Folklore

The Wily Will-o’-the-Wisp #folklore

One of my favourite faeries to use in my writing – sometimes just popping up in a story without forethought! – is the will-o’-the-wisp.

Folklore

Most faeries with fiery appearances and a tendency to lead night-time travellers astray are categorised as “will-o’-the-wisp”, which is why there are so many differing names for something that seems to be the same creature (see below). “Wisp” refers to a piece of straw used as a torch.

The Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper

Will o’ the Wisp

Small lights seen over marshes or swamps and sometimes in graveyards. It is said that these lights are held by fairies to lure travellers away from a safe route.

Hinky Punk

A form of will o’ the wisp on the Devon-Somerset border. There are many local names for these “ghost lights” that appear at night to travellers, like flickering lantern, leading them to stray from their path. Members of the Dulverton Women’s Institute described the Hinky Punk as having one leg and a light.

Pisky

The Cornish breed of pixy. In Popular Romances of the West of England (1865), Robert Hunt states that Cornish piskies are different from their cousins the pixies. The pisky of Cornwall is “a most mischievous and very unsociable sprite. His favourite fun is to entice people into the bogs by appearing like the light from a cottage window, or as a man carrying a lantern.” In this guise, piskies are a type of will o’ the wisp.

Read more in the book.

A BOOK OF FOLK-LORE by Sabine Baring-Gould [1913]

In Wales the belief in corpse–lights is very prevalent. There it is a flame that comes from the churchyard to fetch the spirit of the dying man or woman. It is, in fact, the spirit of a relative come to call it.

It is called the Canwyll Gorph, or Corpse Candle; and the saying is that St David promised to Welshmen in his territory that none should die without the premonitory sign of a light travelling to his house from the churchyard to summon him.

Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology by Theresa Bane

Will o’ the Wisp

Described as looking like floating balls of blue flame in the British folklore the will o’ the wisp is sometimes said to be the souls of deceased children. Living in the marshes these nocturnal fairies will mislead travellers appearing as a lantern light in the distance. Those who follow the light will at least become lost but many times the will o’ the wisp will lead the person into mortal danger.

To ward off this fairy, it is said to walk with one foot in a wagon rut or to throw some graveyard dirt at it.

Candelas

In Italian folklore the candelas (“candles”) are a species of tiny fairies; small in size, they appear in groups and look like the twinkling lights of fireflies.

Read more in the book.

Sometimes the will-o’-the-wisp is casually mentioned in folktales:

Folk Tales of Brittany by Elsie Masson, [1929]

YANNIK, THE FAIRY CHILD

THE boy Yannik lived in the woods and fields. That was long, long ago, when within the rocky shores of Finistère there were few houses or villages and even fewer cultivated pastures. In those days wild reaches of marsh and woodland were haunted by the will-o’-the-wisp, bears, and savage wolves. Then elves danced on the lonely heaths and men had strange visions.

British Goblins Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions by Wirt Sikes [1880]

The EllylIdan is a species of elf exactly corresponding to the English Will-o’-wisp, the Scandinavian Lyktgubhe, and the Breton Sand Yan y Tad. The Welsh word dan means fire; dan also means a lure; the compound word suggests a luring elf-fire. The Breton Sand Yan y Tad (St. John and Father) [Keightley ‘Fairy Mythology,’ 441]is a double ignis fatuus fairy, carrying at its finger-ends five lights, which spin round like a wheel.

A poetic account by a modern character, called lola the Bard, is thus condensed: ‘ One night, when the moon had gone down, as I was sitting on a hill-top, the Ellylldan passed by. I followed it into the valley. We crossed plashes of water where the tops of bulrushes peeped above, and where the lizards lay silently on the surface, looking at us with an unmoved stare. The frogs sat croaking and swelling their sides, but ceased as they raised a melancholy eye at the Ellylldan. The wild fowl, sleeping with their heads under their wings, made a low cackle as we went by. A bittern awoke and rose with a scream into the air. I felt the trail of the eels and leeches peering about, as I waded through the pools. On a slimy stone a toad sat sucking poison from the night air. The EllylIdan glowed bravely in the slumbering vapours. It rose airily over the bushes that drooped in the ooze. When I lingered or stopped, it waited for me, but dwindled gradually away to a speck barely perceptible. But as soon as I moved on again, it would shoot up suddenly and glide before. A bat came flying round and round us, Happing its wings heavily. Screech-owls stared silently at us with their broad eyes. Snails and worms crawled about. The fine threads of a spider’s web gleamed in the light of the EllylIdan. Suddenly it shot away from me, and in the distance joined a ring of its fellows, who went dancing slowly round and round in a goblin dance, which sent me off to sleep.’ [‘The Vale of GIamorgan.’ (London, 1839.)]

