Jack O'Lantern and the Mysterious Light: Mythology and Science
A Strange and Sometimes Frightening Light
A jack o'lantern is a pumpkin shell with an evil face carved on its surface and a light placed inside. It's a popular part of many Halloween celebrations. The term "jack o'lantern" once had another meaning, however. It was one name for the mysterious patch of light that people saw just above the surface of swamps, marshes, or bogs at dusk or nighttime. The light had the shape of a flame or a ball and was said to move away from a person as they approached.
The appearance of the light was both strange and frightening for many earlier people. They thought that it was a supernatural being who was aware of their presence and wanted to lead them into danger. Even today, people say that they have seen the light.
Mysterious lights above wetlands have been reported for at least several centuries, although they have been given different names in different cultures. Not everyone agrees that they exist. The number of reports of their presence from different countries suggests that they might, however. Scientists have offered a tentative explanation for their appearance. Sadly, as more and more wetlands are drained, we may eventually lose any chance to see and document a light or to fully understand its nature.
Wetlands are unique habitats. There may be something special about their biology and chemistry that enables a light to be produced under specific circumstances.
Swamps, Marshes, and Bogs
A wetland is an area of land that is saturated with water. Although swamps, marshes, and bogs are wetlands, there are important differences between them.
- A swamp is a wetland that contains trees.
- A marsh contains low plants such as grasses instead of trees.
- A bog is a little different. It's a wet and spongy area containing a material called peat, which is made from dead moss. The moss is often a type known as sphagnum.
Today people report seeing lights in other areas in addition to wetlands. Collectively, the mysterious illuminations are often known as ghost lights or spook lights. In this article I focus on the lights that people see above wetlands, which may be created by a distinct process.
The Tale of Jack O'Lantern or Stingy Jack
The Irish tale of Stingy Jack was once used to explain wetland lights. Like many old stories, the tale has survived in several versions, but the main points of the story are generally as follows.
Jack was a drunkard, a liar, and a great manipulator. In some versions of the story, he worked as a blacksmith. One day he met the devil, who had come to take Jack's soul to hell. Jack persuaded Satan to fulfill a last request, which was to allow him to drink ale in the local pub. After having many drinks, Jack persuaded Satan to change into a silver coin to pay the bartender. Satan did so, but instead of giving the coin to the bartender Jack put it into his pocket, which contained a crucifix. The crucifix prevented Satan from changing back into his original form.
Jack made a deal with the devil. He would free Satan if the devil agreed to leave and not return for Jack's soul for ten years (or for one year in some versions of the story). Satan agreed to the deal and left.
The Return of the Devil
In ten years time the devil returned. This time Jack asked Satan to allow him to climb a tree to pick an apple to eat before he went to hell (or Jack asked Satan to pick the apple). Satan agreed and climbed into the tree himself. Jack quickly carved a cross in the tree trunk, which prevented the devil from leaving. This time Satan agreed that he would never take Jack's soul to hell. Satan was then freed.
When Jack died, God wouldn't allow him into heaven because he had led such an evil life and Satan wouldn't allow him into hell because of their agreement. Satan sent him into the night to wander the world endlessly and alone. He was given a burning ember from hell inside a hollow turnip to light his way. Jack thus became Jack of the Lantern, or Jack O'Lantern.
To some people in the past, the strange and flickering lights above wetlands seemed to match the story of Jack O'Lantern. The light was thought to be Jack's evil soul trapped between life and death. As the light moved away, it was thought that Jack was trying to lead people deeper into the swamp so that they would become lost.
Will o'the Wisp and the Fifollet
Historically, wetland lights were known by other names besides jack o'lanterns. One of these was will o'the wisp. A wisp was a bundle of sticks or paper that was lit and used as a torch. Like Jack, Will was a character who was forced to wander alone at night with just his light for company because he did something wrong. A wetland light was also known as ignis fatuus, which is Latin for foolish fire. Another old name was corpse candle. Some people thought that seeing the light meant that death was near.
