Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons, 1847

Henry Duncan (1847), Ignis Fatuus, or Wildfire; in Sacred Philosophy of the Seasons. Harper and Brothers. pp.25-30.

One of the curious atmospheric phenomena of winter, the nature of which is not well understood, and still less its use in the economy of Providence, is that shining vapor which generally makes its appearance in moist weather, in marshy ground, known to the Romans by the name of ignis fatuus, and called, at this day, 'Will-o'-the-Wisp,'—'Jack-with-the-lantern,' and a variety of other names, all of them indicating the supersitious feeling with which it is associated in the minds of the vulgar. This paper shall be chiefly occupied with some accounts that have been published of the various appearances which the phenomenon assumes. The first I shall quote, is that of a writer in a public journal, who subscribes himself 'A Farmer,' and expresses himself with such amusing simplicity, in describing some of the ordinary vagaries of this reputed sprite, that the homeliness of the style requires no apology.

"I was riding thorough a wet boggy part of the road, that lies between my house and the mill, when a little sleety shower, with a strong blast of wind, came suddenly upon me, and made it so very dark, that I could scarcely see my old mare's white head. I began to consider with myself, whether it would be better to turn my back to the storm, and wait till it was past, or take my chance of letting my horse find its own way, when I saw something bright, dancing in the air beore me. You may be sure I was startled a little at this; for the rain was pouring so fast, and the wind was blowing so strong, that no ordinary fire could stand it; so I whipt up my horse to get out of the way as fast as I could; but to go fast was out of the question, with such an old mare, such a bad road, and so heavy a burden; and, besides, I soon found that it served me in no stead, for the light still kept waving before my eyes; so I thought it would be best to go slowly, and try if I could find out what it was.

"You may think how surprised I was, when I discovered, that the top of my whiplash was all in a flame. I had at first almost thrown it out of my hand in my fright; but, on second thoughts, I did not like to do that, for fear of losing it, as it was nearly new, and a present from my uncle John. I therefore whisked it about in my hand, and whipped my horse with it, thinking to make the flame go out; but, though it turned dim for a few minutes, it soon became brighter than ever. Just at this time, I heard the sound of a foot before me; and, when I looked, I saw very distinctly the marks of footsteps all on fire, close beside me; but it was so dark, I could not see whether any person was there or not. Soon afterward, I got upon better road, and my poor mare, who was herself frightened, jogged faster on; so I saw no more of it. I am happy to tell you, that I got home without a broken neck, and found all well there, which was more than I expected; for I verily believed it was a dead light, or an elf candle, or some other bad omen."(Dumfries Courier, 20th December, 1809.)

M. Boccari mentions, that a light of this kind appeared to a gentleman of his acquaintance, as he was travelling in the neighborhood of Bologna, in Italy, where it is very common. It moved constantly before him for about a mile, and gave a better light than a torch that was carried by his servant. Sometimes it rose, and sometimes sunk, but hovered commonly about six feet from the ground. Sometimes it appeared like waves, and, at other times, seemed to drop sparks of fire. It was little affected by the wind; but, during a shower of rain, it became brighter.

A very remarkable account of a will-o'-the-wisp, is given by Dr. Shaw, in his Travels in the Holy Land. It appeared in one of the valleys of Mount Ephraim, and attended him and his company for more than an hour. Sometimes it would seem globular, or in the shape of the flame of a candle. At other times, it would spread to such a degree as to involve the whole company in a pale inoffensive light, then contract itself, and suddenly disappear; but, in less than a minute, would appear again. Sometimes, running swiftly along, it would expand itself, at certain intervals, over more than two or three acres of the adjacent mountains. The atmosphere, from the beginning of the evening, had been remarkably thick and hazy; and the dew, as they felt it on the bridles of their horses, was clammy and unctuous.

