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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 19.djvu/81

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71
THE WILL-O'-THE-WISP AND ITS FOLK-LORE.

sea, it is a sign of a tempest. In taking, therefore, the latter position, Ariel had fulfilled the commands of Prospero to raise a storm. This, then, coincides with the following lines:[1]

"Last night I saw Saint Elmo's stars,

With their glittering lanterns all at play
On the tops of the masts and tips of the spars,

And I knew we should have foul weather that day."

A curious illustration of this phenomenon is recorded in "Hakluyt's Voyages" (1598, iii, 450): "I do remember that in the great and boisterous storm of this foul weather, in the night there came upon the top of our mainyard and mainmast a certain little light, much like unto the light of a little candle, which the Spaniards call the Cuerpo Santo. This light continued aboord our ship about three houres, flying from mast to mast, and from top to top; and sometimes it would be in two or three places at once." This meteor was by some supposed to be a spirit, and by others an exhalation of moist vapors, thought to be engendered by foul and tempestuous weather.

Referring, in the next place, to the legends associated with the Will-o'-the-Wisp, we may mention that these, although differing in many respects, generally invest this strange mimicry in nature with the supernatural element, which is said to be generally exercised for the purpose of deluding, in some way or other, the benighted traveler. Indeed, it would seem that in past centuries whatever phenomena were of an apparently illusive or hostile character were regarded by primitive science as specially designed to work pain or evil, even although, by way of treacherous bait, they might possess, the most attractive qualities. Thus, as Mr. Conway has pointed out in his excellent work on "Demonology and Devil Lore" (1880, ii, 212), because many a pilgrim "perished through a confidence in the lake-pictures of the mirage which led to carelessness about economizing his skin of water, the mirage gained its present name—Bahr Sheitan, or Devil's Water." Thus, oftentimes, the harmless and beautiful phenomena in nature have been invested with an evil name, simply because our ancestors, living in the childhood of the world, were unable to comprehend their meaning, and so, in all the freshness of their creative fancy, regarded them as demoniacal agencies to thwart and hinder man's progress in moral culture. Strange, therefore, as it may seem, we in our nineteenth century have in many of the legends that survive in this and other countries relics of Aryan science, which, although meaningless to the casual observer, yet embody the teaching of primitive man.

In this country the Will-o'-the-Wisp has been connected with the fairy race from early times, a fact proved by its old name of Elf-fire. The same notion, too, existed in Germany; for Grimm informs us that it was there formerly known as Elglicht, and in Denmark as Vaettylis.

  1. Swainson's "Weather Lore," 193.