Northern Lights: Arendel and Hessdalen.

Hilary Evans

From Magonia 14, 1983

I seem to see lights in the distance -
What is it that’s glistening there?

IBSEN : Peer Gynt

Norwegian mythology is rich and varied, and could well prove as rich a source of pre-Arnold UFO-lore as that of any other culture. The first major event in Norwegian ufology, however, was the ‘ghost-rocket’ wave of 1946. which remains to this day one of the most baffling enigmas in UFO history. From that time on Norway has had its share of incidents, with one or two highlights like the 1954 encounter of two sisters with an alien entity while out picking berries, and a curious case in which a car temporarily changed colour after a close encounter with a low-flying UFO. But for the most part the cases have been typical of those seen around the world – one-off incidents of anomalous lights which are convincingly puzzling but contain little for the ufologists to grab hold of.

Within the last two years ail this has changed. The pattern of sightings in Norway has been transformed by not one but two clusters of sightings, centred en specific locations and sustained over a period of time — several weeks in one case, many months in the other. This has give UFO Investigators the chance to follow up witnesswith field observations of their own, with results which may well make the names of Arendal and Hessdalen celebrated when the history of the solution of the UFO enigma comes to be written.

There are obstacles to UFO investigation in Norway, as I discovered when I went there myself earlier this year to see, if not the UFOs themselves, then at least the places where others were seeing them. The mileometer of my car confirmed what the maps indicates Norway is a vast place. (I don’t think I met a single Norwegian who didn’t at some moment point out to me that if his country could be rotated on its most southern point, his most northern compatriots would find themselves living on the banks of the Nile instead of deep within the Arctic Circle!)

Not only is Norway vast, but it is sparsely populated – within that great area live fewer people than in many of the world’s cities. So there is only a skeletal road network, and even that is further hampered by the terrain, as I discovered one day when I foolishly sought to cross a mountain pass which I assumed would have been cleared by late May, only to find it was still blocked with snow, forcing me to make a detour measured in hundreds of miles. Under such conditions investigation would make severe demands on any UFO organisation, and of course Norway’s small population means that its UFO organisations are also small in proportion. Fortunately, they are also enthusiastic and adventurous, and within the scope of their means they have made the most of their opportunities.

What happened at Arendal

Arendal is a picturesque coastal town in southern Norway, in a popular holiday area. During November 1981 many witnesses reported anomalous lights in the sky, inspiring UFO-Norge to set up regular surveillance. Their efforts were rewarded: they obtained 78 successful photos, of which 25 show complex light forms which are manifestly different from the photos of aircraft taken by way of control on the same spot on the same occasions by the same people with the same cameras. Though I am no kind of expert on photographic evidence, I have to say that the Arendal photos are among the most impressive I have ever seen. Not a hint of Adamski-type mother-ships and scouts, but a clear indication of something more complex than a simple light-in-the-sky. Witnesses reported structured shapes, but these do not show up in the photos: they do however suggest cylindrical forms surrounding the blocks of blue, orange and green light.

The Arendal photographs contain information which should be susceptible of analysis. Characteristic is a change in light intensity when the object changes direction. At each of a succession of 90° turns, for instance, the cameras record a big blast of light. It is inferred that this indicates a sudden outburst of energy, though this is not the only possible explanation.

The descriptions and drawings supplied by the witnesses are, of course, considerably more sensational, if less useful from the scientific point of view. What is especially interesting, though, is that some of the objects were unusually low-flying: one of them was seen at a distance of 200-300 metres, with a tree-covered island as a background, making possible a fair estimate of distance, size, speed and so forth. The object in this case was a cigar shape with an unusual light display, and making no sound.

What is happening in Hessdalen

hessdalenHessdalen is totally unlike Arendal. It is a remote valley in the vast mainland interior of Norway, nearly 600 km. from Arendal as the UFO flies and a great deal more as the Capri drives. (It is not only distance which separates one Norwegian from another, it is fjells, which tend to keep their snow covering all year round, and fjords, which are too big to be bridged and therefore have to be crossed by ferryboats which spend their lives chugging backwards and forwards in the world’s most beautiful scenery.)About a hundred people live in Hessdalen, mostly in isolated farms along unmade-up (and how!) tracks. From a sociological point of view these people present a curious contrast with the peasant populations of, say, Sicily or Latin America. Norway has a very high standard of living and a full spectrum of social amenities such as education, so the people of Hessdalen are simple people living in a physical environment of stunning severity, yet living with standards of comfort and convenience usually associated with gentler living conditions. I leave it to the sociologists to determine whether this somewhat paradoxical state of affairs may affect their credibility as UFO witnesses.

For UFO witnesses is just what a surprising number of the people of Hessdalen claim to be. Since December 1981 – that is to say, and make of it what you will, commencing immediately after the Arendal sightings – hundreds of UFOs have been reported in the Hessdalen area by several dozen witnesses, several of them being multiple observations. The great majority were nocturnal lights, but a few were seen in daylight and these were all of metallic cigar-shaped objects. The sightings comprised a great variety: distances varied from 10-15 metres to several kilometres, numbers of objects ranged from one to four, movement varied from hovering to great speed, and from a simple trajectory to complex manoeuvres. Only one feature seems to have been absent – a total absence of sound. In this almost unbelievably isolated region, however, this feature takes on a special significance, for any sound such as that of a car or tractor can be heard at many kilometres distance.

