from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Artist's impression of a will-o'-the-wisp ( photomontage )

As Wisp (also wisp , Marshlight and Ignis fatuus called) describes a specific luminous phenomenon that allegedly occasionally in swamps , bogs , swamps and dense in particular, dark woods, and (more rarely) on cemeteries is sighted.

In folklore and superstition, will-o'-the-wisps are mostly viewed as either the malicious work of supernatural beings or the souls of the unhappy dead. According to popular belief , following the will- o'-the- wisps or even trying to catch them brings bad luck. In the natural sciences , their existence as independent beings is fundamentally rejected. Reports of alleged sightings are nevertheless being investigated, because in nature there are both living beings and gases that can produce lights, which in turn are very similar to descriptions of will-o'-the-wisps. Scientists therefore suspect simple mix-ups and optical illusions as the cause of will-o'-the-wisp reports. In art and poetry , as well as in modern subculture , will-o'-the-wisps motifs are widespread and popular .


In the German- speaking world, the terms Irrlicht and Irrwisch are particularly common. From old German writings are Spuklicht and dead light handed. The name d'Raulîcht comes from the Luxembourgish linguistic usage , which found its way into German as early as the Middle Ages and contributed to the (albeit outdated) designation Traulicht , or Mourning Light . The term Ignis fatuus comes from older literature and is still used in foreign-language literature to this day. The word is of Latin origin and means "fool's fire".

The terms Will-o'-the-wisp , Will-o'-wisp and Jack O'Lantern are known from the English- speaking world . In French, will- o'-the-wisps are called Feu follet (German "Narrenfeuer"). The Japanese term onibi (German " demon fire ") is passed down. In Sorbian folklore, will-o'-the- wisps are known as blud . A creature called Hob Thrush comes from British legends and is also said to like to take the form of will- o'-the-wisps .

In addition, numerous local names for will-o'-the-wisps are known. There are over a dozen regional names circulating in the UK alone , here are a few : Hobby Lantern ( Hertfordshire ), Joan the Wad ( Cornwall and Somerset ), Jacky Lantern (western provinces ), Spunkie ( Scotland ) and Will-o'-the-Wike ( Norfolk ).


The descriptions of will-o'-the-wisps vary, mostly they are described as small flames , less often they are supposed to be fist-sized or even head-sized fireballs . Their color is usually indicated as bluish, greenish or reddish. Different information is also available about the movement of the will-o'-the-wisps. They should either linger in place motionless or flash wildly and then go out again immediately. Less credible reports tell of will-o'-the-wisps that move away from the viewer or, on the other hand, downright pursue him, as if they were controlled by others or intelligent beings with their own will.

The astronomer Friedrich Wilhelm Bessel gave a description of the will-o'-the-wisp phenomenon that can be fixed by name through his own observation in 1807 in the Teufelsmoor .

Possible backgrounds

Glowing firefly (here Lampyris noctiluca ) in the grass.
Herber dwarf ball , Mount Vernon, Wisconsin (long exposure)

In the natural sciences , the existence of will-o'-the-wisps is categorically rejected, but reports of will-o'-the-wisps are regularly examined. The reason for this is not only the long-standing tradition and the frequency of eyewitness reports. The fact that there are organisms and living beings in nature that have the ability to produce bioluminescence also contributes to this. Bioluminescent life forms can produce cold light with their bodies (or with individual body parts) . Scientists are therefore wondering whether alleged will- o'-the-wisps could be attributed to mix-ups, for example with fireflies and / or mushrooms that glow with fox fires .

Scientists see another possibility in naturally occurring gases . Swamp and digester gases in particular are known to ignite spontaneously under certain conditions. They arise through natural putrefaction and fermentation processes (for example in the case of putrefaction ) in organic substances, both of animal and vegetable origin. Digestion gases consist of methane with the formula CH 4 and hydrogen sulfide (H 2 S). If these come into contact with oxygen , this can generate photon emissions , which in turn lead to flame formation. [Document?] The same applies to various phosphines (PH 3 ). They too form an extremely flammable mixture when they come into contact with oxygen. A similar thesis was proposed by the Thai scientist Saksid Tridech when he was studying the mysterious Naga fireballs over the Mekong River . Ignited digester gases would at least explain the short life and the sudden appearance and extinction of the will-o'-the-wisps.


Arnold Böcklin : The Wisp (1882)

In folklore and superstition , will-o'-the-wisps are said to have a ominous to malicious nature. In many myths and legends , it is the souls of the deceased who were either evil during their lifetime and now have to walk forever on earth as a punishment, or they can no longer find peace after death and look for redemption. Something similar is said about the souls of stillborn children. Some legends interpret them as the sad souls of murder drowned in the moor - and victims of misfortune.

