Will-o-the-Wisps, Strange Lights Glowing In The Swamp

There are not as many swamp and marshlands today as there used to be. In the past, swamps were drained to provide new agricultural land, or to reduce the chance of disease in nearby towns and villages. Europe lost over half of its wetlands. [ref] Dugan, P. (ed.) 2005. Guide to Wetlands. Buffalo, New York. Firefly Books. 304 p.[/ref] 32% of America’s cropland has been artificially drained. [ref] http://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~doetqp-p/courses/env320/lec25/Lec25.html [/ref]

However, swamps and marshland used to be a lot more common and navigating through one would have been hard at the best of times. At night, it became even easier to become lost. And the last thing you needed were evil spirits to misguide you.

Will-o-the-wisps are described as flickering balls of light. To someone making their way through a swamp at night, it might look like a lantern held by another person in the distance. But should the person try and follow the light, they will wind up deeper into the swamp where there are any number of natural hazards that could mean they would never return.

Will-o’-the-wisp and Snake (colour litho); by Hendrich, Hermann (b.1856); colour lithograph; Bibliotheque des Arts Decoratifs, Paris, France

Though the phenomenon of strange lights in wetlands occurs in many locations, the interpretation of the lights differs from culture to culture. In Japan, the lights are called Hitodama and are souls of the dead separated from their bodies. [ref] Stephen Addiss, Helen Foresman: Japanese ghosts & demons: art of the supernatural. G. Braziller, Illinois 1985, [/ref]. In West Bengal, the lights lure fishermen to their doom. [ref] https://www.nativeplanet.com/travel-guide/most-haunted-places-in-west-bengal-aleya-ghost-lights-002570.html[/ref] The majority of myths around the lights revolve around souls trapped between life and the afterlife.

Scientists have long tried to find an explanation for the strange lights. Sir Isaac Newton ponders their nature along with any number of other natural light causing phenomenon in his book, Opticks in 1704. [ref] Newton, Isaac Opticks. 1704 Reprinted from the 4th edition of 1730. [/ref]

Allesandro Volta, the inventor of the electric battery, also discovered methane when on holiday to Lake Maggiore in his native Italy. Poking at the mud at the bottom of the lake with a stick he noticed lots of bubbles being released. He collected some of the gas and found that it was flammable. [ref] http://ppp.unipv.it/Volta/Pages/eavus3.htm [/ref] He speculated that the gas could be ignited through electricity and that explained the appearance of the lights. [ref] Ciardi, Marco (2000). “Falling Stars, Instruments and Myths: Volta and the Birth of Modern Meteorology”. In Fabio Bevilacqua & Lucio Fregonese. http://ppp.unipv.it/Collana/Pages/Libri/Saggi/Nuova%20Voltiana3_PDF/cap2/2.pdf  [/ref]

Even George Washington would try a similar experiment in an attempt to find the cause of Will-o-the-Wisps. In 1783, he and George Paine wished to test a hypothesis about the cause of the strange lights and set out to the Millstone river, where they had some soldiers poke into the submerged mud with long poles. Holding a flame to the water they were able to ignite the bubbles of gas released. [ref] http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/loom/2008/10/17/science-and-politics-the-tale-of-george-washingtons-swamp-gas/

https://cen.acs.org/articles/92/i38/George-Washington-Scientist.html [/ref]

Washington was far from alone in his belief that the appearance of the strange lights came from the ignition of pockets of marsh gas. However, there were those who doubted that it was possible for the gas to spontaneously combust on its own.

In 1993, German scientists proposed that it was microorganisms in marshlands that were eating the phosphate of the swamp and releasing a gas that can spontaneously ignite on exposure to air which releases a gentle glow, more similar to traveller’s descriptions of the ghostly lights.

[ref] https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg13818782-700-science-graveyard-ghosts-are-a-gas/


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