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Will-o'-the-Wisp – Swamp Gas

Legends speak of mischievous Fae spirits that love leading travellers astray. These rambunctious beings can be found littered in myths of several disparate cultures around the globe.

Sometimes it's a gnome with backwards feet and a lantern, bobbing through the forest. Other times it takes the form of a ghostly luminescence that compels you to follow it through the marshes.

Modern times have seen the rise of UFO (UAP) sightings. Many of these sightings were investigated by Dr. J. Allen Hynek. As part of his initial mandate to discredit the phenomenon and anyone who experiences it, he came up with an explanation, swamp gas.

So what is swamp gas? How is it connected to the mythical Will-o'-the-wisp? Is it going to kill us all?

AI depiction of will-o'-the-wisp

Ignuus Fatuus - The Giddy Flame

It's happened to all of us. You're walking in the swamp at night with no light source, careful to avoid the pits of ebon liquid. Questioning your decision to take a stroll in the lightless marsh, when, suddenly, a wisp of light catches your eye. You rush towards the light, knowing in your heart that light means safety in a straight line, and end up drowning in a bog.

The term will-o'-the-wisp comes from English Folklore. Widespread across Europe and European settled North America, the phenomenon has earned many names, depending on the location. The most famous of these is Jack-o'-Lantern.

English folklore describes the origin of Will-o'-the-wisp. He was, originally, a blacksmith named Will Smith, who, upon reaching heaven, plead with St. Peter to be given a second chance. The saint took pity on Will, and sent him back down to Earth.

Will, being a miscreant unrelated to the actor Will Smith, took the opportunity to see if he could be even worse the second go round. He went for the high score of wickedness, and St. Peter was having none of it.

The saint cursed Will to an eternal life wandering the swamps and marshes of England. Will was cold, as ghosts generally are, so the devil gave him a single coal in a lantern to warm himself with.

Now armed with an ever-burning coal and the inability to learn a lesson, Will leads travellers astray in the swamp at night.

The tale of the Jack-o'-Lantern is an Irish legend. Drunk, Stingy-Jack is a local layabout who is about to die. Likely due to alcohol poisoning.

The devil comes for Stingy-Jack's soul, and the two get to talking. Jack asks the devil if he wouldn't turn into a coin so that Jack might get one last drink. Old devil likes that idea, and turns into a coin. Jack places the coin in his pocket, and conveniently slips a crucifix in next to the devil, trapping him.

Big Red begs for freedom, offering Jack ten more years of life. Jack accepts, gets a fresh liver installed and heads to the pub.

Ten years pass and the devil returns. This time, Jack asks the devil to climb a tree. Being an idiot, the devil climbs the tree. Jack carves a crucifix on the tree, leaving the devil stuck up there.

The devil says he'll forgive Jack's debt to hell in return for his freedom and not telling anyone how gullible he is. Jack agrees, and lives for a while longer before his eventual death.

Jack, being a fellow of ill-repute, cannot go to heaven. He therefore heads down to hell to check on his booking. The devil says he can't find Jack's booking anywhere, and that he will have to leave. As a parting gift, he gives Jack a coal to light his way through the dark eternities.

The Latin name, Ignuus Fatuus, was coined in the 16th century by a German humanist. No record exists of the actual term used by the Romans for this, apparently very common, occurrence.

UFO? That's a Swamp Gas. Mothman? That's a Swamp Gas.

AI depiction of Ignuus Fatuus, Swamp Gas, Ball lightning
Is that... Bigfoot?

Today, the term Swamp Gas has become ubiquitous with explaining away or trivializing sightings of strange phenomenon. Dr. J Allen Hynek, during his time with Project Blue Book, wrote off many cases as mistaken identity. Often claiming that witnesses were simply seeing luminescent swamp gas. Dr. Hynek would regret his conclusion later in life.

The technical explanation for luminescent swamp gas is the oxidation of methane, phosphine, and other gases. When biological material decays in the swamp, these gases get trapped beneath the thick muck. After a period of build-up, the gases are burped up in a great cloud.

These gases spontaneously ignite upon contact with oxygen (that's oxidation, if you were wondering). Great plumes of light can then be seen burning off in the swamp.

Theoretically, this process could work, but people have been debating the details since the late 16th century. Modern thinkers have proposed that the phenomenon may be caused by bioluminescent micro-organisms and insects.

The biggest problem with all of these theories is that there is little to no proof of these theories. That's what makes the Swamp Gas explanation of Unidentified Aerial Phenomena so strange. You can't disprove or debunk something using a concept that has no proof.

Whatever the truth may be, beware the Ghost Lights in the night. They may just lead you to a boggy death.



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