Corpse candles are Death Omens in the folklore of Wales and elsewhere in the British Isles. Corpse candles, or canwll corfe, as they are called in Welsh, are mysterious lights which bob over the ground and stop at houses or other sites where a death is imminent. Similar lights are called fetch candles or fetch lights in Ireland and northern England. They seem to be similar to the corpse light phosphorescence, but differ in that they have the distinct appearance of candle flames.
Corpse candles are seen floating through the air at night. Beliefs about them vary by locale. They are said to warn of the death of those who see them, or of someone beloved or someone else known to the party. They appear, it is said, halfway between the doomed person’s home and his grave. In south Hampshire, England the lights are said to accompany the souls of the departed, and are extinguished when the souls leave the earth. Ghostly funerals are said to accompany some lights.
In Welsh lore, a small, pale or bluish corpse candle presages the death of an infant, while a big light presages the death of an adult. Multiple corpse candles reveal the number of persons soon to die. If the lights are approached, they vanish. Corpse candles are widely reported in Welsh coastal regions.
The English ghost-hunter, Elliott O'Donnell, put corpse candles in the same category as a species of elementals (nature spirits) he called “Clanogrian,” which he said included all kinds of family ghosts and national ghosts, and other harbingers of death, such as the banshee.
In his book Byways of Ghost-Land (1911), O’Donnell recorded some accounts of witnesses to corpse candles. The following was attributed to a Reverend Mr. Davis, and was reported in The Invisible World by T. Charley:
My sexton’s wife, an aged, understanding woman, saw from her bed a little candle upon her table: within two or three days after comes a fellow in, inquiring for her husband, and, taking something from under his cloak, clapt it down directly upon the table end where she had seen the candle; and what was it but a dead-born child?
Another time, the same woman saw such another candle upon the other end of the same table: within a few day later, a weak child, by myself newly christened, was brought into the sexton’s house, where presently he died; and when the sexton’s wife, who was then abroad, came home, she found the women shrouding the child on the other end of the table where she had seen the candle.
On a time, myself and a huntsman coming from our school in England, and being three or four hours benighted ere we could reach home, saw such a light, which, coming from a house we well knew, held its course (but not directly) in the highway to the church: shortly after, the eldest son in that house died, and steered the same course. . . .
About thirty-four or thirty-five years since, one Jane Wyatt, my wife’s sister, being nurse to Baronet Rud’s three eldest children, and (the lady being deceased) the lady of the house going late into a chamber where the maid-servants lay, saw there no less than five of these lights together. It happened awhile after, the chamber being newly plastered, that five of the maid servants went there to bed as they were wont; but in the morning they were all dead, being suffocated in their sleep with the steam of newly tempered lime and coal. This was at Llangathen in Carmarthen [Wales].
Another O’Donnell account is taken from an unspecified issue of Frazer’s Journal and concerns Welsh corpse candles whose flames were much larger:
In a wild and retired district in North Wales, the following occurrence took place, to the great astonishment of the mountaineers. We can vouch for the truth of the statement, as many of our own teutu, or clan, were witnesses to the facts. On a dark evening a few weeks ago, some persons, with whom we are well acquainted, were returning to Barmouth or opposite side of the river.
As they approached the ferryhouse at Penthryn, which is directly opposite Barmouth, they observed a light near the house, which they conjectured to be produced by a bonfire, and greatly puzzled they were to discover the reason why it should have been lighted.
As they came nearer, however, it vanished; and when they inquired at the house respecting it, they were surprised to learn that not only had the people there displayed no light, but they had not even seen one; nor could they perceive any signs of it on the sands. On reaching Barmouth, the circumstance was mentioned, and the fact corroborated by some of the people there, who had also plainly and distinctly seen the light.
It was settled, therefore, by some of the old fishermen that this was a death-token; and, sure enough, the man who kept the ferry at that time was drowned at high water a few nights afterwards, on the very spot where the light was seen. He was landing from the boat, when he fell into the water, and so perished.
The same winter the Barmouth people, as well as the inhabitants of the opposite bank, were struck by the appearance of a number of small lights, which were seen dancing in the air at a place called Borthwyn, about half a mile from the town. A great number of people came out to see these lights; and after awhile they all but one disappeared, and this one proceeded slowly towards the water’s edge to a little bay where some boats were moored.
The men in a sloop which was anchored near the spot saw the light advancing, they saw it also hover for a few seconds over one particular boat, and then totally disappear. Two or three days afterwards, the man to whom that particular boat belonged was drowned in the river, while he was sailing about Barmouth harbour in that very boat.
- Corpse Lights
- Ghost Lights
- Leach, Maria, and Jerome Fried, eds. Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979.
- O’Donnell, Elliott. Byways of Ghost-Land. London: William Rider & Sons, 1911.