Beyond Faery V: Wills of the Wisp

bocklin

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.

Scottish spunkies

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.

Southern Sprites

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.

Bell WoW

Guernsey Wills

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.

Welsh Wisps

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…”

Wills of the Wisp and snake, Hermann Hendrich

More details and discussion will be found in the chapter dedicated to this subject in my forthcoming Beyond Faery (Llewellyn Worldwide).

‘Up Hill and Down Dale’- Pixy-Led in the West Country: a study of pixy tricks

Bell WoW
Robert Anning Bell, The Will of the Wisp

Deliberate leading astray is a fairy habit almost exclusively found in South West Britain.  It is reported about as often in Cornwall and Devon, with about twenty-five per cent of cases taking places in other counties (Dorset and Somerset) and slightly fewer in Wales.  Because it is primarily a phenomenon of South-West England, I will use the term pixie-led as a label for the process.

Here I’m only going to describe those fairy beings who, amongst their other activities, enjoy misleading humans.  Those supernaturals that appear as moving lights and whose sole function is to mislead- wills of the wisp, Jack o’ Lanterns, Goblin Lanterns and such like- will not be my concern here.  This reflects a fairly clear subdivision of types, but it is not perfect or binding.  Pucks and Pooks in England and South Wales can often appear in all respects like a will of the wisp, although we know them to be more complex characters in addition to this (see for example, Wirt Sikes, British Goblins, 23).

History

Pixie-leading is a longstanding fairy practice that is well attested in literature.  It can be traced back to the early fourteenth century.  Jeremy Harte in Exploring Fairy Traditions (p.26) records a preacher’s sermon that describes one who has been “led at nyght with gobelyn, and erreth hider and thider.”  The references multiply from the seventeenth century, for example from Francis Rous, who in his religious text Meditations of Instruction of 1616 compared those who pursue material wealth to:

“they [that] shall stumble into the same ditches, wherein they have seene many of their neighbours wallowing.  This makes sport for the divel, and thus is man most truly fayry-led, even led aside by the spirits of darknesse…”

In an identical tone, Thomas Heyrick, in The New Atlantis of 1687, mentioned those who “Vainly like wilder’d men should wander round/ Be lost in senceless shapes on fairy ground” (p.51).  Likewise, Beaumont and Fletcher in their play Wit at Several Weapons (c.1620), have a character complain:

“My ways are goblin led and the night elf still draws me from my home.” (II, 2)

Writing in the first half of the 1600s, poet Robert Herrick, a Devonshire parson, advised:

“If ye feare to be affrighted

When ye are (by chance) benighted,

In your Pocket for a trust

Carrie nothing but a Crust:

For that holy piece of Bread,

Charmes the danger, and the dread.”

Christopher Clobbery, who wrote in 1659, warned of “fairy elves who thee mislead … in to the mire, then at thy folly smile/ Yea, clap their hands for joy.”  The remedy he advised was simple: “Old country folk, who pixie-leading fear/ Bear bread about them, to prevent harm.”

In the English Midlands, we know from Jabez Allies that you were not pixie-led but ‘poake-ledden,’ something which seems to be confirmed by the experience of Bishop Richard Corbet (author of the poem Rewards and Fairies), who became lost near Bosworth in 1640.  He and his party were advised then to “Turne your cloakes/ … for Pucke is busy in these oakes./  If ever wee at Bosworth will be found/ Then turn your cloakes, for this is fairy ground.”

What is Pixie-Leading?

To be pixie-led is a very well-known phrase, but what does it actually entail?  There are, in fact, at least half a dozen different experiences which are classed under this heading.

Changing the landscape or hiding the path

Using glamour so that the human victim no longer recognises where they are is the commonest way to confuse and lead astray a person.  A few accounts will exemplify this: Once a Week magazine in 1867 reported how a young farmer was pixie-led one evening in an orchard, where he was trapped for two hours.  In a Welsh incident, two young women returning to Llandysul from Lampeter fair were led in a field next to their home.  They were lost for hours on a bright moonlit night, yards from their house.  Lastly, a Cornish man called Glasson, making the short walk from Ludgvan to Gulval near Penzance, got completely lost and went in circles.  In all these cases, and more, a familiar place became strange; land marks disappeared and panic set in.

