The Air at the Top of the Bottle

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Casanova and the Spooklight

January 16th, 2009 · No Comments

It was, perhaps, near the end of August, 1743, that Casanova encountered, of all things, a spooklight.  I say “perhaps” because scholars on the Casanova beat have found some hiccups in his chronology.  At any rate, he left this intriguing description in his memoirs (Volume 1, Chapter 8).  These odd lights — earth lights, will o’ the wisps, ignes fatui — have a long history, and have been variously explained by science and folklore.  Casanova’s description is one of the earliest I’ve seen; and, thanks to his intelligence and curiosity, still worth reading.  My translation (taken from the 1960 edition of his original manuscript) goes something like this:

An hour after leaving Châteauneuf, headed for Rome, the wind being calm and the sky serene, I observed, at ten steps to my right, a pyramidal flame, one cubit high and four to five feet above the ground, which accompanied me.  It stopped when I stopped, and when there were trees by the road, I lost sight of it; but I saw it again when I had passed them.  I approached it several times; but the more I approached, the more it receded.  I tried to retrace my steps, and then no longer saw it, but when I turned around it reappeared at the same place.  It did not disappear until the break of day.

What a marvel it would seem to the superstitious and the ignorant, if I had witnesses to this fact, and earned a great fortune once I had reached Rome!  History is filled with bagatelles of this kind; and the world is filled with heads that still make a great fuss over them, despite the enlightenment that the sciences are supposed to have brought to the human mind.  I must, however, tell the truth: that despite my knowledge of physics, the sight of that little meteor persisted in giving me strange ideas.  I had the prudence not to mention it to anyone.  I arrived in Rome with seven paoli [an Italian coin] in my pocket.

He had another sighting in 1748.  This passage is from the end of Volume 2, Chapter 11:

Having returned to the balcony, I saw shadows coming and going in the courtyard.  They could only have been thick and humid masses of air; and as for the pyramids of fire that I saw floating over the countryside, that was a phenomenon I knew well.  I let the others believe that they were spirits guarding treasures.  All throughout southern Italy, the country is filled with will o’ the wisps that people take for devils.  From that comes the term Spirito folletto

(Posted by Doug Skinner) 

Tags: Belief Systems · Forteana · Literature

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