And we are officially in December. I did want to bring up that the Games staff has officially started our own award nominations for the Best (and worst) of 2005. Keep your eyes open for you’ll have a chance to vote in the reader’s choice ballot as well.
This week I wanted to cover one of my favorite monsters, even though at first glance it looks to be one of the more pathetic out there. It may appear to be nothing more than a swirling ball of colorful light, but in truth the Ignis Fatuus is one of the more complex monsters in folklore.
Also known to Westerners as the “Will o’ the Wisp,” the Ignis Fatuus is a grouping of small spectral lights hovering and dancing in the air. They appear colorful, enticing and well, beautiful, but they are in fact heralds of death, leading those that follow them to certain doom at worst, or mild trickster like annoyance at best. Ignis Fattus literally means “the foolish fire.” This is a rather apt name of these glowing apparitions, don’t you think? After all, anyone who follows the Will of the Wisp has to be a fool indeed.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Ignis Fatuus is that they are found in folklore throughout the world, from Native American to Aboriginal cultures. They are described exactly the same and appeared in oral and written history throughout the globe at the same time, making them one of, if not THE, most curious aspect in folklore. Think about it, how could a myth be so unvarying from cultures and people who never encountered each other? Things like the vampire and ghosts even have cultural and regional variants. But not the Will o’ the Wisp. Truly, it’s one of folklore’s most enticing mysteries.
Although, the description and appearances of the ignis fattus may be universal, but what they represent is not. The Will o’ The Wisp is the British version of the ignis fattus. Here the balls of blue and gold light are unmistakably evil. Here these lights are the undead spirits of people who sinned greatly in life, and denied entrance, now wander the earth taking out their frustration and anger on the living.
In Germany, the ignis fattus are known as the Irrlicht. The Irrlicht are spirits (although not necessarily human spirits) that indicate a funeral procession is occurring.
In African folklore, we find the ignis fatuus is called “Witchfire.” Here these balls of dancing light are believed to be a manifestation of witches. Witchfire can either be a witch taking another form to plague humans or are simply conjurations sent to plague those that have dared to wrong them.
The Swedes view the Ignis Fattus as the soul of an unbaptized child. These balls of light lead humans not to danger, but to water. The goal of the Swedish Ignis Fatuus is simply it get a human to baptize their spiritual manifestation so they can finally rest.
In Native American folklore, one can find the Ignis Fatuus appearing back in the usual death omen form. Here the Ignis Fatuus is known by various names, all meaning “creature of fire.” This Ignis Fatuus not only predicts and leads humans to their death, but also enjoys stealing milk from cows.
Western Society has many other names for the Ignis Fatuus. Americans have referred to the Ignis Fatuus as “Jack O’ Lantern,” who has also given his nom de plume towards carved pumpkins around Halowe’en time. Versions of the Ignis Fatuus who are known to lead lost travelers to their unwitting demise include kit in the candlesticks, jenny burnt tails, corpse candles, hobby lanterns, corpsefire, Friar’s Lanterns, foxfire, dead candles, and hinkypunks, Harry Potter fans may recognize the last name as J.K. Rowling uses this form of the Ignis Fatuus in Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban.
JRR Tolkein was a fan of Will o’ the Wisps as well, for they make an appearance in The Two Towers in the swamps of the Dead Marshes.
As I mentioned above, it’s quite peculiar that the Ignis Fatuus was discovered and recorded by humanity throughout the world at the same time, with each giving a different meaning to their existence. There has been a lot of research by the scientific and folkloric communities to see if in fact, there is a natural phenomenon that mimics these would be spirits. In fact, there are many examples that scientists have used to explain what the Ignis Fatuus really are, and I’d like to run through several of them now with you.
The first belief is that ignis fatuus occurs naturally when hydrogen phospide (a colourless flammable gas that smells like garlic) or methane are oxidized when dead organic material decays and decomposes. This combination causes the appearance of glowing lights and also explains why they the ignis fatuus are so linked with death. After all, if this theory is correct, they are spawned from the dead themselves. Scientists have done experiments with this theory and proven it to be true. As no ignition source is needed for these lights to occur, scientists have simply added various chemicals to rotting material and the gases they produce to create stationary lights hovering above the mass of death below them. However, these lights do not move great distances or dance and sway in the air as all instances of folklore ignis fatuus are reported to do.
One of these criticisms can be found in the work entitled, Remarkable Luminous Phenomena in NatureRemarkable Luminous Phenomena in Nature. by William Corliss. I discovered this bit on Wikipedia.org and it sounded so neat, I’m including it here. Mr. Corliss writes,
“No satisfactory mechanism has been demonstrated whereby gasses escaping from marshy areas will spontaneously ignite. Furthermore, most low-level nocturnal lights are cold–not what one would expect from burning methane. Also, no one has explained how clouds of luminous gas can maintain size and shape while engaging in erratic maneuvers over many minutes.”
