Cover art by Rob Alexander
“They saw a divine virtue in the healing properties of springs and herbs, they felt the presence of a god in the brooding mists, the gloomy thickets, the wildfire that flitted across the sky, the mysterious moonbeans, and the glorious sunrays, the will-o’-the wisps of the swamps, the mountains and the plains; the ever-animated flow of the stream or the sullen stillness of the pools, the life-giving breath of spring, and the florid beauty of summer.“James MacKinnon, Culture of Early Scotland, 1892
Otherworldly creatures and energies naturally feature heavily in folklore surrounding this time of year, Halloween and the older tradition of Samhain. Ghosts and tales of ‘wisps’ feature throughout the world. They are both clearly in somewhat of the same category as far as being an otherworldly spirit. The mention of ghosts in literature is incredibly old and widespread but wisps specifically were mentioned in the common means we understand them today at about the 1500’s at least as far back as is able to be known. (1)
Wisps were typically called the Will-o’-the-wisp and differ in their name but also their atmospheric presentation over bodies of water, namely bogs, swamps or marshes. This is thought by scientists to be a bioluminescence caused by oxidation of various chemicals produced by organic decay that is in essence festering in said bodies of water they appear at. Of course this might explain some of the phenomena that appeared to our ancestors or still appear today but not necessarily all of them. Wisps also differ from a regular ghost in that they were said to purposefully lure people to their demise. Possibly in some scenarios this related to the way they appeared near water or places that were boggy where there would have been more unfortunate opportunity for injury. They were in some places such as Wales considered a bad omen just to see one as it signified a death soon in the locale where it was witnessed. Additionally in Wales, they were often said to follow the route of a funeral and specifically known as the cannwyll gorff, corpse candle.
They were sometimes thought to be fairies or pixies in disguise but with the same intent of luring travelers to their untimely death. When we go beyond our modern interpretation of a wisp, what is interesting is that in Brehon Law, a lunatic is referenced as someone that “…upon whom the magical wisp had been put.” From this lens, a spirit that is associated with a wisp (leading people astray) may have been akin to a lunatic and specifically in the way that, it wouldn’t be wise to follow them. When we search deeper, we find that there are references to Irish Druids purposefully casting a charm on someone, a ‘wisp’ of straw, grass or hay, sometimes referenced as the Dlui Fulla, ‘fluttering wisp’. This charm was specifically cast by throwing or blowing enchanted straw in someone’s face thereby turning him into a lunatic or restless traveler.
Discovering this, we’re immediately harkened to references to medieval witch trials and moldy rye that commonly caused hallucinations and instigated false accusations. It’s a wonder if they weren’t blowing moldy grain or mushroom laden dust into someone’s face that genuinely incapacitated them by way of causing insanity. There were other more beneficial charms put on wisps that were placed inside shoes, sometimes to heal pain in the feet and sometimes for good luck. These magical wisps were still used up until fairly recently. (2) There is an interesting reference to this title as well in Scottish folklore in that one of the first texts recorded (1537) in Scots Gaelic concerned a man of questionable character called, Allan o’ the Wisp. He was known to set fire to houses (with ‘wisps’ of straw) and nearly killed a woman in his pursuit of her when he chased her towards a cliff due to his unrequited love. (3)
The wisp was fascinatingly the original ‘Jack-o’-Lantern’ which has roots in the Irish legend of Stingy Jack. In the famous tale, a man was offered three wishes, then uses those wishes to outsmart Satan himself. Because of Satan’s annoyance of him as well as his sour disposition, he loses his place in both heaven and hell. He is therefore forced to remain on earth, roaming as a lonely soul, a wary traveler with only a lantern in his hand, a turnip with a flame in it. It’s unclear when this tradition of carrying homemade lanterns near Samhain began but some of the oldest references in Ireland in particular occur around the 1800’s although very likely, an older practice.
