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Nature, superstition, illusion, jack-o'lantern, ignis fatuus

Description of this motif: Will-o'-the-wisps are ghosts of unrighteous people, who with their light attempt to decoy people to get lost and to get them to walk into swamps. – so wrote J.M. Thiele in Danmarks Folkesagn (1843-60), 1968, vol. 2, p. 238. Will-o'-the-wisps are usually only rather insignificant in Hans Christian Andersen's tales. In The Will-o'-the-Wisps Are in Town they play a main part, though.

Example 1:

The sun went down, big and red, and vapor rose from the meadow; the Woman of the Marsh was at her brewing.


As he stood thinking, something struck heavily against the window. Was it a bird, an owl or a bat? We don't let those creatures in even when they knock. But the window burst open by itself, and an old woman looked in on the man.

"What is this?" he said. "What do you want? Who are you? Why, she's looking in at the second-floor window! Is she standing on a ladder?"

"You have a four-leaved clover in your pocket," she replied. "Or rather you have seven, but one of them has six leaves."

"Who are you?" asked the man.

"The Woman of the Marsh," she said, "the Woman of the Marsh, who brews. I was busy at my brewing. The tap was in the cask, but one of those mischievous little marsh imps pulled it out and threw it over here, where it hit your window. Now the beer's running out of the barrel, and nobody can make money that way!"

"Please tell me --" said the man.

"Yes, but wait a little," said the Woman of the Marsh. "I have something else to do right now." Then she was gone.

But as the man was about to close the window, the Woman stood before him again.

"Now it's fixed," she said, "but I'll have to brew half the beer over again tomorrow – that is, if it's good weather. Well, what did you want to know? I came back, for I always keep my word, and besides, you have seven four-leaved clovers in your pocket, one of which has six leaves; that demands respect, for that type grows beside the roadside, and not many people find them. What did you want to ask me? Don't stand there looking foolish; I have to go back to my tap and my barrel very quickly."

Then the man asked her about the fairy tale, and if she had met it in her journeys. "For the love of my big brewing vat!" said the Woman. "Haven't you told enough fairy tales? I certainly think most people have had enough of them. There are plenty of other things for you to do and take care of. Even the children have outgrown fairy tales! Give the small boys a cigar, and the little girls a new dress; they'll like that much better. But listen to fairy tales! No, indeed, there are certainly other things to attend to, more important things to do!"

"What do you mean?" the man asked. "And what do you know about the world? You never see anything but frogs and will-o'-the-wisps!"

"Beware of the will-o'-the-wisps!" said the Woman. "They're out- they're on the loose! That's what we should talk about! Come to me at the marsh, for I must go there now; there I'll tell you about it. But you must hurry and come while your seven four-leaved clovers, one of them with six leaves, are still fresh and the moon is still high!"

And the Woman of the Marsh was gone.

Example 2:

And this was the story of the Woman of the Marsh:

"There was much excitement yesterday out here in the marsh! There was a christening party! A little will-o'-the-wisp was born here; in face, twelve of them were born all at once. And they have permission to go out among men, if they want to, and move around and command, just as if they were human beings! That was a great event in the marsh, and for that reason all the lady and gentlemen will-o'-the-wisps danced across the marsh and the meadow like little lights. Some of them are of the canine species, but they aren't worth talking about. I sat right there on my cabinet and held all the twelve little newborn will-o'-the-wisps on my lap. They glittered like glowworms; already they had begun to hop, and they grew bigger every minute, and after a quarter of an hour each of them was as big as his father or uncle. Now it's an old-established law that when the moon stands just where it did yesterday, and the wind blows just the way it blew yesterday, it is granted to all will-o'-the-wisps born at that hour and at that minute that they may become human beings and each of them exercise their power for a whole year.

"The will-o'-the-wisp can go about in the country, or anywhere in the world, as long as it is not afraid of falling into the sea or being blown away by a great storm. It can go right into a person, and speak for him, and perform any action it wants. The will-o'-the-wisp can take any form it likes, man or woman, and act in his or her spirit, and so go to the extreme in doing what it wishes. But in the course of that year it must succeed in leading three hundred and sixty-five people into bad paths, and in grand style, too; it must lead them away from the right and truth, and then it will receive the highest honor a will-o'-the-wisp can, that of being a runner before the Devil's stagecoach; it can then wear a fiery yellow uniform and breathe flames from its mouth. That's enough to make a simple will-o'-the-wisp lick his lips in desire. But there's danger, too, and a lot of work for an ambitious will-o'-the-wisp who wants to reach that height. If the eyes of the person are opened and he realizes what is happening and can blow the will-o'-the-wisp away, it is done for and has to come back to the marsh. Or if, before the year is over, the will-o'-the-wisp is overcome with longing for its home and family, and so gives up and comes back, then it is also done for; it can't burn clearly any longer, and soon goes out, and can't be lighted again. And if, at the end of the year, it hasn't led three hundred and sixty-five people away from the truth and all that's fine and noble, it is condemned to lie in a rotten stump and shine without being able to move. That's the worst punishment of all for a lively will-o'-the-wisp.

