D. S. (David Samuel) Margoliouth.

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f " Xew Illustrations of the Life, Studies, and Writings of Shakespeare," ii, 272.


as the " Walking Fire " is evident from the old story " How Robin
Goodf ellow led a company of Fellowes out of their way " : * "A com-
pany of young men having been making merry with their sweethearts,
were, at their coming home, to come over a heath. Robin Goodfel-
low, knowing of it, met them, and, to make some pastime, he led them
up and down the heath a whole night, so that they could not get out
of it ; for he went before them in the shape of * a walking fire,' which
they all saw and followed till the day did appear ; then Robin left
them, and at his departure spake these words :

' Get home, you merry lads,
Tell your ruaminies and your dads,
And all those that newes desire
How you saw a walkinfj fire ;
"Wenches that doe smile and lispe
Use to call me Willy Wispe.' "

The Will-o'-the-Wisp is not, it would seem, confined to land, sailors
often meeting with it at sea, an elegant description of which is given
by Ariel in " The Tempest " (Act i, sc. 2) :

"... Sometimes I'd divide
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and bowspit ; would I flame distinctly.
Then meet and join."

It is called, by the French and Spaniards inhabiting the coasts of
the Mediterranean, St. Helene's or St. Telme's fires ; by the Italians,
the fire of St. Peter and St. Nicholas.f It is also known as the fire of
St. Helen, St. Ilerm, and St. Clare. "Whenever it appeared as a single
flame it was supposed by the ancients to be Helena, the sister of Castor
and Pollux, and to bring ill luck, from the calamities which this lady
is known to have caused in the Trojan war. When it came as a
double flame, it was called Castor and Pollux, and accounted a good
omen. It has also been described as a little blaze of fire, sometimes
appearing by night on the tops of soldiers' lances, or at sea on masts
and sail-yards, whirling and leaping in the twinkling of an eye from
one place to another. According to some, it never appears but after
a tempest, and is supposed to lead people to suicide by drowning.
Douce, J commenting on the passage in " The Temj^est " quoted above,
thinks that Shakespeare consumed Batman's " Golden Books of the
Leaden Goddes," who, speaking of Castor and Pollux, says, " They
were figured like two lamps or crescent lights, one on the top of a
mast, the other on the stem or foreship." He adds that, if the first
light appears on the foreship and ascends upward, it is a sign of good
luck ; if either light begins at the topmast and descends toward the

* Ilazlitt's "Fairy Mythology of Shakespeare," 1875, 186.
f Brand's "Popular Antiquities," 1849, iii, 400, 401.
X Douce's " Illustrations of Shakespeare," 1839, 3.


sea, it is a sign of a tempest. In taking, therefore, the latter position,
Ariel had fulfilled the commands of Prospero to raise a storm. This,
then, coincides with the following lines : *

"Last night I saw Saint Elmo's stars,

With their glittering lanterns all at play-
On the tops of the masts and tips of the spars,

And I knew we should have foul weather that day."

A ctirious illustration of this phenomenon is recorded in " Hakluyt's
Voyages" (1598, iii, 450) : "I do remember that in the great and bois-
terous storm of this foul weather, in the night there came upon the top
of our mainyard and mainmast a certain little light, much like unto
the light of a little candle, Avhich the Spaniards call the Cuerpo Santo.
This light continued aboord our ship about three houres, flying from
mast to mast, and from top to top ; and sometimes it would be in two
or three places at once." This meteor Avas by some supposed to be a
spirit, and by others an exhalation of moist vapors, thought to be en-
gendered by foul and tempestuous weather.

Referring, in the next place, to the legends associated with the
Will-o'-the-Wisp, we may mention that these, although differing in
many respects, generally invest this strange mimicry in nature with
the supernatural element, which is said to be generally exercised for
the purpose of deluding, in some way or other, the benighted traveler.
Indeed, it would seem that in past centuries whatever phenomena were
of an apparently illusive or hostile character were regarded by primi-
tive science as specially designed to work pain or evil,' even although,
by way of treacherous bait, they might possess the most attractive
qualities. Thus, as Mr. Conway has pointed out in his excellent work
on " Demonology and Devil Lore " (1880, ii, 212), because many a pil-
grim " perished through a confidence in the lake-pictures of the mirage
which led to carelessness about economizing his skin of water, the
mirage gained its present name — Bahr Sheitan, or Devil's AYater."
Thus, oftentimes, the harmless and beautiful phenomena in nature
have been invested with an evil name, simply because our ancestors,
living in the childhood of the world, were unable to comprehend their
meaning, and so, in all the freshness of their creative fancy, regarded
them as demoniacal agencies to thwart and hinder man's progress in
moral culture. Strange, therefore, as it may seem, we in our nine-
teenth century have in many of the legends that survive in this and
other countries relics of Aryan science, which, although meaningless
to the casual observer, yet embody the teaching of primitive man.