Jack-o’-Lantern in Irish Gaeilge is Seán na Gaelaí. Some other names for him throughout the isles were Tine Ghealáin, Hob-o’-lantern, Hobbedy’s Lantern, Hobby lanterns, ghost candles, fairy light, fox fire, or Jack McLantern. Similar tales of the Jack-o’-Lantern or Will-o’-the Wisp with a similar main character occur across nearly all of Western Europe from Italy to Sweden. Emigrants, mostly from the isles brought the tradition of these Samhain tales and carved lanterns with them to America, Canada or other places they settled. Some of the earliest mentions of the practice in North America occur in the early 1800’s. There are numerous references through the years such as this clip from a Canadian news article in 1866…
“The old time custom of keeping up Hallowe’en was not forgotten last night by the youngsters of the city. They had their maskings and their merry-makings, and perambulated the streets after dark in a way which was no doubt amusing to themselves. There was a great sacrifice of pumpkins from which to make transparent heads and face, lighted up by the unfailing two inches of tallow candle.”
Immigrants in America and Canada in particular often began carving pumpkins instead of turnips and what was possibly not only a common fruit but also easier to carve. Both the turnip and the pumpkin carry symbolism that represents a means of warding and scaring off evil and from a practical perspective, giving us light as we were and are currently walking out at night.
“Jack o’ the lantern! Joan the wad,Cornish seasonal rhyme
Who tickled the maid and made her mad
Light me home, the weather’s bad.“
So where did Will’s tale come from regarding his transformation into the well known Will-o’-the Wisp? Well, this title and interpretation of the wisp came from Ireland as well and is very similar to Stingy Jack…
The story goes that in ancient times there was a man named Billy (William/Will) Dawson. He was known as a great rogue with a mischievous disposition. He was his father’s only son along with two daughters. He became a blacksmith’s apprentice for seven years and was incredibly lazy. The blacksmith got angry over time and gave him trouble about his laziness. Billy never changed but nonetheless learned his trade, eventually married, had children and opened his own blacksmith shop. His wife and him drank, fought and gave one another a good beating every now and again. It wasn’t a healthy relationship but they were said to be fitting for one another. Their family struggled to make ends meet, they were always miserable and became the laughing stock of the town.
One day Billy was leaning on his own anvil when a beggar approached him. He had a long white beard, looked incredibly thin, hungry and desperate. He asked Billy for help to which Billy replied, “If you knew who you’re speaking to, you’d as soon ask a monkey for a churn-staff as me for either mate or money. If I had either, I’d help you, for I know particularly well what it is to want them at the present speaking; an empty sack won’t stand, neighbor… but come, what I can do for you I will; plant yourself up here beside the fire, and I’ll give it a blast of two of my bellows that will warm the old blood in your body.” The old man thanked him kindly as it was a very cold and bitter day.
Unbeknowst to Billy, he was being given a divine chance to finally do the right thing for himself and his family. The old man declared that he wanted to thank him by offering three wishes which he promised would be granted. Billy then asked that whoever took up his sledge-hammer would never be able to lay it down until he gave them permission. Secondly, he wished that whoever sat in his arm chair would never rise out of it unless they had his consent. Thirdly, he wished that whatever money he put in his purse, nobody would be able to take it out but him. The old man, who declared he was St. Moroky in disguise vehemently scolded him for his wishes calling him a dirty bog-trotting profligate (grossly self indulgent and selfish) for not choosing something well to wish for himself and his family.
He then gave Billy a great knock on his head with his cudgel (a thick stick), knocking him out on the ground and left. When Billy came to he began immediately taking advantage of his wishes, inviting wealthy folks over and holding them ransom in his chair until they paid out. The fame of his misdeeds soon spread throughout the country and he was completely avoided. People accused him of being in league with the devil, and after his opportunity for extortion faded, he thought might as well take advantage of the association. He called the devil by name asking him to show his best leg, declaring that he had business with him.
