© Unsplash/ Photo Nic
Are you seeing a light at the end of the tunnel? You may want to tread carefully because some lights don't have your best interests at heart…
If you are the sort of person who enjoys going on hikes, you probably feel right at home in Luxembourg. From the dreamy landscapes of 'Little Switzerland' to gorgeous paths through the lush greenery of the Moselle vineyards, the Grand Duchy is a lovely place to explore on foot.
However, as this is Luxembourg's Literary Legends, we are of course contractually obligated to find a way to induce some level of completely irrational anxiety into your favourite pastime. On that note, let's meet today's mythical tricksters: the will-o'-the-wisps!
In Luxembourgish, will-o'-the-wisps are called Ierliichter, which is related to the German Irrlicht meaning something like "giddy flame/light." However, there was actually a more unique name for them in Luxembourgish in the past, d'Raulîchter, which produced the more outdated, regional German variants Traulicht and Trauerlicht ("mourning flame/light").
I. Fiendish flames
According to Dr Nicolas Gredt's Sagenschatz des Luxemburger Landes, will-o'-the-wisps were believed to be "hostile goblins" who take delight in leading nocturnal wanderers astray. They appear as "small, wandering flames" and if a traveller makes the mistake of following their light, they are led far off the beaten path, usually towards their death.
Dr Gredt recorded several will-o'-the-wisp stories from Useldange, one of which gives us a potential origin story for these devious lights. In this tale, a hunter who used to go hunting during Sunday service was cursed to roam his former hunting grounds in the form of a will-o'-the-wisp after his death.
In 1844 (yes, we actually get a precise date for once!), the hunter turned will-o'-the-wisp appeared in the stables of Everlange Castle, startling the horses and awakening the servant with their commotion. The courageous servant attempted to douse the flame with a bucket of water, resulting in the will-o'-the-wisp splitting apart.
The tenant of the castle, armed with a firearm, took a shot, causing the fragmented will-o'-the-wisp to retreat through the stable window.
Folklore strongly advises not to attack, mock, or curse will-o'-the-wisps, as they are known for reacting quite viciously when spoken to. There are several stories that give examples of this.
During an evening meeting of spinners in Dahlheim, a woman once saw a will-o'-the-wisp late in the evening, when she briefly stepped outside the house to get some air. Following her reckless decision to insult the glowing spirit, the latter shot straight at her, with the terrified woman barely being able to close the door behind her.
In his collection Luxemburger Sagen und Legenden, Luxembourgish author Edmond de la Fontaine mentions that the will-o'-the-wisps had their main gathering place at a place called Ertchessteil near Bech in eastern Luxembourg. They were said to be particularly active around this area, often appearing in large numbers to swarm unsuspecting travellers and confuse them into drowning themselves into nearby swamps.
De la Fontaine also recorded several will-o'-the-wisp stories, some resembling the ones found in Dr Gredt's Sagenschatz. However, the spirits in de la Fontaine's stories appear to be a bit more violent.
One tale tells the story of a man from Bettembourg who was working away on a log in front of his house late in the evening when he was suddenly attacked by a will-o'-the-wisp. The latter actually started dragging the man away, who was clinging on to the wooden log. The will-o'-the-wisp threw both the man and the log into the Alzette, and the man only survived because the log floated, and he was able to hold onto it.
Perhaps the most intriguing will-o'-the-wisp tale recorded by de la Fontaine, however, is that of a Moselle ghost known as Krounemichel ("Crown Michael"), which I will therefore recount in full.
II. The Tale of Krounemichel
Once upon a time, a notorious miser lived in the town of Nennig, across from Remich. This man was a shrewd hoarder of both wealth and produce and an expert at manipulating the milestones to his advantage. Such was his success in amassing a considerable fortune that he earned the moniker of "Crown Michael."
One fateful night, as he made his way home from a bustling market, the mischievous will-o'-the-wisps conspired against him. They masqueraded as the familiar lights of his hometown, luring Michael astray. Unknowingly, he strayed from the right path and found himself entangled in a bog, gradually sinking deeper into its mire. With every vile curse that escaped his lips, the will-o'-the-wisps frolicked around him, their ethereal hands clapping gleefully.
Ultimately, the weight of the mud became too much to bear, and it came crashing down upon Michael's head, silencing his curses. And so it was that with a luminous marker affixed to his shoulder, "Crown Michael" has roamed the banks of the river near Nennig ever since, on restless nights, haunted by his eternal self-torment. From time to time, his anguished voice echoes through the darkness, bemoaning, "Where shall I place this marker?"
III. Beyond the folklore
The stories of the will-o'-the-wisps are oozing with symbolism. Strange lights encountered during travel, they represent both the allure and the danger of the unknown.
Typically, they tend to lure people into their doom instead of becoming actively involved, which is why the story of the man from Bettembourg stands out from the rest. That being said, will-o'-the-wisps are explicitly described as malicious by nature and are either thought to be cursed souls or a separate type of spirit or fairy.
Most of the Luxembourgish tales highlight the fact that the will-o'-the-wisps clap their hands in gleeful joy when they believe they successfully tricked someone. Since will-o'-the-wisp stories are most likely the result of people perceiving natural phenomena unknown to them, such as bioluminescence, we can theorise that this aspect may have been added to explain certain auditory experiences or hallucinations.
Another recurring theme in will-o'-the-wisp legends is that the victims are saved by other people or are able to find their way back thanks to others accompanying them on their path. Travelling alone always carries an elevated risk, and it appears that the legends of the will-o'-the-wisps once served as reminders that it is sometimes a good idea to rely on others.
More Literary Legends
In the first instalment of this series, we encountered the creepy moor spirit that haunts the woods near Moutfort.
We then revisited a folklore classic by diving into some of Luxembourg's very own werewolf legends.
Our next trip converted us to teetotallers in a desperate attempt to flee the spirits that specifically haunt drunk people.
We also revelled at the powers of some of Luxembourg's most infamous witches and wizards.
In the next instalment, we glimpsed into some of the darkest corners of folklore as we uncovered the gruesome myth of the Thieves' Lights – and found out how Luxembourg somehow made it even worse.
Sticking with the dark and macabre, we then gathered all of our courage to face Luxembourg's terrifying Black Knight. Meet Grieselmännchen!
We gathered around a campfire and spent the evening pretending we're not scared while sharing ghost stories from the four corners of the Grand Duchy.