, In this country the Will-o'-the-Wisp has been connected with the
fairy race from early times, a fact proved by its old name of Elf-fire.
The same notion, too, existed in Germany ; for Grimm informs us that
it was there formerly known as Elglicht, and in Denmark as Yaettylis.

* Swainson's "Weather Lore" 193.


On this point Mr. Brand * has rightly remarked that the naturalists of
the dark ages " owed many obligations to our fairies, for, whatever
they found wonderful and could not account for, they easily got rid of
by charging to their account. Thus they called those which have
since been supposed to have been the heads of arrows or spears, before
the use of iron was known, J£ If shots.'''' In the same way Shakespeare
uses the expression " Elfish-marked " ; f and also speaks of Elf-locks in
" Romeo and Juliet " J :

"... This is that very Mab
That phits the manes of liorses in the night
And bakes the elf-locks in foul sluttish hairs,
"Which, once untangled, much misfortune bodes."

A disease, too, consisting of a hardness of the side was in days gone
by termed Elf-cake. Just, then, as the fairies were supposed to be
guilty of committing various pranks as seen in the sundry mishaps
that befall humanity, so the Will-o'-the-Wisp with its treacherous
light was reckoned among them. Thus Shakesj)eare represents Puck
as transforming himself into a fire, by which he clearly alluded to the
Will-o'-the-Wisp ; and it may be remembered how the fairy asks
him— §

"... Arc you not he
That fright the maidens of the villagerj,
Mislead night-wanderers, laughing at their harm ? "

We have already noticed, too, Shakespeare's allusion to Ariel's as-
suming this form, who, like Puck, is a fairy. The terra Puck, which is
evidently the same as the old word " Pouke," a devil or evil spirit,
still survives, although its spelling in lapse of years has become some-
what altered. The following passage from a modern writer || proves,
too, that in some places the idea of Puck as a delusive fairy haunting
the woods and fields is not yet extinct : " The peasants in certain dis-
tricts of Worcestershire say that they are sometimes what they call
' Poake-ledden,' that is, they are occasionally waylaid in the night by a
mischievous sj^rite whom they call Poake, who leads them into ditches,
bogs, pools, and other such scrapes, often sets up a loud laugh, and
leaves them, quite bewildered, in the lurch." This corresponds with
what in Devon is called being Pixy-led ; and various stories are told
how the frolicsome pixies deceive travelers with the Will-o'-the-Wisp,
and chuckle over their dismay when they are lost for a time on the moor.
By moonlight the Pixy-Monarch was supposed to hold his court, where,
like Titania, he gave his subjects their several chai'ges. Some were
sent to the mines, where they either good-naturedly led the miner to
the richest lode, or maliciously, by noises imitating the stroke of the

* " Popular Antiquities," 1849, ii, 490. f " Richard III," Act i, so. 3.
X " Rotaeo and Juliet," Act i, so. 4. § " Midsumnier-Xiglit's Dream," Act 1, sc. 1.

II " Mr. J. Aliies's " On the Ignis Fatuus."


hammer, and by " false fires," drew him on to the worst ore m the
mine. Countless are the stories told in Devonshire of these Pixy illu-
sions ; and a popular means of counteracting them was to turn one's
coat inside out — a remedy which appears to have been in use in other
parts of England, b3ing mentioned by Bishop Corbet in his "Iter Bo-


•• . . . William found
A mean for our deliverance. Turne your cloakes,
Qiioth hee, for Puck is busy in these oakes;
If ever wee at Bosworth Hill be found,
Then turne your cloakes, for this is fairy ground."'

In Cornwall, a strong belief prevails about the mischievous pranks
of the piskies, and they are the subject of numerous superstitions.
They are said to control the mist, and to have the power, when so
disposed, of casting a thick veil oyer the traveler as he returns home
after sunset. Hence the peasant may occasionally be heard uttering
the following petition with a certain degree of faith :

"Jack 0' the Lantern, Joan the wad.
Who tickled the maid and made her mad,
Light me home, the weather's bad."

