Folk-Lore/Volume 5/Ghostly Lights



The popular belief in ghostly fires seen wandering at night exists, sometimes with curious points of resemblance, in widely separated countries. Crofton Croker, in the third part of his Irish Fairy Legends and Traditions, has given an account, with many instances, of the corpse-candles (canwyll gorf) in Wales, once generally believed in there, nor yet entirely discredited. These were small lights seen to issue from the beds of sick persons, and pass thence to the churchyard along the way the funerals were afterwards to go, for they were sure forerunners of death. If one were met on the road it was dangerous to stand in its way. Some, who went aside as it passed, could discern a dark shadow carrying a light between its forefingers, others have seen the likeness of a candle carried in a skull. In a paper read before the Bengal Asiatic Society, Mr. Theobald relates that Will-o'-the-wisps are often seen in the flat marshy country under the Rajmahal Hills, and are called Bhûtni, from Bhûta, a goblin. The people say they are borne by ghosts; Mr, Theobald also says that in Burmah there is a tribe of wizards or conjurors, whose heads are believed to leave their bodies during the night and wander in the jungle feeding on carrion, and the ignis fatuus is said to issue from their mouths; if one of these heads be seized it screams and struggles to escape, and if kept away from the body for more than twelve hours both perish. This curiously resembles the shadow and skull-borne corpse-candles of Welsh superstition.

I lately met with a curious account of somewhat similar appearances in Germany, where on the high road leading to Sommerda, in Thuringia, people travelling by night see a lantern held by a hand only, no other part of a body being visible, which accompanies them to the town-gate, when it disappears. Many of the old folks profess to have seen it; one of them related that his grandfather saw it while walking on the road late in the evening. On coming near he uttered a friendly greeting, thinking it was a wayfarer, but saw, to his amazement, that the light came from a lantern held by a hand only. He was one of the "common-sense people", who scouted the supernatural and would not believe the evidence of his eyes, so he struck with his stick at the light, and was instantly hurled with terrible force to the ground, where he lay for a time senseless; on coming to himself he could not find his way, and only reached his home after midnight. So in Wales, anyone rashly interfering with or attempting to stop a corpse-candle was struck down and stunned. It is ill jesting with these appearances.

In the extreme south of India the Shānārs, a very numerous caste of devil-worshippers, believe that waste places, and especially burial-grounds, are haunted by demons that assume various shapes, one after another, as often as the eye of the observer turns away, and are often seen gliding over marshy land like flickering lights. They are called in Tamil pey-neruppu, i.e., devil-fires. Riding late after dark over a jungly tract near mountains I once saw what the natives with me averred was a pey-neruppu; it seemed a ball of pale flame, the size of an orange, moving in a fitful wavering way above the bushes and passing out of sight behind trees; its movements resembled the flight of an insect, but I know of none in India that shows any such light; the fire-flies there are no larger than fire-flies in Italy. The Rev. Baring Gould, however, expresses the opinion that all beliefs and stories about Will-o'-the-wisps arose from the flight of luminous insects. It may, however, be remarked that Drayton and the old poets, who often refer to Will-o'-the-wisps in days when they seem to have been commoner than now, put them in the hands of a mischievous sprite, such as Puck or Friar Rush, once the device of the Folk-Lore Journal

"Who leading us make us to stray
Long winter nights out of our way,
And when we stick in mire and clay,
He does with laughter leave us." (Drayton.)

Now, luminous insects would certainly not be abroad in winter. Those tricky habits of misleading belated travellers ascribed to English sprites, do not enter into popular belief in the East.

A strange kind of ghostly lights, on an extensive scale, is sometimes to be seen in the Mysore province of the Madras Presidency. The great hill-fortress of Nandi-drûg rises some 1,500 feet above the plain; the fort on the top includes many buildings and commands wide prospects. It is thirty miles from the large military cantonment of Bangalore, and much resorted to. From the top the remarkable exhibition known as "the Nandidrûg lights" is now and then seen. Not having witnessed it myself I will copy an account that appeared in a Madras newspaper. The correspondent writes, that being on a visit to the fort, and looking at night from his window, which commanded a wide view over the country below, he was amazed at seeing the whole expanse for miles one blaze of light, the appearance being as of a vast city lighted by gas—hundreds and thousands of lights extending for miles, dancing and glittering in all directions—a weird yet beautiful sight. On asking what was the meaning of it, he was told "it was the bodies of all those who were killed in battle at Nandi; they all come up at this time with lights in their hands." Such was the native belief. I do not know whether any explanation has been offered of the phenomenon, or how often it occurs. In Norwegian folk-lore the little islands off the coast inhabited by the Dwarfs, were, on festival occasions, lit up with countless blue lights, that moved and skipped about without ceasing, borne by the little underground people; and the grave-mounds of heroes emitted lambent flames that guarded the dead and treasure buried with them. Five years ago, when in Brittany and looking over the marvellous array of huge stones at Carnac, I tried to elicit from a boy who guided us any popular beliefs regarding them. It was not easy to understand him, and I could only gather that on certain nights a flame was seen burning on every stone, and on such nights no one would go near; the stones are there beHeved to mark burial-places. Amongst the Indians of New England, and the Eskimo, lights seen on the roofs of their wigwams and huts portend death. Lights seem everywhere associated with death. Mahommedans place lamps in small triangular recesses made in the heads of their tombs. The custom of chapelles ardentes may have had some such origin.

