Will-o’-the-Wisp is the most common English designation for a family of fairy-beings characterized by their fiery appearance and their tendency to lead nighttime wayfarers astray. The term wisp refers to a twist of straw, used as a torch. Other names for these apparitions include:
- Ignis Fatuus
- The Lambent Flame
A Will-o’-the-wisp is a phantom light that hovers in the wilderness, luring travelers away from the beaten path. Most of these lights haunt the moors and bogs of England, but they have been reported all over the world, under various names.
Characteristics and Qualities
Will-o’-the-wisps are very simple apparitions. They appear as balls of light, sometimes so bright that they hurt your eyes and other times so dim that you have to squint to see them. They usually have a blue-ish gleam to them, although red has also been reported.
In some rare sightings, a dark figure has been seen carrying the light, as if it was a torch or a lantern. Despite carrying a light, the figure is always too dark to be described in detail.
A light floating in the darkness might seem innocent, even friendly, but don’t be deceived. These attractive lights are almost always malevolent. They lead travelers onto dangerous land, perhaps a deep hole in a bog or a kingdom ruled by vicious fairies.
Aside from their ability to dazzle and tantalize travelers, Will-o’-the-wisps are also powerful omens. They appear to be able to predict the future, appearing to people before their deaths or flocking to the sight of a tragedy before it takes place. They might also reveal the place where a thief or a fairy has buried golden treasure.
Stories of Will-o’-the-wisps
“A wand’ring fire
Compact of unctuous Vapour, which the Night
Condenses, and the Cold environs round,
Kindled through Agitation to a flame,
Which oft, they say, some Evil Spirit attends,
Hovering and blazing with delusive Light,
Misleads th’ amaz’d Night-Wand’rer from his way
To bogs and mires, and oft through Pond or Pool,
There swallow’d up and lost, from succour far.”
- The Original Will O’ the Wisp
The classic Will-o’-the-wisp is carried by a blacksmith named Will. Will was such a troublemaker that, when he died and went to heaven, he was sent back by Saint Peter, who told him to reform during his second life. Unfortunately, Will’s second life was even more monstrous than his first, so Saint Peter cursed him to roam the earth forever. The devil, impressed by Will’s evildoing, gave him a coal to warm himself on the cold earth nights. Instead, Will decided to use the coal to make a torch and lure innocent travelers into danger.
- The Teine Biorach
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 the machair, 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.
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.”
- A Mischievous Gnome
“How Will a’ Wisp misleads night-faring Clowns,
O’er Hills, and sinking Bogs, and pathless Downs.”
The will-o’-the-wisp is a mischievous gnome who leads people astray at nighttime or in the fog, causing them to loose their way and end up in a swamp. He does this foremost with inquisitive people who purposely follow him. The best way to avoid him or to render him harmless is to stay away from the footpaths where he has power, and always to keep one foot in a wagon rut. He helps some people who have lost their way by leading them home, if they speak to him kindly and offer him a generous payment.
Once a person who had lost his way offered him two silver groschens if he would lead him home safely. The will-o’-the-wisp agreed, and finally they arrived at the lost man’s house. Happy that he was no longer in need of help, he thanked his guide; but instead of the promised payment, he gave him only a small copper coin. The will-o’-the-wisp accepted it, then asked if he could now find his way home by himself.
He answered, “Yes! I can already see my open front door.” But stepping toward it, he fell into some water, for everything he had seen had been only an illusion.
The will-o’-the-wisp takes special delight in tormenting drunks making their way homeward from a fair or an evening of drinking. He leads them astray, and when in their drunkenness they can go no further, preferring instead to sleep off their binge out of doors, then he burns them on the soles of their feet.
In some regions the people believe that will-o’-the-wisps are the souls of children who died without being baptized. They are seen especially atop graveyard walls. They disappear when one throws a handful of graveyard soil at them.
- Baptizing The Will-o’-the-Wisps
Late one evening a man was walking across a field, returning to Gandshoven from Molenbeek. Suddenly three will-o’-the-wisps came running toward him. Because this good man was accustomed to baptizing such, in order to redeem all three, he said, “I baptize you all in the name of the father and the son and the holy ghost.”
But then it did not go well for him, for in the same instant he saw that he was surrounded by more than a thousand will-o’-the-wisps, all wanting to be baptized. He baptized unceasingly, but ever more of them approached him, and this did not end until the cock crowed. Thus the man had to spend the entire night in the field.
- Will-o’-the-Wisps with Long Legs
A peasant from Hermsdorf, Germany was going home late one evening when he saw a will-o’-the-wisp. Being of a daring nature, he approached it. Without hesitating, the will-o’-the-wisp fled, and the peasant quickly followed after him.
