When night falls on the weary wanderer and his or her journeying has led down seldom traveled ways, it is said there may seen the floating, flickering lights of spirits moving in the darkness. But follow not their ghostly beckoning, for their want is only to stray you from your path. Footing lost in dark woods is rarely found again when one is beckoned by a Will o’ the Wisp.
Similar sighting are identified by many different names across the world, but Will o’ the Wisps are a major part of European folklore and have been used in storytelling for hundreds of years. DisneyPixar’s Brave incorporates the lights into the film’s adventure, set in the ancient Scottish Highlands. There, the Will o’ the Wisps are spotted by Merida (Kelly Macdonald) and guide her path into the forest, leading her to change her fate.
Dubbed “ignis fatuss” or “foolish fire” in Latin, legends surrounding Will o’ the Wisps are as grand as imagination. Some claim them to be faeries or other mischievous creatures, while others offer that the lights belong to lost souls, sometimes specifically those of unborn children.
A more scientific approach is offered by attributing the wisp legend to the prevalence of marsh gas, a form of methane that rises from swamps and, because of unstable chemical reactions, is known to catch fire and burn in the air above wet terrain.
“The Ignis Fatuus is a vapor shining without heat,” Sir Isaac Newton wrote of the phenomena in his 1730 study Opticks: Or, A Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light, “and is there not the same difference between this vapor and flame as between rotten wood shining without heat and burning coals of fire?” (316)
The name “Will o’ the Wisp,” however, originates with the story of “William of the Wisp,” a tale that likely diverged at some point in history from that of “Jack o’ Lantern.” In it, Will (or Jack) has an encounter with the devil who, unable or unwilling to take his soul, punishes the man for his misdeeds by forcing him to carry a flame across the night for all eternity. In the case of Jack, the flame was housed in a turnip (later becoming the pumpkins we identify today) and in the case of Will, the flame burns at the end of a wisp, a lighted bunch of straw.
For more information about Will o’ the Wisps, check out Sean B. Palmer’s extensive research on the matter and catch DisneyPixar’s Brave in 3D and 2D theaters in Australia on June 21st and North America on June 22nd.