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The Lantern Man and the Wherryman

The Lantern Man and the Wherryman - origins

What is the Lantern Man?

Will oí the Wisp by Arthur Hughes
  • Will o' the Wisp by Arthur Hughes
  • The Lantern Man, or Jack O'Lantern, is one of many names for the pale, flickering, blue lights that you can see over marshy ground. They are often called 'Will o' the Wisp'.

    Scientists have a number of theories (ideas that have not been proved to be true) to try to explain them. It is thought that the lights may come from marsh gasses, which sometimes catch fire, making flames over boggy ground. Or they might come from 'ball lightning'. No one really knows for sure.

    They happen all over Britain and the lights often have local names. So, the Lantern Man or Jack o' Lantern of East Anglia becomes:
    Peg-a-Lantern in Lancashire,
    Joan the Wad in Cornwall,
    Hinky Punk in Somerset and Devon,
    Will the Smith in Shropshire and
    Jenny with the Lantern in Northumberland.
    The Latin name is Ignus Fatuus, which means Foolish Fire. They are also known in folk tales across Europe.

    Why are there so many stories about them?

    Marsh lights
  • Marsh Lights
  • In the past, people did not have scientific ideas and the sight of the ghostly lights, hovering and moving about near the marshy ground on a dark night, must have been very frightening. The strange lights have given rise to many stories almost everywhere they have appeared.

    When people tried to get near these lights, they often seemed to move away or vanish - sometimes to appear in another spot. It is very likely that some curious people went towards the lights and, in the dark, fell into the marsh. This may have led to the common belief that Will o' the Wisps were mischievous spirits, that led foolish travellers into dangerous places.

    In Europe, especially in Gaelic and Slavic folk tales, they are held to be mischievous spirits of the dead, who, for some reason, cannot enter either heaven or hell and so are left to wander over the earth. This may have come from an early belief that the human soul lived on as a light and the fact that some of the lights seemed to lead people to their doom. This is why so many of the lights have real names such as Jack, Will or Joan.

    Sometimes, the lights were seen as supernatural beings, such as imps or pixies. In many tales, the lights appear in places where something really bad is about to happen. However, they were not always so dangerous; in some tales they guard treasure and lead people, who are brave enough to follow them, to great riches.

    Can they still be seen today?

    A Will o'the Wisp (A modern painting)
  • Will o' the Wisp (A modern painting)
  • In medieval and later times, some travellers were very afraid of the lights and some, very likely, followed them to their deaths in a stinking, boggy grave. Today, light pollution from towns and cities make the pale lights hard to see. However, you can still meet the lights in stories and poems. Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 1798 poem 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner' describes the Will o' the Wisp:

    "About, about in reel and rout,
    The death-fires danced at night;
    The water, like a witch's oil,
    Burnt green, and blue and white"

    In Tolkien's, 'The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers', Sam and Frodo see the lights when they cross the marshes and are warned by Gollum not to look at them; and in JK Rowling's, 'Harry Potter', the Hinkypunk, a frail-looking creature, lives in bogs and carries a lantern which it uses to lure travellers in the dark.

    Is there any truth in the story?

    Grave of Joseph Bexfield
  • Grave of Joseph Bexfield - All Saints Church
  • Both the places and the people in this story really existed. Goods were taken along the river Yare in a type of sailing boat known as a Wherry. Records also show that Joseph Bexfield drowned in 1809. His grave can still be seen in the churchyard in Thurlton. However, we do not know why he fell into the marsh.

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