Thick on his heels, he saw that it had tremendously long legs, and that its head consisted of tips of glowing fire. However, it instantly disappeared, and the peasant was barely able to find his way home in the dark.
- Will-o’-the-Wisps Banned with a Curse
In the vicinity of Storkow a preacher was driving home late one evening with his servant. Arriving at a certain place they saw a will-o’-the-wisp approaching them. It hopped about merrily in front of the horses. Soon there were more of them, and finally there were so many of them that the horses took fright and would not continue onward.
The pastor became frightened as well, and therefore he began to pray aloud, but the more he prayed, the more of them came.
Finally the servant said, “No. Stop that. You’re not making them go away. I’ll get rid of them!” With that he shouted, “Go away, in the devil’s name!” and they immediately disappeared.
- The Godorf The Will-o’-the-Wisp
The marshy peninsula which extends between Godorf and Rodenkirchen (in Germany) is said to be the favorite resort of the sprite known all along the Rhine as the Herwisch, and in England as the will-o’-the-wisp. This mischievous little creature is said to delight in leading unsuspecting travelers astray, and in playing all manner of pranks, but, like most practical jokers, he is quick to resent any attempt to make fun of him.
One day a maiden, passing across this stretch of ground at nightfall, began to sing all the songs she knew, to beguile the loneliness of the way and inspire her with courage. Having soon come to the end of her scanty repertoire, she carelessly sang a mocking ditty about the Herwisch, who, enraged at her impudence, came rushing toward her threateningly brandishing his tiny lantern.
With a cry of terror, the girl began to run, closely pursued by the sprite, who, in punishment for her derisive song, napped his wings in her face and frightened her so badly that she became an idiot.
Since then, the young people of Germany have never dared to sing the mocking refrain, and carefully avoid mentioning the Herwisch’s name after nightfall, lest they should in some way arouse his anger.
In the Britain and Ireland alone, there are dozens of variations of the Will-o’-the-wisp. The most famous are the “Jack-o’-Lantern,” “Peg-a’-Lantern,” “Joan the Wad,” “Jenny with the Lantern,” “Hobbedy’s Lantern”, “Hinky Punk,” and “Spunkies.” They are, for the most part, believed to be carried by souls barred from heaven and hell or by devious fairy-folk.
In the Netherlands, the “Irrbloss,” “Iiekko,” and “Iygtemand” are said to be the souls of un-Baptized children, who try to lead travelers to water, where they can be Baptized. They might also be lights guarding buried treasure, which can only be found using a dead man’s hand or after eating seeds from a magical fern.
In Asia, the “aleya” and the “chir batti” are used by dead souls to mark the place where they died. In other places, goblins, pixies, witches, un-Baptized children, and even the devil are blamed for carrying these dangerous lights.
In Australia, “min min” lights follow travelers once they are spotted. If the traveler turns and tries to follow the light, however, they will never be seen again.
In South America, the “luz mala” and “la candileja” are evil spirits who carry ghost lights after death.
In the United States, ghost hunters prize any photo which has captured an “orb,” a ball of colored light which is believed to reveal the presence of a dead soul in the room. In the swampland of Louisiana, a phantom light called “fifollet” represents dark souls who have been sent back from heaven to do penance on earth.
The Lambent Flame
There was in every hollow
A hundred wrymouthed wisps.
—Dafydd ap Gwilym, 1340
The Will-o’-the-wisp has been recorded as flickering over marshy ground since at least the middle ages, as the quote above testifies. In the centuries that followed, dozens of antiquaries have recorded anecdotes and personal accounts of the ignis fatuus, with even Sir Isaac Newton mentioning them in his 1704 opus Opticks.
The lights have also been incorporated into modern literature, e.g. Dracula, and have even had a children’s television show named after them. The most commonly cited explanation for them is that they’re the product of ignited marsh gas: most likely slowly leaking methane whose ignition is triggered by phosphene (also called phosphine or phosphorus hydride).
Historical and contemporary accounts of these lights, however, often fly in the face of this explanation given that the lights are often seen to move, and to not emit heat.
Some of their synonyms reveal what cultures thought about them: “treasure lights”, of Danish origin, suggests that they are the marking places of treasure; “corpse candles” suggests that they’re the souls of the departed; “fairy lights”, which now mean quite a different thing, suggest that they’re the work of (or indeed are) fairies.
The phenomenon is also inextricably linked with the leading astray of weary travelers into mires. The light was taken to be a lantern or a torch carried by a mischievous spirit, as is indeed reflected in the name Will-o’-the-wisp itself, which has an etymology of “William of the wisp [of lighted hay]”. The man of the lantern was said to play tricks on people, as in the case of the gentleman who was knocked off his horse by the Lantern Man of Horning, Norfolk in the 18th century*.
