothers Grimm recorded in their early research in the Black Forest of Europe feel familiar enough as to be from a more recent time in history and not from a remote age like Native American stories.

However, The Brothers Grimm were convinced that the stories they researched were, in fact, as ancient as their Native American counterparts. Folklorists since have had difficulty believing this, however, because they are scientists, solid evidence is the only type of evidence they will consider. Recent research by anthropologists has confirmed that, perhaps, The Brothers Grimm were correct after all and the fairy tales that are so familiar to us have an older, more alien origin in languages and cultures that left so little behind as to be forgotten.

According to this new research, the famous story “Beauty and The Beast”, which was once thought to originate in the 16th century, is instead 4,000 years old. One story is mentioned in this article, however, as being older than writing itself and being invented at a time when mammoths walked the earth. It is a lesser known story, but is possibly an inspiration for Goethe’s novel “Faust” and also the inspiration behind Jack-O-Lanterns on Halloween. In Acadian French, the name for this spirit is “Feu Follet” or “Foolish Fires”. Despite having Christian overtones in many versions, stories of the Will-O-The-Wisp or “The Smith and The Devil” are estimated to be 6,000 years old. At the root of these many versions and names across many countries and centuries, there is one commonality: a mysterious and bright ball of light that appears in the dead of night. Travelers who walk on country roads by night usually spot these strange lights, but not always.

There are many explanations for these haunting lights worldwide, with most being supernatural. For example, the Malecite tribe and the people of Southern Wales see the lights as omens of death. In Wales, these lights are called ‘corpse candles’, and their color and size further specify the gender and age of the doomed person. In Mexico and Africa, these lights are witches and sorcerers on the move towards a remote place to practice secret and dangerous magic. In Argentina, the lights are ‘Luz Mala’ or ‘evil lights’. This light kills anyone who looks at it, yet it will pursue hapless people at night and try to get them to look at it.

In Japan, these lights are called “Hitodama” and are believed to be either a human soul or a ball of supernatural energy. Such balls of fiery light are either found in graveyards or around fox-like spirits called ‘Kitsune’. Kitsune are famous shapeshifters in Japanese mythology who either trick humans into violent misdeeds or help rice farmers as servants of the rice god, Inari.

This version is adapted from the book “”Will O The Wisp” and is adapted from Ireland and New Brunswick, Canada. It describes one of the most common supernatural explanations: A condemned soul tries to lure travelers at night to their death:

There was once a man named Willy O’Bannon who immigrated to America from Ireland to seek his fortune with his family. He took up the blacksmith trade and performed small metalworking jobs such as making and attaching horseshoes and nails. He settled near a small village in Canada, where he had regular work.

None of this work helped him to feed his family, however. It was so difficult to earn enough to keep body and soul together that one day, Willy grew frustrated and said that he would sell his soul to The Devil just for the money.

Not long after this happened, a man dressed in black wearing a tall hat came to his door. Willy said “I have never seen the likes of you in these parts before. Who are you?”

With a sly smile that made Willy feel uneasy, the stranger replied “You don’t know me, but know you, Willy O’Bannon. In fact, I heard you just the other day make me an offer. Was it your soul for the money?”

Willy gulped in fear. This was The Devil come to take him up on his offer. 

The Devil continued. “I will make sure that you get all the money that you will ever need or want for seven years. But after seven years, I will arrive to take you to Hell.”

Feeling that seven years was a good long time, and feeling hunger in his belly, he accepted. The next morning, Willy’s life changed. He got enough money to feed his family, buy a new house and workshop and even shared his wealth with the community.

During this time, another strange figure appeared. It was a cold and rainy day, and an old, tired and cold man came to Willy’s door. Willy fed him, warmed him up by the fireplace and gave him a place to sleep while the storm outside raged. The old man smiled at Willy as he ate his porridge.

“I am an angel.” The stranger said. “For your generosity, you have three wishes.”

Having already met an angel before (for The Devil is an angel too), Willy believed him. He thought for a moment. Then, he smiled.

“I want three magical items. The first one is a chair that allows no one to stand up unless I say so. The second is an anvil that no one can let go of unless I say so. The third is a steel purse that does not let anything out of it unless I open it.”

The stranger frowned, but said. “It is done.”

When the seven years had passed, Willy was shaving and he heard the knock at the door. He knew who it was.

