A will-o’-the-wisp are atmospheric ghost lights seen by travelers at night, especially over bogs, swamps or marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is said to recede if approached, drawing travelers from the safe paths.
In Welsh folklore, it is said that the light is “fairy fire” held in the hand of a pwca, a small goblin-like fairy that mischievously leads lone travelers off the beaten path at night. As the traveler follows the pwca through the marsh or bog, the fire is extinguished, leaving them lost. The pwca is said to be one of the Tylwyth Teg, or fairy family.
Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblins mentions the following Welsh tale about pwca.
A peasant traveling home at dusk sees a bright light traveling along ahead of him. Looking closer, he sees that the light is a lantern held by a “dusky little figure”, which he follows for several miles. All of a sudden he finds himself standing on the edge of a vast chasm with a roaring torrent of water rushing below him. At that precise moment the lantern-carrier leaps across the gap, lifts the light high over its head, lets out a malicious laugh and blows out the light, leaving the poor peasant a long way from home, standing in pitch darkness at the edge of a precipice.
This is a fairly common cautionary tale concerning the phenomenon; however, the ignis fatuus was not always considered dangerous. There are some tales told about the will-o’-the-wisp being guardians of treasure, much like the Irish leprechaun leading those brave enough to follow them to sure riches. Other stories tell of travelers getting lost in the woodland and coming upon a will-o’-the-wisp, and depending on how they treated the will-o’-the-wisp, the spirit would either get them lost further in the woods or guide them out.
plural ig·nes fat·ui
Also related, the Pixy-light from Devon and Cornwall is most often associated with the Pixie who often has “pixie-led” travellers away from the safe and reliable route and into the bogs with glowing lights
Pixy-Light was also associated with “lambent light” which the “Old Norse” might have seen guarding their tombs.
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s work The Lord of the Rings, will o’ the wisps are present in the Dead Marshes outside of Mordor. When Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee make their way through the bogs the spindly creature Gollum tells them “not to follow the lights” meaning the will o’ the wisps. He tells them that if they do, they will keep the dead company and have little candles of their own. Also, Gandalf guides the Fellowship through the darkness of Moria (A Journey in the Dark) and his “wizard’s light” is compared to a will-o’-the-wisp. Given that Moria was an ancient source of mithril, this might be a nod to Scandinavian associations of the will-o’-the-wisp with treasure.
WELSH FOLK-LORE, FAIRY MYTHOLOGY,
LEGENDS AND TRADITIONS.
UNITED STATES CONSUL FOR WALES.
WITH ILLUSTRATIONS BY T. H. THOMAS.
In olde dayes of the Kyng Arthour …
Al was this lond fulfilled of fayrie.
SAMPSON LOW, MARSTON, SEARLE, & RIVINGTON,
CROWN BUILDINGS, 188 FLEET STREET.
[All rights reserved.]
PRINTED BY WILLIAM CLOWES AND SONS,
STAMFORD STREET AND CHARING CROSS.
The Ellylldan 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) is a double ignis fatuus fairy, carrying at its finger-ends five lights, which spin round like a wheel. The negroes of the southern seaboard states of America invest this goblin with an exaggeration of the horrible peculiarly their own. They call it Jack-muh-lantern, and describe it as a hideous creature five feet in height, with goggle-eyes and huge mouth, its body covered with long hair, and which goes leaping and bounding through the air like a gigantic grasshopper. This frightful apparition is stronger than any man, and swifter than any horse, and compels its victims to follow it into the swamp, where it leaves them to die.
Like all goblins of this class, the Ellylldan was, of course, seen dancing about in marshy grounds, into which it led the belated wanderer; but, as a distinguished resident in Wales has wittily said, the poor elf ‘is now starved to death, and his breath is taken from him; his light is quenched for ever by the improving farmer, who has drained the bog; and, instead of the rank decaying vegetation of the autumn, where bitterns and snipes delighted to secrete themselves, crops of corn and potatoes are grown.’
A poetic account by a modern character, called Iolo 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 wildfowl, 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 Ellylldan 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, flapping 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 Ellylldan. 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.