But mostly they are understood as the work of evil goblins , nature spirits , ghosts and / or demons . These are supposed to conjure up will-o'-the-wisps or transform themselves into such, in order to then harm people in a targeted manner. The light is supposed to lead travelers, adventurers and the curious to their doom: the victim, who has already ventured dangerously close to the swamp or forest, is lured deeper by the will-o'-the-wisp until it sinks into the mud or gets lost in the deep forest and died there.

The most famous legend about the origin of will-o'-the-wisps comes from Irish folklore: that of Jack O'Lantern (German "Jack with the lantern"), a deceitful but cunning blacksmith named Jack , who one day managed to outsmart the devil several times. The devil repaid Jack after his death by first denying his spirit entry into hell (Jack had already been turned away at the gates of heaven as well). Then the devil gave Jack a burning piece of coal from Hades that never goes out. Jack put the coal into a large, hollowed-out turnip , only to have to wander around forever in search of redemption. A slightly modified version gives Will as the first name of the blacksmith , which is apparently intended to explain the origin of the term “Will-o'-the-wisp” for will-o'-the-wisp: the English word wisp describes the bundle of straw in a torch . Will-o'-the-wisp would therefore mean "Will with the (burning) bundle of straw". The Jack O'Lantern lantern is equated with or seen as the source of the will-o'-the-wisps in many English-speaking folklore, especially in the United States and Great Britain . In the USA, however, the turnip turned into a hollowed-out pumpkin .

In Japanese Shinto belief , higher demons like Yōkai and Oni can summon and willingly control will- o'-the-wisps . This peculiarity is then reflected in (fictional) “magic fires” such as the fox fire ( Japanese 狐 火 , Kitsunebi ) and the demon fire (Japanese 鬼火 , Onibi ). Often ghosts such as the Hitodama (Japanese 人 魂 ), but also ball lightning (Japanese 火 の 玉 , Hinotama ) are equated with or confused with will- o'-the-wisps .

From Sorbian folklore there are stories about the Blud who are supposed to appear as will-o'- the- wisps . According to tradition, these are the souls of children who died without having been baptized beforehand . Now their souls should wander around weeping in the shape of will-o'-the-wisps.

Will-o'-the-wisps in art and poetry

Wisps and Snake by Hermann Hendrich , painted in 1882.

Around 1795, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote his work Das Märchen , which is about an old clergyman who in turn tells a fairy tale story to a baroness . Two will-o'-the-wisps play a major role in this story. They ask a ferryman for help with crossing a river, as payment the ferryman demands certain vegetables. But the will-o'-the-wisps can only offer gold , which the ferryman in turn refuses. Only later do the will-o'-the-wisps manage to cross thanks to a green snake . Wisps of the will also appear in the famous work Faust. A tragedy in the Walpurgis Night chapter as secondary characters.

Between 1880 and 1900 the painter Hermann Hendrich produced well-known large paintings for the Walpurgishalle on the Hexentanzplatz (near Thale in the Harz Mountains). There are several will-o'-the-wisps below. Both Faust I and The Fairy Tale inspired Hendrich to his works. In his pictures the will-o'-the-wisps are depicted as delicate, almost humanoid and luminous beings.

Wisps are also addressed in older poems and even songs. Reference is made not only to their dodgy nature, but also to their local ties to old cemeteries and moors.

Wisps in the modern reception

Wisps are a recurring motif in modern subculture, especially in fantasy and science fiction films, but also in computer games with fantasy, science fiction and / or horror content. An example of will-o'-the-wisps motifs in fantasy films is Merida - Legend of the Highlands . In this movie, the young protagonist is led to a witch's house in a dense forest of will-o'-the- wisps . An example of a will-o'-the-wisp motif in computer games can be found in the popular Pokémon game series . Certain Pokémon, such as Vulpix , can summon will-o'-the-wisps and then send them off against their opponents.

