these fiery maidens came occasionally to the village of Wüstersachsen and mingled with the dancers at wakes. They sang with inexpressible sweetness; but they never remained beyond midnight. When their allowed time had elapsed there always came flying a white dove, which they followed. Then they went to the mountain singing, and soon vanished out of the sight of the people who followed, watching them with curiosity. A Normandy tradition says that the ignis fatuus is the spirit of some unhappy woman, who, as a punishment, is destined to run la fourolle to expiate her intrigues with a minister of the church; and on this account it is designated La Fourolle. A somewhat similar belief once prevailed in this country, for we are told that the lights which are usually seen in churchyards and moorish places were represented by the popish clergy to be "souls come out of purgatory all in flame, to move the people to pray for their entire deliverance; by which they gulled them of much money to say mass for them, every one thinking it might be the soul of his or her deceased relations." This superstition is alluded to in the "Comical Pilgrim's Pilgrimage into Ireland" (1723, page 92): "An ignis fatuus the silly people deem to be a soul broken out of purgatory." It is also said that the Will–o'-the-Wisp is the soul of a priest who has been condemned to expiate his vows of perpetual chastity by wandering about; and Mr. Thoms says it is very probable that it is to some similar belief existing in this country at the time when he wrote that Milton alludes in "L'Allegro," when he says:
And he by Friar's lanthorn led."
Once more, in Altmark, Will-o'-the-Wisps are supposed to be souls of lunatics unable to rest in their graves, and are known as "Lightmen." Although they may sometimes mislead, they often guide rightly, especially if a small coin be thrown them.
Such, then, are some of the principal legends and superstitions that have been connected with this strange phenomenon, the majority of which, while investing it with a supernatural origin, regard it as an object of terror; and, on this account, in our own and other countries, the peasantry still look upon it as a thing to be avoided. It was formerly thought to have something ominous in its nature, and to presage death and other misfortune. Thus, in Buckinghamshire, a species of this phenomenon, locally known as "the wat," was said to haunt prisons. Oftentimes before the arrival of the judges at the assizes it has, we are told, been known to make its appearance like a little flame, being considered fatal to every prisoner to whom it became visible. The
- See Mademoiselle Bosquet's "Normandie Romanesque et Merveilleuse."
- "A Wonderful History of all the Storms, etc., and Lights that lead People out of their Way in the Night," 1704, 75, quoted by Brand, "Pop. Antiq." iii, 390.
- Thoms's "Notelets on Shakespeare," 65.
- Brand's "Pop. Antiq.," iii, 402.