In another respect, too, the geography of Norway aids the UFO investigator: Hessdalen is far to the north, which means that in summer it stays light most hours of the day and night. I stood on the mountain-top at 11.30 pm taking photographs: not, unfortunately, of UFOs, but that I hardly dared hope for. A Norwegian journalist, who has recently published a book on the Hessdalen sightings, spent several weeks skywatching before he had his first sighting.

What the prolonged daylight means, though, is that there is a very long period of half-light which an enterprising photographer can exploit. If the UFO is good enough to stay still for a while, it is possible to obtain a photograph which includes some background, and indeed the UFO-Norge investigators were able to obtain two such photographs, in which the object is seen in front of the facing slopes.

As at Arendel, the witness reports are considerably more exciting than the photographs. The farmer who owned the wooden hut where investigator Leif Havik and I spent the night, Lars Lillevold, saw an egg-shaped object hovering about 30 metres from his house, and this is just one of the structured objects which Hessdalen witnesses have reported. These sightings have been confirmed by the investigators too, which is just one of the ways in which these incidents are of unique interest. Leif Havik has watched are oblong object passing slowly along the valley in front of the facing mountain; it was silent and with a strange light configuration. He was lucky enough to obtain a photograph of his sighting; just one of many dozen photographs which, though they do not give much of an idea of shape or size, resist any interpretation in terms of conventional phenomena. Even if all witness testimony is set aside – which when there is so great a quantity of it would be a very high-handed course to take! – the photographs present clear evidence of some sort of anomalous aerial phenomenon which is repeatedly manifesting in the skies above Hessdalen.

The geophysical dimension

The country around Hessdalen is a geologist’s dream: the land is stuffed full of minerals of many kinds, and copper mining was once carried out nearby. The magnetic field is the strongest in the whole of Norway. These features can hardly be coincidental, but that does not mean that their significance is self-evident. They support the extraterrestrial hypothesis as much as they do the ‘earth-lights’ hypothesis.

If the witnesses are really seeing structured objects with lights and windows, as so many of them claim, then we don’t have much choice but to suppose that alien visitors are taking an interest in the region for reasons connected with its geological make-up. If we suppose that, however sincere, the eye-witnesses are being deluded, either by their own psychological processes or by induced external forces of the control-system type, then we can rely only on what the camera reveals, which by no means requires an extraterrestrial origin. At the same tune, the phenomena reported from Hessdalen manifest a degree of complexity which is a far cry front the earth-force-generated transient light phenomena hypothesised by Persinger, Devereux, et al.

Leif Havik and Arne Thomassen have seen and photographed luminous objects of massive size moving slowly across a distance of many kilometres, hovering and changing direction from time to time, and low enough for terrain to he seen behind the object. No object on the ground could move that fast over such rugged ground and great distances. No man-made aerial object could manoeuvre like that, except a helicopter which could not conceivably go unheard (apart from the fact that none of Norway’s limited population of helicopters was in the are at the time); but no known natural phenomenon offers so complex a form and conducts itself in so complex a way over so great a distance and over so sustained a period of time.

Manifestations of intelligence

Leif Havik: “The main reason why I think the phenomena are under some control is this: five times I have seen a UFO just when I arrived at the mountain, and before I had time to set up my camera. On all five occasions I was less than 100 metres from where I meant to set up my observation position”.

None of us feels very comfortable with subjective impressions of this kind, but at the same time it would be intellectually dishonest to dismiss them. Readers of Rutledge’s Project Identification will of course be aware that comparable incidents occur in the course of the American research: Rutledge will surely derive some comfort from the fact that his controversial findings have been spontaneously replicated here in Norway.

Once again, it is a finding which can be interpreted different ways depending on the hypothesis you are evaluating. Those who are familiar with the ‘BOLs’ hypothesis proposed by me last year in Probe Report may suspect that I am an interested party
in this matter; yet I must insist that it is only with the utmost reluctance, and because I believe that we must go where the evidence leads us, that I feel we arc obliged to take this evidence into account. That evidence, combined with the rest of the testimony, points towards a controlled, purposive and intelligently, guided phenomenon, which we must suppose to be motivated in some way by the geophysical character of the Hessdalen area. (I do not have sufficient information about the geology of the Arendal area to know whether the same holds good there, but all of Norway seems to be as geologically as it is scenically striking.)

Really, there is nothing unique about the Norwegian sightings except their unusual disposition to keep on happening, thus enabling UFO investigators to collect their equipment and set up observation posts. The only parallel know to me is the Rutledge project, and the two sets of sightings have much more in common. But just as Rutledge is sceptical of any reductionist geophysical explanation for his sightings, so the ‘earthlights’ hypothesis will have to be substantially extended before it will even begin to fit the Arendal and Hessdalen sightings.

At the same time, I don’t think anyone questions that at the basis of the Norwegian sightings, as of the Missouri UFOs, there is a fundamentally physical phenomenon. It may have other dimensions which differentiate it from other types of physical object, but that doesn’t mean the physical dimension isn’t there. And since we ufologists are physical beings, it would seem only reasonable to approach these enigmatic phenomena on a physical level, as three-dimensional, objects with mass and duration and so on. The paraphysical aspects, if such there be, can come later.


