Friday, October 19, 2012

Swamp Lights, Jack O' Lanterns, and Pirate Treasure

"Yes, they are all around us," he whispered. "The tricksy lights."
- Gollum; from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, by J.R.R. Tolkien
It's that time of year again.  There's a chill in the air, the jack o' lanterns are grinning from the windows, and people are telling scary stories.  We certainly have our share of those down here--Louisiana has a set of spooky legends, creatures, and spirits all its own.  Perhaps the most famous Louisiana boogieman is the rougarou, or loup larou, a kind of werewolf that haunts the swamps, and is said to hold rowdy balls on the banks of Bayou Goula.  Of course, now Houma has its own werewolf ball: the first annual Rougarou Fest will be next Friday, October 26.  We covered the rougarou in this blog post from last Halloween.  This year, we'll take a look at another Louisiana apparition:  the fifollet.

The fifollet is a ghostly light or flame that appears in the swamps. In some parts of Louisiana, it's known by its original French name: feu follet, or "foolish fire". Whatever you call it, people say that if you try to follow it, the light will retreat, leading you deeper into the swamps until you are hopelessly lost.  Some say the fifollet is a "bad angel", and others say it's the wandering soul of an unbaptized child, or a baby who died while still nursing.  Some old Cajun stories say the fifollet likes to return to the nursery.  If a baby wakes up with unusually rosy cheeks, that means the fifollet has visited in the night, stealing some of the baby's breath (where I'm from, in the mountains of Arkansas, people used to think cats or snakes would suck the breath from babies).  To ward off the fifollet, mustard seeds can be scattered on the floor--the spirit will try to count them, lose track, and stay distracted all night.*  

Out in the swamps, there are other ways to ward off the fifollet.  One is to stick a three-bladed knife in the ground or into a tree.  The spectral light will be trapped by its own reflection in the knife blade, and unable to work its mischief.  Others say that if you hold up a needle, the light will be sucked through its eye, coming out the other side as harmless sparks, or even fireflies.

A (Possible) Portrait of Jean Lafitte
There are those who say the fifollet is associated with buried treasure.  Here the legend of the fifollet intertwines with legends of Jean Lafitte, the mysterious and flamboyant buccaneer.  In the early 1800's, Lafitte and his men did a brisk business robbing ships in the Gulf of Mexico, and then selling the booty in New Orleans.  Lafitte is said to have known all the waterways between New Orleans and his base near Grand Isle, so if the authorities were looking for him along one bayou, he could disappear down another.  Many legends say Lafitte left treasure buried along those bayous, perhaps on Ghost Island, now in Jean Lafitte Preserve, or along the appropriately-named Contraband Bayou, which flows through Lake Charles.  Judging from the number of legends, Lafitte must have left buried treasure along every bayou in Louisiana.

The more lurid versions of these legends say that when Lafitte buried his treasure, he would kill one of his men, and then bury him with the treasure.  The dead pirate's spirit would then guard the site as a fifollet.  Some people think that if you can follow the fifollet without getting lost, it will lead you to the treasure.  In other legends in Louisiana, a rooster's head is buried with the treasure.  When you try to dig it up, the rooster opens its eyes and crows at you to scare you away (that would work on me).  Other legends tell of treasure being guarded by fire-breathing bulls or horses, or snakes big enough to look you in the eye.  To deal with these guardian spirits, you need bring a "spirit-controller" on your treasure hunt: someone who knows how to appease the spirits long enough to get away with the treasure.  Some of these spirits can be tamed with a Bible, while others prefer to be bribed with strong liquor.

Louisiana isn't the only place where ghostly lights are said to lead people astray in the swamps. There are stories from around the world of mysterious lights in swamps and marshes.  These lights have many names: ignis fatuus (Latin for "foolish fire"), will o' the wisp, hinkypunks, foxfire, and many others. In Great Britain they are sometimes known as corpse candles, because they were once thought to be omens of death.  J.R.R. Tolkien adopted this legend in The Two Towers.  When Gollum leads Frodo and Samwise through the Dead Marshes outside of Mordor, the hobbits start to see ghostly flames hovering over the marsh.  They realize with horror that in the water below each candle, there is a dead face staring blindly back at them.  Gollum tells them to be careful, "or hobbits go down to join the Dead Ones and light little candles."

Irish Jack O' Lantern, carved from a turnip
While most people today think of carved pumpkins when they hear the term "jack o' lantern", this was originally one of the names for swamp lights.  In Ireland and Scotland, there is an old tradition of carving turnips and potatoes into small lanterns (when people from these areas came to North America, they discovered that pumpkins are easier to carve). In an old Irish legend, there was a man named Stingy Jack--a mean-spirited character who drank too much.  Jack was fiendishly clever; clever enough to trick the devil into buying him drinks, and then into agreeing not to take his soul.  But Jack was too horrid to be allowed into heaven either, so when he died, his soul was doomed to wander the earth forever, amusing itself by luring people into the marshes.  Wherever he goes, Stingy Jack carries a lantern carved from a turnip, lit by an eternally-glowing ember the devil gave him.  Over the centuries, Stingy Jack came to be known as Jack o' the Lantern, or Jack o' Lantern.

Glowing Mushrooms
Whether you call them jack o' lanterns, will o' the wisps, or fifollets, the fact that swamp lights appear in legends all over the world suggests there's something to the legend.  People really do seem to see mysterious lights in swamps and marshes.  Some scientists have proposed that these lights could be caused by swamp gases such as methane or phosphine, which can spontaneously glow or ignite, causing ephemeral flames.  Swamp gas is the most common explanation for the lights, but another is that the ghostly glow could come from...mushrooms.  Strangely enough, some mushrooms really are bio-luminescent--they glow, as the long-exposure image to the right demonstrates.  

But neither of these ideas explains why the lights seem to recede if you approach them.  And if the swamp gas theory is true, you would think someone would have captured glowing swamp gases on video.  In fact, it's hard to find hard evidence of swamp lights. I've looked online, and I haven't been able to find any convincing photographs or videos of them.  Maybe the lights are tricks our minds play on us, when we stare into the dark and let our imagination fill the void.  That would explain why there are no photographs of swamp lights.  But then, why do people mostly seem to see them in swamps? If the lights were just in our minds, people would see them in other places, too (they do, but not nearly as often).  Whatever swamp lights really are, it seems that the explanations for them are like the legendary lights themselves: the closer you look at them, the more they retreat into the shadows.


Library Books for Further Reading

The encyclopedia of ghosts and spirits / Rosemary Ellen Guiley

Gumbo ya-ya : a collection of Louisiana folk tales / compiled by Lyle Saxon, Edward Dreyer, Robert Tallant

The haunting of Louisiana / Barbara Sillery ; photographs by Oak Lea and Danielle Genter

Swapping stories : folktales from Louisiana / Carl Lindahl, Maida Owens, and C. Renée Harvison, editors.

Jean Lafitte.  American national biography / general editors, John A. Garraty, Mark C. Carnes.


History of the Jack O' Lantern

Luigi Garlaschelli & Paolo Boschetti. On the track of the will-o'-the-wisp

* Similar tactics are said to work against the rougarou.  If you leave a colander hanging on your door, the rougarou will try to count the holes, and never come through the door.  This also works on the cauchemar, an extra-creepy witch spirit, which jumps on your chest and holds you down, so you wake up paralyzed and unable to breath.  A worse fate awaits those who sleep on their stomachs: the cauchemar may jump on them, grab their wrists like a pair of reins, and ride them around the room.  Maybe a colander is a pretty good investment...

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