Another theory is that the Ignis Fatuus are actually ball lightning. Ball lightning is a natural phenomenon first recorded by Nicola Tesla in 1904. You might have heard of the “Tesla Coil”? That was for the research of ball lightning.
Where normal lightning is a short lived but highly powerful charge of electricity arcing between two points, usually during the thunderstorm, ball lightning is long lasting and is a glowing floating object that sustains itself in the air.
Ball Lightning can be found in various hues oif colours (most often blue and yellow). it will hover directly parallel with the ground, and it is unaffected by wind. It usaually floats along several feet above the ground, darting and spinning through the air, and can bounce off objects they come in contact with. Ball lightning is bright enough to be see in the daylight, and can exist for about half a minute on the average, although many have been recorded to last several minutes.
Although ball lightning is quite beautiful, they are hot enough to boil water instantly, and also kill a man if touched. So if you see them, admire them from a distance.
One “amusing” story about ball lightning involves a professor in Russia by the name of Georg Richmann. Georg read about our own Benjamin Franklin’s work with electricity and his famous “Key on the end of a kite flying in a thunderstorm” experiment that ol’ Ben did. So in 1753,Georg was at the Academy of Sciences when he heard thunder and saw a great storm approaching. Georg decided to renact this famous experiment. He also brought with him an engraver for proof of the results of the experiment.
Well, instead of getting a lighting bolt, ol’ Georg got some BALL LIGHTNING! The Ball decided not to follow the kit, but instead branch off on its own volition, as now is understood that this phenomenon can, but not why it does, and the ball lightning made a be line for Professor Richmann’s head! The ball lightning passes through his head, leaving only a red stain to remember it by. Richmann died a horrible death as can be told by his clothes being singed and his shoes exploded from the current that passed through him. His engraver was knocked out cold, even though it wasn’t touched by the lightning, and the door to Richmann’s house was found blown off its hinges with the very frame split in twain.
Like I said, this is not shit to be messing with if you see it, as ball lightning has been recorded to be very “attracted” to humans and cars for some reason.
The problem with the theory of the Ignis Fatuus being ball lightning is well, to be honest, no one still knows how or why ball lightning occurs. For a long time it was thought to be superstition or theory. We know now it is true as there are several hundred photos of the phenomeon published and ball lightning being witnessed many scientists. Many people believe Ball Lightning is not lightning at all, but plasma that generates its own magentic field, leaving it in a self contained ball form. This also explains the heat of the ball lightning as also why it floats, as plasma is lighter than air. So if one believes ball lightning and ignis fatuus are one and the same, we’re still no closer to understand how and why these things occur than we were 1000 years ago.
So there we go. Another millena old bit of folklore that just may have its existence rooted more in reality than supersition.
This weekend I had a pretty nice catfish this weekend and thought I’d stick to a catfish recipe this week. This one actually comes from the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York. it mixes my love of this fish with lentils and fresh horseradish. I hate the processed shit, but fresh horseradish is to die for.
Sauteed Catfish with Marinated Lentils and Fried Horseradish
For the Vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1/2 tablespoon dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
For the Catfish:
1 1/2 cups cooked lentils
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 ounces fresh horseradish, peeled and thinly sliced into strips
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 8 ounce catfish fillets, cut in half lengthwise upon the diagonal
1. In a small bowl, whisk the vinegar, mustard and salt together. Slowly add in the oil while whisking constantly until all of the oil is used and the vinaigrette is emulsified. Whisk in the pepper and parsley and put aside until the catfish is done.’
2, To make the lentils, take a small saucepan and bring 1 & 3/4 cups of water to a boil over medium high heat. Stir in 1 cup of lentils and a bay leaf and then season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce the heat slightly so that the water is still boiling, but just barely. Cook, partially covered, for 35-40 minutes, until the lentils are tender. Add a little more water if needed during the cooking process.
3. In a medium bowl combine the lentils with 1/4 cup of the vinaigrette. Stir together and set aside.
4. Pour enough olive oil into a small skillet as to come up 1 inch on the sides. Heat over medium high heat. When the oil is wavy, add the horseradish slices and fry. Gently move and turn the catfish as it browns, until the browning process is even and uniform throughout. Using a slotted spoon, removed the horseradish and trasnfer to a paper towel lined plate, to soak up the oil excess. Pat dry and season with salt and pepper to taste.
5. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Season the catfish with the trusty old salt and pepper, and place them in the skillet. Cook until lightly browned, which should be only 2-3 minutes. Then turn the catfish over and cook for another 2-3 minutes. You will know the fish is done when the center is opaque.
6. To serve, spoon some lentils on each plate. Place a piece of catfish on top of the lentils and then garnish the catfish with several pieces of horseradish. Volia! You’ve got easy presentation down now as well!
Another Nyogtha in the bag! I’ll see you next with with more food and folklore.