The Arendal sightings were written up in the English-language Nordic UFO Newsletter 1982, 2; the Hessdalen sightings will be given similar treatment in the next issue. These who read Scandinavian will find fuller accounts in UF0-Norge’s fine journal, confusingly named UFO. A book-length account of the Hessdalen sightings (in Norwegian) has just been published by a freelance journalist, Arne Wisth: entitled UFO mysteriet i Hessdalen it is published by Bladkompaniet of Oslo. It includes many photographs, including 17 in colour.

The other books referred to are, of course, Harley Rutledge’s Protect Identification essential reading if ever there was such a thing; and Paul Devereux’ Earthlights which also merits serious study. Persinger has published snippets of his work in obscure (so far as the average uflogist is concerned) academic journals. He has written a book embodying them but has hitherto failed to find a publisher. When it does come out, it will – to judge by the chapters I have read – be essential reading for every one of us.


Spooklights in Tradition and Folklore.
David Clarke

First published in Magonia 24, November 1980.

…Of purpose to deceive us
And leading us makes us stray
Long winter nights out of the way
And when we stick in mire or clay
He doth with laughter lead us

Drayton’s Nymphidia

Few people today will have heard about the once common phenomenon known generally in the British Isles as ‘Will o’the Wisp’ or ‘Jack o’Lantern’. Prior to the end of the 19th century this rural mystery was a terror familiar to night travellers, especially in the marshy, undrained areas which still remained in many parts of England.

willothewispWill o’the Wisp is known to scientists by its Latin name ignis fatuus – foolish fire – and is variously described as a strong, flame-like light (often first taken for a lantern or the lights of a house in the distance) seen hovering over marshland just after sunset. However, many reliable witnesses have described seeing brilliant Will o’the Wisps dancing over hedgerows, rising high in the air or performing elaborate movements. They often appear to display signs of intelligence – the light is said to recede from an observer who approaches it, or follow him if he retires. This appears to contradict the long-held, but never proven, belief that Will o’the Wisps are caused by the spontaneous ignition of marsh-gas or ‘phosphoretted hydrogen’ in swampy areas.

In 1980 A.A. Mills, a chemist at Leicester University, published a study investigating the possible connections between marsh-gas and Will o’the Wisps. [1] He worked initially on the old premise that the phenomenon was due to ignition of natural gas or methane, perhaps ignited by contamination with phosphine or a higher hydride. Mills experimentally tried to create a Will o’the Wisp in his laboratory by filling a gallon glass bottle with compost, peat, eggs, bone meal and other such ingredients, which were then allowed to incubate at a warm temperature. He collected the ‘marsh gas’ which bubbled off, “but although repulsively odiferous it never displayed the slightest luminosity when allowed to come into contact with air”.

Further, Mills stated that to explain Will o’the Wisp as marsh gas one had to “explain how to achieve natural ignition of an intermittent, disconnected bubble of gas rising through the marsh”. The suggestion that phosphine could provide this natural ignition is a non-starter, as phosphorous is never found in a pure state in nature, and vapour-phase chromatography has failed to detect even parts per million traces of phosphine in marsh gasses analysed in laboratories.

Will o’the Wisp is therefore as much a mystery in our present age as he was to earlier generations. In recent times he appears to have diappeared from the countryside, along with fairies, as marshes have been drained, and as technology has redefined his image for our modern perceptions. We now regard strange lights in the night sky as heralds of extraterrestrial visitors rather than the mischevious sprites, evil spirits and elementals which were once familiar to our ancestors.

In 1855 a writer in Notes and Queries asked if Will o’the Wisp was still to be seen in any parts of the British Isles. He received replies from many correspondents, giving eyewitness acounts of recent sightings. One correspondent replied:

“I have little doubt that the sprite is still to be met with in certain districts of Essex or among the Norfolk Broads… the inquirer might procure a sight of one if he would enquire of some rustic where they most frequently occur. But for this purpose he must know the vernacular name in the district where he lives” [2]

Nearly every country district of the British Isles has its own particular name for Will o’the Wisp and his kind, most of them personalised – Joan the Wad (Devon and Cornwall); William with the little flame (Ireland); Jenny Burntail (Warwickshire; Kitty wi’the Wisp (Northumberland), and countless others. Similar names can be found throughout Europe: irrllchtern, ‘wandering light’ (Germany); feux-follets (France); Fuoco fatuo (Italy); lycktegubbe ‘lantern bearer’ (Sweden) – suggesting a world-wide occurence of similar phenomena. Other names have been given, or related to Will o’the Wisp. Countryfolk and folklorists connect him with Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Friar Rush and other pagan elementals. These traditions are unwittingly continued on bonfire night when children place a candle in a hollowed-out turnip to represent the evil spirit or Jack o’Lantern. [3]

These wandering lights have been known to haunt certain spots for centuries. The folklore of the Scottish Highlands is particularly rich with stories concerning strange lights regarded as omens of death or disaster, and the Gaelic language has several names for them: solus bais, a death light, solus taisg, a spectre light, and teine biorach, “a fire floating in the air like a bird”.

