Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Will O' the Wisp: Go ahead, go into the lights.

Are you the future or are you the past?
Have you been chosen or are you the last?
--Supernova Goes Pop, Powerman 5000

It seems fitting that my re-emergence into the blog scene be spurred by Lydia Kang, since she got me into blogging in the first place.  But a random email from Miss Lydia about a movie was all it took.  

I’m that easy.

Honestly, it’s time for me to wake up again--to rise from the ashes that I left you with in April.  The past few months I have been that girl in the too-tight yoga pants, hoping to the god of Ashtanga that my seams don’t split when I downward dog.  I suffered some disappointments in my writing, and I let it mess with my head and steal my muse.  So in response, I immersed myself in my day job, starting some projects that are grand and scary and exciting and completely different from what I was doing.  I’m creating a curriculum on quality improvement and patient safety that combines resident physicians with administrative leaders.  I’m helping in the roll out of an Electronic Health Care record for my hospital.  And now, I received a scholarship to obtain an executive MBA in health care.  I have been fighting some personal wars--i.e. figuring out what I want out of life.  You know, to paraphrase Patrick Swayze in that cinematic masterpiece, Roadhouse, deep existential type bullshit.

Swayze getting his zen on.

And what was my epiphany?  Have I had a Chopraesque moment?  Maybe.  I discovered that I’m thinking too much.  I need to put away the self-imposed pressure and concentrate on living life to the fullest, day by day.  Hour by hour.

And most importantly, to throw fear to the wind and follow the lights.

Fake? will o' the wisp in Finland
Which leads me to the subject of this blog rebirth--the will o' the wisp.  Apparently in the Pixar movie Brave (highly recommended by Miss Lydia), there's quite a bit about this entity.  Although I have not seen the movie, I do know about the will o' the wisp--my grandmother used to say it was the souls of babies who died stillborn, which is a Czech superstition.  
Pixar's will o' the wisps.
Yes, my ancestors were a wee bit morbid.  
The will o’ the wisp is a ghostly light seen by people at night, usually over bogs and marshy ground.  It looks like the flicker of a lamp and has led many a traveler astray as they try to follow the light.  Other names for this phenomenon include ignis fatuus, hinkypunk, pixy light or jack o’lantern.  Numerous folk tales involve the will o’ the wisp, and generally involve a malevolent character that leads people astray and “off the beaten path.”  People will follow the lights for miles, thinking they are beautiful fairies or angels, only to become hopelessly lost or worse, drown in the bog.  Perhaps this is a disguised social more about the importance of conformity.  Don't go off the path, or you'll be sorry.

Ignis Fatuus, a 1990s Doom Metal band from Finland.
In some European tales, the light represents a lost soul, trapped between heaven and hell.  These poor souls are desperate to get to their final resting place and will try to kill another person in order to "piggy back" onto their soul.  If you are confronted by these souls in limbo, you should first turn your cloak inside out.  However, given we are in less cloak wearing times, another alternative is to stick a knife into the ground.  Apparently the spirit will then try to destroy itself on the knife and you can escape.

This clip from The Princess Bride covers cloaks and accounting in one fell swoop.

Eastern mythology has a different take on the will o' the wisp, linking it to the magical part fox/part human creature called a kitsune.  The will o’ the wisp has been said to represent the foxfire that these creatures produce, also called the "hoshi no tama".  Foxfire holds the kitsune's magical power, and some traditions believe it represents the soul.  In some myths, the kitsune is portrayed as a seductress that will possess a human's soul, and lonely travelers are warned to avoid areas known for foxfire sightings.
Artist's rendition of a kitsune with its foxfire.
In South America, the will o’ the wisp is called Boi-tata and is a serpent with fiery eyes.  Believed to be a type of anaconda, this creature only leaves its cave home at night in order to eat the eyes of its victims.  The light collected from all of this eyeball feasting makes it glow.  In Argentina, the phenomenon of Boi-tata is dreaded as it represents otherworldly activity, specifically the appearance of Satan.
Snake eye humor.
Science has attempted to explain the phenomenon of the will o’ the wisp.  Methane is a highly combustible gas produced by decay of organic materials, which are in abundance in marshy areas (as well as in the human intestine).  Other chemical agents like phosphine oxidizing can produce photon emissions, igniting on contact with oxygen in the air and then spreading into adjacent methane pockets.  The combustion is said to occur at lower temperatures, which explains why nothing around the flames is burned and that we don’t have swamps on fire all over the world.
Methane gas ignited in a marsh.
Skeptics argue that these lights almost seem to have intelligent behavior, following a viewer and seemingly receding and approaching.  Two professors in 1993 proposed that tectonic strain produced the lights by heating up rocks that contained piezoelectric particles (quartz/silicon).  Piezoelectricity is simply electricity that results from pressure.  Movement of the earth puts these rocks under significant stress, thus producing electrical charges that are channeled to earth’s surface.  Other natural reasons cited for the will o' the wisp is bioluminescence of certain types of fungus found commonly in marshy area.
Bioluminescent mushrooms.

