Pete Younger

Venerable and Missed
Jul 31, 2001
Not sure if it's been discussed before, but what stories can members relate about Will o the wisp? is it a British phenomenon or is it world wide?
It's a worldwide thing, it's also called Foxfire, jack-o-lantern and Corpse Candles (when appearing in graveyards). pretty much any country or area with marshy or swampy ground has them.
The classic explanation is the whole "marsh gas that ignited one" but I'm pretty sure it doesn't hold water.

From my limited recollection the wandering behaviour and proximity to water make it reminiscent of classic ball lightning behaviour.

More like that or an earth-lights type thing than burning marsh gas anyway.
Proximity to water? It's a swamp, it has to be all wet and boggy to produce marsh gas :) The gas just bubbles up throught the water, bog & rotting vegetation.

It is classically a good sign of shallow graves seeing corpse candles or will o' the wisps above ground as this is said to be due to the body(ies) decomposibng and giving off combustable gases in the process.
What would be the ignition though?

It always occured to me that if we were to see a fire gas then we would, as a race, be able to describe it as such.

"It was fire, and it was wisping about the place"

I thought it may have been standard shallow grave damp gases that have been subject to the little air vortexes whose existance is usually betrayed by the crisp packets and other litter that swirl in tiny wirlwinds.

If marsh/shallow grave gas was subject to miniature vortex principles then its appearence would be thicker and quicker than that of the surrounding ground mist. Being thick and dense would provide it with more reflective surfaces within its surface and interior and it may appear to glow.....especially in moonlight or twilight. Are there any glowing gases in the ground? Experts, gather round!

I do feel that if people saw a flame moving about, they would'nt automatically describe it as a ghost or some other weird entity.

But if it remained as a thick swirling mist then it may be described the way it has been, over the years.........wispy ghosts rather than a wee fire!

Maybe not though, eh?
Lets not forget the possibility of glowworms or similar bioluminescent creatures- fireflies do create exactly the kind of effect described as well.
Although I live just a few fields away from a lot of festering peat bogs I have never seen these lights . I'm going to have to plan a night time trip out onto the spooky moors now to hunt for them ! I don't recall any local legends about them .
That is one hell of a headline "Robot fish to meet Myth" :D

Good Link there...
anyone remember this news item on the bbc a few years back?

it was about the attempts to film either (i cant remember which) a "big cat" or a crop circle being formed.

this was going to be acheived by placing cameras around the the countryside over night and filming what happens...anyway although no crop circles or big cats were filmed a few other unexplainable things were, one of these was a bright white "ball" filmed bouncing down the side of a field, thinking back, it did look very much like the starting titles of "willo the wisp" from tv years back.

im not sure what it was, but it certainly wasnt swamp gas! :D
Corpse candles

St.Clair said:
What would be the ignition though?

Over to the experts:

Mulder: Swamp gas?

Scully: It's a natural phenomenon in which phosphine and methane rising from decaying organic matter ignite, creating globes of blue flame.

Mulder: Happens to me when I eat Dodger Dogs. How can a dozen witnesses including a squad of police vehicles in three counties become hysterical over swamp gas?

and even Gollum knows of them:

Presently it grew altogether dark: the air itself seemed black and heavy to breathe. When light apperared Sam rubbed his eyes: he thought his head was going queer. He first saw one with the corner of his left eye, a wisp of pale sheen that faded away; but others appeared soon after: some like dimly shining smoke, some like misty flames flickering slowly above unseen candles; here and there they twisted like ghostly sheets unfurled by hidden hands. But neither of his companions spoke a word.

At last Sam could bear it no longer. "What's all this, Gollum?' he said in a whisper. "These lights? They're all round us now. Are we trapped? Who are they?'