In ‘Ghostlights of the Western Highlands’ [4] R.C. McLagan writes that “there are places which have got their names from the belief that mysterious lights have appeared in their neighbourhood, Thus Creag an T-Soluis, a rock above Cairn near Port Charlotte, has its name from a belief that supernatural lights used to be seen about it. For the same reason another rock down at the shore below Cairn Cottage is called Carraig na Soluis.”

Almost everywhere these lights are regarded as omens of death, particularly in Celtic countries where the ‘corpse candle’ tradition originates. One account describes the candle as a light “seen during the night slowly gliding from the house to the gate of the churchyard and along the church-road, but that by which the funeral processions pass” [5] McLagan notes that:

“In the Isle of Man, on May Eve, many of the inhabitants remain on the hills till sunrise, endeavouring to pry into futurity by observing particular omens. If a bright light were observed to issue, seemingly, from any house in the surrounding valleys, it was considered a certain indication that some member of that family was soon to be married; but if a dim light were seen, moving slowly in the direction of the parish church, it was then deemed equally certain that a funeral would soon pass that way to the churchyard!” [7]

This tradition is similar to that connecting the lights to areas of pre-historic sanctity – burial mounds, stone circles and ancient religious sites’. In Norwegian folklore the little islands off the coast were inhabited by dwarfs, and on festive nights were “lit up with countless blue lights that moved and skipped about without ceasing, borne by the little underground people; and the grave mounds of heroes emitted lamdent flames that guarded the dead and treasure buried with them [4].

A fascinating account of this kind appeared in the popular science magazine English Mechanic during 1919. This described how a correspondent, T. Sington, saw “strange lights… no doubt will o’the wisps” while walking with a friend in the dead of night near the ancient and spectacular Castlerigg Stone Circle near Keswick in the Lake District:

“When we were at a point near which the track branches off to the Druidical circle, we all at once saw a rapidly moving light as bright as the acetylene lamp of a bicycle, and we instinctively stepped to the road boundary wall to make way for it, but nothing came, As a matter of fact the light travelled at right angles to the road, say 20 feet above our level, possibly 200 yards or so away. It was a white light, and having crossed the road it suddenly diappeared. Whether it went out or passed behind an obstruction it is impossible to say, as I have not yet had an opportunity of again visiting the place during daylight. There is certainly no crossroads there. We then saw a number of lights possibly a third of a mile away, directly in the direction of the Druidical circle, but of course much fainter, no doubt due to distance, moving backwards and forwards horizontally; we stood watching them for a long time, and then only left as it was so late at the hotel people might think we were lost on the mountain (Helvellyn).

“Whilst we were watching a remarkable incident happened – one of the lights, and only one, came straight to the spot where we were standing; at first very faint, as it approached the light increased in intensity. When it came quite near I was in no doubt whether I should stoop below the boundary wall as the light would pass directly over our heads. But when it came close to the wall it slowed down, stopped, quivered, and slowly went out, as if the matter producing the light had become exhausted. It was globular, white, with a nucleus possibly six feet or so in diameter, and just high enough above ground to pass over our heads”

Mr Sington concluded his fascinating story by stating his suspicion that the ancient builders of the stone circle had selected this particular spot “owing to some local conditions at present unknown… such lights would have attracted the attention of the inhabitants, who would have attached great significance to them, and might then have selected the site as a place of worship or sacrifice.” [9]

In view of recent research at various megalithic sites by members of the Dragon Project [9] Mr Sington’s idea seems to be vindicated. In Folklore (1894), Mr M.J. Walhouse describe a visit to the marvellous megalithic stone-rows at Carnac in Britanny, where he asked a boy who was guiding him about any local popular beliefs attached to the stones:

“It was not easy to understand him, and I could only gather that on certain nights a flame was seen burning on every stone, and on such nights no-one would go near – the stones are there believed to mark burial places.”[10]

Walhouse adds that:

“in the extreme south of India the Shanars, a very numerous caste of devil-worshippers, believe that waste-places, and especially burial grounds, are haunted by demons that assume various shapes, one after another, as often as the eye of the observer turns away, and are often seen gliding over marshy land like flickering lights. They are called in Tamil pey-neruppu, i.e. devil fires. Riding late after dark over a jungly tract near mountains I once saw what the natives averred was a pey-neruppu; it seemed a ball of pale flame, the size of an orange, moving in a fitful wavering way above the bushes and passing out of sight behind trees; its movements resembled the flight of an insect, but I know of none in India that shows any such light; the fireflies there are no larger than fireflies in Italy.” [11]

Another writer in the same publication tells an interesting story of similar lights observed in another part of India, upon which similar legends were attached.

“I was staying on a tea-garden (plantation] near Darjiling last year (1893) and one evening as we were walking around the flower garden our eyes were caught by a light like that of a lantern being carried down the path which leads to the vegetable garden some 200 feet below. My host sent for the Mah1i who came down from his house, and asked him what business anyone had to be going to the vegetable garden at that time? ‘Oh’, said the man, ‘that is one of the chota-admis (i.e, little men); and on being asked to explain, he said that these little men lived underground, and only came out at night. He did not appear to be very clear as to what their occupation was, but they always walk or fly with lanterns. They are about three feet high, and they will never allow anyone to get near them; but if by any chance one was to come upon them unexpectedly, they would quickly disappear, and the person who saw them would become ill and probably die. They are constantly about on dark nights, sometimes as many as twenty or thirty together, but he and all the natives always gave them a wide berth.