“It’s time to go, Willy.” The Devil said.

“I’m still shaving, sir.” Willy replied. “Come in and have a seat. I’ll be finished in a moment. I want to look my best when facing damnation.”

The Devil sat in the only chair in the room when he entered. As soon as he tried to rise from the chair, he felt he could not move. Willy wasted no time. He took an iron bar from his workshop and started to smack The Devil with it.

“Stop! Please be merciful.”

“To you, Father of Evil? I think not.” Willy replied before smacking him again.

“Wait!” The Devil shouted before Willy posed to swing the bar. He listened to a Devil now beaten black and blue.

“I will give you another seven years of wealth if you let me go form this chair.”

“No tricks?”

“Of course not.” The Devil said. With that, Willy commanded The Devil to stand up and in a flash, The Devil ran out of the house and back to Hell again to nurse his wounds.

The next seven years passed faster than the first. Again, the familiar knock on the door was heard.

“Come out, Willy! It’s time to go, as per our agreement.”

“Of course, sir.” Willie said. “Please come in. I need your help.”

The Devil came in and saw Willy organizing his workshop. “I need to leave this place in order for my family, so they don’t have a horrible mess to clean up. Can you hand me that anvil over there, so I may put it away?”

The Devil, confident in his strength, tried to lift to anvil. However, he found that he could not move his hand from it. He was rooted to the spot. Again, Willy took another iron rod and beat The Devil black and blue one more time.

“No! Not again!”

“Give me seven more years, Devil, and I’ll release you.”

“Fine, just stop! Please!”

Again, Willy commanded The Devil to take his hand off the anvil and again, The Devil wasted no time to leave.

This span of seven years went along even faster than the last two. This time, The Devil did not come inside, but Willy left with the steel purse on his person. They walked through the town square and past a pub.

“Say, Old Devil, since you’ll be taking me somewhere hot and dry, could you do me the kindness of letting me have a drink for the road to Hell?”

Not seeing any tricks this time, The Devil nodded.

“I’ll change myself into a coin for you, so don’t worry about the cost.”

As soon as The Devil turned himself into a coin, Willy grabbed it, put it inside of the steel purse and bolted back home. He stuck the purse into the forge fire and kicked up the flames as hot as he could manage with the bellows. With each puff, The Devil wailed in pain.

“I’ll get you for this Willie!”

“Then I’ll just keep going if that’s your attitude.” He continued to kick up the flames until the purse was almost ready to melt.

“If you let me out, I will never bother you again! I forfeit my claim on you!”

With that, Willie used his blacksmith tools to open the purse. Howling in pain, with a smoking backside, The Devil bolted out of the house in a blackened whirlwind.

Willie lived well until his death of old age. But when he reached the Gates of Heaven, St. Peter did not open the pearly gates.

“I was always generous with my wealth and even took in one of your own. What is the meaning of this?”

St. Peter shook his head. “That angel wanted to save you. The wishes were all attempts to pull you out of your pact with Hell. But instead, you kept yourself in it and played all those tricks on our enemy and hold onto wealth rather than abandon it. It was fun to watch you torture Satan, but because you wasted your chances to be saved and you got greedy, we can’t let you in.

So Willie accepted defeat and came to Hell’s less than shiny gates. As soon as The Devil opened the gates to peek outside, his eyes widened and he shut the gate.

“Oh God! Not you again!!!” The Devil shouted.

Willie shook his head. “I’m not allowed up in Heaven sir. It looks like you get me in the end. You win.”

“Not a chance! After all you put me through, I don’t ever want to see your face again, let alone for the rest of eternity! This place will freeze over before I let you in.”

“Then tell me where to go or I’ll wait outside here and sneak in. You’ll have to open those gates sooner or later, considering how many sinners are alive now.”

The Devil knew Willy was right and he knew that Willy was very clever. But The Devil came up with an idea. He took a piece of straw and lit it with a spark of hellfire. He opened the gate wide enough to reach out and hand it to him.

“Here! You go get me souls I can use for firewood! Use this!  I’m sure with your wily ways, you’ll find a way to get them to kill themselves. Don’t get any ideas about sneaking in here, though! Now be off with you and don’t ever come back!”