Gollum looked up. A dark water was before him, and he was crawling on the ground, this way and that, doubtful of the way. 'Yes, they are all round us,' he whispered. 'The tricksy lights. Candles of corpses, yes, yes. Don't you heed them! Don't look! Don't follow them![']

Tolkien. Lord of the Rings. Book 4. Chapter 2. 1983: 290

OK nothng new as this was largely dealt with in FT180:14 but I was looking into corpse candles (and more specifically the part related to the appearance of lights in graveyards or connected with dead bodies as opposed to thise that act as a portent of coming death) and the article didn't actually come with an references.

Essentially it appears that phosphine is the really combustible part of the swamp gas and can be produced where organic matter decomposes in anaeorbic conditions and will spontaneously ignite on contact with air.

The references from the article are:

Devai, I. & Delaune, R. D. (1995). Evidence for phosphine production and emission from Louisiana and Florida marsh soils. Organic Geochemistry. 23. 277-279.

Glindemann, D., Stottmeister, U. & Bergmann, A. (1996). Free phosphine from the anaerobic biosphere. Environmental Science and Pollution Research. 3 (1). 17-19.

Also I believe various examples are mentioned in the last chapter of ths book (although I haven't yet got my paws on a copy):

The 13th Element: The Sordid Tale of Murder, Fire, and Phosphorus
by John Emsley.

For general corpse candles discussion see:

and for specific examples where they are connected with actual corpses:

In February 1909, for example, newspaper accounts told of the excitement generated in Stockton, Pennsylvania, over the "appearance at night of an arrow of flame, which hovers over the spot on the mountain where the dismembered body of a woman was found in a barrel two years ago.... The light appears every night at about 9 o'clock and hovers over the spot until midnight, but it disappears when anyone approaches the spot to investigate. The superstitious villagers say it is the avenging spirit of the slain woman come back to keep alive the history of the crime so that the murderers may some day be apprehended"

also the FT article mentions lights over the River Dee connected with corpses and I found this along those lines:

To this account of Mr. Davis, I will subjoin what my worthy friend and neighbour Randal Caldicot, D.D. hath affirmed to me many years since, viz. When any Christian is drowned in the river Dee, there will appear over the water where the corps is, a light, by which means they do find the body: and it is therefore called the Holy Dee. The doctor's father was Mr. Caldicot, of Caldicot in Cheshire, which lies on the river.

'Corps-Candles in Wales', in Miscellanies (1721), p. 179.

Any other examples would be gratefully received.

I'll tell my story of Foxfire as it is known in the Southern U.S.(which I had heard of but never seen and kind of doubted)

I went on a trout fishing trip in NW South Carolina on the N.C. border.I arrived late ,after dusk, and it was my first trip to this particular river.

I wasn't even sure if I was exactly where I wanted to be.I had driven several miles into the woods on a gravel/dirt road and found a place to pitch my tent for the night I was just off the road and by now it was completely dark.

Not long after I saw a weak glowing light coming down the road.It was swinging up and down slightly and appeared to me to be someone walking along with a lighted cigarette in their fingers..Another fisherman I thought.Odd I thought that they would be out after dark without a flashlight.I didn't have one either as the star and moonlight was adeguate to see to get around by.

I went towards the light planning to ask the fisherman if I was in the place I thought I was. As I neared the light I finally could make out it was just a wisp of light that now appeared to be more bluish than the orange glow it had been before.More importantly, I could see that there was no person there. The light continued on for a few yards and seemed to drift a bit higher than eye level and flickerd out. Man I got the willies.

No it wasn't a lightning bug(firefly) I grew up in the South and I am entiely familiar with these.I had spent many evenings as a kid chasing them.It had to be Foxfire if it was anything at all.
many_angled_one said:
"It is classically a good sign of shallow graves seeing corpse candles or will o' the wisps above ground as this is said to be due to the body(ies) decomposibng and giving off combustable gases in the process."

In previous times, before the advent of modern embalming techniques, "air tight" coffins and especially concrete burial vaults, if you held your nose down to a reasonably-"fresh" grave, you could detect the odor of decay. This was by no means overpowering, those miasmic smells being effectively filtered by four feet of soil and even the roots of the covering grass, as was of course the very intent of the the interment.