As quoted by Wilkie (1996), in 1778 William Pryce wrote in Mineralogia Cornubiensis that tinners would use anomalous light forms to find veins of tin: “another way of finding veins […] is by igneous appearances of fiery coruscations. The Tinners generally compare these effluvia to blazing stars.”
The westcountry seems to have held the phenomenon in generally high regard, in fact, for Dr. Jonathan Couch (or his son, Thomas Quiller-Couch) quotes a poem* in his History of Polperro that is reminiscent of the practice of using foxfire to guide one back home through forest:
Jack o’ the lantern! Joan the wad,
Who tickled the maid and made her mad;
Light me home, the weather’s bad.
Explanations of the Myth
Although they may not be trapped in lanterns held by the devil or hover over sunken fairy gold, Will-o’-the-wisps are a very real phenomenon. These mysterious lights do exist, and for a long time, they could only be explained through superstition.
Today, science has a few explanations (which don’t involve ghosts, devils, witches, or fairies) for the lights.
Some scientists believe that the light is produced by a type of bioluminescent fungus or algae that grows in marshy areas. Just like fireflies or angler fish, these plants could undergo a unique chemical process to produce light.
Still more scientists claim that a mixture of gases is responsible for the lights. In marshes, plant material often sinks underwater before it can decompose. In the water, the material undergoes an unusual type of decomposition, which releases methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphines into the air. Methane is a highly flammable gas, and phosphines have been known to spontaneously combust when they come into contact with air. Combine these two chemicals, and you could easily produce a burning ball of light hovering above a marsh.
The werewolf is a mythological animal and the subject of many stories throughout the world—and more than a few nightmares. Werewolves are, according to some legends, people who morph into vicious, powerful wolves. Others are a mutant combination of human and wolf. But all are bloodthirsty beasts who cannot control their lust for killing people and animals.
Early Werewolf Legends
It’s unclear exactly when and where the werewolf legend originated. Some scholars believe the werewolf made its debut in The Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest known Western prose, when Gilgamesh jilted a potential lover because she had turned her previous mate into a wolf.
Werewolves made another early appearance in Greek mythology with the Legend of Lycaon. According to the legend, Lycaon, the son of Pelasgus, angered the god Zeus when he served him a meal made from the remains of a sacrificed boy. As punishment, the enraged Zeus turned Lycaon and his sons into wolves.
Werewolves also emerged in early Nordic folklore. The Saga of the Volsungs tells the story of a father and son who discovered wolf pelts that had the power to turn people into wolves for ten days. The father-son duo donned the pelts, transformed into wolves and went on a killing rampage in the forest. Their rampage ended when the father attacked his son, causing a lethal wound. The son only survived because a kind raven gave the father a leaf with healing powers.
Many so-called werewolves from centuries ago were in fact serial killers, and France had its fair share. In 1521, Frenchmen Pierre Burgot and Michel Verdun allegedly swore allegiance to the devil and claimed to have an ointment that turned them into wolves. After confessing to brutally murdering several children, they were both burned to death at the stake. (Burning was thought to be one of the few ways to kill a werewolf.)
Giles Garnier, known as the “Werewolf of Dole,” was another sixteenth-century Frenchman whose claim to fame was also an ointment with wolf-morphing abilities. According to legend, as a wolf he viciously killed children and ate them. He too was burned to death at the stake for his monstrous crimes.
Whether Burgot, Verdun or Garnier were mentally ill, acted under the influence of a hallucinogenic substance or were simply cold-blooded killers is up for debate. But it likely didn’t matter to superstitious Europeans during the 16th century. To them, such heinous crimes could only be committed by a horrific beast such as the werewolf.
The Bedburg Werewolf
Peter Stubbe, a wealthy, fifteenth-century farmer in Bedburg, Germany, may be the most notorious werewolf of them all. According to folklore, he turned into a wolf-like creature at night and devoured many citizens of Bedburg.
Peter was eventually blamed for the gruesome killings after being cornered by hunters who claimed they saw him shape-shift from wolf to human form. He experienced a grisly execution after confessing under torture to savagely killing animals, men, women and children—and eating their remains. He also declared he owned an enchanted belt that gave him the power to transform into a wolf at will. Not surprisingly, the belt was never found.
Peter’s guilt is controversial since some people believe he wasn’t a killer but the victim of a political witch hunt—or perhaps a werewolf-hunt. Either way, the circumstances surrounding his life and death stoked rampant fears at the time that werewolves were on the loose.
