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. pp. 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.
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7 thoughts on “In Search of the Real Will o’ Wisp

  1. I read something about will 0′ wisps recently but of course now I can’t remember in what context. I enjoyed your compilation of possible explanations. And suitably spooky illustration. (K)

    1. Thanks, Kerfe! We tried to get one more spooky post in before Halloween. By the way, I really liked the netsuke skeleton illustration, and am looking forward to seeing what else you all do for Halloween Week!

  2. Very interesting post! I’ve attended a couple of ‘Night Stalker’ walks at our local preserve, where they taught us to be alert for the ‘eye shine’ of various animals in the dark – so fascinating. Love your wonderful illustration, too!

  3. Great article! I had not known that birds are among the proposed explanations!

    Will-o’-the-wisps are a subject of recent interest, as my girlfriend and I encountered a large one in Bedfordshire in mid 2001. Some years later I posted a description of the event online, in hopes that someone might offer a possible explanation, and more recently I received a reply that said that our encounter sounded exactly like a Will-o’-the-wisp. After some research, I have to agree that we came within a few metres of a huge will-o’-the-wisp. Close enough to hear it, feel it’s warmth on our skin, and even smell it!

    Our detailed description is too long to post here, but you can read it in its entirety at: https://www.quora.com/Has-anyone-seen-a-genuine-UFO-What-was-it-like/answer/Nick-Visick

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