A belief, allied to the present subject, prevails in some parts of India that, when a man has been killed by a tiger, his ghost sits upon the tiger's forehead and guides the beast on its nightly prowl for prey; the cunning and wariness of old man-eaters is ascribed to this ghostly guidance. I had often heard of this belief, and once heard a story at first hand from an old native shikary, who professed to have seen an instance. The great river Cavèry runs across the peninsula from the Western Ghauts to the Bay of Bengal on the East. About midway on its course it passes a wild, thinly-inhabited jungly tract; in the district of Coimbatore, a tiger had for a considerable time haunted this tract and killed several persons, amongst then a Brahman. A double reward had been offered for killing it without avail, and it was rumoured that the Brahman's ghost sat on its head and warned it of any danger. The people became afraid to go from one village to another, and at last sent for the most renowned and experienced shikary of that country side. He was a tall, gaunt, elderly man, who well knew the habits of all beasts of the jungle, and had killed numbers in his day. The tiger had for some time been prowling round one of the villages in the jungle, and the old shikary, after surveying the ground, mounted at dusk, with his long gun, into a tree commanding some open spaces on the village outskirts, where he thought it likely the tiger would come. Towards midnight he saw a light gleaming and winding amongst the bushes. Presently it passed across an open, and he could dimly discern the figure of the tiger stealing along with the light apparently upon its head. It passed near the tree in which he was watching, when such a thrill of dread came over him, and his hands and limbs shook so, that he could not level his p^un, even if he had had the nerve. Such was the tale the old man told me with many asseverations; in all his life he had never had such an experience.

Some of the wandering tribes in India, much resembling gipsies, of whom, indeed, they are probably the original stock, have another theory as to Will-o'-the-wisps. They have a curious dislike to blowing out or suddenly extinguishing a flame without previously lighting another at it, and so continuing its life. They have an idea that a flame or fire, abruptly cut off and extinguished is, in a manner, murdered, and becomes a ghost, wandering in the shape of a flickering light over waste grounds and marshes. An officer on a shooting expedition in the Malabar forests told me that coming across a camp of Lambârdies, a gipsy clan, he pitched his tent near them, and thinking they would know where big game would be found, sent for two of them to his tent. When they arrived he was engaged in sealing several letters, etc., at a lamp on his table, and when he had finished, blew it out, whereupon the two Lambârdies, abruptly turning, left the tent without ceremony, and hastily departed. The officer was much surprised at this behaviour and want of respect, and subsequently learnt that on his blowing out the lamp they were afraid lest the ghost of the flame should haunt and affect them injuriously.

Although Will-o'-the-wisps seem now to have left Britain, along with their kinsfolk the fairies, for in these days when ghosts and spooks are so zealously looked up, no instances of them are ever heard of, it is remarkable that amongst another race and in another land "Wispy Will" appears yet to live and flourish, but to have changed his mischievous frolicksome habits for a malignant vampire-hke disposition. In her very curious volume. Old Rabbit the Voodoo, Miss Mary A. Owen has reproduced at length the beliefs, superstitions, and traditions of the negro population in Missouri, taken down from the lips of old negresses, steeped in the folk-lore, wildly grotesque, of their race. Much of it probably echoes from their original African abodes. The eighteenth chapter is devoted to stories of "Jacky-mi-Lantuhns" or "Wuller Wups", as told by old aunts and grannies to listeners of a younger generation. The whole book is printed faithfully in the negro dialect, a jargon so grotesque that I could not undertake to read the passages quoted, nor even to copy them as printed, but must transcribe them in ordinary terms. The ancient granny describes "Jacky-mi-Lantuhns" or "Wuller-Wups", thus: "When men who have been running after other folks' wives have been enticed on amid marshes and drowned, the Devil's old woman goes and catches their spirits, and ties them up in big bladders, and lights them and turns them loose in the bogs and sloughs, and so they fool and entice other sinners into the bogs, making them think they see a man or woman with a lantern; this is the way they draw folks on. There is a man-jacky and a woman-jacky. If a man going along in the night loses the road, he sees in front of him what he is certain is a woman with a lantern. He sees the lantern plain, and he thinks he sees the woman: but he can't see her plain, and he follows and he follows—he can't help it—and he thinks he hears her say something, though he can't tell what, so he follows on through the mud, and down in the slosh he falls, from which he won't get out till the Judgment Day. If a woman lose the road, she imagines she sees a man with a light, and she tries to catch him up, and follows and follows, till down she goes" (p. 274). Much of this, as well as the names of the misleading lights, seem to be echoes of Old-English tradition, though how it became current amongst the negroes in America is not clear.

But the negro imagination gives a more gruesome and "voodoo" colour to these stories, for the old witch-negress goes on to tell her hearers that "the worst kind of jacky-mi-lantuhns don't come out of marshes, but out of grave-yards, and stun drowning folk, and then suck out their blood and leave them as dry as husks; that kind of Wuller-Wups are the worst, because they grow from sucking the life out of creatures till they are as tall as big cotton-wood trees, and the creatures they have sucked to death get up and go on in the same business, and they too grow and grow, appearing in fiery shape, but all their life is on the outside, and their hearts are as cold as death" (p. 280). The last touch seems peculiarly horrible, and their malignant vampire-like habits have no counterpart in English folk-lore, but must be due to African imagination. I do not know whether any Will-o'-the-wisp conceptions and stories are current amongst the Red Indians.