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What is will-O'-The-Wisp?

Michael Anissimov
Updated May 17, 2024
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The will-o'-the-wisp, also known as will-o'-wisp, is sometimes called jack-o'-lantern, "spooklights," or "ghost lights." It is a phenomena of anomalous natural lights, often, when they are seen at all (which is rarely) found floating over a bog. References to will-o'-the-wisp date back to at least the Middle Ages.

One early poem about the subject goes as follows:

There was in every hollow
A hundred wrymouthed wisps.
Dafydd ap Gwilym (trans. Wirt Sikes), 1340

A common Latin name for the phenomena, ignis fatuus, which means "foolish fire," also suggests that people have been seeing it for at least a thousand years. Will-o'-the-wisps are small floating lights, sometimes seen in groups, that display a variety of movement patterns. These including stationary, slow movement, or the most famous: erratic, darting movements that some say are reminiscent of intelligence. The darting movement inspired many folktales, told throughout Europe and Russia, that a will-o'-the-wisp is actually a small lump of burning coal held by the lost spirit of a man denied entrance to both Heaven and Hell. The doomed spirit uses the light to lead travelers astray.

The traditional jack-o'-lantern carved out of a pumpkin at Halloween was actually named after the myth of will-o'-the-wisp. One version of the story says that the spirit put the burning lump of coal into a carved pumpkin. Other cultures view the will-o'-the-wisp as an indication of the location of buried treasure. Anyone seeking such a treasure would have had quite a difficult time digging in the bog. The phenomena appears to be worldwide, with traditional names for will-o'-the-wisp in places as diverse as the Philippines, Thailand, Norway, Utah, Lithuania, and Japan.

Scientists have provided at least a couple possible explanations for the phenomenon of will-o'-the-wisp, but none of these have been extensively verified. The most common explanation put forth is that will-o'-the-wisp is generated by the oxidation of methane gases and hydrogen phosphide produced by the decay of organic material in bogs. These chemicals has been shown to provide light when combined under laboratory conditions. Experiments by Italian chemists Luigi Garlaschelli and Paolo Boschetti have been cited, though independent confirmation has thus far been lacking.

Another possible explanation is that will-o'-the-wisps are synonymous with "earthlights," lights thought to be generated by piezoelectric (pressure-to-electricity converting) materials, such as quartz, being put under tectonic strain. This would partially explain the occasionally erratic movement of will-o'-the-wisps. Still, extensive experimentation of confirmation of this hypothesis has not yet been conducted in earnest.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Michael Anissimov
By Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated WiseGeek contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism to his articles. An avid blogger, Michael is deeply passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. His professional experience includes work with the Methuselah Foundation, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and Lifeboat Foundation, further showcasing his commitment to scientific advancement.
Discussion Comments
By anon87289 — On May 29, 2010

i think above gentleman is quite right because we call them rangay bhoot in nepal and they appear mostly in the evening. i have seen 100 of times in my life but i don't know what exactly it is. it is quite strange light movement, sometimes it looks to be a wild fire in the jungle but if you go and see in the morning there is no sign of any fire.

By anon48389 — On Oct 12, 2009

in the original tale of the doomed spirit, the man's name was will, and he was a blacksmith.

By anon47489 — On Oct 05, 2009

I understand the word "wisp", but what does "will-o" mean in this context? Thanks for your ongoing good work.

By anon47259 — On Oct 03, 2009

Something similar to what you mention as will-o-wisp is often seen in various part of Nepal. I had heard of this phenomenon at various times before but personally came to witness it in 2001 in an area west of Kathmandu in Dhading district. I was working as a British Army Brigade of Gurkhas Area Welfare Officer and had gone to a place just below Ree Gaon. Having completed my task for the day, I together with my orderly were about to retire for the night in open country side when suddenly we saw some lights flickering on the other side. The light (or lights) as the evening progressed were seen to be moving up and down, suddenly coming to a halt and again moving singularly and bursting into many flames and going in various directions. We initially thought that it was torches or flames cared by night travelers as is done in remote parts of Nepal until it dawned on us that the other side was not a flat piece of ground but sheer cliffs where no man could move as fast as the lights were traveling. I had traveled there many a time and know for fact that it would take a fit man to cover the distance almost half a day. The 'performance' continued for about half an hour and subsided as suddenly it had appeared. In Nepal such phenomenon are called 'Rangay Bhut' (loosely translated as 'Torch Ghost') and Nepalis being very superstitious believe this to be the wandering spirits of those who died an untimely death seeking salvation. --L Dewan

By anon47248 — On Oct 03, 2009

The singular of phenomena is phenomenon. The form phenomena is plural but you have used it in the singular sense.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov is a dedicated WiseGeek contributor and brings his expertise in paleontology, physics, biology,...
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