Hiding Gates

Sometimes, the change made is to conceal the gate out of a field.  Often, again, the enclosed space is very familiar to the victim and the moon may be shining, but the means of escape seems to vanish.  To add to this, in several Cornish accounts the pixies also frustrate their victims’ attempts to get free by raising the field hedge whenever he finds a lower part he might have been able to climb over (Bottrell, Hearthside Stories, vol.1, p.57 and Enys Tregarthen, Folklore Tales, ‘The Enchanted Field’ (1911)).

In one case, something similar happened inside a house.  A Welsh man woke up to see fairies in his bedroom dancing and eating.  He tried to wake his wife, but couldn’t, and for four hours just had to watch the festivities.  Eventually, the fairies left and he got out of bed to try to see where they had gone.  However, he couldn’t find the bedroom door; it was only when he cried out in panic and woke the rest of his family that the spell was broken.  For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.

Mist and Fog

The pixies are known for their ability to control the weather and this can be used as a way of trapping victims.  Men travelling across Dartmoor from Crediton to Exeter were advised that, if a cloud descended, they should strip and sit on their clothes for half an hour or so.  The pixies would in due course raise the fog thrown around them.  Patience is evidently important in such cases.  A woman on the Quantocks became demented with terror when the pixies caused an evening mist to rise suddenly around her, so that she was lost in a field minutes away from her home.  For other examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies.

Music

The pixies may lure people away from their route with music, thereby getting them lost.  This has been reported in Devon and in North Wales.

Fairy Rings

Just as a person may become trapped in a familiar field, they may step into a fairy ring and fall into the fairies’ power.  A Somerset farmer coming home from market was led like this until he ended up exhausted by a briar bush that grew in three counties- a plant which magical properties that seems to have broken the spell he was under.  Cornish fairy author Enys Tregarthen has called rings ‘Spriggan Traps.’

Perhaps related to this phenomenon is that of following a ‘piskey-path.’  Enys Tregarthen also described how these mysterious green paths can be seen on cliffs or meandering across the moors, still verdant when the bracken is dry and brown.  Writing in 1630 in his View of Devonshire, Thomas Westcote mentioned how a person who got lost on Dartmoor would be “led in a pixy-path.”  Here there is some definite, if unclear, link between these paths and being pixie-led.

Never Arriving

In one Cornish story a man called Nicholas Annear was punished by the pixies for always rushing and hurrying.  One day, he set out for market with his horse and cart.  The pixies made it appear that the church tower at his destination was ahead, but he never got there.  He drove his cart all day and never arrived.

lee
Alan Lee

Pixie Motives

Who do they pixies do this?  They seem to have several motivations.  Above all, there’s their love of mischief; they need no reason as such, other than the pleasure in mildly tormenting humans.  However, they may feel the person needs to be punished for some reason (as in the case of Nicholas Annear above).  If they have been insulted by a person, s/he will be targeted in revenge.  For example, a North Yorkshire man who declared that he’d catch a fairy in a bottle was led astray for two hours as a result of his foolhardy boldness.  Someone who has taken the fairies’ property will suffer too.  A man from Bishop’s Lydeard in the Quantock Hills picked up a fairy grindstone as he was out walking and decided to keep it.  A mist descended upon him and he was led through brambles all night.  A woman from Selworthy parish on the Exmoor coast of Somerset saw a group of pixies; they were so upset by her intrusion that they led her all over the moor and through the woods. Any trespass upon the fairies’ privacy is bitterly resented.

An isolated example of retribution for trespass comes from Orkney, at the diametrically opposite end of the British Isles to Devon and Cornwall, where most of the accounts are located.  In Redland parish on the mainland of Orkney there was a grass ‘gait’ (or path) used by the trows when passing from their hill to the sea shore at twilight.  Two men in search of a midwife crossed the path one evening; for this disrespectful act one of them was led far astray by the trows.

Pixie Pleasures

Predictably, the pixie attitude to leading someone out of their way is great amusement.  They are often said to be heard laughing or, even, clapping their hands with glee.  They might sometimes be seen jumping about in front of the victim, mocking their situation (see Evans Wentz, Fairy Faith, 184).  A clear indication of the blurring of differences between wills of the wisp and pixie-leading fairies is a description of the Dorset Jack o’ Lantern, who is seen as a ball of light hopping before a person and which sniggers and laughs if a victim is successfully lured into a pond; something very similar was described in Cornish story by Enys Tregarthen (Why Jen Pendogget Changed his Mind (1940)).

