Will o’ the Wisps are a traditional childhood tale across many cultures. The fairy stories of strange lights, floating off in the distance in dark forests or swamps will be familiar to many, as will their reputation as spooky, deceitful, and dangerous phenomena.
Will o’ the Wisps are however a common occurrence across many unconnected civilizations. The mysterious lights that appear around swamps, marshes, and bogs and often lead the travelers off their track appear to be a real thing.
In different cultures, this phenomenon is known by various descriptions and names, and a number of travelers around the world have had encounters with the Will o’ the Wisps. The people traveling at night in the marshy and swampy areas see a faint yet definite flame-like light at a distance.
The light keeps flickering in the distance, but as the travelers try to get closer to the light, it seems to be continuously moving further away. But as soon as they turn around and start walking, the light seems to be following them again.
What are these travelers seeing in the darkness of the night?
Tales of Will o’ the Wisps
In history, there are a number of tales about Will o’ the Wisps. Most of the legends relating to Will o’ the Wisps are from Britain, where they are often given malevolent intent and associated with danger. One of the popular tales of the bright lights seen in the marshy areas has been written in a book by Wirt Sikes.
According to the tale, a man was walking towards his home during the night. He came across a bright light at a distance and decided to follow the light. He could see the light coming from a lantern, and a shadowy figure seemed to be holding the light.
After following the light for some time, he realized that he was standing at a gorge’s edge. Suddenly, the shadowy figure with the lantern appeared next to him and started laughing in an evil tone. Then the light disappeared, and the man was left to himself.
The Devil in Disguise?
When it comes to the reasons for the appearance of the Will o’ the Wisps, they are often considered to be evil spirits. Some people even believe that the Will o’ the Wisps are the spirits of people who could not enter hell or heaven and are forced to live on earth. They try to deviate unwary travelers from their path.
There are others who believe that the devil instructs some spirits in order to come to earth with the intention of pulling out people from dangerous places using burning coals. The bright lights are also associated with bad omens and are believed to be a sign of some tragedy that is likely to happen.
But not all of the stories assume the lights are evil. Apart from evil spirits, some people are of the perception that the strange lights are related to angels or are guardians of treasures.
While skeptics might find the explanation of evil spirits hard to believe, there are a number of scientific theories relating to Will o’ the Wisps. According to one of the theories, the appearance of the Will o’ the Wisps can be attributed to bioluminescence.
Bioluminescence refers to the natural glow, most commonly here caused by honey fungus or fireflies. The light could also be produced by the bioluminescent algae which would explain the appearance of such lights in marshy regions. Under certain conditions, such algae or fungi have the ability to produce a bluish light.
According to another theory, when barn owls fly over the marshy and swampy areas, and the light from the moon gets reflected, it can appear like a bobbing lantern. This would explain the fact that the lights seem to try to evade onlookers.
One of the most accepted scientific theories is the theory suggested by Allesandro Volta. Volta was made famous for discovering methane in the year 1776.
According to his theory, the mixing of lightning with the swamp gases resulted in the appearance of these “ghost lights”, popularized and anthropomorphized as Will o’ the Wisps. When methane, phosphine, and diphosphine gases are oxidized, they light up.
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The theory proposed by Volta was quite controversial at that time. It was even disregarded by people owing to the fact that the theory was unable to pinpoint the reason why the light moved away when it was approached by travelers.
Marsh Gas After All
However, with the advancement of technology, the theory of Volta was proved to be correct. Will o’ the Wisps are actually caused due to the burning gases known as marsh gas or swamp gas. These gases are produced by the breakdown of organic matter present in the wet areas.
The movement of the light when approached can be due to the movement of the air. The decomposition of organic matter is referred to as aerobic decomposition. Just like all organic matters, animals, as well as plants, are made up of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon.
The dead matter gets buried under the saturated soil and water, where decomposition continues even in the absence of air. This produces a very different mixture of gases compared to decomposition in the presence of oxygen.
The anaerobic bacteria that break down the matter produce byproducts such as carbon dioxide, phosphines, nitrogen, methane, and other chemicals. According to scientists, these gases rise from the water and soil and get released into the atmosphere.
When methane gets mixed with phosphines, it results in the appearance of Will o’ the Wisps in the swampy and marshy areas. The unique marsh gases which come from the anerobic processes light up the night with an eerie, ethereal light.
Most of the stories relating to the Will o’ the Wisps direct towards the existence of something supernatural and creepy. However, the scientific theories behind the appearance of the Will o’ the Wisps are more believable.
Who is to say, however, that every instance that a Will o’ the Wisp has been seen is due to this phenomenon? Marshes are treacherous and difficult to navigate, and maybe something still waits out there, luring travelers to their doom.
Top Image: Will o’ The Wisp. Source: Charles Whymper / CC BY 4.0.
By Bipin Dimri
Upton, E, 2013. WHAT CAUSES WILL-O’-THE-WISPS. Available at: http://www.todayifoundout.com/index.php/2013/04/what-causes-will-o-the-wisps/
Geller, 2017. Will-o’-the-wisp. Available at: https://mythology.net/mythical-creatures/will-o-the-wisp/
Spooky Isles, 2020. WHAT IS WILL O’ THE WISP? Available at: https://www.spookyisles.com/will-o-the-wisp/