A tired and weary peasant is making his way home on foot late one night through the Welsh countryside. It's dark, and the path is rocky and uncertain, but soon he sees a bright light in the distance. Assuming the light to be a lantern, the traveler follows it for some distance, trying to catch up to the person who must be carrying this beacon of warmth and safety. After several miles, however, the traveler finds himself standing at the very edge of a steep precipice. The light hangs in the air before him, but had he continued to follow it, he would surely have plunged to his death.
This unsettling tale, recounted in Wirt Sikes' book British Goblins, is a classic encounter with a Welsh pwca, better known to many people as the Will o' the Wisp. This lambent faery light, which appears in swamps and wild places and is believed to lead travelers astray, is a phenomenon recorded over many centuries in and many lands. Here in the West, we are most familiar with the stories of Will o' the Wisp that come to us from the British Isles, where the lights are most often ascribed to the mischievous — and occasionally malevolent — activities of the faery-folk. Although the most common activity of the Will o' the Wisp is to lead travelers on a merry detour through wild and waste places, according to some of the folk traditions surrounding these mysterious lights, they have also been known to lead people to hidden treasure. Most tales of Will o' the Wisp imply a type of sentience behind the faery light, even though modern debunkers are generally inclined to explain them away as swamp gas or even a reflection of the moon on water. Modern instances of faery lights, such as the Marfa Lights in Marfa, Texas, are often associated not with faeries but with extra-terrestrials and UFO activity.
The original faery lights go by many different names, depending on the region of the British Isles they come from. They're called Spunkies in lowland Scotland, Hobbedy's Lantern in Warwickshire, Peg-a-Lantern in Lancashire, and the Lantern Man in West Anglia. My favorite, however, is "Will the Smith," a type of Will o' the Wisp from Shropshire. The name is a reference to a traditional tale involving a wicked blacksmith doomed to wander the night with only one burning coal to light his way — but I can't help imagining the rapper Will Smith starring in the title role!