In last week’s blog I mentioned the jack-o’-lantern or will-o’-the-wisp and it got me thinking about the different words and explanations used to describe a shared phenomenon. Before science was able to provide answers, folklore was used to explain the unexplainable and it is fascinating to take a look at how different cultures explain these common events. And although they have different names, the explanations provided in countries separated by thousands of miles can be spookily similar…
Will-o’-the-wisp – scientists claim that these mysterious ghost lights, which occur around swamps, bogs or marshland, are either caused by the oxidation of various chemicals or by bioluminescent organisms. However, the folklore surrounding them is far more interesting…
The term will-o’-the-wisp stems from folk-tales where a doomed protagonist by the name of Will haunts a swamp or bog with his wisp (burning torch). Variants on this folk tale have also spawned the names jack-o’-lantern, kitty-with-a-wick, peg-o-lantern and jenny-burnt-tail.
In Wales the will-o’-the-wisp is held by a pwca, a goblin-like member of the Tylwyth Teg or Fair Family, that leads travellers off their path at night, leaving them lost in the marsh. A will-o’-the-wisp light is also meant to predict a funeral in the area.
In Cornwall, travellers meet a similar fate but the will-o’-the-wisps are known here as pixy-lights and are associated with the Colt Pixie, which takes the shape of a horse.
The faeu boulanger of Guernsey is thought to be a lost soul. The suggested course of action upon meeting one is to either turn your cap or coat inside out, which is said to stop it in its tracks, or to put your knife (which, of course, you take with you everywhere!) into the ground blade up, which the faeu boulanger will attack in an attempt to kill itself.
In Finland these lights are known as virvatuli and, while also thought to be lost souls, they are said to light the spot where faerie treasure is buried.
In West Bengal and Bangladesh lights above the marshland are called aleya and are believed to be the ghosts of men who died fishing. These ghosts can be benevolent and act as guides or can confuse those who see them, making them lose their bearings and even leading them to their deaths.
Perhaps the most frightening is the Brazilian Boi-tatá, a fiery snake, which sometimes appears as an orb of light and which attacks creatures that approach the water, eating only their eyes.
Night-hag – now understood to be the result of sleep paralysis, folklore long ascribed the sensation of being awake but unable to move or speak to the work of a variety of demons…
Night hags are female demons who supposedly gave their victims bad dreams by creating a feeling of suffocation.
In Scandinavian folklore, sleep paralysis was thought to be caused by mare, a creature like a succubus who would sit on their victim’s ribcage while they were sleeping. The word mare can be linked to our modern day usage to describe nightmares.
In Thailand, a ghost known as Phi Am (ผีอำ) sits on the sleeper’s chest to cause discomfort.
In Catalonia a huge black dog (or sometimes cat) with steel paws that sits on the chest of the sleeper is thought to be the cause of bad dreams and sleep paralysis.
In Fiji the demon is often a spirit of a recently deceased relative who has come back to complete unfinished business or pass something on to the living. The experience is called kana tevoro (being eaten by a demon).
In Malta the feeling is blamed on an attack by the Haddiela, the wife of the Hares – a poltergeist-like creature. In order to get rid of the Haddiela, folklore prescribes that you sleep with a piece of silverware or knife under your pillow.
In New Guinea, the feeling of paralysis is said to be due to a sleeper waking while a sacred tree feeds on human essence in the night.
Water spirits – these paranormal beings, like so many others in folklore, could have been created as a cautionary tale to warn children away from bodies of water.
In Scotland, Kelpies are shape-shifting water spirits that generally appear as horses, although occasionally appear in human form. The word Kelpie may be derived from the Gaelic terms calpa or cailpeach meaning bullock or colt. Kelpies are reported to carry their victims into the depths and devour them. Although almost every body of water in Scotland has a kelpie story to go with it, by far the most widely reported is the famous kelpie, or monster, of Loch Ness.
A tangie is another treacherous sea-horse or merman, from the folklore of Orkney and the Shetland Islands, who lures lonely travellers into the lochs. It is normally described as being covered with seaweed and the name tangie derives from a type of seaweed known as tang.
The bäckahäst from Scandinavian folklore is another similar example. Often described as a majestic white horse, anyone who climbed on its back would be unable to get off and the horse would then jump into the river, drowning the unfortunate rider.
The German Nix and Nixe took the forms of humans, fish and snakes. They were identifiable in human form by the wet hem of their clothes. While some Nixe were benevolent, others would lure people into the deep water to their deaths.
The bunyip comes from Australian Aboriginal folklore. The origins of the name trace back to the Wemba-Wemba language of the Aboriginal people of South-Eastern Australia and it is believed to mean “devil” or “evil spirit”. Descriptions of these creatures vary a great deal but common features include a dog-like face, a crocodile-like head, a horse-like tail, flippers, tusks, horns and a duck-like bill. The bunyip is said to live in rivers, creeks and billabongs, where it lies in wait for unsuspecting travellers to devour.
So how do we make sure we never run into these creepy beasties? Well, it seems quite simple to me.
A. Never go anywhere, and
B. Never go to sleep.