Different names

  • Bob-a-Longs
  • Candelas
  • Canwyll-gorff
  • Dick o’ Tuesday
  • Eclair-eux
  • Faery Lights/Fairy Lights
  • Fox Fire
  • Friar’s Lantern
  • Friar-with-the-Rush
  • Hob-and-his-Lantern
  • Hobany’s Lantern
  • Hobredy’s Lanthorn
  • Huckpoten
  • Irrbloss
  • Jack O’Lantern/Jack-O-Lantern
  • Jenny Burnt-Tail
  • Jock-o’-the-Lantern
  • Kit with the Candlestick
  • Puck
  • Ruskaly
  • Saint Elmo’s Fire
  • Teine Sith
  • Walking Fire
  • Will-with-the-Wisp
  • Willy Wisp
  • Hertfordshire & East Anglia: The Hobby Lantern
  • Lancashire: Peg-a-Lantern
  • Cornwall & Somerset: Joan the Wad
  • East Anglia: The Lantern Man
  • Somerset & Devon: Hinky Punk
  • Shropshire: Will the Smith
  • Worcestershire: Pinket
  • The West Country: Jacky Lantern, Jack-a-Lantern
  • Lowland Scotland: Spunkies
  • Wales: Pwca, Ellylldan
  • Norfolk: Will o’ the Wikes
  • Warwickshire & Gloucestershire: Hobbedy’s Lantern
  • North Yorkshire & Northumberland: Jenny with the Lantern
  • Corpse candles: Related to graveyards and funeral processions.
  • Ignis Fatuus: The Latin name which means foolish fire.

Further Reading

Modern Culture

Brave

Will O’ the Wisps
They are spiritual, ethereal beings that represent past lives. They have the appearance of small floating bright blue-colored lights. They play an important role in the story, as they can lead one to their fate and destiny!

Princess Merida discovered the existence of the Will’ O’ the Wisps at a young age while trying to retrieve an arrow in the forest. She soon follows them, not knowing that she is being stalked by Mor’du, but they lead her back to her family before he can attack.

Years later, she encounters them again, and following their path, led her to the Witch’s Cottage where she receives a fate – a changing spell. The wisps appear to her again two times, to guide her to the castle ruins where Mor’du lives, and later to lead her to her mother in danger.

When Mor’du is killed, the spirit of the Prince is freed, and he became a Wisp. One wisp is last seen near the end of the film where it waves at the viewers and vanishes.

The Iron King

Will-o’-the-wisp’s appear as a collection of floating spheres. Other than flickering and providing a small source of light, they do nothing.

They are often seen low to the ground, near marshes, meadows, and grassy hillocks, often seen an hour before sundown.

*I’m sure I read that they nearly led Meghan to a watery (Kelpie devouring her) death in the Wyldwood.

Harry Potter

Hinkypunk is a diminutive, one-legged magicalcreature with the appearance of wispy blue, grey or white smoke.[2] It has a proclivity for luring travellers off of their paths at night, into treacherous bogs or wetlands under the guise of a helpful, lamp-bearing being.[2] They are impish varmints who revel in inconveniencing magical folk and non-magical folk alike. They can propel fireballs far from their lamps, causing serious damage.[1] They also sporadically emit hollering and grunting noises.[1]

My Writing

Origin of the Fae: The Will-o’-the-Wisp
As big as a human thumb, blue fire faeries with indistinguishable features. Chirp and crackle to communicate. Can understand all language and can make themselves understood using Glamour.
Mischievous. Obey Dryads and other Tree Nymphs. Love to cause trouble and see what happens. Thrive on discord.
Solitary Fae – no allegiance to any Court. Love living in the mortal realm. Can be found in Avalon, The Dark Lands, Isle of the Blest, Tir na nÓg, The Wild Wood, and even The In-Between (so everywhere in Faerie).
Cannot be trusted. They do whatever they please and keep no promises – except to the Tree Nymphs. (So if a Tree Nymph instructed them to lead you to safety, you can follow.)

English: will-o’-the-wisp
Afrikaans: dwaallig

Get it here.

I hope you learned something new today. What do you think of this faery? Where did you hear about it for the first time? Check out my Pinterest board dedicated to this faery for more information – and pictures!

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