See also


  • Stephen Addiss , Helen Foresman: Japanese ghosts & demons: art of the supernatural . G. Braziller, Illinois 1985, ISBN 0-8076-1126-3 .
  • Theresa Bane: Encyclopedia of Spirits and Ghosts in World Mythology . McFarland, 2016, ISBN 1476623392 .
  • Darold P. Batzer, Rebecca R. Sharitz: Ecology of Freshwater and Estuarine Wetlands . University of California Press, Berkeley 2006, ISBN 9780520932890 .
  • Robert Browning, Frank G. Ryder: German Literary Fairy Tales: Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe, Clemens Brentano, Franz Kafka, and Others (= The German Library , Volume 30). Continuum, New York 1983, ISBN 0826402771 .
  • Roger Goodman, Kirsten Refsing: Ideology and Practice in Modern Japan . Routledge, London 2002, ISBN 1134927118 .
  • Dr. Andrew A. Mills: Will-o'-the-wisp revisited . In: Weather , Volume 55 (= 7th monthly edition) July 2000, Royal Meteorological Society , London 2000, ISSN 1477-8696.
  • Joris Roels, Willy Verstraete: Biological formation of volatile phosphorus compounds . In: Bioresource Technology , 79th edition (3rd quarter). Elsevier-Verlag, Amsterdam 2001, ISSN 0960-8524.
  • Dusty Smith: Haunted Daytona Beach: a ghostly tour of America's most famous beach . The History Press, Charleston 2007, ISBN 1596293411 .
  • Lewis Spence: An Encyclopaedia of Occultism . Cosimo Classics, New York 2006, ISBN 1596052376 .

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Max Braubach, Franz Petri, Georg Droege: Rhenish history: Economy and culture in the 19th and 20th centuries (= Rhenish history: in three volumes , 3rd volume). Schwann, Düsseldorf 1979, ISBN 359034203X , p. 815.
  2. ^ A b Theresa Bane: Encyclopedia of Spirits and Ghosts in World Mythology . Pp. 41-43.
  3. ^ Theresa Bane: Encyclopedia of Spirits and Ghosts in World Mythology . P. 57.
  4. Stephen Addiss, Helen Foresman: Japanese ghosts & demons… . Pp. 56-61.
  5. ^ A b Theresa Bane: Encyclopedia of Spirits and Ghosts in World Mythology . Pp. 33, 72.
  6. a b Regional names for will-o'-the-wisps on mysteriousbritain.co.uk ( Memento from March 9, 2017 in the Internet Archive ) (English)
  7. ^ A b c Theresa Bane: Encyclopedia of Spirits and Ghosts in World Mythology . Pp. 33, 57, 77, 99, 122, 123.
  8. a b Dusty Smith: Haunted Daytona Beach . Page 123, 124.
  9. FW Bessel: Are there will-o'-the-wisps? In: Annals of Physics and Chemistry. Volume XXXXIV (1838), p. 366 ( dig ).
  10. K. Dettner, Werner Peters: Textbook of Entomology . Springer-Verlag, Heidelberg 2011 (2nd edition), ISBN 3827426189 , pp. 600–602.
  11. Lloyd Vernon Knutson, Jean-Claude Vala: Biology of Snail-Killing Sciomyzidae Flies . Cambridge University Press, Cambridge (UK) 2011, ISBN 0-521-86785-1 , p. 24.
  12. Eberhard Breitmaier, Günther Jung: Organic chemistry: Fundamentals, compound classes, reactions, concepts, molecular structure . Georg Thieme Verlag, Stuttgart / New York 2012 (7th edition). ISBN 3131599871 .
  13. Joris Roels, Willy Verstraete: Biological formation of volatile phosphorus compounds . Pp. 243-250.
  14. Darold P. Batzer, Rebecca R. Sharitz: Ecology of Freshwater and Estuarine Wetlands . Page 144.
  15. Andrew A. Mills: Will-o'-the-wisp revisited . In: Weather Volume 55, 2000, pp. 239-241.
  16. ^ A b Lewis Spence: An Encyclopaedia of Occultism . P. 223.
  17. ^ Theresa Bane: Encyclopedia of Spirits and Ghosts in World Mythology . Pp. 77-78.
  18. Cindy Ott: Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon . University of Washington Press, Seattle 2012, ISBN 0295804440 , 77.
  19. Roger Goodman, Kirsten Refsing: Ideology and Practice in Modern Japan . Pp. 83-89.
  20. Description of the painting on walpurgishall.tumblr.com .
  21. ^ Robert Browning, Frank G. Ryder: German Literary Fairy Tales . Pp. 2-4; 21-23.
  22. ^ Friederike Schmidt-Möbus, Frank Möbus: Who is who in Goethe's Faust? , Edition Leipzig, Leipzig 1999, ISBN 3361004977 , page 75.
  23. Michaela Vieser: Local history for advanced learners: Bottomless holes, museums of lies and other curious sights . Knaur eBook, Munich 2010, ISBN 3426554879 , page 56.
  24. Gottfried Keller, Walter Morgenthaler: Nachgelassene Gedichte: Apparat to Volume 17.1 and 17.2 (= Complete Works: Historical-Critical Edition , 30th Volume). Stroemfeld, 2011, ISBN 3038236411 , pages 61-64.
  25. Merida - Legend of the Highlands in the Internet Movie Database (English); last accessed on October 5, 2016.
  26. ↑ will -o'-the-wisps attack by "Vulpix" on pokemonexperte.de ; accessed on October 5, 2016.