According to legend, Louisiana swamps host the fifollet, also known as the feu-follet (French for foolish fire). This ghostly light is said to take the form of a glowing orb above the swamp water. Like a jack o'lantern, the orb is reportedly a supernatural being that moves away from a person as the person approaches,
Legend says that the fifollet is a soul sent back to Earth by God in order to do penance. It sometimes attack humans. In some versions of the legend, the fifollet is mischievous but not harmful. In others it's more menacing and sucks human blood like a vampire. Another legend says that the orb over the swamp is the soul of an unbaptized child.
A Possible Scientific Explanation for the Lights
Swamp lights are believed to be caused by the ignition of the gas made in the swamp. This gas is produced by the bacterial decomposition of organic matter. The decay bacteria are anaerobic, which means that they survive without oxygen. The organic matter came from the bodies of once living plants and animals that collected in the swamp.
Swamp gas that has been tested contains a large quantity of methane, or CH4, which is a flammable gas. The autoignition temperature of methane is around 573°C. Tests have shown that at least some swamp gas also contains phosphine, which has the formula PH3. The phosphine may be converted to P2H4 or diphosphane, perhaps by bacteria in the swamp. Diphosphane autoignites at the temperatures found in a wetland. This autoignition may then ignite the methane. This is still a tentative explanation for swamp light production, however.
The production of light in a marsh may be similar to the process in a swamp. The gas produced by a marsh is known as marsh gas instead of swamp gas. A bog is more acidic than a swamp or a marsh, but it does contain specialized bacteria that make methane.
The process of light generation in wetlands needs to be explored in more detail. In addition, lights that appear over drier areas near to be investigated. Some have been reasonably explained by phenomena involving car lights on nearby roads, but others haven't. These include the Min Min lights in the Australian outback, the Hassdalen lights in a Norwegian valley, and the Chir Batti of the Banni grasslands in India.
The movement of a swamp light as someone approaches is said to occur because the air currents produced by the person's movements or breath push the glowing gases over the swamp's surface.
Other Possible Explanations for the Mystery
There have been other suggested explanations for the appearance of light over a wet area. These include the presence of bioluminescent organisms, such as fireflies or certain mushrooms, and the presence of ball lightning. Tectonic processes in the Earth have also been proposed as a source of the light.
In addition, there have been suggestions that the appearance of a glowing area over a wetland is an optical illusion or may be created by reflection or diffraction of nearby vehicle lights. Wetlands are often strange places to explore and may heighten a person's sensitivity to unusual events.
A Ghost Light Poll
Do you believe that wetland lights exist?
The Existence of Wetland Lights
Although the reports of wetland lights are widespread, there don't seem to be any reliable photos or videos of them. (People have taken photos of mysterious lights in other areas, however.) This could be because suitable conditions for producing the lights are a rare or temporary occurrence. It could also be due to the fact that the opportunities for seeing the lights and taking photos of them are decreasing as humans destroy wetlands. In some cases, it might be because the appearance of the lights is due to an overactive imagination or even because the report is a joke.
It seems to me that because so many reports have been made in regards to some lights they are likely to be real phenomena. I would love to know the explanation (or explanations) for their occurrence. Unfortunately, because the existence of wetland lights is sometimes thought of as a legend, detailed scientific research is lacking. The lack of knowledge makes the lights seem even more mysterious to someone who has seen them or who believes that they exist.
I have never seen a light over wetlands, but then again I don't visit the areas at night when the lights are said to be most visible. The mystery of wetland lights or jack o'lanterns is intriguing.
History of the Jack O'Lantern from the History website
Types of wetlands from the United States Environmental Protection Agency or EPA
Phosphine and marsh lights facts from the Royal Society of Chemistry (Please note that this website limits the number of free views of articles in a month unless a person signs up for an account. It costs nothing to read the article, but if you exceed the number of free views that have been allotted you'll have to wait until the next month to read the article again.)
© 2014 Linda Crampton