In the Appendix to Dr. Priestley's third volume of Experiments and Observations on Air, M. Waltire gives and account of some very remarkable ignes fatui which he observed, about five miles from Birmingham, on the 12th December, 1776, before daylight in the morning. A great many of these lights were playing in a neighboring field, in different directions; from some of which, there suddenly sprang up bright branches of light, something resembling the explosion of a rocket, that contained many brilliant stars; and the hedge, with the trees on each side of the hedge, was illuminated. This appearance continued but a few seconds, and then the will-o'-the-wisps played as before. M. Waltire was not near enough to observe if the apparent explosions were attended by any report.

From these and other facts which have been recorded, and indeed from the familiar occurrences of the winter months, it appears, that the ignis fatuus belongs to a class of phenomena which may prove that light and heat, though so intimately connected, may exist separately; or, to speak more correctly, that the peculiary substance, whatever it may be, in which these qualities inhere, contains sometimes the one in a latent state, and sometimes the other. This, is only another remarkable property of that most wonderful substance which seems to pervade universal nature, and to combine the various phenomena of electricity, of galvanism, and probably also of magnetism, along with those of light and heat, sometimes in a quiescent, and sometimes in a highly active state.

The phenomena of light without heat, are not so frequently the subject of observation as those of heat without light; but various wellknown, and indeed familiar, instances of the latter do occur. Of this kind is the light of the glowworm; of fire-flies; of the Medusa tribe, which are diffused so plentifully over the surface of the sea, in tropical regions; of other marine productions; of the scales of fish; and of animal and vegetable substances in the process of putrefaction. Nor must we forget the beams of the moon, which, so far from exhibiting the presence of heat, are even said by some to be slightly chilling.

An attempt, more ingenious, I think, than successful, has been made to connect the light of the ignis fatuus with the phenomena of falling stars, which may be shortly stated. It is supposed, that some phosphoric fluid, arising from the decomposition of animal or vegetable substances, passes into the atmosphere, and continues to float there, without mixing with the atmosphere itself; that this fluid, when it appears in the form of a will-o'-the-wisp, becomes ignited, by some means, near the surface of the earth, at a certain point; and that this ignition communicates itself successively to other portions of the same fluid, with which it comes in contact, occasioning that apparently capricious flitting from place to place, for which this meteor is remarkable; and, it is further supposed, that other portions of a similar fluid pass, unilluminated, to the higher regions of the air, in a continued column, till they ascend above the region of the clouds, where, from some chemical cause, the upper part of the column takes fire, and the ignition is carried backward to the portions with which it is in connexion. Such is the hypothesis; and it might certainly account for some of the appearances; but it is quite inadequate to the explanation of others; and as to the phenomena of falling stars, recent discoveries have suggested views on that subject, of a nature far more extensive and sublime.

In the next paper for Monday, I shall advert more particularly to some phosphorescent appearances which seem to resemble those of the ignis fatuus, and which may perhaps ultimately assist in discovering the natural cause of the phenomenon; and in the mean time, without attempting to explain it, I shall merely say, that, whatever may be its own sphere of utility, there can be no doubt it is conencted with a principle which abundantly exhibits the perfections of the great Creator.

We conclude this account with a beautiful description of these appearances, extracted from the 'British Georgics,' a work of the amiable author of 'The Sabbath.'

"Sometimes November nights are thick bedimmed
With hazy vapors floating o'er the ground,
Or veiling rom the view the starry host;
At such a time, on plashy mead or fen
A faintish light is seen, by southern swains
Called Will-o'-Wisp; sometimes from rushy bush
To bush it leaps, or, criss a little rill,
Dances from side to side in winding race.
Sometimes with stationary blaze it gilds
The heifer's horns; or plays upon the mane
Of farmer's horse returning rom the fair,
And lights him on his way, yet often proves
A treacherous guide, misleading from the path
To faithless bogs, and solid seeming ways.
Sometimes it haunts the churchyard, up and down
The tombstones' spoky rail streaming, it shows
Faint glimpses o the rustic sculptor's art,
Time's scythe and hour-glass, and the grunning skull
And bones transverse, which, at an hour like this,
To him, who passing, casts athwart the wall
A fearful glance, speak with a warning knell."

Sean B. Palmer