“Whilst he was speaking we watched the light, which apparently left the path, and in two or three minutes flew across to another portion of the hill, between which and the vegetable garden was a steep dip which would take an ordinary individual at least half an hour to descend and ascend the other side; then it disappeared, and we saw no more that night, but two or three times afterwards we saw similar lights, sometimes carried along the paths and at others flying across dips in the hills. We made enquiries from the natives, who all told the same tale; but when we asked other planters they could tell us nothing about them. The light was too large and not erratic enough for any firefly that we have seen in that neighbourhood, more like a lantern than anything else we could think of.” [12]

There can be little doubt that there is a real, objective natural phenomenon lurking behind many of these accounts, which appear to be describing luminous shape-shifting blobs which have a mysterious relationship with certain areas and types of terrain. They appear to interact in mysterious ways with human beings, particularly those undergoing intense emotional excitement – as shown by the phenomena accompanying the Welsh Revival of 1905, or are attracted to the electric fields surrounding human beings out in the open. Although they may appear to possess some kind of rudimentary or mischievous intelligence, this is more likely to be an illusion produced by the observer through some process of perception. It is more likely that the energy from which they are formed is affected by external changes in the surrounding environment – geology, variations in the earth’s magnetic field, changes in air density, etc. These may all contribute to giving the impression of intelligent motion.

In 1967 ufologist John Keel had realised that it was the spookllght sightings, what he described as ‘soft objects’, which “represented the real phenomenon.” He described these sightings as of “transparent or translucent objects seemingly capable of altering their size and shape dramatically.” [13] During his investigations in West Virginia Keel actually had the opportunity of watching them from his skywatch position at Gallipolis Ferry. In The Mothman Prophecies [14] he says:

“Each night from three to eight unidentified ‘stars’ appeared, They were always in the same position at the beginning of the evening and a casual observer would automatically conclude they were really just stars. However, on overcast nights these unidentifieds would be the only ‘stars’ in the sky, meaning they were below the clouds. While the rest of the night sky slowly rotated, these phony stars would remain in their fixed positions, sometimes for hours, before they would begin to move. Then they would travel in any direction, up, down, clockwise, etc, they had a number of curious traits. When a plane would fly over they would suddenly dim or go out altogether. As soon as the plane was gone they would flare up again.”

These strange lights are still with us, appearing at various spots throughout the world, and there is little doubt their comings and goings will add to the considerable amount of folklore already in existence. The lights which have been haunting the remote Norwegian valley of Hessdalen since 1981 display remarkable ghost-like characteristics – playing tag with observers, at times appearing to be gaseous and at others solid; sometimes showing up on radar and at others not. A similar kind of phenomenon – this time a brilliant orange ball of light – has been plaguing the Pennine hills of Yorkshire and Lancashire since the 1970′s, particulalry the Rossendale Valley and the area around Skipton and Grassendale. The fact that both these areas are criss-crossed by numerous geological faults can surely be no coincidence, and adds to the considerable evidence now available which appears to indicate that one of the variables which may explain the creation and origin of the lights – fault lines – has now been isolated.

As regards the recent sightings in the Craven district of Yorkshire, local UFO investigator Tony Dodd, a police officer and alleged witness to over 200 sightings, said in 1983:
“There are strange things flying around at night, but where they come from is another thing. They seem to be more prevelant on winter nights. A lot of the ones I have seen have been way below cloud level. This area has a very high percentage of national sightings. I have seen 60 to 80 of these machines in the last ten years… I feel because this is one of the hotspots as far as sightings go, there are bases located in certain places where they go underground.” [15]

Although Mr Dodd may not realise it, he may have given us one of the most important clues to solve this mystery.

Notes and References:

  1. HILLS, A. A. ‘Will o’the Wisp’ in Chemistry in Britain, 16:69, Feb. 1980,
  2. Notes and Queries, April 4th 1891.
  3. Old drawings and woodcuts showing Will o’the Wisp’s consistently depict the light being carried in the outstretched hand of an imp or hobgoblin.
  4. McLAGAN, R. C. ‘Ghostlights of the Western Highlands’ in Folklore, vo1,8 (1897), pp.203-256.
  5. FEILBURG, H. H. ‘Ghostly Lights’ in Folklore, vol, 6 (1895), p.293.
  6. This connection has become apparent to me time after time during research work. The sightings around Burton Dassett, Warwickshire, in 1923-4, described in Spooklights; a British Survey were seemingly centred upon a pre-Norman church and its holy well, This is one of many examples which could be cited.
  7. Train’s Isle of Man, vol. ii, p.118.
  8. SINGTON, T„ ‘A Mystery’ in English Mechanic, Oct, 17, 1919, pp,152-153.
  9. ROBINS, D. Circles of Silence, Souvenir Press, 1985.
  10. WALHOUSE, M. J. ‘Ghostly Lights’ in Folklore, vol, 5 (1894), pp. 293-299.
  11. In McLAGAN, op. cit. there is the story of a prehistoric burial cairn near Ledaig in Scotland called Carn Bhan which has a legend attached to it that seven kings were buried there. A 70-year-old woman resident of the area told McLagan that “there used to be a large light often seen at the Carn Bhan, indeed I think it is not so very long ago since it was seen there, I have often seen it there myself, it was as large as the light of that lamp”.
  12. Folklore, vol, 6, (1895), pp. 245-246.
  13. KEEL, JOHN A. ‘The principles of transmogrification’ in Flying Saucer Review, vo1,15, no.4, (June-July 1968), pp,27-31.
  14. KEEL, JOHN A. The Mothman Prophecies, Dutton, 1975
  15. Craven Herald (Skipton, Yorkshire), July 21, 1983.