The Shape-Shifter as Werewolf
Some legends maintain werewolves shape-shifted at will due to a curse. Others state they transformed with the help of an enchanted sash or a cloak made of wolf pelt. Still others claim people became wolves after being scratched or bit by a werewolf.
In many werewolf stories, a person only turns into a wolf when there’s a full moon—and that theory may not be far-fetched. According to a study conducted at Australia’s Calvary Mater Newcastle hospital, a full moon brings out the “beast” in many humans. The study found that of the 91 violent, acute behavior incidents at the hospital between August 2008 and July 2009, 23 percent happened during a full moon.
Patients attacked staff and displayed wolf-like behaviors such as biting, spitting and scratching. Although many were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time, it’s unclear why they became intensely violent when the moon was full.
How to Become a Werewolf
So you want to become a werewolf. And why not? Werewolves are swift, powerful, and enjoy a kind of freedom that most humans can only dream of. Here’s the bad news: The process of becoming a werewolf is often very painful and sometimes lethal. Also, there is no guaranteed cure. There are a variety of methods to become a werewolf, they are as follows:
The werewolf curse is the oldest way to become a werewolf. The first werewolf to be written about in ancient times was made that way by a curse from Zeus (Curse of King Lycaon). Since the gods don’t curse people anymore (at least not directly), it is left up to witches. I don’t mean Wiccans. I mean old-school, dirt, blood, and eat your children type witches. The kind you don’t want to meet in a dark forest alone. But if you do meet one you may be able to convince them to turn you into a werewolf instead of boiling you for dinner. Good luck!
Being bitten by a werewolf is one of the most common ways that people become lycanthropes these days. The trick here is to survive the other bites that come after.
Usually made of wolf skin or wolf leather and enchanted by a witch or enchantress. These normally take the form of a belt worn around the waist or a pelt worn over the shoulders and back. This method has the upside of allowing you complete control over when you change. The downside is if the clothing gets lost or stolen you can no longer become a werewolf.
Herbs and Potions
The werewolf potion is a fairly common way to become a werewolf. It usually contains wolfsbane (which is highly poisonous to humans so don’t try this one at home), a small amount of powdered silver, and several other herbs. The potion, or salve in some cases, is then either drank or rubbed on the skin.
This is always done under the light of a full moon. Depending on the potion the effect may be permanent or temporary.
Ah, the old pact with the devil. Is there anything that guy can’t do? This method gained popularity in 16th century Europe, especially in France, though it dates back much farther. A little known fact about the witch trials of Europe is that while the women were being accused of being witches, the men were being accused of being werewolves, and both were thought to consort with the devil.
We don’t recommend this method. Deals with the devil are always messy and he charges too much (your soul).
Be born as one
Then there are the lucky ones who are just born werewolves. No need to mess around with potions or witches for them because their parents or other ancestor did it for them. There are two generally accepted ways to be born a werewolf. Either your parents (both of them) have to be werewolves or your family has to be under a blood curse from a witch.
In the case of a blood curse you may not turn into a werewolf until your 18th or 21st birthday. Or it may be when you hit puberty. Witches are unpredictable like that.
Wolf and Human Meat
This is one of the original ways to become a werewolf. After King Lycaon got ‘curse smacked’ by Zeus, a rather large cult formed called ‘Zeus Lycaeus.’ They were big on sacrificing people and babies on Zeus’ alter and eating wolf and human meat in order to become werewolves. The practice lasted more than 1500 years. With this method, the change is permanent and you don’t regain human form.
Water touched by a Werewolf
This one is also brought to us by the ‘Zeus Lycaeus’ cult of ancient Arcadia. They would bathe in special pools of water thought to have been touched by a werewolf (usually King Lycaon himself). This was always done during a full moon, though the specific time of year also played a part.
Later it was thought that drinking water touched by a werewolf would have the same effect. There was a short lived superstition in the dark ages that if a werewolf cooked your food and you ate it you would become a werewolf.
This little flower is said to grow on the Balkan Peninsula in Southeast Europe near Romania. The flower is yellow with white edges and often said to resemble yellow monkshood. When picked the flower will ooze a white sticky sap and give off a foul odor. Sometimes the flower is eaten. Sometimes it’s mixed into a potion and drank, and sometimes simply picking the flower is enough to turn you into a werewolf.
It is said that a werewolf in human form will be forced to change if exposed to this flower. There is an old legend that states that werewolves were often buried with these flowers. Since a werewolf usually changes back into a human when it dies, other werewolves will tie these flowers around the dead person so that it can be a werewolf in the afterlife.
