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.