Shito-Dama, the Japanese Fireball Spirit. Michael Goss

Originally published in Magonia 24, November 1986.  

The Japanese spirit world is populated by a strange crew; there are teasing, shape-changing entities known as kitsune or ‘fox spirits’ which delight in deceiving lone travellers; there are bird-faced tengu in the forests, and half-human, half turtle kappa in the deep ponds. And of course there are the ghosts of the departed who cling obsessively to the things left undone or uncorrected in their earthly existence. These phantasms have amused Western readers ever since folklore retailers like Lafcadio Hearn and A. B. Mitford made the mythologies of Japan accessible to non-specialist audiences. Yet the shito-dama, the ‘fireball spirit’ remains a largely unpublicized quantity. 

In Japan more than anywhere else in the world, spirits of the departed tend to harbour strong feelings on justice. Above all, a ghost is unlikely to rest until the wrongs which led to its being deprived of a physical existence have been put right. Take as an example the unhappy and vengeful spirit of 0 Same – she died of a broken heart for the love of a handsome priest – who was blamed for the great Tokyo fire of 1788 that killed 180,000 inhabitants. She was protesting from beyond the grave about the way that her fine dress (presented to the temple after her death) had been sold. After two young female owners had died of lovesickness not long after acquiring the second-hand garment, the dress was judged to be possessed and a ceremonial exorcism-by-burning arranged. In the course of this a mysterious wind whisked a burning sleeve into the rafters, causing the conflagration which fire-conscious Japanese narrators claimed was one of the worst in the history of mankind. 

History, mythology and supernatural revenge on the living – including those not directly responsible for and probably not even born at the time of the original offence – rank high in this and other tales garnered towards the end of the nineteenth century by Richard Gordon Smith. During nine years in Japan where he was chiefly engaged in collecting natural history specimens for the British Museum he had unusual opportunity to talk to fishermen, farmers, priests and children, drawing from them folk material which might otherwise never have reached the west. Much of it featured ghostly apparitions and none of it was more puzzling than the fireball-like spirit that informants styles shito-dama. 

Though he never saw one for himself, Smith encountered belief in shito-dama on several occasions and in several places. One such instance happened on a visit to Lake Biwa, the famously-beautiful stretch of water in the southwest of the main island, that is named after the traditional four-stringed lute-like instrument of Japan. 

One of the lesser attractions of Biwa-Ko – not one of its ‘Eight Beauties’ celebrated by Japanese poets – was the small settlement of Seze. As Smith indicates, the ‘settlement’ amounted to little more than the lakeside cottage of a very old fisherman and his three sons who owned and operated “an immense fish trap which runs out into the lake nearly a mile, and is a disgrace to all civilized ideas of conservation”. the family had apparently acquired the rights a century or more before from the local daimya (lord). 

Though a little bewildered to find a visitor – and a foreigner! – interested in simple tales that even his sons didn’t care to hear nowadays, the elderly fisherman had a few ‘truths’ (or as we’d say, folk yarns) concerning his part of the lake. First and most intriguing of these was the shito-dama or ‘Spider Fire of the Spirit of the Dead Akechi’. Rooted in local history, the fireball was a fact as far this aged narrator was concerned: “a curious and unpleasant thing” that he had seen at first hand – evidently too close and too often for his comfort. 

The fireball was seen on the lake in wet weather, began the narrator, and it was ‘The Spirit of Akechi’. Whether Smith realised it or not, the old man must have been referring to the daimyo Akechi Mitsuhide, familiar to generations of Japanese as ‘Shogun of Thirteen Days‘. Akechi was famed for an act of revenge and rebellion; he had waited five years before rising against his liege-lord Nobunaga whom he held responsible for the death of his mother and he capped the encompassing of his enemy’s death by proclaiming himself Shogun or military dictator (and effectual ruler) of Japan. From the time of his rebellion to his total defeat by Nobunaga’s right-hand-man Hideyoshi Toyotomi and thence to his death in 1582, Akechi had enjoyed a paltry 13 days of glory, hence his popular title. 

Historians say that Akechi Mitsuhide died en route for the safety of his Sakamoto castle, massacred at the hands of a peasant mob in the village of Ogorusu. Smith’s informant had a more romantic version of that event which invested cold fact with picturesque overtones dear to the heart of folk-narrators and audiences everywhere … at the expense of actual cold fact itself. These overtones were the staple twin-elements of Japanese popular lore: betrayal and supernatural revenge.

According to the fisherman, Akechi had built his now-ruined castle at the foot of Mount Hiyei and when the time of his reverses came he held it against a siege by the far larger forces of Hideyoshi. The castle might well have remained untaken had not a fisherman from Magisa told the besiegers the secret of its water supply. Once this lifeline was cut the garrison had no choice but to capitulate; Akechi and most of his men took the honourable way of forestalling the inevitable by committing suicide. 

