In Search of the Real Will o’ Wisp

hinkypunksJML

Strange roving lights in remote areas have long perplexed eyewitnesses. What possibly could be responsible for this odd nighttime phenomena? Wandering ghosts? Mischievous demons? How about fairies or elves? This Halloween, take your pick. All have at one time or another been suggested.

Speculation has also considered some natural sources. As we shall see, a few ideas seeking to explain this eerie luminescence—known the world over by names such as Will o’ wisp, Hinkypunk, Min Min light, La Luz Mala, and Hitodama—involve birds. Do any of these “theories” help put this mystery to rest?

Birds of Light

Incredible tales have alleged the luminosity of certain avian animals. For instance, the ancient Roman historian Pliny reports in his Natural History (Book 10, Chapter 47) of birds in the German forest of Hercinia that could glow at night. In the mid-nineteenth century, an eyewitness attested to having seen an American bittern illuminating “from its breast to enable it to discover its prey” (1). A few decades later, in 1907, a publication from a local naturalists’ society in Britain linked flying owls to the enigmatic lights long associated with the paranormal (2). The support for such claims obviously remains weak.

No scientific evidence exists demonstrating that birds are capable of bioluminescence. However, such a characteristic has been detected in other lifeforms. Among these are several types of fungi. Speculation has suggested that birds nesting in rotting trees could get light-producing fungi on their feathers. Thus, according to this line of thinking, parts of these winged creatures when airborne may glow at night. While undoubtedly an intriguing idea, skepticism remains regarding fungi’s role in the Will o’ wisp sightings (3, 4).

Upon Further Reflection

Bioluminescence is not the only possible natural explanation. Light does not have to be produced by a living organism; it can also be reflected from ambient sources. And the latter process might account for some of the Will o’ wisp sightings. At certain angles, moonlight could relay off birds’ eyes (specifically their tapeta lucida) or patches of white feathers. Keep in mind, too, that water from a pond or marsh would enhance reflective possibilities. Interestingly, “ghost lights,” “corpse candles,” “elf fire,” and the like are frequently seen around bogs and rivers.

Of course, there’s little likelihood that avian creatures are involved in all sightings. Other explanations include atmospheric conditions, the combustion of released methane gas from decomposed organic material, and possible chemical reactions involving bacteria-like organisms called extremophiles (5). In addition, one cannot rule out hoaxes and mischief-makers, optical illusions, and psychological factors such as poor memory recall, the power of suggestion, and overactive imaginations. An assortment of these—not just birds—are probably behind the mysterious lights.

So, for now, the source of the Will o’ wisp is not clear.  One could say that it remains hidden in the dark.

Sources:

  1. Whitmore, WH. “Bittern”. Notes & Queries: A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, Etc. (Third Series, Second Volume). Various authors. London: Bell & Daldy, 1962. p. 360.
  2. Sparks, J., Soper, T. Owls. Newton Abbot, Devon., United Kingdom: David & Charles, 1995. p. 196-197.
  3. Silcock, F. “A Review of accounts of luminosity in Barn Owls Tyto alba”, 6/4/2004. The Owl Pages: http://www.owlpages.com/articles.php?section=Studies+and+Papers&title=Min+Min.
  4. Edwards, HGM, “Will-o’-the-Wisp: an ancient mystery with extremophile origins?”, 11/3/2014. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society: http://rsta.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/372/2030/20140206.short.
  5. Edwards, HGM.

Devil Birds and Black Magic

A-wing and A-way

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For our ancestors, the presence of supernatural evil was an accepted reality. Sinister forces were thought to organize in secret under the cover of darkness, often hidden or in disguise, so as to inflict harm and damnation. Folks believed demons and witches conspired against them by possessing or controlling other life forms, such as snakes, felines, wolves, and bats. Many birds, too, came to be viewed with suspicion.

