Ancient Legends of the Swamp Lights

Dancing by night over marshes, bogs, brakes and water meadows, the flame-like luminance called ignis fatuus, or “foolish fire,” once was common throughout northern Europe.  Although the learned would claim that the flames were caused by marsh gases, country folk knew better, and tales of mishaps made them wary.

The strange light was given myriad names – “will-o’-the wisp, “jack-o’-lanterns,”, “fox fire,”, “elf light.”  In Wales, the flames were called “corpse candles” and appeared just at the level of a raised human hand when a ghost walked invisible; they were thought to presage the death of those who saw them.  Germans said the lights were the ghosts of those who had stolen land.  For Finns, such a light was liekkio, or “flaming one,” and was believed to be the ghost of a child who had been buried in the forest.

In any case, the dancing flames were dangers to the living.  Wayfarers who mistook them for the lights of a far-off shelter sometimes strayed into thickets where the ground grew shifty and sucked them down into the depths of the bogs.  Those who followed ghost lights, people said, were led to join the company of Death.

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