The words were hardly out of his mouth when the devil walked up, a dark, handsome old gentleman with hooves for feet…”What’s the news?” the devil asked smiling. Bill replied, “None, any news fresh from below?” “I can’t exactly say Bill; I spend little of my time down now; the Tories are in office, and my hands are too full of business here… now speak above-board my friend. I’m a man of few words, blunt and honest. If you have anything to say, be plain. Don’t think I can be losing my time with such a pitiful rascal as you are.” “I want money,” said Bill. The devil replied, “If you are willing to be mine at the expiration of seven years, I will give you more money than ever the rascally breed of you was worth.” “DONE!” declared Billy. Then the devil gave him an undisclosed amount while Billy asked him to leave, calling him unsavory insults. The devil gawked at his nerve.
Because of his wealth, Billy quickly became a ‘liked’ man again, drawing affections of those far and wide however, over the next seven years he quickly spent his money and was back to blacksmithing again when his time had run out. The devil came to visit and claim Billy’s soul however, Billy tricked him into using his sledge hammer to which the devil immediately became under the spell. He agreed to give Bill another seven years and the same amount of cash for his release from the enchantment.
When the devil appeared again in seven years ready to claim his dues a second time, he appeared in Bill and his wife Judy’s living quarters. They were in the middle of a great quarrel to which the devil immediately involved himself in the fight thinking the wife needed saving. Judy, who declared she was quite able to handle her own, struck the devil with a churn-staff knocking him into Billy’s armchair where he was instantly glued. Billy gleefully declared, “Come, shell out once more and be off for seven more years.” The devil scornfully agreed.
Seven years passed again, and when the devil visited Billy next, he disguised himself as a guinea (British coin) to get close enough to Bill to claim his soul but in a form where he could not become under enchantment. Bill picked up the guinea and put it in his purse. The devil called out from his purse suddenly unable to move, unwittingly picking a form that led to further enchantment. Realizing what he’d done to himself, the devil immediately agreed to another seven years in exchange for his release. At this point, Bill was quite elderly and soon died while sleeping.
Upon entering the otherworld he was denied admittance to both heaven and hell for being so disdained by both members of heaven and the devil himself. His fate was sealed to walk without stopping, wandering place to place, in the coldest and most miserable of bogs and quagmires. Because of his beard being tangled like a wisp of hay, he was given the name Will-o’-the Wisp. At any opportunity to mislead travelers on particularly unthinking and tipsy nights, he took advantage and led as many people away as he could for the sheer satisfaction of it. Luckily his children did not repeat his disposition and became upstanding members of their communities. One of his sons James Dawson went on to become a great man, even creating the village Castledawson in Derry, Northern Ireland. (4)
There are over 500 references to ‘wisps’ in the Irish Folk Duchas, many referring to this phenomenon. There are references to the same tale of Bill Dawson the blacksmith and his becoming ‘Willie the Wisp’. Various nuanced tales were told surrounding their belief around the country. Sometimes, the wisps were literally called a lit ‘wisp of straw’ that went through the country bringing people astray. References to using wisps in games but also of using straw wisps for divination or good luck, as in times of old by the Druids were also still occurring. In one example, it was said that…
“During the dusk they used to go around their own cock of oats, three times, and every time they used to go around to pull a wisp of straw each time. While pulling the wisp, each time say one “Hail Mary”. When you have that done make the three wisps into a flail and don’t speak while doing this. Then, put them under your pillow and that night you will dream of the man you will marry.”Mrs. Moran, Bridie Lynn – Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0144, Page 457.
Ghosts of course we are all familiar with and many of us have seen or felt their presence. There are over 5,300 references to ghosts in the Irish Folk Duchas. Sometimes they are ancestors or those recently deceased while other times they have a unique energy about them that is on a spectrum whether they are interpreted as positive, neutral or negative. Many spiritual practitioners the world over from differing traditions will say that ghosts are ‘stuck’ in their energy patterns and their old identity. They often may have died in a traumatic way where they can’t seem to let go of what happened. They also may be simply confused, seemingly on how to find their way back to another plane of existence where they’re ‘supposed’ to be in the otherworld. Because of this paradigm regarding their being stuck from negative events, their energy is often felt as malevolent if not genuinely malevolent, and why there are more often than not, horror tales surrounding their existence.