As already pointed out, this version of Akechi’s bloody end doesn’t square with the sober biographical details given in standard texts like Papinot’s Historical and Geographical Dictionary of Japan. More interest though, is the way that it lent itself to interpretation of a menacing local phenomena. For it was said that ever since the betrayal and death of Akechi: 

“…in rain or rough weather, there has come from the castle a fireball, six inches in diameter or more. It comes to wreak vengeance on the fishermen, and causes many wrecks, leading boats out of their course. Sometimes it comes almost into the boat. Once a fisherman struck it with a bamboo pole, breaking it up into many fiery bits, and on that occasion many boats were lost… That is all sir, that I can tell of it – except that often have I seen it myself and feared it” 

As a meteorological phenomenon – a literal fireball, perhaps, or ball lighting which is seen only in certain rough-weather conditions – the shito-dama of Akechi sounds quite believable. More important is the way in which something that could possibly be a natural phenomenon has been interpreted as a supernatural one. Certain aspects of this process seem peculiarly adapted to the prevailing cultural beliefs against which the story is told; the shito-dama’s purpose is revenge on fishermen because to this class belonged the man who in distant time offended against a dominant social law – namely, loyalty to one’s lord. The spirit does not distinguish between innocent fishermen and the descendants (if any!) of the guilty one: all fishermen are guilty and hence legitimate subjects of its supernatural vengeance. That this rationale is founded on a non-existent or literally incorrect piece of history doesn’t matter.

At the same time, the basic motif – a supernatural light over water commemorating a past homicidal tragedy engineered by betrayal of accepted human standards – is not uniquely Japanese. The shito-dama of Akechi bears comparison with themes implicit in Rhode Island’s ghostly classic, the so-called ‘Palatine Light’. 

As described by one resident of Block Island in 1811, the light appears about half a mile out to sea: sometimes small, like an illumination from a far-off window, at other times reaching the heights of a fully-rigged sailing ship. Whatever its source, the oft-cited accounts indicate that the light was regularly reported throughout the nineteenth century and (more specifically) was just as much a reality for the residents of Block island as the Akechi shito-dama was for the Seze fishermen. Also like their Japanese counterparts, the islanders usually attributed it to the paranormal – and to a piece of spurious criminal history.  

The Palatine was supposed to have been a Philadelphia-bound immigrant boat lured onto Block Island in 1752 by wreckers who slaughtered the helpless survivors and set the vessel on fire. Since that day, ran the yarn, the blazing ship appeared sporadically offshore to testify to that foul and inhuman deed.

Local historians have proved quite confidently that there was no foul deed – at least not on the islander’s side, and not even a ship named The Palatine. It is thought that the story derives from the wreck of the Princess Augusta in 1738 (not 1752) with 350 refugees who came from the German districts of the Upper and Lower Palatinates. The ship struck a hummock off Block island, and the local inhabitants were almost wholly responsible for saving some of the immigrants despite the inexplicably callous behaviour on the part of the Princess Augusta‘s commanding officer; the ship eventually drifted away and sank after hitting a rock. Since she did not catch fire there seems no logical connection between the burning “Palatine light” and the ill-fated ship, save for the folk-rationalisation that the allegedly paranormal radiance at sea marked the fiery fate of a vessel which had come to be equated with the genuine wreck of 1738. As we have seen, Japanese folklore furnished similarly dubious reasons for the Akechi fireball to seek revenge on fishermen, quite ignoring the historical fact that Akechi had more reason to hate the land-based Ogurusu peasants than the boatmen of Seze.

The crux of the Akechi story is the way in which it shows how a rare but universal phenomenon – here, some kind of fireball – has been interpreted according to folklore conventions on the supernatural. For the fishermen it was not merely a random ball of light, but none other than a shito-dama.  

Richard Gordon Smith wrote: “So much evidence have I got from personal acquaintances as to their existence, and even frequent occurrence, that I almost believe in them myself”. The shito-dama seems to have been such an integral part of Japanese beliefs that it is surprising to find so little on it from western commentators. Smith felt that the shito-dama was an astral spirit that could wander the earth after death. As such, this specifically Japanese form relates to a widespread tradition that some part of the human organism may survive death and be visible in or around the locality in which that terminal event took place. Japanese readers would have had little difficulty in understanding (and believing in) the pallid lights or “magnetic effluvia” said to have been witnesses by nineteenth century clairvoyants in graveyards. 

Smith’s informants divided shito-dama into two categories: some were of ’roundish tadpole shape’, others ‘more square fronted’ and ‘eyed’ as in the case(s) of those belonging to a deaf man and a fisher-girl seen by two to three dozen people at Tsuboune near Naba. His hunter assistant Oto of Itama claimed that he and his sons had seen the shito-dama of a dead woman that was something like an egg with a tail. At Toshishima a number of elderly men testified that the shito-dama belonging to a carpenter had been red, but more typically witnesses spoke of a smoky white phosphorescence. 

Although shito-dama were firmly held to be manifestations of the human spirit, they were not to be confused with conventional ghosts of the dead. Generally speaking Japanese ghosts are always recognisably human in form. The shito-dama was nothing more than a moving light, perhaps an abstract of the human spirit. At the same time it might be seen alongside a more representational phantom. In Smith’s ghoulish record of ‘A Haunted Temple in Inaba Province’ the shito-dama hovers and buzzes as it leads “the luminous skeleton of a man in loose priest’s clothes with glaring eyes and a parchment skin!” The narrative makes it clear that both apparitions belong to the same murder victim. 

