This Week’s Prompt: 114. Death lights dancing over a salt marsh.
The Resulting Story: Marshlights
Strange lights floating over wild places are well accounted for in Northern Europe and beyond—the dancing will-o-wisp or Ignis Fatuus is a rather common trope around the world. A number of countries ascribe their origins to the dead stuck wandering the world—they are in Sweden the dead who have left unfinished business, in Denmark they are spirits of unbaptized children seeking baptism by leading to water. In parts of England they are torches carried by lantern men or by the famed Robin Goodfellow. Stories of their origins however are varied.
One from England tells us of a man named Will who spent a life time of wickedness as a smith—yet when a traveler was in need of a new wheel for his cart, Will quickly repaired it. As luck would have it, the traveler was none other than Saint Peter, who granted any wish Will wanted. Will asked to live his life again and—instead of repenting—lived another life of debauchery and wickedness. Having now finished two lives of sin, he expected hell’s gates to open for him. But they were barred. The Devil told Will that, with his experience in sin, he would easily overcome the Devil were he let in. So he was sent back. Of course, such deeds barred him from Heaven as well—and so Will now wonders the world, with only an ember of Hell to keep him warm on the swamp lands.
A comparable tale—traveling Saint Peter, blacksmith given wishes, banned from Hell—comes from Thuringia, Germany. This time, Saint Peter granted him three boons—as long as he didn’t “forget the best”. The man asked for two magical powers, that none could enter his house without his permission except through the keyhole and that any who climbed his pear tree couldn’t come down without his permission. And for his third wish, rather than eternal happiness, he asked for a never ending bottle of schnapps that granted eternal youth. And with these, he trapped both Death and the Devil and lived happily. That is until all his neighbors and friends died. He then went to Heaven’s gates, but Saint Peter rejected him for not asking for the Best—that is, eternal happiness. This smith then dwells under the mountain with the Emperor, shoeing his knights until they return.
In Wales, a man named Sion Daffyd made a deal with the Devil, on the condition that if he could cling to something successfully the Devil could not take him. The Devil eventually came and seized him—but Sion begged he be allowed to taste an apple to wet his lips for hell. The Devil consented, and predictably Sion clung to the tree for dear life. The Devil relented. Heaven however still banned him, and so Sion became a fairy.
A similar Jack exists in Nova Scotia, Canada—perhaps unsurprising given the colonial origins. Here, notably, the Devil is the one to grant the wishes instead of Saint Peter. Still, the effect is the same—the devil is bound first to a spot, then up a tree, and then told to transport sand from one side of the counter to the other, one grain at a time. At last, he gives up in frustration and casts out the all to clever Jack. He gives him a lantern to roam with, ever after.
In Cambridgeshire, in the Fens, there is a particular kind of will-o-wisp. This apparition appears to be a man on horseback, running and holding a lantern aloft. We can find also a strange fiend here called the Lantern Man. While it’s not specified that this particular marsh fiend glows, his name associates him with the other foolish lights. Hunters keep some distance from the creature, as whistling for dogs will attract him and the only way to escape his wrath is to lie face down and fill your mouth with mud so that the fiery fiend will pass you without incident.
In Nova Scotia, there are stories of strange balls of fire—flames of unknown origin, more often then just the dead. A man walking home once saw a rabbit on his foot, and when he kicked it, it erupted into painless fire. The man was then struck by an immense weight until he managed to get home.
The Lantern Man connects us to a more distant group of ominous fires. In Trinidad, we have a variant of the demon tree story, associated with local witches. These witches, as we mentioned here when discussing swamp creatures of Louisiana and the surrounding region, shed their skin at night to take the form of flying balls of light and gather blood for their patron held in a tree. Louisiana itself has another strange swamp creature, Nalusa Falaya whose young are said to resemble children and float glowing in the swamps to lead travelers astray. They manage to float by removing their innards, allowing them to be perverse balloons. The Nalusa Falaya’s face is so dreadful that, if seen, it will knock a grown man unconscious. And while they are fallen over, the fiendish shadowy creature will put a curse on them to spread to all they meet.
The Choctaw also tell of the Hashok Okwa Hui’ga in traditional stories. This being can only be seen at night, and even then only its heart can be seen. It lives near swamps, and attempts to lure people astray. In order to avoid being trapped, one must look away immediately upon spotting the glow. Otherwise, you will wander in circles without end.
Back to Wales, we have another swamp light—a creature called the Ellylldan. This creature lives on the edges of swamps, and glows with light. As it passes, nearby swamp creatures grow silent—and its light fades as one approaches, reappearing brilliantly as one moves. Often these creatures dance in the marshes and put men to sleep, and at least one account claims they are the same as the Pooka. This creature appears often in stories, mischievous and cruel. For our purposes, he too carries a lantern and leads travelers astray—often to high cliffs, near rushing rivers, where they nearly fall in before he escapes laughing.
One note I came across that interests me about these lights is the gradual decline of the creatures, as bogs and swamps are drains. In Wales and Manx, the cultivated field of the farmer explicitly made the region difficult or impossible for the fires to survive in. They thus have something of a tragic quality, as their environment is consumed. In Cambridgeshire, an observer noted that the loss of the bog and the increase in light pollution meant there were less and less will-o-wisps seen these days. There is, perhaps, a metaphor for the retreat of magic from modernity in that image. The fools light was dangerous and mischievous, but perhaps missed in the current times.
But beyond that, the nature of these lights from European lore seems durable. They are alluring lights, often of dead men but not always, who strive to lure you away from your path and often to your doom. Many are nefarious, wicked creatures—some the remains of men so clever and wicked that even the devil himself couldn’t match them. They live in swamps and often traveled but uninhabited places, and are often knowledgable in some way. Very few stories, strangely, mention actual deaths resulting from the lights. They are a nuisance more than a menace, which means drawing horror from them might require some stretching and creativity.
I have excluded two other mysterious lights for now, as not being exactly, well, marsh related. One is St. Elmo’s fire, a sea born anomaly where parts of a ship appear to be aflame. More extreme and out of my normal study—although not too far out—is the appearance of lights as UFOs. Most famously, there are the Foo Fighters (ah, not the band) who were sighted by World War II bombing crews. The idea of fairy concepts being repurposed into alien imagery is not without precedent—there has been research and discussion of how alien abduction and changeling or other fae stealing stories are markedly similar in details and distribution.
The other thing is the phrase “death lights” and the alluring, transfixing nature reminds me of Stephen King’s It, where the Dead Lights preform a similar role. In It they are of course more malevolent, consuming forces instead of mere tricksters—they drive men mad and consume their soul! There is also one of the most famous lights in Lovecraft, that haunts a blasted heath—the Color Out of Space, which is dangerous to have contact with and behold.
Bushnell, David I. “Myths of the Louisiana Choctaw.” American Anthropologist, vol. 12, no. 4, 1910, pp. 526–535. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/659795. Accessed 7 July 2020.
Cashen, William. Manx Folklore. Published by Douglas Johnson, 1912.
Jackson, Georgina F. Shropshire Folklore. Edited by Charlotte Sophia. Burne, 1883.
Sikes, Wirt. British Goblins: Welsh Folk-Lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. James R Osgood and Company, 1881.