Holding a match over such a grave at night might very well give you a very noticeable "corpse candle."

But corpse candles, will o' the wisps, marsh lights and so on are among those mysteries (such as ball lightning and green meteorites) which while they may be "scientifically explainable" still remain darrn spooky. I don't believe that we can totally reject possibly paranormal elements here.
Will o' the wisp has a fairly good scientific explanation as far as swampy ground goes -

"One possible naturalistic and scientific explanation for such phenomena is that the oxidation of hydrogen phosphide and methane gases produced by the decay of organic material may cause glowing lights to appear in the air. Experiments, for example, done by the Italian chemists Luigi Garlaschelli and Paolo Boschetti, have replicated the lights by adding chemicals to the gases formed by rotting compounds"

- hence all the jokes about UFOs and marsh gas.'_the_wisp
In the late 1960's I saw a ball of pale light entre the window of my grandparents home. The window frame was metal and the ball of light went around the frame and then bobbed off to the television where it seemed to entre the screen (the television was off at the time and there was no subsequent damage)). They lived fairly close to marshland but above it on a hill. The light seemed to be attracted to metal giving the ideas that it was electical in nature. The dog was terrified, as was my gran who ran outside until my grandfather came home. I can't remember if there was a storm or not, does ball lightening occur without the rest of the storm?
That sounds like ball lightning!

Yes, it does occur at the fringes of storms, sometimes when observers are not aware there is a storm nearby. But who knows...?
Yes, both marsh gas and ball lightning have picked up scientific explanations which they didn't have centuries ago. But they both remain spooky, for a' that.

And both of them seem to occasionally display intelligent behavior, which Science has yet to touch with a 100-foot rubber pole.
I believe this phenomenon is very widely reported.

Doesn't it 'officially' account for 35% of UFO sightings?
jimv1 said:
Doesn't it 'officially' account for 35% of UFO sightings?

That's hard to say with any degree of certainty, since we really don't know what UFOs actually are - and we still have one heck of a lot to learn about will o' the wisps.
My grandfather (1912-1990) told me when he was a youth in Nebraska, he used to hunt raccoon at night with his coonhounds. The brushy draws and bottoms along the Missouri River, near his home, in Rulo, Nebraska, were dark and spooky. My grandfather did not believe in ghosts. One night he saw a glowing in the brush. He told me knew it was what they called a Will o'the Wisp (the local dialect used the term "Will o'the Wisk"). Not being afraid of ghosts, he went closer to see what it was. The dogs were off a long ways, as he could hear their baying. He came up to it and he said it was a little piece of glowing wood, an inch or so long. It was floating along, about head-high. It glowed with a gas they called "swamp gas". He caught it in his hand, and then crumbled it, and it stopped glowing.
lancemfoster said:
...head-high. It glowed with a gas they called "swamp gas". He caught it in his hand, and then crumbled it, and it stopped glowing.

Wow. One brave man, there.

A little piece of wood? If the wood were putting out methane, I guess it could float in the air. But, whoa. Needs studying.
Wood? Floating in the air?
Now that is seriously weird stuff.
At first I thought you meant floating along the river but then the head high, very strange.
Yes, in the air. He used his hands to describe how it floated along, almost like ash caught in drafts around a campfire, but moving more slowly. It was the gas that made it float, and the wood piece was small and rotted- punky, spongy, airy.
Is it weird that he didn't burn his hand on it (apart from the other weirdness)?
gncxx said:
Is it weird that he didn't burn his hand on it (apart from the other weirdness)?

Good point.
Was it on fire, or was it bioluminescence?
Mythopoeika said:
gncxx said:
Is it weird that he didn't burn his hand on it (apart from the other weirdness)?

Good point.
Was it on fire, or was it bioluminescence?

It wasn't hot he said, it just glowed. Possibly bioluminescence, or another chemical process.