Thursday, June 26, 2014

Ghostly lights or just gas?

In Latin, ignis fatuus means "foolish fire."

Ignis fatuus

Ignis fatuus (also known as Friar's Lantern) is a phosphorescent light that hovers over swampy ground at night.  It's said to be caused by spontaneous combustion of gases that are emitted by rotting organic matter.

Other names for this are
will-o'-the-wisp, jack-o'-lantern and friar lantern.


A will-o'-the-wisp is an incandescent flame often seen hovering over marshy ground at night.  These lights are often times explained away as ignited marsh gas.  There are a lot of different cultures out there that have accounts to contradict these theories.

Some cultures believe that these flames are marking locations of treasure.  While other cultures believe the phenomenon is intricately linked with a mischievous spirit carrying a lantern or a torch leading weary travelers astray into a marsh.


A jack-o'-lantern is a carved pumpkin most commonly associated with Halloween.   The top of the pumpkin is cut to form a lid.  While the inside flesh of the pumpkin is scooped out.  After this a spooky or silly image is carved into it to expose the hollowed out pumpkin.  Once you have the pumpkin hollowed out and carved, you place a candle or flickering-type light source inside the pumpkin to illuminate the carved image.

In English Folklore,
the jack-o'-lantern is said to be associated with the term foolish light also known as will-o'-the-wisp. There are, however, endless folklore that surround the origin of the jack-o'-lantern.  They tell a story of a man named Jack and the Devil himself.  (A story for another blog . . .)

Another type of "ghost light" that is often talked about is a corpse candle.

Corpse Candle

A corpse candle is said to be a ball of light most often seen in cemeteries or churchyards and are thought to be an omen of death.  They are usually red, white or blue in color.

These balls of light are said to appear the night before a death.  The lights mark the route of the future funeral, from the victim’s house to the graveyard where it would then disappear into the ground at the burial site.

Corpse candles were not feared during Medieval times, they were welcomed.  It gave the dying person a chance to get their affairs in order, so to speak.  It gave them the chance to make peace with God.  If a dying person was to ignore the corpse candle, it was said they would have a bad death and their souls would end up in Purgatory for eternity.

So the next time you are out for a nighttime walk and/or drive and you see a mysterious light hovering somewhere, will you be curious enough to venture in its direction?!

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