Human Responses

As for the human victims, how do they react?  Inevitably, they will end up exhausted, frustrated and panic-stricken.  They are often said in Cornwall to be left “mizzy-mazey” (Enys Tregarthen, The Enchanted Field).  In Devon, the victim is said to be ‘mazed’ as a result, a neat term that is suggestive of being both amazed and lost (in a maze).

The consequences of being pixie-led can be much more serious, though.  We’ve heard about terror and a loss of wits.  A man who was pixie-led on the Blackdown Hills in Somerset had to be rescued after he was lured into a bog.  He was ill for quite some time after this experience.  A Devonshire man crossing Dartmoor near Chudleigh was pixie-led by the sound of music.  He wandered for hours, trying to locate the source, and eventually collapsed in a faint.  When he came round the next morning, he was able to make his way home, but he took to his bed, never rose again and soon afterwards died.  In like manner a Welsh man, John Jacob of Bedwellty, was led astray by the fairies one night, following shapes that appeared and then vanished.  At last he came to a neighbour’s house and was saved, but he was rendered mute by the experience and soon sickened and died.

Remedies

If you are pixie-led, what can you do to free yourself?  There are several tried and tested remedies.

Turning your clothes

The best known and easiest remedy is to turn an item of clothing- a hat might be turned back to front or a coat, pocket, glove or stocking might be turned inside out.  It seems likely that this is effective because it changes your appearance and throws the pixies off the scent or releases you from the enchantment that traps you in a fairy ring.  Wise travellers turn their clothes before they set out, so that they will be safe from enchantment throughout their journey.  It’s worth adding, though, that in Enys Tregarthen’s story The Pisky Who Rode in a Pocket, the pixie’s presence in the victim’s clothing is the cause of their wandering astray- and the spell is only broken when she turns her pockets, thereby ejecting the mischievous passenger.

Making a Noise

Attracting the attention of other people who’ve not fallen under the pixie spell will work.  This is effective in two ways.  Either the rescuer calls out in reply to help guide the victim to safety or the pixie-led person makes a noise which attracts rescuers to where she or he is stranded.  For instance, Abraham Stocke in Somerset had said that he had no time for pixies.  They led him into a swamp one night when he was walking home from brass band practice.  Luckily, he had his euphonium with him and was able to play it to alert his family and guide them to him.  A person simply coming along and startling the victim out of their bemusement can often be enough to release them (for examples, see Briggs’ Dictionary of Fairies).

Other Remedies

It can help to carry something with you to protect yourself against pixie charms during your travels.  This could be a cross made from rowan wood, a piece of bread (as we’ve seen already) or a sprig of the plant greater stitchwort.  Rowan, or mountain ash, are also well-known for repelling supernaturals beings of all kinds (witches included).  The stitchwort is more unusual and seems to be a uniquely Devonian remedy.  The flower is called ‘pixies’ in the county and it is believed to be the special property of the pixies. Picking it will upset them, but apparently carrying it with you somehow has the effect of deflecting rather than attracting their ill-will.

Water (as often) can release the bewildered person.  Drinking the water from Fitz’s Well, near Okehampton on the northern edge of Dartmoor, dispels the glamour cast by the local pixies.  Apparently any running water may have the same effect and, in fact, it is possible that falling in a stream might be sufficient to break the spell.

Summary & Further Reading

Pixie-leading is only really something to be concerned about if you’re out walking in unfamiliar places in Cornwall or Devon.  The open moors are the likeliest locations, places where getting lost is, in any case, a considerable risk unless you’re well equipped with a map and compass.  Outside this area, it is a remote risk: as we’ve seen from the folklore, there are only isolated cases from North Wales, North Yorkshire and Orkney.

In many ways, as I’ve described, the fairies can treat humans like their playthings and pixie-leading is one of the most acute examples of this.  Unlike abductions, though, it is generally a very short-term and harmless experience.  People can occasionally be led to perilous spots, such as marshes or cliff tops, and a few react very seriously to the stress of the experience, but for most it is an annoyance and a bit of a fright, but no more.

For another examination of the subject, see Simon Young’s article Pixy Led in Devon and the South West, which is available through Academia.com.  I have, of course, read this, but in writing this posting I deliberately sought to reach my own conclusions based on the evidence that I had uncovered.  Simon had access to a range of other sources and therefore reaches other useful conclusions on the subject.  My posting on Glamour Houses deals with a related phenomenon, though admittedly a deception by the fairies undertaken for benign purposes.  My book, British Pixiesalso examines the theme of pixy-leading in detail and in the wider context of pixie behaviour overall.