Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Will-o-the-wisp: ancient stories and modern explanations

During my research for my Halloween, I came across a phenomena called the “will-o-the-wisp.” Anyone familiar with the Disney/Pixar film, Brave, will recognize the term. In the movie the wisps are the benevolent spirits of the dead who aid the living by leading them to their destinies. However, in the cultural mythologies from around the world, these lights aren’t always so helpful. They are the atmospheric ghost lights seen by travelers at night. It resembles a flickering light and said to recede if approached, drawing the travelers from the safe path. The term wisp comes from the bundle of sticks or paper that is sometimes used as a torch.

In some areas of Europe, wisps are the mischievous spirits of the dead or supernatural beings, like fairies. In Sweden, the wisp represents the soul of an unbaptized person, in the hopes of being baptized, leads travelers to water. Many cultures, like the Finns, Danes, and Irish to name a few, believe the will of the wisp marks the location of treasure deep in the ground or in water. In Asia, the wisps are known as Aleyas, which occur over marshes and believe to confuse fisherman, make them lose their bearings and may even lead them to drown. In the United States, the wisps are often called ghost lights or orbs.

There have been scientific explanations to these strange lights. In 1776, Alessandro Volta thought the lights were caused by methane gas. The theory was largely dismissed until Major Louis Blesson, in 1832, was able to determine that these lights were an ignited gas. He observed the light and after several attempts, he was able to capture some of the lights. The modern scientists generally accepts that these lights are the oxidation of phosphine, diphosphine, and methane. These gases are produced by organic decay and can cause photon emissions thus giving off light.

The will-o-the-wisps have long been seen in literature.  In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan is compared to the “will-o-the-wisp” in tempting Eve with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil. Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner describes “the death-fires” that danced at night. J.R.R. Tolkien used the wisp as inspiration for the lights in the Dead Marshes outside of Mordor, where Smeagol warns Frodo and Sam not to follow the lights. And most recently, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series used hinkypunk, the southwestern English name of the wisp, as the creature who tries to trick the characters to their doom.

It was fun researching the different stories from around the world as they tried to describe what these strange lights could be. I wish I could write about all the cultures that have stories about these strange lights but it was enough information to fill a book! It is interesting to see how the different cultures describe these lights and how the stories appear in literature and even in modern movies. I particularly like Brave’s depiction of them, the benevolent spirits leading people to events that would change their lives.