Friday, December 14, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

After a bit of thought, I've decided to continue the Friday harbingers of death theme right through to the New Year. Winter, after all, tended to be a time when our ancestors in northern climes would dwell on the passing of life. No wonder, either; when it is dark and cold and there is very little to do outside the home (in agrarian societies at least) one's thoughts naturally turn inward. And sometimes those thoughts included mortality.

Will-o-the-wisps, corpse candles and elf lights are not a phenomena, scientifically speaking, that occur only in the far north. It is there, though, that they seem to have been most often seen and discussed. The scientific explanation for hovering lights that float over the ground in particular areas is methane gas leaking up from under soggy, marshy or even corpse-strewn ground. In specific conditions, this gas will ignite creating glowing orbs of phosphorescent light.

Such explanations meant nothing to our ancestors. In fact, they're rather boring, comparatively.

In France, Germany, Scandinavian countries and the British Isles, these blue-green flickers were thought to be the spirits of the dead. What kind of dead - sad, lonely or vengeful - depended on where the lights were seen and what they did.

Corpse candles appeared most often in graveyards and were thought to be the spirits of the dead either warning the living of coming doom or simply retracing their final path: from their home to their grave. It was said that corpse candles were sometimes seen wandering the path to the graveyard from a house that had not lost a soul. This was a sign that there would soon be a death in that family.

In wilder areas, such as lonely bogs, Will-o-the-wisps were seen bobbing above the soggy ground. These sad, lost souls were said to try to bring themselves company by luring the wayward traveler into the muck. There he or she would be lost to drowning or exposure and the Will-o-the-wisp would not be alone anymore.

In other instances, the lights were lost children. Killed by a parent, stillborn or unbaptized, these little lights which were often said to be white rather than blue, also tried to draw the observer into a deadly situation. They preyed, it was whispered, only on adults and thereby exacted their revenge on the people who had condemned them to everlasting limbo.

In Celtic countries, the Jack-o-lantern was not included among these harbingers of death. Originally carved from turnips, pumpkins being a New World fruit, the effigies of Jack were said to recall a man who made a deal with the Devil and then tricked Old Scratch into letting him keep his soul. Denied both Heaven and Hell at his death, Jack was said to guard humans against his fate by scaring away the Devil's minions. In the New World, though, Jack has joined the army of Will-o-the-wisps looking to take human lives.

In the American south, we're told that wearing your clothes inside out or - more practically - carrying a new, steel-blade knife, will keep Jack from tricking you into following him into the bayou where you might be lost forever.

The Scottish and Irish did not imagine these spooky lights as only male. There they were sometimes known as Joan of the Wad or Kitty-o-wisp. Lost souls came from both genders, after all.

Some literary historians opine that Shakespeare's character Puck, the elfin narrator of his most psychedelic play A Midsummer Night's Dream, was the Bard's attempt at personifying the fabled elf light. They point to one of Puck's soliloquies which begins:

Now is the time of night,
That the graves all gape wide.
Every one lets forth his sprite,
In the church-way paths to glide. 

It seems a thin thread to cling to, at least to my mind, but it also seems hard to know what old Will was about with that play.

On a final, and completely unrelated note, my thanks go out to Undine of The World of Poe blog for her generous nomination of both Triple P and HQ for a Lovely Blog Award. More on that here but, most importantly, thank you dear Undine. You are far too kind.

Header: Danse Macabre from the church of La Ferte-Loupiere via Wikipedia Francais


Timmy! said...

Another very cool post, Pauline.

Congrats again on the award.

Sadly, it looks like there will be a lot more Will-o-the-wisps in Connecticut this winter.

Mike Hebert said...

feu follet for south Louisiana. I don't know if you mentioned it before, Pauline.

From Dictionary of Louisiana French:
Et le monde avait une frayeur que si le fufollet aurait tombé sur eux, il les aurait tués.

And the people were terrified that if the will -o'-the wisp landed on them, it would kill them. (fufollet is given as another spelling)

I can't find the book that tells you what to do if you come across one. Put a knife in the ground or something like that.

Pauline said...

Timmy! Troubled times breed trouble; I'm brought to mind of the movie "Brave."

Mike: Thank you for adding to this post. I remember seeing them on Bayou Rigolets. My aunt said there was nothing to be afraid of as long as a dog was around. Not sure where that came from, though.