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 actually a supernatural being who was aware of their presence and wanted to lead them into danger.
Swamp, marsh, and bog lights have been reported for at least several centuries, although they have been given different names in different cultures. Even today, people say that they have seen the lights. Not everyone agrees that the lights exist, however, and indisputable evidence for their existence is lacking. Scientists have offered tentative explanations 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'll discuss the lights that people see above wetlands.
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. Once Satan had climbed into the tree, 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.
What Is a Quaking Bog?
Some Other Historical Names for Swamp, Marsh, or Bog Lights
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 which 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 the fifollet is 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 Louisiana Swamp Tour
A Possible Scientific Explanation for Wetland Lights
Swamp lights—if they exist—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, a flammable gas. Tests have also shown that at least some swamp gas contains phosphine, a gaseous substance that is spontaneously flammable in air. Some researchers say that under the right conditions, the mixture of methane and phosphine in the air above a swamp might produce a light. This is a very 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 acidic and relatively sterile, however. It may produce light by a different mechanism. The process of light generation in wetlands needs to be explored in much more detail.
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. 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?
Do Wetland Lights Exist?
Although the reports of wetland lights are widespread, there don't seem to be any reliable photos or videos of them. This could be because suitable conditions for producing the lights are a rare or temporary occurrence in nature, or it could be because the lights don't actually exist.
Unfortunately, because the existence of the lights is often 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 a wetland, but then again I don't visit wetlands at night when the lights are said to be most visible. I like to keep an open mind about their existence. The mystery of wetland lights or jack o'lanterns is intriguing.
© 2014 Linda Crampton