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Te Ika a Maui, or New Zealand and its Inhabitants

Ignis Fatuus

page 426

Ignis Fatuus.

In travelling through the dense forest which extends from Kaitaia to Waimate, near the Bay of Islands, I encamped, one extremely rainy night, on a small open spot by the side of a stream. The natives who accompanied me, soon erected a large commodious shed, which they roofed with palm leaves, and rendered quite impervious to the rain; the sides of the building were thatched with the same; along the front, which was left open, a line of fires soon warmed our shivering company.

No sooner had my companions composed themselves to sleep, and the fires began to die away, than I observed a light in the corner of the hut next to me, like the moon shining through a chink. Being surprised at the sight, and knowing that it was a moonless night, and very dark, I got up to examine the cause. The object which attracted my attention, appeared like a globe of pale light, attached to the point of a palm leaf, which hung from the roof. The rain was falling in torrents. Whilst steadily regarding this curious sight, I was still further surprised by seeing another ball of light come slowly sailing into the shed, where it was arrested in its course by the wet sleeve of a shirt hung up to dry, to which it adhered. It was not a quivering light, but pale and steady. The air appeared to be charged with these luminous vapours; for while regarding the two in the shed, a series of them floated past, at an elevation of about a yard from the ground.

The first I noticed, had a globular form, having a brighter spot in the centre, or, more generally, at one extremity. Sometimes there were two globes, one about two feet from the other, connected by a luminous band; at other times, the lights appeared like little clouds, rendering the trees near them visible; then they resembled rods, about four feet in length, moving perpendicularly to the earth, and parallel to each other. I counted as many as a dozen of these luminous rods at once, and seldom less than half that number. They all invariably moved in the same direction, from N. to S., which was remarkable, as the rapid river close by, which must have created some page 427 current in the air, flowed in quite a contrary direction, and the wind, if at the time there was any, blew from the west, as indicated by the smoke. At one time, the surface of the earth was, for a few feet, completely illuminated. After watching them for a long time, until the eye was completely wearied, I laid down, when I noticed that the lights were more visible than when I stood up, which might arise from their being so near the surface of the earth, and my seeing under them.

In returning again through the same forest, I had another opportunity of seeing the Ignis Fatuus in the same place. It was then a beautiful moonlight night; but, from the denseness of the forest, little benefit was derived from its rays. In this instance, there were two lights seen hovering over the river, at about two feet from its surface. They were nearly stationary, and shone so brightly, that, although the natives were engaged in fishing with lighted brands, they were not eclipsed. In that neighbourhood there are many large kauri pines, and it is not improbable that the decomposed remains of these highly resinous trees have had something to do with this phenomenon.

The Fens of Ely and Lincoln, were formerly notorious for their unwholsome fogs and miasma, as well as for the frequent appearance of the Ignis Fatuus, which might be seen in all directions every dark night. Of late years, it has been more rarely observed, and during the time I held a curacy in the heart of the Fens,* a period of more than five years, I only noticed it twice.

On one of these occasions, a dark, rainy night, in returning home from a distant church in the Fens, I had an opportunity of seeing this singular light. At first, I took it for a man with a lantern, and being anxious to share the benefit of it, as well as to gain a companion, I quickened my step, to get up with him, walking through thick and thin—for the road was deep in mud; but I got no nearer: the light still kept at the same distance from me. I therefore stood still, and listened whether I could hear any footsteps, and was then surprised to see the light dancing about, from one side of the road to the other: sometimes sinking to the level of the earth, and page 428 then rising to a height of eight or ten feet. It was then evident that it was the Ignis Fatuus. Anxious to examine it more closely, I stood still. In a little time, the light seemed to approach; it then gradually increased in size, and appeared and disappeared every instant. Its quivering and vibratory motion most resembled that of a sheet of gold leaf. In a little time, it divided itself into two parts, one remaining on one side of the road (which was bordered with broad ditches), the other on the opposite side, leaving a thin streak of light between, and then uniting again in a moment.

At last, it approached so near that it appeared almost equal in size to the full moon, having a globular form, and emitting a light sufficiently bright to render a gate which stood near perfectly visible. It advanced so rapidly, that it was rather startling, and distinctly touched my cheek, upon which I perceived a sensible glow; but my breath seemed to make it bound away again to a considerable distance.

It appears probable that the Ignis Fatuus is simply a luminous air, or phosphoric light, arising from the oily particles of decomposed aquatic plants, floating on the surface of the drains, and, that it is so feeble as only to be visible on the darkest and dampest nights; or from the gas of the many resinous pine trees which once grew there, and whose remains still lie buried in the peat. Several kinds of decayed wood acquire this phosphorescent appearance, especially if they are buried in wet situations. Portions of such matter in the dark, appear like a mass of pale flame.

I well remember a story of a lad in the Fens, who was sent to milk the cows: as he was returning, he saw “Will o' the Wisp,” as it is commonly called, which he took for some supernatural face, staring at him. He was so alarmed that he laid himself down with his face to the ground, where he remained for some time. At last, venturing to look up, and finding the dreaded form had disappeared, he ran home, leaving his milk pails behind him.

I have only once heard of this light settling fixedly on any object. The Rector of Coveney was driving home one dark rainy night from Ely, when he saw a light on the other side of page 429 the hedge, which he thought at first proceeded from a lantern, but it immediately came and attached itself to the ears of his horse, in the form of two globules, where it remained for several minutes. The Lights of St. Helme, or corpus sanctum, commonly called by sailors cormazants, a blue flame, like that of a candle, seen at the mast head, generally during a storm, or soon after it, are frequently observed at sea. The Master of the brig Venture, of Wanganui, noticed as many as five luminous balls at once, settling on different parts of the rigging. The mate was bold enough to climb up, and touch them; he said, they were merely luminous bubbles, which burst when touched, and the lights were immediately extinguished. These marine lights most probably arise from the decomposed remains of fish, raised to the surface by the violent motion of the water in storms. In the same way at Kaitaia, lights were observed hovering over the graves of several recently interred corpses.

Repe Repe—Callorynchus Australis.

Repe Repe—Callorynchus Australis.

* Coveney and Manea, in the Isle of Ely, a complete Missionary post.