And whenever that tiny little spark of light appears in the dead of night, it’s Old Willy’s ghost trying to complete his task: a task intended to keep him away from Hell. He likes the souls to drown, so don’t follow him or he’ll mislead you into a deadly trick, just as he misled The Devil three times.

Even in modern times, when there is so much more light to be seen even at the darkest times of the night, there are still sightings of mysterious phantom lights. Rather than resort to sometimes frightening answers with a supernatural bent, the two most popular scientific theories relate to biochemistry.

The first theory was written by  Allesandro Volta, a chemist who inspired the name for the standard measurement of electricity: the volt. He also created the world’s first recorded battery since the ancient batteries first crafted in Babylon and Egypt. According to Volta, the balls of mysterious lights were not lost souls, witches or faeries, but swamp gas. According to this theory, plant and animal matter in a wetland decomposes and  methane gas builds up. Eventually, it must bubble up and fly out of the wet bottom and into the air. If there is lightning or some static discharge in the same area, the gas will be ignited like a match over an open torch head.

At the time that Volta published this theory, which was after he discovered the existence of methane gas in 1776, it caused controversy. By this time, the supernatural legends behind will-o-the-wisps was so commonplace that it was an unquestioned fact. Just as Benjamin Franklin faced controversy for claiming that lighting was not caused by the wrath of God, so did Volta face a crowd angry with the possibility that, maybe, the phantom lights they sometimes saw was nothing to fear. Even today, swamp gas is an explanation that is often not taken seriously or accepted. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that methane gas is a byproduct of natural decay. Wherever there is a large amount of biomass left to decompose, there will be a buildup of this gas.This theory has further evidence to support it with the observed fact that as wetlands in England have been drained and developed, instances of will-o-the-wisp sightings have declined.

The second explanation is bio-luminescent fungi. Some species of fungi will glow in the dark, either to attract insects that help spread the spores or to deter animals from eating it. Often, these fungi will appear either on top of trees or on decomposing logs on the forest floor. It is commonly a dim light, but can be bright enough to read by on rare occasions. The layman’s term for this natural phenomena is ‘foxfire’.

On Wikipedia’s listing of bio-luminescent fungi, there are over 23 species in North America and 22 species in Europe. The first species on this list, Armillaria calvescens, is a species that exists in Canada and New England. Specifically, it lives on maple trees abundant in New England and Canada.

As if in commemoration of these stories, the scientists who discovered the chemical that lights up living things call it Luciferum, a name derived from one of many names for The Devil.

Today, the genes for this chemical’s production and expression are vital for use in the study of genetics. A recent study has involved making cats glow in the dark to see if it is possible to implant HIV resistant genes into humans to combat AIDS.

Someday, we may have feline Will-O-The-Wisps roaming the country and spooking travelers because of this.

For now, however, we have only ghosts and gases for explaining why there are errant lights that seem to come from the night with no explanation. It is clear from all of this evidence that this is a story with roots so old, that it is remembered long after it’s original language has been completely forgotten. It has come to be retold in many languages across continents and helps to explain a phenomena that continues to intrigue people today. Anthropologists who discovered this story’s true age suggest this is a tale that tells of how Man attempts to change his fate, but only ends up doing so in an unpleasant way. This same theme appears in the latest incarnation of the legend in Disney and Pixar’s 2012 movie Brave. In it, Princess Merida is lured by tiny blue flame spirtes called “Will-O-The-Wisps”. Just like Willie from the Irish and Maritimes version, she tries to defy her fate with magic and faces unforeseen misfortune as a result.

There is another moral to these stories that is new to us, however. While languages come and go and cultures appear and disappear, stories remain today as monuments of the imagination. Even after temples and cities crumble down and their histories fade into the dark twilight of time, stories, like Will-O-The-Wisps, briefly appear to illuminate our past, even casting light onto that which has become alien to our memories and that which is still familiar to us today.


Will O’ The Wisp: Folk Tales and Legends of New Brunswick by Carole, Spray

Wikipedia: Will-O-The-Wisp

Wikipedia: Biolumiescent Fungi

Today I Found Out: What causes Will-O-The-Wisps

The Guardian: Fairytales much older than previously thought, says researchers

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  1. In Colombia , La Candileja is the will-o-the-wisp ghost of a vicious grandmother who raised her grandchildren without morals, and as such they became thieves and murderers. In the afterlife the grandmother’s spirit was condemned to wander the world surrounded in flames.

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