By the Dorsetshire folk, this mysterious fairy is called a Pexy and
Colpexy ; and in Hampshire the Colt-pixy was the supposed sprite
who led horses into bogs and other outlandish places. Once more,
as a further proof of the connection of the elfin or fairy-face Avith the
ignis fatuus, it may be noted that "Mab-led," pronounced Mob-led,
signified led astray by a Will-o'-the-Wisp. Why, however, the fairy
Queen Mab should be thus introduced originated, no doubt, in her
fondness for playing jokes, as alluded to by Shakespeare in the pas-
sage already quoted above from " A Midsummer-Night's Dream."

According to Sir Walter Scott, the Will-o'-the-Wisp is a strolling
demon or specter, bent upon doing mischief, who once upon a time
gained admittance into a monastery as a scullion and played the
monks all kinds of pranks. The followers of Marmion attributed the
mysterious disasters that befell them at Gifford Castle to the guidance
of the assumed ecclesiastic — "The Cursed Palmer" — and expressed
the belief that it had been better for them had they been lantern-led
by Friar Rush :

" Wluit else but evil could betide,
With that cursed Palmer for our guide?
Better we had through mire and bush
Been lantern-led by Friar Rush."

The wandering demon, it seems, was known in many parts of
Scotland by the familiar name of " Spunkie," whose freaks and mis-
chievous character form the subject-matter of numerous lengthened
tales. Mr. Guthrie, in his "Scenes and Legends of the Vale of


Strathmore" (1875, page 100), tells us liow "many a poor benighted
wight hath this uneannie warlock driven to his wits'-end by his un-
couth gambols and deceptive light, and many a bold and valiant
'knight hath he laid hors de combat on the marshy plain." Milton in
his "Paradise Lost" (book ix, page 634), while explaining the phi-
losophy of this superstitious appearance, alludes to the notion which
associates it with an evil spirit in the well-known lines :

"... A wandering fire,
Compact of unctuous vapor, whicli the night
Condenses, and the cold environs round,
Kindled through agitation to a flame,
"Which oft, they say, some evil spirit attends.
Hovering and hlazing with delusive Hgiit,
Mi.-leads th' amazed niglit-wand'rer from his way
To bogs and mires, and oft through pond or pool,
There swallowed up and lost from succor far."

In Normandy, the peasant believes that the Will-o'-the-Wisp is a
cruel and malicious spirit whom it is highly dangerous to encounter.
jMademoiselle Bosquet, in her "Normandie Romanesque et Merveil-
leuse," §ays that it follows and persecutes any unfortunate person who
runs away from it ; his only chance of escape, when sore-pressed, be-
ing to throw himself on his face and to invoke the Divine assistance.
Hence the Feux Follet, as it is called, is a source of terror, and its
weird appearance is much dreaded by old and young ; many stories
being told of the injury done to unwary travelers by its wicked

Again, a Danish tradition affirms that Jack-o'-lantcrns are the
spirits of unrighteous men, who by a false glimmer seek to mislead
the wayfarer and to decoy him into bogs and moors. The best safe-
guard against them, when they appear, is to turn one's cap inside
out. One should never point at them, as they will come if pointed
at. It is also said that, if any one calls them, they will come and
light the person who called.* A popular belief in Sweden says that
" Jack-with-the-Lantern " was formerly a mover of landmarks, and
for his unjust acts is doomed to wander backward and forward with a
light in his hand, as if he were in search of something. Thus he who
in his lifetime has been guilty of such a crime is believed to have no
peace or rest in his grave after death, but to rise every midnight, and,
with a lantern in his hand, to proceed to the spot where in days gone
by the landmark had stood which he had fraudulently removed. On
reaching the place, however, he is seized, says Mr. Thorpe, with the
same desire which instigated him in his lifetime when he went forth
to remove his neighbor's landmark, and he says as he goes, in a harsh,
hoarse voice : " It is right ! it is right I it is right ! " But, on his return-
ing, qualms of conscience and anguish seize him, and he then exclaims :

* Thorpe's " Xorth-Gcrman Mythology," 1851, ii, 211.