Old Irish ghost story…
There is a story told of a Ghost who frequented a lonely road shaded by hawthorn hedges in the middle of Keelinga. One night a man was traveling this road on foot. As he was a true believer in Ghost stories he was terrorstricken when passing any haunted place. He was very frightened now as it was about the hour of midnight he was moreover approaching the very place which was hallowed by Ghosts. As he came nearer he tried to summon up a show of courage and so he began to whistle. Suddenly he saw through a gap in the hedge a low stooped figure crouching down as if to avoid the branches coming though the gap. So great was his horror the man stood stood still starring at the figure. In the twinkling of an eye it was on the road side. The man then recovered himself and pursued his journey but the stranger quickened his steps to an equal pace.
On mounting a rising ground which brought the stranger in relief against the sky the man noticed that he was gigantic in height and that he had an exceedingly pale countenance, a beaming romantic eye and an air of stately melancholy. A little further on there was a house into which the man went. As he entered he cast a glance behind him at his companion but immediately he slammed the door. The stranger made a dash as if to catch him. The man rushed to the window to what would become of the spectre. He stood a yard outside the door looking to right and to the left as if he were thinking on what he should do. Suddenly he vanished in a flash of fire. The man went home the following day and he died shortly afterwards.John Connolly, Irish Folk Duchas, The Schools’ Collection, Volume 0309, Page 081
I’ve only seen a full bodied ghost once when I was a young child, about aged 6 and was completely awake sitting up in my bed. It’s a cliche description but he had a greenish glow and was only semi solid. We looked directly at one another and he continued onward walking through the wall. He felt malevolent but there was a sense he knew he was powerless to do anything of real harm but wanted me to know he was there. It was the only time in my life I was paralyzed by fear and couldn’t move or scream although managed to lay down until morning.
I did tell my mom the next day, she took me to the doctor and he chalked it up as night terrors. I would go on to have off and on horrendous nightmares where a demon like energy was ripping at my chest for years along with other creepy experiences in my home growing up. These experiences completely disappeared once I’d moved out at 18. Thirty two years later I still don’t like sleeping over at my parents, and if I do, sleep with the dogs around me.
Later in life, I lived in a house I think was/is haunted by a girl who was murdered. I would randomly hear a lone scream, have very realistic dreams of an older child wanting to play innocent children’s games that felt related to where I was living. I would randomly feel pokes on my legs or sometimes I’d feel a weight sit on the bed. The most disturbing for me was sometimes they would paw around the blankets as if searching for me or whisper phrases in my ear when I was just waking up or falling asleep but I was still coherent enough that I knew it wasn’t part of my dreamscape.
The phrases were simple like ‘no’, ‘wake up’ or ‘look’. I’m now much more aware that this period when we are just falling asleep or just awakening is a liminal period where we are often said to have a liminal consciousness as well. The only other ghostly experiences I’ve had happened in Ireland… seeing a black wisp weave through brambles at the cursing/curing stones in Cavan (very dark feeling place for me, I didn’t stay long) and sensing lovely guardian type spirits at sacred sites that seemingly popped in to just say hello (Uragh and Killeen Cormac especially).
Have you had any experiences with ghosts or wisps? Would love to hear about them…
- Lavatar, Ludwig. Of ghostes and spirites, walking by night: and of straunge noyses, crackes, and sundrie forewarnings. Blough-Weis Library Susquehanna University, 1596. Thomas Creede. Pg. 51.
- Joyce, P.W. A Social History of Ancient Ireland, Vol. 2. Dublin, 1920. Pg. 221.
- Caismeachd Ailean nan Sop (The war-song of Allan of the wisps) by Hector Maclean of Coll, composed c. 1537.
- Yeats, W.B. Fairy and Folk Tales of Irish Peasantry: Edited and Selected by W.B. Yeats. London, 1888. Pg. 235.