Will-o'-the-wisp


Will-o'-the-wisp
Will-o'-the-wisp
Phenomenon
Arnold Böcklin - Das Irrlicht -1882.jpeg
An 1882 oil painting of a will-o'-the-wisp by Arnold Böcklin
See also Naga fireball
Min Min light
Foxfire
Earthquake light
St. Elmo's fire
Ball lightning
Aurora

A will-o'-the-wisp /ˌwɪl ə ðə ˈwɪsp/ or ignis fatuus (play /ˌɪɡnɨs ˈfæəs/; Medieval Latin: "foolish fire"), also called a "will-o'-wisp", "jack-o'-lantern" (or "jack-o'-the-lantern"), "hinkypunk", "corpse candle",[1] "ghost-light", "spook-light", "fairy light", "friar's lantern", "hobby lantern", "ghost orb",[2] or simply "wisp", is a ghostly light or lights sometimes seen at night or twilight over bogs, swamps, and marshes. It resembles a flickering lamp and is sometimes said to recede if approached. Much traditional, non-scientific belief surrounds the phenomenon, giving rise to the wide variety of names.

Contents

Terminology

The term "will-o'-the-wisp" comes from "wisp", a bundle of sticks or paper sometimes used as a torch, and the name "Will": thus, "Will-of-the-torch". The term jack-o-lantern ("Jack of [the] lantern") was originally synonymous with "will-o'-the-wisp". In fact, the names "Jacky Lantern" and "Jack the Lantern" are still present in the oral tradition of Newfoundland.

These lights are also sometimes referred to as "corpse candles" or "hobby lanterns", two monikers found in the Denham Tracts. In the United States, they are often called "spook-lights", "ghost-lights", or "orbs"[3] by folklorists and paranormal enthusiasts.[4][5] Sometimes the phenomenon is classified by the observer as a ghost, fairy, or elemental, and a different name is used. Briggs' A Dictionary of Fairies provides an extensive list of other names for the same phenomenon, though the place where they are observed (graveyard, bogs, etc.) influences the naming considerably.

Scientific explanation

An artist's rendering of a will-o'-the-wisp

The oxidation of phosphine and methane, produced by organic decay, can cause photon emissions. Since phosphine spontaneously ignites on contact with the oxygen in air, only small quantities of it would be needed to ignite the much more abundant methane to create ephemeral fires. Chemists have replicated the lights by adding some chemicals to gases from rotting compounds. They argue that the combustion can be sustained at lower temperatures than those found in traditional fires.[citation needed] Taken together, these findings seem to explain two of the more puzzling aspects of the will-o'-the-wisp — its spontaneous, transient nature and its low-temperature "flame" that doesn't seem to burn close-by ignitable items.[6]

Writing in the Journal of American Folklore in 1891, J.G. Owens contested the marsh-gas hypothesis:

This is a name that is sometimes applied to a phenomenon perhaps more frequently called Jack-o'-the-Lantern, or Will-o'-the-Wisp. It seems to be a ball of fire, varying in size from that of a candle-flame to that of a man's head. It is generally observed in damp, marshy places, moving to and fro; but it has been known to stand perfectly still and send off scintillations. As you approach it, it will move on, keeping just beyond your reach; if you retire, it will follow you. That these fireballs do occur, and that they will repeat your motion, seems to be established, but no satisfactory explanation has yet been offered that I have heard. Those who are less superstitious say that it is the ignition of the gases rising from the marsh. But how a light produced from burning gas could have the form described and move as described, advancing as you advance, receding as you recede, and at other times remaining stationary, without having any visible connection with the earth, is not clear to me.[7]

In 1993, professors Derr and Persinger proposed that the lights are piezoelectrically generated under a tectonic strain. The strains that move faults would also heat up the rocks, vaporizing the water in them. Rock or soil containing something piezoelectric, like quartz, silicon or arsenic, may also produce electricity, channeled up to the surface through the soil via a column of vaporized water, there somehow appearing as earth lights. This would explain why the lights appear electrical, erratic, or even intelligent in their behavior.[8][9]

Others explanations link will-o'-the-wisps to bioluminescence, e.g., honey fungus. Barn owls also have white plumage that may reflect enough light from sources such as the moon to appear as a will-o'-the-wisp; hence the possibility of the lights moving, reacting to other lights, etc.[10]

Folklore

The names will-o'-the-wisp and jack-o'-lantern refer to an old folktale, retold in different forms across Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Appalachia, and Newfoundland.

One version, from Shropshire, recounted by K. M. Briggs in her book A Dictionary of Fairies, refers to Will the Smith. Will is a wicked blacksmith who is given a second chance by Saint Peter at the gates to Heaven, but leads such a bad life that he ends up being doomed to wander the Earth. The Devil provides him with a single burning coal with which to warm himself, which he then used to lure foolish travellers into the marshes.

