Notes and Queries, 1855

Anonymous "E.G.R." (1855), Will o' the Wisp. In "Notes and Queries", 13th October 1855, p.290. Refers also to a question in Volume xii, p.167.

Will O' The Wisp.
(Vil. xii., p. 167.)

I have often seen this, although it is every day becoming more rare from the extension of drainage. The first I saw was in a fenny bog called "Quy Bottom," a few miles from Cambridge, on the Newmarket road. I have seen them since, both in Norfolk and Suffolk. Probably W. might procure a sight of one if he would inquire of some rustic where they most frequently occur. But for this purpose he must know the venacular name in the district in which he lives. In Herts they are called "hob o' lanterns," or "hobby-lanterns." Along the valley of the Waveney they are called "Syleham lamps," from a village in Suffolk named Syleham, where formerly they were common, although now destroyed by good drainage. In Norfolk they are called "lantern-men," and it is popularly believed that if a man with a lighted lantern goes near one, the enraged "lanternman" will knock him down and burst his lantern to pieces. More than one labourer, whose truthfulness I have no reason to question, has assured me that such a thing has happened to himself. Quest, Can the lighted lantern have ignited the gas, and caused an explosion, which has startled the rustic and burst his lantern? I have generally seen them at the end of October and beginning of November, probably because the marsh vegetation is then beginning to decay. But I find in my diary that I saw one on the second day of March, 1844.

I do not think that any one could be led astray by a Will o' the Wisp. Its appearance is so peculiar, and its movements so fanstastic, that I cannot imagine it to be mistaken for a light in a house, or a lantern carried by a man. In Norfolk a person who has lost his way, and cannot find a gate or stile, with the situation of which he ought to be familiar, and is in fact utterly bewildered, is said to be "ledwilled." A common remedy with rustics, in such a case, is to turn the left stocking wrong side outwards, and then to renew the search. Forby, and after him Halliwell, derive this phrase "ledwilled" from being led by Will o' the Wisp. But I am inclined to suggest a different origin for it. There is an obsolete adjective "wille," given by Halliwell and Jamieson, signifying lost in doubt: "will of wone," at a loss for a habitation; "will of rede," without advice. Jamieson compares it with Su. G., will, Isl. vill-a, error; Isl. vill-az, to lead astray. He has also, "Wilsum, in a wandering state, implying the ideas of dreariness and ignorance of one's way." This, in Old English, seems to have been wilful. For, in the Robin Hood ballad (Percy's Reliques), Sir Guy of Gisborne says :

"'I am wilful of my way,' quo' the yeman,
 'And of my morning tyde.'
'I'll lead thee through the wood,' sayd Robin,
 'Good fellow, I'll be thy guide.'"

This word, like the Scotch wilsum, seems to answer completely to the Norfolk "ledwilled," which thus would mean "will of leading, at a loss to guide oneself." In the notes to Canto IV. of The Lady of the Lake, Scott quotes from Jamieson's translation of the Kæmpe Viser :

"'Up, will of rede, the husbande stood,
Wi' heart fu' sad and sair," &c.

To which he appends the following glossorial note :

"Will of rede, bewildered in thought; in the Danish original vildraadage, Lat. inopa consilii; Gr. ἀπορωψ."

"This expression," he adds, "is obsolete in the Danish as well as in the English." If, however, my conjectural etymology be correct, it is not obsolete in the Norfolk dialect.   E. G. R.

The original question is from Sept. 1. 1855], on p.167 as noted: "Will o' the Wisp. — Has any reader of N. & Q." ever seen that kind of light which is popularly designated as the "Will o' the wisp?" or is it only existing in the poetical traditions, and truly an ignis fatuus? W."

Sean B. Palmer