The Official Collection of Fantastical Creature Information--Updated Randomly

For all your fantastical creature needs! This is the beginning of my encyclopedia, and I'm collecting as much information as I can on various fantasy creatures. Most of my stuff can be found on wikipedia. However, no source is perfect, so the stuff that is my input is often italicized. Help me by sending me more information at

Side Note: There have been concerns about my using Wikipedia because it is not a reliable resource. I am well aware of wikipedia's unreliable nature--but that's exactly why I use it. Fantasy creatures are available to all, and everyone should have a chance to add their "discoveries." This website is supposed to be a fun collection of fantastical creature information with fun images to go with. I am not a reliable source--I'm just a collector. Though at this point, I am flattered that people are concerned with the validity of my site. :)

!!!!This is NOT a forum. Comments are to be informative and generally helpful. Clean humor is acceptable, but NOT if it detracts from the entry. This site is to help people find out more about fantastical creatures!!!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Will o' the Wisp

The will-o'-the-wisp, sometimes will-o'-wisp or ignis fatuus (modern Latin, from ignis ("fire") + fatuus ("foolish"), plural ignes fatui) refers to the ghostly lights sometimes seen at night or twilight — often over bogs. It looks like a flickering lamp, and is sometimes said to recede if approached.

The term will-o'-the-wisp comes from wisp, a bundle of sticks or paper sometimes used as a torch, and will-o' ("Will of").

The folklore phenomenon will-o'-the-wisp (Will of the wisp) is sometimes referred to as Jack o' lantern (Jack of the lantern), and indeed the two terms were originally synonymous. In fact the names "Jacky Lantern" and "Jack the Lantern" are still present in the oral tradition of Newfoundland. These lights are also sometimes referred to as "corpse candles" or "hobby lanterns", two monikers found in the Denham Tracts. They are often called spooklights or ghost lights by folklorists.

The names will-o'-the-wisp and jack-o'-lantern refer to an old folktale, retold in different forms across Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Appalachia and Newfoundland.

One version, from Shropshire refers to Will the Smith. Will is a wicked blacksmith who is given a second chance by Saint Peter at the gates to Heaven, but leads such a bad life that he ends up being doomed to wander the Earth. The Devil provides him with a single burning coal with which to warm himself, which he then used to lure foolish travellers into the marshes.

An Irish version of the tale has a ne'er-do-well named Drunk Jack or Stingy Jack who makes a deal with the Devil, offering up his soul in exchange for payment of his pub tab. When the Devil comes to collect his due, Jack tricks him by making him climb a tree and then carving a cross underneath, preventing him from climbing down. In exchange for removing the cross, the Devil forgives Jack's debt. However, because no one as bad as Jack would ever be allowed into Heaven, Jack is forced upon his death to travel to Hell and ask for a place there. The Devil denies him entrance in revenge, but, as a boon, grants Jack an ember from the fires of Hell to light his way through the twilight world to which lost souls are forever condemned. Jack places it in a carved turnip to serve as a lantern.

Other traditions
Among European rural people, especially in Gaelic and Slavic folk cultures, the will-o'-the-wisps are held to be mischievous spirits of the dead or other supernatural beings attempting to lead travellers astray. Sometimes the lights are believed to be the spirits of unbaptized or stillborn children, flitting between heaven and hell. Modern occultist elaborations bracket them with the salamander, a type of spirit wholly independent from humans (unlike ghosts, which are presumed to have been humans at some point in the past).

Danes, Finns, Swedes, Estonians and Latvians amongst some other groups believed that a will-o'-the-wisp marked the location of a treasure deep in ground or water, which could be taken only when the fire was there. Sometimes magical tricks were required as well, to uncover the treasure. In Finland and other northern countries it was believed that midsummer was the best time to search for will-o'-the-wisps and treasures below them. It was believed that when someone hid treasure in the ground, (s)he made the treasure available only at the midsummer, and set will-o'-the-wisp to mark the exact place and time so that (s)he could come to take the treasure back. Finns also believed that the creature guarding the treasure used fire to clean precious metals bright again.

The will-o'-the-wisp can be found in numerous folk tales around the United Kingdom, and is often a malicious character in the stories. Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblins mentions a Welsh tale about a will-o'-the-wisp. A peasant travelling home at dusk spots a bright light travelling along ahead of him. Looking closer, he sees that the light is a lantern held by a "dusky little figure", which he follows for several miles. All of a sudden he finds himself standing on the edge of a vast chasm with a roaring torrent of water rushing below him. At that precise moment the lantern-carrier leaps across the gap, lifts the light high over its head, lets out a malicious laugh and blows out the light, leaving the poor peasant a long way from home, standing in pitch darkness at the edge of a precipice.

This is a fairly common cautionary tale concerning the phenomenon; however, the Ignis Fatuus was not always considered dangerous. There are some tales told about the will-o'-the-wisp being guardians of treasure, much like the Irish leprechaun leading those brave enough to follow them to sure riches. Other stories tell of travellers getting lost in the woodland and coming upon a will-o'-the-wisp, and depending on how they treated the will-o'-the-wisp, the spirit would either get them lost further in the woods or guide them out.

In Guernsey, the light is known as the faeu boulanger (rolling fire), and is believed to be a lost soul. On being confronted with the spectre, tradition prescribes two remedies. The first is to turn one's cap or coat inside out. This has the effect of stopping the faeu boulanger in its tracks. The other solution is to stick a knife into the ground, blade up. The faeu, in an attempt to kill itself, will attack the blade.

One Asian theologist ponders the relation of will-o'-the-wisp to that of the foxfire produced by kitsune, an interesting way of combining mythology of the West with that of the East.

In addition to Kitsunebi (aka Foxfire) described above, additional similar phenomena are described in Japanese folklore, including Hitodama (literally "Human ball" as in ball of energy), Hi no Tama (Ball of Flame), Aburagae, Koemonbi, Ushionibi, etc. All these phenomena are described as balls of flame or light, at times associated with graveyards, but occurring across Japan as a whole in a wide variety of situations and locations.

Similar Creature, Same Habits
Hinkypunk, the name for a Will o' the wisp in South West England has achieved fame in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Here, the Hinkypunk is a translucent creature that bears a lantern in one hand and hops on a single foot, which lead many fantastical creature observers to wonder if this is an entirely different species altogether. Humans who follow this light may find themselves immersed in marsh.

A special thanks to the mysterious "Bill" who sent me the info and the awesome pic.
And thanks to the artist of the will of the wisp...
And of course, to wikipedia as always.

1 comment:

John "Ynnhoj" said...

although this is not a comment on the will-o-the-wisps, it is on EVERYTHING contained within this blog. I have learned that wikipedia is not a reliable source. Its information cannot be reliable, however its use is quite important to every one of its users. I, personally, use it often, but not went I do a project for school, or whenever I feel the need to research fantasy. It should not be a main citing source for information. If ever I come across valuable information on anything in your blog, I will e-mail it to you, but I really don't want wikipedia used as a main website. Anyone can edit it and the information in it cannot be trusted. I, unfortunately, have learned the hard way. Good job, though, on everything andd I really hope you update the site soon. :D :D :D :D :D