An Irish version of the tale has a ne'er-do-well named Drunk Jack or Stingy Jack who makes a deal with the Devil, offering up his soul in exchange for payment of his pub tab. When the Devil comes to collect his due, Jack tricks him by making him climb a tree and then carving a cross underneath, preventing him from climbing down. In exchange for removing the cross, the Devil forgives Jack's debt. However, because no one as bad as Jack would ever be allowed into Heaven, Jack is forced upon his death to travel to Hell and ask for a place there. The Devil denies him entrance in revenge, but, as a boon, grants Jack an ember from the fires of Hell to light his way through the twilight world to which lost souls are forever condemned. Jack places it in a carved turnip to serve as a lantern.[11] Another version of the tale, "Willy the Whisp", is related in Irish Folktales by Henry Glassie. The first modern novel in the Irish language, Séadna by Peadar Ua Laoghaire, is a version of the tale.

Continental Europe

Among European rural people, especially in Gaelic, Hungarian and Slavic folk cultures, the will-o'-the-wisps are held to be mischievous spirits of the dead or other supernatural beings attempting to lead travellers astray. A modern Americanized adaptation of this travellers' association frequently places swaying ghost-lights along roadsides and railroad tracks. Here a swaying movement of the lights is alleged to be that of 19th- and early 20th-century railway workers supposedly killed on the job.

Sometimes the lights are believed to be the spirits of unbaptized or stillborn children, flitting between heaven and hell. Modern occultist elaborations bracket them with the salamander, a type of spirit wholly independent from humans (unlike ghosts, which are presumed to have been humans at some point in the past).

Danes, Finns, Swedes, Estonians, and Latvians amongst some other groups believed that a will-o'-the-wisp marked the location of a treasure deep in ground or water, which could be taken only when the fire was there. Sometimes magical tricks, and even dead man's hand, were required as well, to uncover the treasure. In Finland and other northern countries it was believed that early autumn was the best time to search for will-o'-the-wisps and treasures below them. It was believed that when someone hid treasure, in the ground, he made the treasure available only at the midsummer, and set will-o'-the-wisp to mark the exact place and time so that he could come to take the treasure back. Finns also believed that the creature guarding the treasure, aarni, used fire (aarnivalkea) to clean precious metals.

Britain

The will-o'-the-wisp can be found in numerous folk tales around the United Kingdom, and is often a malicious character in the stories. In Welsh folklore, it is said that the light is "fairy fire" held in the hand of a púca, or pwca, a small goblin-like fairy that mischievously leads lone travelers off the beaten path at night. As the traveler follows the púca through the marsh or bog, the fire is extinguished, leaving the man lost. The púca is said to be one of the Tylwyth Teg, or fairy family. In Wales the light predicts a funeral that will take place soon in the locality. Wirt Sikes in his book British Goblins mentions the following Welsh tale about púca.

A peasant traveling home at dusk spots a bright light traveling along ahead of him. Looking closer, he sees that the light is a lantern held by a "dusky little figure", which he follows for several miles. All of a sudden he finds himself standing on the edge of a vast chasm with a roaring torrent of water rushing below him. At that precise moment the lantern-carrier leaps across the gap, lifts the light high over its head, lets out a malicious laugh and blows out the light, leaving the poor peasant a long way from home, standing in pitch darkness at the edge of a precipice. This is a fairly common cautionary tale concerning the phenomenon; however, the ignis fatuus was not always considered dangerous. There are some tales told about the will-o'-the-wisp being guardians of treasure, much like the Irish leprechaun leading those brave enough to follow them to sure riches. Other stories tell of travelers getting lost in the woodland and coming upon a will-o'-the-wisp, and depending on how they treated the will-o'-the-wisp, the spirit would either get them lost further in the woods or guide them out.

Also related, the Pixy-light from Devon and Cornwall is most often associated with the Pixie who often has "pixie-led" travelers away from the safe and reliable route, and into the bogs with glowing lights.

"Like Poltergeist they can generate uncanny sounds. They were less serious than their German Weisse Frauen kin, frequently blowing out candles on unsuspecting courting couples or producing obscene kissing sounds, which were always misinterpreted by parents."[12] Pixy-Light was also associated with "lambent light"[13] which the "Old Norse" might have seen guarding their tombs.

In Cornish folklore, Pixy-Light also has associations with the Colt Pixy. "A colt pixie is a pixie that has taken the shape of a horse and enjoys playing tricks such as neighing at the other horses to lead them astray".[14][15] It may well be said that the wild colt pixy would sometimes bedevil regular horses on a ride and cause them to lead their human masters into a predicament or hazard, and might have yielded the pixy - horse name variation.

In Guernsey, the light is known as the faeu boulanger (rolling fire), and is believed to be a lost soul. On being confronted with the spectre, tradition prescribes two remedies. The first is to turn one's cap or coat inside out. This has the effect of stopping the faeu boulanger in its tracks. The other solution is to stick a knife into the ground, blade up. The faeu, in an attempt to kill itself, will attack the blade.[16]

Asia

Aleya (or marsh ghost-light) is the name given to an unexplained strange light phenomena occurring over the marshes as observed by the Bengali people, specially the fishermen of Bengal. This marsh light is attributed to some kind of unexplained marsh gas apparitions that confuse fishermen, make them lose their bearings and may even lead to drowning if one decided to follow it moving over the marshes. Local communities in the region believe that these strange hovering marsh-lights are in fact Ghost-lights representing the ghosts of fisherman who died fishing, some times they confuse the fishermen and some times they help them avoid future dangers.[17][18]

A Japanese rendition of a Russian will-o'-the-wisp.

