Libris Monstrum #14: Will-O’-Wisp Revisited
It seems like we just began doing the revisited series of Libris Monstrum, but we are already almost half done! Of course, I feel like I just started the article but this is the 14th so here we are. I will be posting some polls on Twitter soon asking about Libris Monstrum topics. This will happen around the beginning of November after we have finished the giveaway. By the way…there is a giveaway. When it gets to that point I will be sure to remind you, as I will be posting 3-4 to get ready for #21-30! For now we head back to the realm of the will-o’-wisp, a mysterious phenomena that has even more explanations than you may have thought!
Min Min Light
Let’s start by going over a basic version of the will-o’-wisp: the min min light of Australia. Myths about lights appearing over the Australian Outback are older than the presence of European colonists. These come from indigenous Australians who also claim that, since the ingress of Europeans, the presence of the lights has increased. The lights are generally seen as fuzzy and disc shaped, appearing on the horizon before approaching or following an individual. Most of the time the min min light is described as white but other colors have been reported. Green and red are common. Sometimes the lights will also shift from color to color. Other attributes of the light are a bit mixed with some saying that they move slowly, but others claiming that they can keep pace with a vehicle. In general, though, the lights are known to follow and approach a person repeatedly before retreating away. One agreed upon tale is that if you decide to chase the min min light and manage to catch it you will never return.
This is an interesting concept that I missed in my last run down of the will-o’-wisp. As the min min light above shows, the idea behind will-o’-wisps from various cultures is generally one of mischief and trickery. Often the light is that of a ghost or soul. But there are other tales. There are those who believe the lights will lead you to some kind of treasure, markers to that which is hidden. In its most basic form this myth states that the treasure marked by lights are available to those who would take it. The caveat? That the treasure can only be found when the fire is there. Oh, and the treasure is likely deep under water or buried deep below ground. Some stories also require a variety of magical tricks to get the treasure. An example trick would be the use of a dead man’s hand or hand of glory. These were the dried hands of a man who was hanged. Among other abilities such relics are said to open any locked door. Different mythologies also have certain specifications on the best time to find them. Northern countries, for example, often believe that autumn is best.
An interesting example of the treasure light is the aarnivalkea, a Finnish myth. These are flames that mark the spots where faerie gold is buried and are associated with the will-o’-wisp. The aarnivalkea, however, is generally glamoured so as not to be found on accident. As these things go, there is a way to overcome such problems. In this case the seeker must find a mythical flowering fern. Now, ferns reproduce by spores and do not flower. As such, it is very rare and difficult to find. Beyond that you must then obtain the seed from one. This seed will then lead you to a faerie treasure while also making sure you are glamoured with invisibility. Sounds like a great adventure if you ask me! Another similar story is the money lights of Mexico. These lights also lead you to treasure, but the way to find it differs. In this case you will need the help of a child, something much easier to find than a mystical fern seed.
Okay, let’s get back to the will-o’-wisp as a human soul. In Japan these are called hitodama and are said to show up mainly in the middle of the night. These are supposed to be the souls of the dead after they have departed the bodies. They are signs of sorrow or might drive humans to death. Others believe they appear before the birth of a child. Like other versions of the will-o’-wisp these have different descriptions depending on region. One version is called the tamase and it is said to leave the body two to three days after death. People close to the person that has died will come to a temple to witness this. The tales says that you must see one before the age of 28. Those who do not will pretend they have. The reason for pretending is not simply to fit in, but to avoid one of the tamase seeking them out and trying to meet them. Imagine being sought out by ghost lights because you never saw one, I wouldn’t want to join them for supper. Again we have another example of the dangers associated with the will-o’-wisp coming to you.
The human soul is not the only source of Japanese will-o’-wisps though. There are also the kitsunebi and onibi. The kitsunebi is generally associated with the fox or the kitsune and could even be called a fox light. These generally appear in lines on the horizon where there are no lights. They will go out and then reappear somewhere else. These lights are fire-like and generally red or orange in color. Like other myths these lights are said to make folks go astray, leading them off the road so that they get lost. The onibi are different from fox lights, tending to be blue in color and diverse in what they do. Something to note about the onibi is that they generally occur in the rain. Some tales tell that these may be animals but they may also be the souls of the resentful who have caught flame. A different take, but an angry, resentful spirit in the form of fire is not something an adventurer would want to meet!
The will-o’-wisp is an incredible monster that clearly has been underutilized in RPGs. Generally they are reduced to strange creatures that seek to lure travelers out into swamps. Here they will die and become food for the will-o’-wisp. As we have seen they are so much more. Exploring the various myths about strange lights shows that while nearly all cultures have seen them, not all of them see them in the same way. Perhaps you will be lead to your death. Perhaps you will be lead to treasure. Maybe you will just disappear. What I know is that there is a lot of ways to surprise even a well verse fantasy RPG group with will-o’-wisps.