I’ve neglected this blog a little over the last few weeks as I’ve been working on my website [shameless self promotion], but more on that another time…
A few days ago I was walking along one of the ridges in the Blackdown Hills near the Devon/Somerset border. It had been particularly foggy but was clearing, when suddenly a large blanket of mist rolled across the road, seemingly through the gateway. It put me in mind of the countless tales I’d read of Willow-o’-the-Wisps shining their lights on empty rural routeways, and what fear there must have been of encountering these spirits. There are many names for Willow-o’-the-Wisps; ignis fatuus (meaning foolish fire in Latin), Hinkypunk*, Spunkies** (common in Scotland, and Somerset amongst others), fairy lights, or Jack-O’ or Hobby Lanterns.
It was thought that Willow-o’-the-Wisps were the souls of unbaptised children who endlessly walked the lonely roads and trackways luring unwary travellers to their fate down ravines or into water (I vaguely remember a tale that stated that the spirits were seeking baptism in the pools, thus unwittingly drowning their moral companions. I’d be interested to hear where that comes from). I have also heard oral testimony that stated until the very recent past, certain roadways near to where I was walking were not used after dark for fear of encountering these spirits, and alternative routes were found to avoid particular areas.
* Not to be confused by the term Hunky Punk – sometimes used in the SW of England for the carved gargoyles on churches
** Not to be confused with Punkies; hollowed out turnips or similar with a face carved on and a candle inside used to keep away evil spirits and often used in South Somerset on October 29th (For more see
Palmer, K. 1972. Punkies Folklore, Vol. 83, Iss. 3. 240-4)