Das Irrlicht, Arnold Bocklin, 1862
The spirits known as wills of the wisp, which in fact go by many local names, seem to have a single purpose, which is to try to lure people out of their way, something which may just get them lost or which may result in their deaths. Their exact status as ‘fairies’ is a little uncertain. They are clearly supernatural beings, and almost always of a solitary nature, but their precise classification is difficult; in some cases, they resemble ghosts. Nevertheless, the activities of the ‘pure’ wills of the wisp, who only have one manifestation, are shared with entities we would unhesitatingly describe as fairies- such as pixies, Robin Goodfellow and the various pucks and pwccas. For this reason, I included a chapter on wills of the wisp in my forthcoming book, Beyond Faery. The evidence presented here represents additional research I’ve undertaken, which complements the content of the book.
Very typical of this family of sprites is Willy and the Wisp, who is seen around Buckhaven in Scotland. He’s been called a “fiery devil” who leads people off their path in order to drown them or, at the very least, to cause them to stumble and fall, whether into a bog or over a bank or cliff. He sometimes appears as sparks around a walker’s feet or as a candle shining in the dark two or three miles ahead of them. Like a rainbow, this light would recede before the advancing traveller. He has also been known to lure boats into the shore, where they have foundered. This entity is also called ‘spunky’ in Scotland, or ‘Dank Will,’ with his “deceitful lantern.”
Interestingly, on the Hebridean island of South Uist it was said that the Will of the Wisp had not been seen before 1812. A woman who went out one night to collect rue from the sand dunes was never seen again and it was thought that her ghost returned as the wandering light that was seen there frequently after that. This is an intriguing example of the confusion, or uncertainty, that can exist over the interrelationship between Faery and the dead.
In Dorset, on the south coast of England, the Will or Jack o’ Lantern is seen as a hopping ball of light that precedes a traveller, attempting to lure the person off the road, perhaps into a pond or perhaps just to make them lost. If it succeeds, you will hear it sniggering and laughing. In Devon and Cornwall, too, the Jack o’ Lantern is known. He has been known to attack lanterns carried by people, or to perch on the roofs of houses. Generally, the light is like a small blue flame, but it has been seen as big as five feet in height. It generally floats at a low level (about a metre off the ground), but can rise high into the air- or vanish, and then reappear again. Sometimes it is fixed, sometimes it moves at considerable speed. In the South West of England, as well as pools and marshes, the “pixy-lights” might try to lure people down abandoned mine shafts, which are still quite common in the region.
The Will is usually seen in more out of the way locations, such as mountains and lowland marshes, but by no means exclusively. It has been sighted in water meadows or in domestic gardens as well. When it is seen in church-yards, it is often called a ‘corpse candle,’ once again linking the phenomenon with the dead.
A very curious example of the phenomenon is the Will seen at Fringford Mill in Oxfordshire. Witnesses have reported red lights that looked like gnomes, standing about three feet high. They would bob up and down (as seems to be typical) but they also emitted a singing sound. The lights would slowly approach to within about one foot of a person and then bob away again, apparently with the intention of leading the individual either into the mill stream or onto the highway. Horses kept in the field next to the mill would be terrified by the apparition. At Ascott under Wychwood, in the same county, the Will was called Jenny Burn Tail and once more resembled a human figure- a man holding a lantern.
Sometimes the Wills of the Wisp of Devon and Cornwall are seen indicating places where rich lodes of ore can be mined. The Wills of the Channel Island of Guernsey have a comparable link to buried riches. It is believed on the island that their appearance marks the site of concealed treasure. This association can be exploited by Le Feu Belengier to lead those hopeful of finding lost wealth through bogs and brakes.
Even so, the riches can be there for the finding by the determined. The only problem is that the wandering fire will protect its treasure. Stories are told on the island of a woman who dug where she saw a Will dancing and, in due course, uncovered a pan that seemed to be full of coins. However, just before she was able to claim the riches, she was distracted and, when she turned back to the pan, it had been overturned and was empty. In another case, a man who dug up a pot of coins looked away for a moment- to discover a huge black hound curled up in the hole. Conversely, a man who excavated a pot full of sea-shells was canny enough not to be deterred. He carried the seemingly worthless discovery home and, the next morning, awoke to find the shells transformed into coins. This story is a reverse of the usual reports of money received from fairies turning into shells, leaves and mushrooms overnight. The common element of not taking your eye off the prize is generally encountered in respect of sightings of fairies themselves: if you see one, you should try to avoid blinking or looking away. If you do allow yourself to be distracted, the fairy will disappear.
The Will of the Wisp is very well known in Scotland, but he has a long history in Welsh folklore too. Early in the nineteenth century, the road from Welshpool, on the Welsh border, to Shrewsbury in England was haunted around Onslow Hill by a ‘goblin’ who appeared as a ball of fire and would sit behind riders on their horses. There were numerous reports of this being and generally people avoided travelling along this road by night if they could. Not far away, at Marford near Wrexham, the Jack o’ Lantern was often seen early in the eighteenth century. Typical of its tricks was an occasion when it led two men into a ditch after they had thought they could see the light of a farmhouse window and had aimed towards it. Once the chosen victim was lost and soaked, the sprite would always dance about in glee over them.
Older Welsh sources more generally blame the ellyllon, the elves, for such sightings and misfortunes; another name for the Will of the Wisp is yr ellyll dan- ‘elf fire.’ This light, also called ‘bog fire’ has been described as being like the light of a lantern, that would dance ahead of riders, travelling at the same speed as them, or would appear as actual blue flames on the extremities of the horse and rider. This Will was reported as late as 1898, but subsequent changes to farming practice and the draining of land seems to have scared many of them off.
In some parts of Wales, a number of specific, named sprites are identified as the cause of such mischief. Several are identified in Snowdonia. The bwbach llwyd or ‘brown hobgoblin’ will appear on mountain tracks, dressed like a shepherd. He lures travellers off the path before vanishing. Somehow related in the bodach glas who appears in front of people once a fog has descended. He noiselessly hovers in front of them. always maintaining the same distance. Lantern Jack, meanwhile, is a blue flame seen on paths at night. It grows steadily larger, leading people astray until the light is snuffed out with a peel of laughter.
In south and east Wales the pwcca is a light that will lead on travellers, who think they are following another person with a lantern, until they find themselves on the very edge of a precipice. The light then leaps out into the void and a peal of pwcca’s mocking laughter is heard.
The pwcca is a further reminder to us that the Will and the more familiar and corporeal Puck often blend into each other, so that being misled by a will of the wisp and being pixy-led can be very similar experiences. The cross-over between the two is further underlined by the fact that, in some parts of Wales, the pwcca is more like a domestic brownie than a malign sprite.
The medieval Welsh poet Dafydd ap Gwilym (1320-50) wrote two poems describing the Will. Y Pwll Mawn, The Peat Pit, is desrcibed by him as being “the haunt of many a drowned wraith” whilst Ar Niwl Maith (On a Misty Walk) is an extended description of the perils of travel in poor visibility:
“My twisty traipse turns to clumsy labour
Like a hell,
Into a still bogmire,
Where in every hollow lurks
A hundred wry-mouthed elves.”
Similarly, in the Highlands, a Gaelic poem mentions “the busily roaming fairy woman, deluder of travellers…”
More details and discussion will be found in the chapter dedicated to this subject in my forthcoming Beyond Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).