Whether caused by spirits, nature, or a trick of the mind, the will o' the wisp provides a cautionary tale--or does it?  I think at some point in life you have to decide if you are going to continue on a safe course--or are you going to be wooed by the mysterious and potentially dangerous flickerings of possibility?  Will you allow the things that paralyze you with fear to become reality, or banish them as spirits in the night?  (Or if you’re of the scientific ilk, like a fart in the wind.)
I’ve made that decision now.
And I’ve never been a beaten path kind of girl.

Thanks to everyone who sent me words of encouragement these past few months.  I've missed you, and the gypsy now has a fire in her soul.


  1. Well, I'll be damned. I didn't know there was so much to know about will o' the wisps. I always just thought of them as "little lights out there in the dark".

    >>...I think at some point in life you have to decide if you are going to continue on a safe course - or are you going to be wooed by the mysterious and potentially dangerous flickerings of possibility?

    Actually, I have decided to be wooed by the mysterious and potentially dangerous flickerings of 151-proof Bacardi rum.

    Why play it safe? And f-word "possibility"! I just want a great 13-minute buzz that transitions into a 13-hour 'sleep-it-off'.

    [Betcha missed my civilized and always-intelligent comments, eh?]

    ~ D-FensDogg
    'Loyal American Underground'

  2. So, it's just the world setting its farts on fire - I get it!
    Great to see you back. Of all our enemies, the mind is our worst. Tell yourself to "shut up" :-)

  3. Julie, we're just glad you were inspired to return!

  4. Well if you are inclined to traipse around after glowing balls of swamp gas in the dark be sure to wear your hip waders ... you'll eventually end up in deep water lol. (but you'll have lots of fun getting there)

  5. Wow, I wondered where you'd wandered off to. Glad to see you're back with fire in your soul. :hugs:

    Great post as usual, Julie. And perfect for your return. =o)

  6.'re back and you just made my Friday! I really missed your post and I'm happy to hear that you've come to terms with whatever was keeping you away. Welcome back!!

    PS. Seen BRAVE, and I highly recommend it as well.

  7. Glad to see you back. You have a lot going on. I heard good things about Brave. I'll have to see it.

  8. So glad to have you blogging again! I knew I wouldn't be disappointed by this post. I wanted to learn about foxfire too, and the phosphorescent explanations behind the will o' the wisp.

    You're brilliant and talented in whatever you choose to do, but I'll be happily selfish when I say I'm glad you're back to a more creative endeavor. The world needs your creativity. It's so much duller without it.


  9. Yay! I missed you. Awesome post, as always. =)

  10. Glad to see you're back!

    I'd heard some of the scientific theories attempting to explain will-o-the-wisps, but didn't know much of the mythology. Fascinating post!

  11. Congrats on the MBA scholarship! I wish I could figure out what to do with my life too.

    Your job sounds interesting.

    Those scientific theories about will-o-the-wisps are interesting! I hadn't heard most of them.

  12. Mr. McCarthy--glad you are still around to liven things up. And to be the first one to welcome me back to bloggy business, well, I'm flattered.

    Yonks--I'm happy to be back. Makes me happy people still care

    Alex--I need to post for the next insecure writers! Happy to talk to you again.

    Delores--thanks for stopping by, I have some hip waders and will remember the advice!

    B.E.--I thought it was pretty fitting as well. Lydia is a great muse.

    D.L.--I just couldn't stay away. I'm so happy to be back, and I love that you're one of the first to visit.

    M--I'm a pro at multitasking!

    Lydia--You are such an awesome inspiration and friend! Thanks for bringing me back.

    E--Glad to be back, thanks for waiting for me!

    Eagle--I thought it was a fitting post given the craziness lately. Thanks for waiting for me!

    Sprinkles--I'm super excited to be starting something new. I think I could morph this into my dream job, which is very promising.

  13. Ah Jules, WHY in Gods name are you up still at 1am?? Oh wait, I already know that answer. :) Still not getting your posts despite my best efforts, but I am going to bookmark and check back often. Glad you found your mojo in all the chaos of your life lately. Can't wait to see what you decide to research next!

  14. Welcome back. Sounds like you've been keeping busy. Congratulations on your scholarship and good luck with your writing.

  15. Happy you are back! I need to get myself together and forge a new path as my old one seems to have gotten me nowhere.

    Congrats on all the new work you are doing, it sounds so very rewarding and exciting. May you find stellar success.

  16. Since I love doom metal, I'm going to have to check out that band :)

    Sounds as if you're really busy at work, but in a good way. But I'm sad to hear that you lost your muse for a while there. I hope she's back, just like you're back at your blog :)

  17. Yay! Julie is back!! I've been one of many who has missed you very much. And your life to the fullest! Don't put pressure on yourself....Easier said than done sometimes, but WOW, look at you! Receiving a scholarship!! Congratulations,

  18. I am so glad to see you back! Yes, thinking too much, what a drag!!! I know it all too well :(
    The will 'o the wisp stuff is fascinating, but I want to use my space here to say I think what you're doing and creating in your day job is FABULOUS! Much needed, and could be very exciting for you. You could blaze some trails here, which works really well with all that rising from the ashes stuff.

  19. Hey, Baby (as in, the one nobody puts in the corner.)

    Fyi, when I saw: 'The will o’ the wisp is a ghostly light seen by people at night, usually over bogs and marshy ground.'

    I read: 'The will o’ the wisp is a ghostly light seen by people at night, usually over blogs and marshy ground.'


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