To Hell and Back

The most obvious of potential offenders were those associated with darkness. Birds with black plumage, such as crows and ravens, fell easily into this category, commonly linked with witchcraft in places such as Germany and Russia (1). According to the prominent naturalist and science journalist Ernest Ingersoll, many European cultures once believed that crows made an annual descent to hell to pay tribute to the devil (2). Superstitions like these undoubtedly have helped cement in popular consciousness…

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Scarecrow Season

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It’s a Halloween theme that never dies. With the change in leaves, we expectantly welcome back age-old superstitions involving haunted houses, campfire ghost stories, and horror-flick “Creature Features.” And to this lot belongs another perennial favorite: the traditional scarecrow.

Unlike those other things, though, hay-stuffed rags on sticks don’t really terrify people. Heck, scarecrows aren’t even good at frightening away birds. Our winged neighbors are quite smart and resourceful. In seemingly taunting fashion, crows and rooks will perch on these figures.

Nevertheless, many folks couldn’t care less that conventional scarecrows don’t work. With creative glee and fondness, people throughout the world display them during harvest festivals. Several years ago, one guy in the U.K. actually crafted one resembling Lady Gaga!

Making Them Scary (Sort of)                   

The best scarecrow is a living one. That’s why pre-adolescent boys were the optimal choice for guarding crops and shooing feathered pests away. However, the Black Plague changed this. By the fourteenth century, due to a scarcity of people both young and old, British farmers had no choice but to post more effigies (1). Scarecrows likely did little more, though, than give birds pause.

The use of these figures, of course, goes back long before the late Middle Ages. We find them in texts such as the Old Testament (Jeremiah 10:5) and Columella’s first-century De Re Rustica. Their forms varied from culture to culture. The ancient Greeks and Romans, for example, relied on wood-carved images of the agricultural fertility god Priapus (2).

In many cases, ancient strawmen also served ritual purposes. Some folks, however, have further proposed that the burning of effigies were sacrificial harvest rites. These assertions, while influential, are not well supported. “It has become a standard assumption of romantic folklore that such figures are substitutes for ancient human sacrifices,” explains Juliette Wood, professional folklorist and faculty member at Cardiff University in the United Kingdom, “but there is no solid evidence for this.” (3)

Perhaps inspired by these dark notions, America’s entertainment industry has added its own sinister interpretations. Most notable are the early villain of the Batman comics, the human cadavers maimed and bound like scarecrows in Stephen King’s 1977 short story Children of the Corn, and the vengeful figure of the 1981 made-for-television movie Dark Night of the Scarecrow. A slew of horror films have since followed, stumbling onto the big screen during recent decades.

A New Era

Just as society’s views towards scarecrows have shifted to the odd and creepy (for our own recreational purposes), attempts at frightening our avian counterparts have also continued. Strawman figures have entered the machine age. Some incorporate pyrotechnics, sound, and motion for better results; most of today’s farmers resort to an array of technological gadgetry (4, 5, 6) that looks nothing like the character in The Wizard of Oz.

So, bygone is the scarecrow’s “hayday,” as its longstanding popularity as an agricultural tool has declined. What remains of the stilted icon is just symbolic, a representation of the community harvest and simpler periods in agrarian history. Nevertheless, these traditional figures still make for cool Halloween decorations. And the birds don’t seem to mind.

Sources:

  1. Holyoake, G. Scarecrows. London, UK: Unicorn Press, 2006. pp. 22-29.
  2. Holyoake, G. pp. 14, 65, 66, 193.
  3. Wood, J. “‘The Great Scarecrow In Days Long Ago’: Gothic Myths and Family Festivals”. JulietteWood.com: http://www.juliettewood.com/papers/scarecrow.pdf.
  4. Holyoake, G. pp. 59-63.
  5. Marsh, RE, Erickson, WA, Salmon, TP. “Scarecrows and Predator Models for Frightening Birds from Specific Areas”, 3/1/1992. Proceedings of the Fifteenth Pest Vertebrate Conference: http://digitalcommons.unl.edu/vpc15/49/.
  6. Baker, S, Singleton, G, Smith, R. “The nature of the beast: using biological processes in vertebrate pest management”. Key Topics in Conservation Biology. MacDonald, D, Service, K (editors). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. pp. 178-180.