A kind of limited intelligence directs the shito-dama’s peregrinations. In common with haunting ghosts the world over, its actions seem defined by obsessive preoccupying thoughts, of which revenge or the desire to reveal the whereabouts of its mortal remains are usually paramount. Again, it may continue in an attempt to carry out some important act left unfinished by death. 

The folk-tales collected by Gordon Smith were told and retold to him principally for their entertainment value. Then as now Oriental ghost stories can be enjoyed for that alone; they have a quaintness and charm of unfamiliarity that is hard to resist. But what does the shito-dama tell us about the Japanese approach to the paranormal? And has it any relevance to our own approach to that topic? 

At folktale level a phenomenon which may sound to us uncommon but natural has been taken as something spiritual – a visual symbol of the soul, the astral body, or some other element that survives bodily death. The shito-dama stories also have a moral or educative value aimed at the living. The phenomenon is intended to reinforce a deep-rooted ethical teaching that binds humans and society. Overt or implicit, these underlying factors are loyalty and duty. Betrayal of trust – a terrible failing in a hierarchical society like that of Japan – brings evil consequences not merely for the individual but for those about him. Thus the fisherman who gave away his lord’s secret and caused his death drew supernatural retribution on unborn members of the class to which he belonged in the Akechi tale.

These interpretations may seem irrelevant to cultures outside Japan, yet the shito-dama has a much deeper significance than that, for it reveals the remarkable uniformity of believer response between peoples set apart by vast barriers of geography and custom. Ostensibly the gulf between feudal Japan and pre-20th century Britain is beyond compromise. It may be misleading to over-value similarities between cultures which could arguably be sheer accident, but folklorists have always been impressed when two remote cultures yield evidence of beliefs which suggest a common mode of interpreting unknown phenomena. So it is revealing when the attitudes of Smith’s shito-dama narrators are placed beside British rural traditions concerning wandering, unearthly-seeming luminescences known variously as ‘corpse-lights’ or ‘corpse-candles’. 

Technically, the corpse lights discussed in the following paragraphs were believed to be different from the corpse candles spoken of in many parts of Britain, but most especially in Wales, The ‘candle’ was a moving ball of light said to presage a coming death in the community, often it was supposed to have belonged to someone who had already ‘passed on’ and in this case it was said to manifest in welcome or in warning to a person whose death was imminent, interestingly, some East Anglian corpse lights were described as red, like the shito-dama of the Toshishima carpenter 

Here again the phenomenon can be summed up as an eerie nocturnal ball of light or flame which tradition asserted was the soul of a deceased person. The corpse light was particularly prone to wander when the departed had been the victim of an undisclosed, unpunished crime and could not rest until this issue had been acknowledged and resolved. As in the Japanese material, opinions differed on the dangers posed by these itinerant lights: some were thought to bear no malice to the living, whereas others were to be avoided at all costs. 

The parallels with Smith’s legends go much deeper. Folklorist Baring-Gould heard that a flame seen dancing over fields and hayracks one harvest time was believed to be the soul of a young man who had helped bring in the hay last year but had since died from consumption. Perhaps the spirit wanted to assist in the communal harvesting of the parish. Equally – and given the critical nature of this annual event when every available hand was expected to turn out – it may have responded out of a post-mortem sense of social obligation. As late as the 1920′s rumours of corpse-lights sprang up in the wake of a well publicized and sordid British murder. Clearly the victim’s spirit was prosecuting its claim for justice, just as the buzzing shito-dama of the Inaba temple drew attention to “the bones of a priest who had suffered a violent death and could not rest”.

These similar beliefs of uncomplicated (often unlettered) working people have suffered comparable attempts at rationalist, deflating explanations. Corpse lights were dismissed by the learned as fungoid luminosity, spontaneously-igniting marsh gas, or both. The origins of the shito-dama could take in these answers as well as meteorological or geological hypotheses. Neither rationalisation process has completely convincing results and neither can gainsay the ease with which folk-audiences insisted the phenomenon were spiritual, paranormal manifestations. Evidence of so-similar interpretations of fireballs among cultures so remote and segregated from each other – ideas which could not be borrowed nor exchanged from one to the other – indicates that despite ethnic differences people respond to the unknown in standard ways. That the British and Japanese should both interpret a species of ‘fireball’ in terms of spirit survival is no coincidence and it matters more than the undeniably distinct cultural lines along which those races have developed. 

Parapsychologists may ponder that across the world folk-ghosts have a quality which goes beyond narrative form and convention. If every nation interprets its ghosts in ways that encapsulate some essential approach to life, it could explain why so many supernatural motifs are common to people who have no (or at best limited) contact with each other until long after those motifs had evolved. The unhappy ghost which demands justice for its unpunished murder is not necessarily a disseminated story: it walks the countries of the globe because Man has a strong sense of justice and hates to think that murder can go unpunished. And Man also hates to think that death is the end, so much so that a luminous fire in the night stands for the visible survival of his soul. 

Perhaps the fisherman from Seze was right. Richard Gordon Smith asked his for curious legends. The old man replied that he could tell him a few ‘truths’.