Advent; December 22nd & 23rd

December 22nd:

Today we looked at the Will o’ the Wisp. The Soundcloud clip is here.

Will-o´-the wisp Darkmoss by Gunilla Riddare

Will o’ the Wisp is less a “creature” and more ethereal. They are known by many names such as ignis fatuus or foolish fire and are also known as Jack ‘o’ Lanterns or Marsh Lights. Or even more macabre, Corpse Candles – but I think we’ll leave that version!

The are the spectral lights that flicker over marshes and bogs and lead unwary travellers from the path. Said to be a kind of spirit or bad fairy, they have many legends to explain their mythic presence. I mentioned the local-to-me legend of Will the Smith in the “label”/Soundcloud clip. Other tales include other characters such as Stingy Jack, who very foolishly tricked the Devil a couple of times when he came for his soul. But Stingy Jack was so corrupt he was never going to find a place in heaven. The Devil didn’t particularly want him in Hell either after the shenanigans Jack had led him on whilst still alive. So he was condemned to wander the twilight world of lost souls with only an ember from the fires of Hell to light his way. He placed it in a carved turnip as a lantern – later transcribed in the States to a pumpkin – and gives us the tradition of a carved vegetable Jack ‘o’ lantern at Hallowe’en.

In other traditions the lights are said to represent the spirits of the dead. Or fairies. Or the souls of unbaptised children.

Eventually someone started to be less superstitious and more rational about the causes of these fairy fires that glowed over marshes and yet disappeared when approached by humans. It was ascertained that methane and a combination of other gases might be responsible for the flames and yet the air movement as they were approached dispersed them and so the lights went out. More recent laboratory work has been done trying to establish the exact causes of ignis fatuus and a more prosaic, less romantic application of chemistry replaces the folklore and lost souls.

Sightings of ignis fatuus are much rarer now, possibly because of the extensive draining of marshes and wetlands for agricultural use. So maybe the only Will o’ the wisp you’ll ever see is the pumpkin you carve in autumn…

December 23rd:

Today’s mythical creature is the Afanc. The Soundcloud clip is here.


The Afanc is a Welsh lake monster. Said to look like a crocodile or a demon, I’ve chosen this North Wales version which looks like a beaver.

The Afanc that lived in the River Conwy caused terrible flooding and damage to crops. The people who lived there were at a loss to understanding why the Afanc was so angry and causing the Afon Conwy to flood so frequently and so disastrously. It was getting so bad they felt they might have to move to higher ground. But the alluvial soils of the Conwy valley were rich and productive; moving to the higher grounds in Snowdonia would mean harsher climates and poorer souls. The people did not want to move.

The Wise Men of the area met at Bettws-y-Coed and came up with a cunning plan. They would have to trick the Afanc into leaving the river and entice him to a pool far away. They chose a lake on Snowdon/ Yr Wyddfa to house the Afanc and got a famous blacksmith to forge the strongest of iron chains. The hero, Hu Gadarn came along with his mighty oxen – the strongest oxen in Wales – to pull the Afanc out. But the only way to capture the Afanc was to coax him out with the sweet voice and manner of a young maiden.

A brave local farmer’s daughter sang a sweet sad lullaby and the Afanc slowly rose and climbed out of the water. The hiding men with the chains and oxen were able to pounce and bind him whilst he was entranced by the girl’s singing. And so they dragged the protesting Afanc up the mountains to Llyn Glaslyn near the top of Snowdon where the creature now stays trapped forever in the lake by the steep rugged sides of the mountain.


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