Spells to Become A Werewolf
The Book of Shadows has a number of spells for those wishing to use magick to transform into a werewolf. Here’s the list:
- Becoming A Werewolf Ritual
- Easy Spell To Become A Werewolf
- Lycanthropus Water Ceremony
- Ritual For The Gift Of Lycanthropy
- Ritual To Become A Werewolf
How to Cure a Werewolf
So you tried lycanthropy and decided it wasn’t for you. Not really a night person after all? Too many fleas? Maybe you decided being a Vampire is more your thing. We won’t judge.
Some of these cures are dangerous so use your best judgement before trying them. Some of them will only work if you were turned into a werewolf in a specific way. Such as, the curse removal method will only work if you were cursed to begin with.
Through much of history, people believed that all werewolves were created by the devil. Most believed that the human was still a human (a bad one that made a deal with the devil, but still human) but was being possessed by a demon werewolf. And what’s the cure for a demon werewolf? Exorcism of course! The exorcisms were performed while the subject was in human form since it’s quite hard to get a werewolf to sit still for long enough.
The exorcism process isn’t as bad as some of the other cures, but it isn’t fun either. Imagine your Sunday preacher coming to your house, yelling at you all day, and throwing water in your face. Not for just one night either, like in the movies. The exorcism process could take several weeks, months, or even years.
Wolfsbane is a plant that has been associated with werewolves for a long time, and associated with wolves for even longer. Some say it will kill a werewolf or keep it away from you if you wear it. Some say it will turn you into a werewolf if you mix it into a potion.
The belief in this cure arises from the fact that wolfsbane has been used to kill wolves for centuries. So, they reason, if it kills wolves then maybe it can kill the wolf part of you and turn you back into a human. The only drawback to this is that it’s very deadly to humans and most other things as well. We don’t recommend trying this.
Water Touched by a Werewolf
The ‘Zeus Lycaeus’ cult believed that if you bathed in, or drank from, the same water that turned you into a werewolf then you would turn back into a human. As far as we know, this cure only works if you were turned into a werewolf by bathing in these waters. Still, it could be worth a shot.
Around the time of the Age of Enlightenment (1600 – 1800 AD) people began to see lycanthropy as a sickness or something gone wrong with the blood. They began using modern medicines and surgeries to treat it. These practices were still very primitive according to modern standards and many (if not most) did not survive.
The most common surgery included draining a large amount of the subject’s blood, inducing vomiting, and drinking lots of vinegar in an effort to purify the blood. This was a common surgery back then since they believed that most sicknesses were caused by bad blood.
In fact, they believed that just about everything was caused by blood. Hot blooded if you were angry, blue blooded if you were rich or royal, bad blood if there was something wrong with you, etc.
Remember that mean, baby-eating witch we mentioned earlier? Well if she was the one who cursed you then the only way to get cured is to try to convince her to undo the curse. We recommend bringing a gift.
Converting to Christianity
Similar to the exorcism method, this cure revolves around the believe that a werewolf is a human who is possessed by a demon werewolf. The belief states that if you can convince a werewolf (usually in human form) to convert to Christianity then he will be cured. If that doesn’t work, then try the next method below.
Also related to the religious idea of werewolves, this belief states that if you strike a werewolf on the forehead three times with a cross shaped object then it will be cured. The reason it must be three times is because three has always been seen as a powerful number. It plays a large role in most religions and in witchcraft.
Are Werewolves Real?
The werewolf phenomenon may have a medical explanation. Take Peter the Wild Boy, for instance. In 1725, he was found wandering naked on all fours through a German forest. Many thought he was a werewolf or at least raised by wolves.
Peter ate with his hands and couldn’t speak. He was eventually adopted by the courts of King George I and King George II, and lived out his days as their “pet” in England.
Research has shown Peter likely had Pitt-Hopkins syndrome, a condition discovered in 1978 that causes lack of speech, seizures, distinct facial features, difficulty breathing and intellectual challenges.
Other medical conditions that may have encouraged werewolf-mania throughout history are:
- Lycanthropy (a rare, psychological condition that causes people to believe they’re changing into a wolf or other animal)
- Food poisoning
- Hypertrichosis (a rare, genetic disorder causing excessive hair growth)
- Hallucination, possibly caused by hallucinogenic herbs
Throughout the centuries, people have used werewolves and other mythic beasts to explain the unexplainable. In modern times, however, most believe werewolves are nothing more than pop culture horror icons, made famous thanks to Hollywood’s 1941 flick, The Wolf Man.
Still, werewolves have a cult following, werewolf sightings are reported each year, and werewolf legends will likely continue to haunt the dreams of people throughout the world.
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