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Full Version: Will-o-the-wisps, those balls of light
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For those who don’t know, Will-o’-the-Wisps, also called “ignis fatuus,” Latin for “foolish fire”, are balls of light that are seen hovering over swamps at night and look similar to flickering lanterns, with the light often being blue in color.
Several theories exist as to its cause, including bioluminescence; that is, the glow is caused by something natural like fireflies or honey fungus. Another, somewhat oddball, theory is that barn owls might fly over swampy areas and reflect light from the moon or other sources off of their white plumage, making it look like a bobbing lantern.
However, one of the most accepted theories was more or less discovered by Allesandro Volta, who discovered methane in 1776. He believed that lightning mixed with the swamp gases caused the ghost lights. His theory was extremely controversial at the time and often disregarded because of the unlikeliness of spontaneous combustion and because the theory did not explain why Will-o’-the-Wisps appeared to retreat when approached.
With technological advances, we can prove Volta’s theory was more or less correct. Will-o’-the-Wisps are caused by burning gases—called “swamp gas” or “marsh gas”—that develops from the breakdown of organic matter in persistently wet areas. The movement of the wisps is usually disregarded and it is explained that the gases disperse when approached because of the movement in the air.

The normal decomposition of organic matter in open air is called “aerobic decomposition.” Like all organic matter, plants and animals are largely made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. When decaying in the presence of oxygen, the by-products of the decomposition are water, carbon dioxide, and energy, or heat. In swampy or marshy areas, aerobic decomposition is often unable to take place. Instead, the dead matter is buried beneath water and saturated soil where it continues to decompose in the absence of air. The matter is broken down by anaerobic bacteria, the by-products of which are methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, phosphines, and other chemicals.
It is believed that, as the gases rise from the soil and water and escape into the atmosphere, the methane mixes with the phosphines and creates the blue lights seen hovering over the swamps. Phosphines are flammable, toxic gasses that can burst into spontaneous flame in the presence of air. As it burns, it produces a dense white cloud, which could give the flame more substance. Mixed with methane, the effect is the Will-o’-the-Wisps that inspired so many stories.

There are various explanations for the Will o’ the Wisps, the most general being that they are malevolent spirits either of the dead or non-human intelligence. They have a mischievous and often malevolent nature, luring unwary travellers into dangerous situations. Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblins alludes a common story about a Welsh Will o’ the Wisp (Pwca or Ellylldan); a peasant, who is travelling home late in the evening sees a bright light travelling before him, looking closer he sees that the light is a lantern held by a “dusky little figure” which he follows for several miles, suddenly he finds himself standing on the edge of a great chasm with a roaring torrent of water rushing below him. At that moment the lantern carrier leaps across the fissure, raises the light over its head and lets out a malicious laugh, after which it blows out the light leaving the unfortunate man far from home, standing in pitch darkness at the edge of a precipice. They were not always so dangerous, and there are tales told about the Will o’ the Wisp being guardians of treasure, leading those brave enough to follow them to sure riches.
In many places the Will o’ the Wisp were associated with spirits of the dead who could not enter either heaven or hell, malignantly wandering the earth leading foolish travellers astray. Katherine Briggs mentions the Shropshire ‘Will the Smith’ in her book, A Dictionary of Fairies: St Peter allowed a wicked blacksmith named Will a second chance to live a wholesome life on earth, but he lived it in such evil that he was doomed to wander the earth in purgatory. The Devil allowed him one grace, a burning piece of pit coal to warm him on his desolate walk through the wild lands, which he uses to lead wanderers into the marshes. The lights were also seen as death omens, and when seen within graveyards they were known as corpse lights. These were said to light the path of a coming funeral – from the victims home to the graveyard – in the form of small flickering flames. In other tales the light were often said to appear in places where a tragedy was about to occur.
More mundane explanations for the Will o’ the Wisp come in the form of marsh gasses – natural methane – formed from rotting vegetation. The gas was thought to sometimes ignite spontaneously forming standing flames over boggy ground. It has also been suggested that the little understood phenomena of ball lightning may have been the cause of sightings.