"Now, I know all about this, and I told it all to the twelve little ones that I held on my lap, and they were quite wild with joy. I warned them that the safest and easiest way would be to give up the honor and just do nothing at all, but the little flames wouldn't listen to that; already they could imagine themselves dressed in fiery yellow uniforms, breathing flames from their mouths.

" 'Stay here with us!' said some of the older ones.

" 'Go and have your fun with the human beings!' others said.

" 'Yes, they are draining our meadows and drying them up! What will become of our descendants?'

" ' We want to flame with flames!' said the newborn will-o'-the wisps, and that settled it.

"Then presently began the minute ball, which couldn't have been any shorter. The elf maidens whirled around three times with all the others, so as not appear proud, but they always preferred dancing with each other. Then the godparents' gifts were given – ' throwing pebbles,' it's called. The 'pebbles' were flung over the marsh water. Each of the elf maidens gave a little piece of her veil.

" 'Take that,' they said, 'and you'll be able to do the highest dance, the most difficult turns and twists – that is, if you should ever need to. You'll have the best manners, so you can show yourselves in the highest of society.'

"The night raven taught the young will-o'-the-wisps to say, 'Bra-bra-brave!' and to say it at the right times; and that's a great gift that brings its own reward.

"The owl and the stork dropped their gifts. But they said these weren't worth mentioning, and so we won't talk about it.

"The wild hunt of King Valdemar was just then rushing across the marsh, and when the nobles heard of the celebration they sent as a present a couple of handsome dogs which could hunt with the speed of the wind and carry a will-o'-the-wisp, or three, on their backs. A couple of old witches, who make a living riding broomsticks, were at the party, and they taught the young will o'-the-wisps how to slip through any keyhole as if the door stood open to them. These witches offered to carry the young ones to the town, which they knew quite well. They usually rode through the air on their own back hair fastened into a knot, for they prefer a hard seat. But now they sat on the hunting dogs and took on their laps the young will-o'-the-wisps, who were ready to go into town to start misleading and bewildering human beings. Whiz! and they were gone!

"That's what happened last night. Today the will-o'-the-wisps are in town and have started to work – but how, and where? Can you tell me that? Still, I have a telegraph wire in my big toe, and that always tells me something."


"Sometimes they wear skirts!" said the Woman. "The will-o'-the-wisp can take on any form and appear anywhere. It goes into the church, not for the sake of our Lord, but perhaps so that it can enter the minister.

Comment on this quote:

"The wild hunt of King Valdemar": refers to one of the demonic ghosts of popular belief, cf. Just Mathias Thiele: Danmarks Folkesagn (1843-60), vol. 2, p. 93f, issued by Rosenkilde og Bagger 1968:

Som straf for, at kong Valdemar [Atterdag], mens han levede her p Jorden, plejede at sige, at Vorherre gerne for ham mtte beholde sit Himmerig, nr han selv blot mtte jage ved Gurre, er han nu dmt til hver nat at jage fra Burre til Gurre. Han kommer i reglen da farende med sit jagttog gennem luften. Nr han nrmer sig, hrer man frst en hujen og stjen og piskeskrald; straks efter kommer hele optoget; forrest lber de kulsorte hunde frem og tilbage og snuser til jorden, mens de lange gloende tunger hnger dem ud af halsen. Derefter kommer Volmer p sin hvide hest, og undertiden holder han sit eget hoved under den venstre arm.

In short: King Valdemar has been condemned to h(a)unt from Burre to Gurre, because he used to say that God could keep his Heaven for himself, if only Valdemar could hunt at Gurre.

"they taught the young will o'-the-wisps how to slip through any keyhole"; in popular belief there are bewitched women, "mares", who come at night, slip through keyholes and the like and often "ride" the sleeping person (night-mare) and causes heavy breathing and bad dreams. (Cf. Thiele 1968 vol. 2, p. 225f.

"The night raven" is a real bird characterized by strange screams and silent flight. According to folklore it is an exorcized ghost. It is also present in The Elf Mound.