•' It is wrong ! it is wrong ! it is wrong ! " There is also a Danish
tradition which informs us that near tSkovby, on the Isle of Falster,
there are many Jack-o'-Lanterns. They are believed to be the souls
of land-measurers, who, having in their lifetime perpetrated injustice
in their measurements, are doomed to run up Skovl)y bakke at mid-
night, which they measure with red-hot irons, exclaiming, "Here is
the clear and right boundary ! from here to there." By another cu-
rious notion the \Yill-o'-the- Wisps are represented to be the souls of
unbaptized children. On one occasion,* a Dutch parson, happening to
go home to his village late one evening, fell in with no less than three
of these fiery phenomena. Remembering them to be the souls of un-
baptized children, he solemnly stretched out his hand and pronounced
the words of baptism over them. Much, however, to his consternation
and surprise, in the twinkling of an eye a thousand or more of these
apparitions suddenly made their appearance — no doubt all earnestly
Avanting to be baptized. The good man, runs the story, was so terribly
frightened, that, forgetting all his kind intentions, he took to his heels
and ran home as fast as his legs could take him. In Lusatia, where
the same supei'stition prevails, these fires are supposed to be quite harm-
less, and the souls of the unbaptized children to be relieved from their
destined wanderings so soon as any pious hand throws a handful of
consecrated ground after them.f A Brittany piece of folk-lore is that
the " Porte-brandon " appears in the form of a child bearing a torch,
which he turns round like a burning wheel — occasionally setting fire to
the villages which from some inexplicable cause are suddenly wrapped
in flames. According to a Netherlandish tradition,^ because the souls
of these wretched children can not enter heaven, they, under the form
of "Jack-o'-Lanterns," take their abode in forests, and in dark and
desert places, where they mourn over their bitter lot. Whenever they
arc fortunate enough to see any one, they run up and hasten before
him, in order to show the way to some water, that they may get bap-
tized. Should no one take compassion on them, it is said that they
must for ever remain without the gates of paradise.

Among other legends connected with this subject, we may mention
one current on the Continent, thus recorded by Carl Engel : § On the
ridge of the high RhOn, near Bischofsheim, there are two morasses
— known as the red and black morass — where two villages are reported
to have stood which sunk into the earth on accoimt of the dissolute
life of the inhabitants. 1| On these two morasses there appear at night
maidens in the shape of dazzling apparitions of light. They float and
flutter over the light of their former home, but are now less frequently
seen than in the olden time. A good many years ago, two or three of

* Engel's "Jlusical Myths and Facts," 1876, i, 407.

I Thoms's "Xotclets on Shakespeare," 1865, 63.

X Thorpe's " North-German Mythology," iii, 220. § " Musical Myili? and Facts," 1, 208.

1 Cf. similar tale in Hunt's " Popular Romances of the West of England."


these fiery maidens came occasionally to the village of Wiistersachsen
and mingled with the dancers at wakes. They sang with inexpressible
sweetness ; but they never remained beyond midnight. When their
allowed time had elapsed there always came flying a white dove, which
they followed. Then they went to the mountain singing, and soon
vanished out of the sight of the people who followed, watching them
with curiosity. A Kormandy tradition says that the ifjnis fatims\%
the spirit of some unhappy woman, * who, as a punishment, is destined
to run lafouroUe to expiate her intrigues with a minister of the church ;
and on this account it is designated La Fourolle. * A somewhat simi-
lar belief once prevailed in this country, for we are toldf that the
lights which are usually seen in churchyards and moorish places were
represented by the popish clergy to be "souls come out of purgatory
all in flame, to move the people to pray for their entire deliverance ;
by which they gulled them of much money to say mass for them, every
one thinking it might be the soul of his or her deceased relations."
This superstition is alluded to in the " Comical Pilgrim's Pilgrimage
into Ireland " (1723, page 92): "An ignis fatuiis the silly people deem
to be a soul broken out of purgatory." It is also said that the "NVill-
o'-the-Wisp is the soul of a priest J who has been condemned to ex-
piate his vows of perpetual chastity by wandering about ; and Mr.
Thoms says it is very probable that it is to some similar belief exist-
ing in this country at the time when he wrote that Milton alludes in
" L' Allegro," when he says :

" She was pinched and pulled, she said,
And he by Friar's lanthorn led."

Once more, in Altmark, AVill-o'-the-Wisps are supposed to be souls
of lunatics Unable to rest in their graves, and are known as " Light-
men." Although they may sometimes mislead, they often guide right-
ly, especially if a small coin be thrown them.

