Monday, November 19, 2012

What is the Will o' the Wisp?

The Will-o'-the-Wisp

Highland Miracle, my WIP, is part of a May Day anthology. I watched Brave yesterday and decided the wisp would be a great addition to this story which also features two fairies who are doing everything possible to bring Reagan and Sean together, including Sean's venture through time.

The wisp will be the evil counterpart to the god-faeries. I do love to write antagonists--they can do whatever they want. They have no conscience. I'm still working on the other antagonists. I'm thinking about going with an evil ex-mistress and perhaps a man feeling his frustrations on losing out on what he thought would be his engagement to Reagan. Still toying with this idea. It's a lot for an anthology but I think I can make it work.


The will o' the wisp (called in Gaelic Teine biorach = sharp fire) is said to be of quite modern appearance, at least in South Uist. It was first seen, it is said, in 1812, and is the haunting spirit of a young girl from Benbecula, who frequented themachair, or sandy plain beside the sea, in search of the galium verum, used in the dyeing of the local cloth or tweed. Her sin was that of seeking to get an undue share of a product which should have been equally divided for the common good, and which has at all times to be husbanded as one of the plants which bind the sandy soil together where it has been redeemed from the sea.There is, however, another story as to the origin of the jack o' lantern. The haunting spirit is that of a blacksmith, who could get no admittance even into hell. He was very cold, and begged for a single ember to warm himself, and at last one was given him, and he has gone shivering about with it ever since.
A special interest of this story is that it tells against the common Hebridean tradition of a cold hell, a tradition one soon learns to accept in South Uist, the land of cold mist and sweeping winds, and damp, and drafts, and rain, where even the nether regions with a fire in them have a suggestion of comfort. Hell is therefore discouragingly known as "the place of the wind of the cold passages, or the wind of the cold channels."

Other sources say:

The phantom marsh lights that are seen after dusk over swamp ground, the results of escaping gases of decomposing vegetation, are called Will o' the Wisp in Britain. This phenomenon is internationally known as the Ingnis Fatus or the 'the Jesting LIght', which seems to beckon the traveller fromhis path, often resulting in wet feet if not immersion in a boghole. People have understood this phenomenon to be the result of spirits.

The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures by John and Caitlin Matthews.

More from Wikipedia:

The term "will-o'-the-wisp" comes from "wisp", a bundle of sticks or paper sometimes used as a torch, and the name "Will": thus, "Will-of-the-torch". The term jack-o'-lantern "Jack of [the] lantern" has a similar meaning. Its application to carved pumpkins in American English is an innovation of the 19th century.
In the United States, they are often called "spook-lights", "ghost-lights", or "orbs"[2] by folklorists and paranormal enthusiasts.[3][4]
Folk belief attributes the phenomenon to fairies or elemental spirits, explicitly in the term "hobby lanterns" found in the 19th century Denham Tracts. Briggs' A Dictionary of Fairies provides an extensive list of other names for the same phenomenon, though the place where they are observed (graveyard, bogs, etc.) influences the naming considerably. When observed on graveyards, they are known as "ghost candles", also a term from the Denham Tracts.
The names will-o'-the-wisp and jack-o'-lantern are explained in etiological folk-tales, recorded in many variant forms in IrelandScotlandEnglandWalesAppalachia, and Newfoundland.[citation needed] In these tales, protagonists named either Will or Jack are doomed to haunt the marshes with a light for some misdeed.
One version, from Shropshire, recounted by K. M. Briggs in her book A Dictionary of Fairies, refers to Will the Smith. Will is a wicked blacksmith who is given a second chance by Saint Peter at the gates to Heaven, but leads such a bad life that he ends up being doomed to wander the Earth. The Devil provides him with a single burning coal with which to warm himself, which he then uses to lure foolish travellers into the marshes.
An Irish version of the tale has a ne'er-do-well named Drunk Jack or Stingy Jack who makes a deal with the Devil, offering up his soul in exchange for payment of his pub tab. When the Devil comes to collect his due, Jack tricks him by making him climb a tree and then carving a cross underneath, preventing him from climbing down. In exchange for removing the cross, the Devil forgives Jack's debt. However, because no one as bad as Jack would ever be allowed into Heaven, Jack is forced upon his death to travel to Hell and ask for a place there. The Devil denies him entrance in revenge, but, as a boon, grants Jack an ember from the fires of Hell to light his way through the twilight world to which lost souls are forever condemned. Jack places it in a carved turnip to serve as a lantern.[5] Another version of the tale, "Willy the Whisp", is related in Irish Folktales by Henry Glassie. The first modern novel in the Irish language, SĂ©adna by Peadar Ua Laoghaire, is a version of the tale.

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