Legendary landscapes: the Lake Como, the will-o'-the-wisps and flaming spirits
Ph. Luigi Fieni

Around Lake Como… when the cold knocks on the door

On cold autumn evenings, when the colours burn the long shadows and the air prepares for the arrival of winter, diaphanous encounters can occur.
These evenings are the omen of particular nights, moments in which the chimneys, the wells or the swamps can transform themselves into the places of numinous ghosts.

There is one night in particular, in which the thin film separating the universe of the living from that of the dead is torn and lets them walk together. Today we call it Halloween, but originally for the Celts it was New Year’s Eve and it was celebrated in cemeteries, amidst songs and libations.
«They are sometimes so close that the things of the world seem only shadows from the afterlife1
And the history of Como and the landscapes of its lake is linked to that of Celtic culture because «“Comum Oppidum” represents an important testimony of Celtic civilization, dating back to about 2500 years ago»2

On Lake Como many legends, telling these and other numinous ghosts, still doze waiting and ready to be told.
They are nocturnal thoughts and tales, very different in colour, shades and shape, from those that are born in daylight.
«It happened to me several times, waking up in the middle of the night (…), I happened to feel in the dark, in the silence, a strange wonder, a strange embarrassment while remembering something done during the day, in the light, without paying attention; and then I asked myself if, the colours, the sight of surrounding things and the sight of life do not contribute to determining our actions. (…)»3

The legend

Strange events happen on Lake Como, and in fact …
It was said, and still is, that on cold autumn evenings, it is not advisable to go into swamps and silent cemeteries: there, in the dark, mysterious will-o’-the-wisps appear, wandering souls, perhaps fleeing from those who chase them and on the hunt of strangers, on the other hand, disturbed.
It seems that Alessandro Volta, just after seeing a will-o’-the-wisp, invented the “perpetual lamp”.
For science, these blue or celestial flames are the result of the gases emitted by organic matter during their decomposition, but it seems that «No one has ever been able to reproduce the phenomenon in a laboratory, however there have been thousands of sightings in the world.»4
Those who have seen them are amazed at how they float, fluctuate, and do not seem to burn at all.

Always referring to a hovering fire, another story comes from Albate, where, in an area called “rocaja”, of which memory has now been lost 6, the wandering of a tremendous entity was told, which «dresses in a large globe of flames».5

In Val Cavargna it was customary to leave buckets of water and chestnuts in front of the fireplace, considered the entrance door for the souls of the deceased in the cyclical return home from the afterlife, to help them find peace.
For them, the children were used to asking for food from house to house, with the promise of prayers for the dead, a sort of “trick or treat”.

Good evening and … good night.

> Albate is here
> La Val Cavargna is here

“Il grande libro dei misteri della Lombardia risolti e irrisolti” Federico Crimi, Giulio M. Facchetti (Newton Compton Editori, 2008)
“Lunario. Dodici mesi di riti, feste, leggende e tradizioni popolari d’Italia” Alfredo Cattabiani (Mondadori, 2015. Edizione Kindle)
“Il fu Mattia Pascal” Luigi Pirandello (Einaudi, 1993)
“Rivista archeologica dell’antica provincia e diocesi di Como. Periodico annuale di antichità e d’arte della società archeologica comense” (Vol. n° 198, year 2016)
“Celti ed Etruschi nell’Etruria Padana e nell’Italia settentrionale”, Giuseppe Sassatelli, pp.231- 257 (magazine “Ocnus” n° 11, 2003)

1 William Butler Yeats. From “Lunario. Dodici mesi di riti, feste, leggende e tradizioni popolari d’Italia” , posizione 5671
2 comocity.it;
3 from “Il fu Mattia Pascal”, pag. 234;
4 from “Il grande libro dei misteri della Lombardia risolti e irrisolti” , pag. xx
5 from “Il grande libro dei misteri della Lombardia risolti e irrisolti” , pag. xx
6 a probable identification of the place “rocaja” is with the Acquanera area. The identification, unfortunately, is not confirmed;