Such, then, are some of the principal legends and superstitions
that have been connected with this strange phenomenon, the majority
of which, while investing it with a supernatural origin, regard it as an
object of terror ; and, on this account, in our own and other countries,
the peasantry still look upon it as a thing to be avoided. It was for-
merly thought to have something ominous in its nature, and to presage
death and other misfortune. Thus, in Buckinghamshire,§ a species of
this phenomenon, locally known as "the wat," was said to haunt pris-
ons. Oftentimes before the arrival of the judges at the assizes it has,
we are told, been known to make its appearance like a little flame, be-
ing considered fatal to every prisoner to whom it became visible. The

* See Mademoiselle Bosquet's " Normandie Romanesque et Merveilleuse/'
f " A Wonderful History of all the Storms, etc., and Lights that lead Teople out of
their Way in the Night," 1704, 75, quoted by Brand, "Pop. Antiq." iii, 390.

X Thoms's " Xotelcts on Shakespeare," 65. § Brand's " Top. Antiq.," iii, 402.


same dread is attached to it in Sussex, and Mrs. Latham, in her " "West
Sussex Superstitions," * tells us that in a village where she once resided
the direction of its rapid, undulating movement was always carefully
obsei-ved, from an anxiety to ascertain where it would disappear, as it
was believed to be

"The hateful messenger of heavy things,
Of death and dolor telling "

to the inhabitants of the house nearest that spot. Considerable alarm
was on one occasion created by a pale light being observed to move
over the bed of a sick person, and, after flickering for some time in
different parts of the room, to vanish through the window. It hap-
pened, however, that the mystery was soon afterward cleared up, for,
as Mrs. Latham tells us, " when reading in her room after midnight,
all at once something fell upon the open page and appeared to have
ignited it. She soon perceived that the light proceeded from a lumi-
nous insect, which proved to be the male glowworm." In the same
way the " corpse-candle " in Wales, also called the '* fetch-light," or
" dead-man's candle," is regarded as an ominous sign, and believed to
be a forerunner of death. Sometimes it appears in the form of a plain
tallow-candle in the hand of a ghost, and at other times it looks like a
'• stately flambeau, stalking along unsupported, burning with a ghast-
ly blue flarae.".f It is considered dangerous to interfere with this fatal
portent ; and persons who have attempted to check its course are re-
})orted to have come severely to grief, many actually being struck
down where they stood, as a punishment for their audacity. A Car-
marthenshire tradition, recorded by Mr. Wirt Sikes, relates that one
day, when the coach which runs between Llandilo and Carmarthen was
passing by Golden Grove, three corpse-candles were observed on the
surface of the water gliding down the stream which runs near the road.
All the passengers saw them. A few days after, some men were about
to cross the river near there, when one of them expressed his fear at
venturing, as the I'iver was flooded, and he remained behind. Thus
the fatal number crossed the river — three — three corpse-candles hav-
ing foretold their fate ; and all were drowned. In conclusion, we
would only add that Will-o'-the-Wisps have long ago happily disap-
peared from all marshes and lowlands as soon as drained and brought
under cultivation — these "wild-fires," as they have been called, pre-
ferring some supposed haunted and desolate bog for their habitation.
— Gentlemcui's Magazine.

* "Folk-Lorc Record," i, 52. f Wirt Sikes, " British Goblins," 139.




WHEX examining a question of possible corruption, or any form
of crime, we find that nearly all men take a somewhat cynical
view. So common is this that we may safely say that it applies to all
who know the world. Yet a careful examination of facts, though
giving us a vague idea of the real proportion of crime, must finally
convince us that cynicism is simply the sentinel on guard to warn us
against possible injury from exceptional qualities in others. It is clear
that cynicism is due to the fact that there still remain traces of a mutu-
ally devouring condition of development. But this destructive posi-
tion in thought ought not to remain extreme long after the advancing
light has modified the conditions that partly justified it. In truth,
there is in the nature of things a check to the cynical tendency in the
fact that the realization of severity in thought is impeded by consid-
erations that involve some deliberation. Thought and imagination
easily lead to extreme conclusions never carried to a practical result,
because it is often so much easier to think, and requires so much less
time than to act. In other words, the thought may be cynical, but the
every-day action is generally in accordance with the assumjjtion that
men are trustworthy.

As the advances are made directly through the influence of practi-
cal and talented men, and indirectly through the deepest thinkers, it
follows that a low opinion of the general intelligence and morality
tends to discourage all but men of genius, to decrease the number

Online LibraryD. S. (David Samuel) MargoliouthThe Popular science monthly (Volume 19) → online text (page 9 of 110)