There are men who have spent some considerable time chasing flibbertigibets.
The spectral lights which often appear above marshes are more commonly called will o’ the wisps: a flibbertygibbet first appeared in middle English in about 1450 as fleper-gebet. It was a nonsense-string of works to copy the chatter of a flighty, talkative person and that s what it meant at first: but it had acquired far more sinister connotations by the time Major Louis Blesson got hold of it.
The Major wrote about his adventures with flibbertigibbets in the Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal in 1832.
He had stalked the lights in a valley-marsh, noting that small bubbles would float to the surface. And as night fell, to his joy, bluish-purple flames were to be seen hovering there above the water’s surface. Natural phenomenon though they may well have been, when the good major tried to approach them they darted away , out of reach, with ghostly reticence.
“On reaching the spot,” he writes, “they retired, and I pursued them in vain; all attempts to examine them closely were ineffectual.”
Each Polish forest or Silesian clearing had its own dialect of flibbertigibbet; it would have its signature colour. Some would light paper when held close, some would not. Some left a greasy residue, some did not.
Such strange behaviour for a mixture of gases. It is little wonder that the storytellers of old accorded the flibbertigibbet sentient qualities. And not always pleasant ones.
Generally, the lights on the marshes were thought to be demonic.In the third act of King Lear, Edgar, Gloucester’s son, claims to be possessed by one: “This is the foul fiend flibbertigibbet he begins at curfew, and walks till the first cock; he gives the web and the pin, squints the eye, and makes the hare-lip; mildews the white wheat, and hurts the poor creature of earth.”
The Brothers Grimm discovered tales about them, Bram Stoker opens ‘Dracula’ by sending a young naive solicitor past the marshes where they hover. The flibbertigibbet has fuelled a thousand stories.
Including this one.
Once upon a time there was an Irish ne’er do well, a soak who had drunk away all his money and run up a huge bar tab.
The next step, if he could not pay, was jail; and he did not fancy jail, so he contacted the devil forthwith.
The devil knew him well, and smiled a wry smile as he rolled up at the local tavern to find Jack outside, only just able to string together the words of his request. Please, Satan, he wheedled, would you not settle my bar tab?
Your bar tab for your soul, the Devil volunteered mildly.
And Jack being Jack, he agreed readily.
The Devil’s mistake was turning his back on an Irish drunk. They’re crafty souls. Satan went in, paid the tab and emerged to claim his prize.
But Jack was nowhere to be seen. It is amazing how someone who is three sheets to the wind can summon the necessary motor skills to one’s advantage when the Devil is after one’s soul. Perplexed, the Devil scanned the trees and there he was up a tree, which had hastily been etched with a crucifix to bar the devil’s path. “Oi’ll take down the cross, Satan my lad,” Jack called gleefully, “if you grant me back my soul.”
Jack kept his soul, but when he died and got to heaven, no-one would let him in. This was not a new sensation to Jack: he had a whole list of plan B’s to which to resort.
“I know,” he thought to himself. “I’ll go and see my old friend Satan. He should be good for a bit of help.”
Satan was indeed. he wouldn’t let him into hell – he wasn’t daft – but he let Jack have an ember from the fires of hell to light his way in that in-between world where the lost drift aimlessly for all eternity.
Such stories, all because a little phosphine and diosphane party with methane. We humans are endlessly inventive; especially when it comes to a light in the darkness.
31 thoughts on “A Spectral Light in the Darkness: The Flibbertigibbet”
This is fascinating!
My favourite combination: science and folklore, Julie…
It must be a surfeit of festive spirit because it just reminds me of lighting farts:)
I wonder if, like the forests, one’s farts look and behave in a way totally personal to oneself, Roger. Can everyone’s light a piece of paper for example? And does everyone have different colours?
*in sinister tone* Ha – you have the formula down pat, but what is USING the combination of gases? They display sentient qualities, remember? *adds scary cackle*
Now I am fighting pictures of little gnomish entities scurrying round with their own personal night lights, puzzling the bejeezers out of the local population, Col 😀 Better lay off the Christmas brandy.
Fmmph – that was 30%-proof caramel vodka, that was. Which is a nail-studded bludgeon wrapped in cotton wool.
I am unable to stop saying the word….just rolls off the tongue with such ease, especially if I try a little Irish brogue.
It’s a great word, Lou: world class. And of course Rodgers and Hammerstein employed it to describe the flighty nature of Maria: so it has a considerable pedigree…
The flibbertygibbet reminds me of the corpse candles that Frodo, Sam and Gollum see in the Dead Marshes in LotR. There, they signify the last resting place of soldiers who died there in an ancient battle. I think I read once that Tolkien was or could have been influenced by his Great War experience. Very spooky, either way!
Hi MJ! Yes, Tolkien used the idea with his typical skill and aplomb. Someone read me that when I was about 12 years old, and I have never forgotten it. A sort of maudlin horror.
Another term I have used in trying to fumble through describing myself to someone.
This is just beautiful, Kate. Nice work…
Thank you Brett. Lovely to hear from you 🙂
So far, so good… 3:)
Loved this story, Kate. My Mom was part Irish and I grew up on stories of leprechauns, fairies, hobgoblins … and possibly …flibbertygibbets.
I think the Irish stories are some of the very best, Judy….
In the recent movie, Brave, the wee Scottish lass is helped out by Will o’ the Wisps. 😀
Supernatural . . . of course.
Nice to find some helpful ones, Nancy. Most of folklore – the Brothers Grimm included – has them as quite the opposite!
Flibbertygibbet is one of my favourite words, Kate…!
You could say it over and over again, couldn’t you, Tom: though too much Christmas sherry could impede this ability…
I think I saw this tonight……. In Montreal. I shall have to go back and check. Snow gets in my eyes.
Fantastic, Andra. I can just imagine you chasing eerie lights across a Quebecian marsh this Christmas Eve 😀
I loved that the story ends with a little bit of kindness from Satan. 🙂
Banno, that never even occurred to me! You’re right!
This story is great& you’re really creative!
I never knew the origins of the word flbbertigibbet, though many a soul who have been referred to as one. Fascinating , Kate, and I love your Irish tale.
Such a great word! I’ve used it liberally through the years yet really didn’t know its origins. Now it will mean even more. I think I’d like to be more tuned in to the “in betweens” this coming year. You do light a little fire (or a phosphine and diosphane party with methane) to encourage this kind of thinking! 🙂
Reblogged this on Oneoflokis's Blog.
Endlessly inventive but I’m not sure that we’re much good at comforting ourselves! 😉