Chir batti (ghost-light), also spelled chhir batti or cheer batti, is a yet unexplained strange dancing light phenomena occurring on dark nights reported from the Banni grasslands, its seasonal marshy wetlands[19] and the adjoining desert of the marshy salt flats of the Rann of Kutch[20] near Indo-Pak border in Kutch district, Gujarat State, India. Local villagers have been seeing these sometimes hovering, sometimes flying balls of lights since time immemorial, and call it Chir Batti in their KutchhiSindhi language, with Chir meaning ghost and Batti meaning light.[19]

One Asian theologist ponders the relation of will-o'-the-wisp to that of the foxfire produced by kitsune, an interesting way of combining mythology of the West with that of the East.[21]

Similar phenomena are described in Japanese folklore, including Hitodama (literally "Human Soul" as a ball of energy), Hi no Tama (Ball of Flame), Aburagae, Koemonbi, Ushionibi, etc. All these phenomena are described as balls of flame or light, at times associated with graveyards, but occurring across Japan as a whole in a wide variety of situations and locations. These phenomena are described in Shigeru Mizuki's 1985 book Graphic World of Japanese Phantoms (妖怪伝 in Japanese).[22]

South America

Boi-tatá (Portuguese pronunciation: [bojtaˈta]) is the Brazilian equivalent of the will-o'-the-wisp.[23] Regionally it is called Boitatá, Baitatá, Batatá, Bitatá, Batatão, Biatatá, M'boiguaçu, Mboitatá and Mbaê-Tata. The name comes from the Old Tupi language and means "fiery serpent" (mboî tatá). It has great fiery eyes, leave it almost blind by day, but by night, it can see everything. According to legend, Boi-tatá was a big serpent which survived a great deluge. A "boiguaçu" (a cave anaconda) left its cave after the deluge and, in the dark, went through the fields preying on the animals and corpses, eating exclusively its favorite morsel, the eyes. The collected light from the eaten eyes gave "Boitatá" its fiery gaze. Not really a dragon but a giant snake (in the native language, "boa" or "mboi" or "mboa").

The expression "fogo-fátuo" is also used ("fake fire", from the Latin "ignis fatuus") throughout Brazil.

In Argentina the will-o'-the-wisp phenomenon is known as Luz Mala (evil light) or Fuego Fatuo and is one of the most important myths in Argentine and Uruguayan Folklore. This phenomenon is quite feared and is mostly seen on Argentine rural areas. It consists of an extremely shiny ball of light floating a few inches from the ground. Traditionally is said that "If the light is white, it implies a soul in pain and is recommended to say a prayer, but if the light is red, the witness must flee immediately, thus the phenomenon represents the temptation of Satan.."[citation needed]

Australia

Min Min Light is the name given to an unusual light formation that has been reported numerous times in eastern Australia.[24][25] The lights have been reported from as far south as Brewarrina in western New South Wales, to as far north as Boulia in northern Queensland. The majority of sightings are reported to have occurred in Channel Country.[24]

Stories about the lights can be found in aboriginal myth pre-dating western settlement of the region and have since become part of wider Australian folklore.[24] Indigenous Australians hold that the number of sightings has increased alongside the increasing ingression of Europeans into the region.[24] According to folklore, the lights sometime follow or approached people and have disappeared when fired upon, only to reappear later on.[24][25]

In literature

In literature, Will o' the wisp sometimes has a metaphorical meaning, describing a hope or goal that leads one on but is impossible to reach, or something one finds sinister and confounding.[26]

In Book IX of John Milton's Paradise Lost, Satan is compared to a "will-o-the-wisp" in tempting of Eve to partake of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil:

[...] He, leading, swiftly rolled

In tangles, and made intricate seem straight,
To mischief swift. Hope elevates, and joy
Brightens his crest; as when a wandering fire,
Compact of unctuous vapour, which the night
Condenses, and the cold environs round,
Kindled through agitation to a flame,
Which oft, they say, some evil Spirit attends,
Hovering and blazing with delusive light,
Misleads the amazed night-wanderer from his way
To bogs and mires, and oft through pond or pool;

There swallowed up and lost, from succour far.
—9.631-642

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner describes the Will o' the wisp.[27]

Two Will-o-the-wisps appear in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's fairy tale The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily (1795). They are described as lights which consume gold, and are capable of shaking gold pieces again from themselves.[28]

It is seen in Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre when Jane Eyre is unsure if it is a candle or a Will-o-the-wisp.

"Mother Carey" wrote a popular 19th century poem titled "Will-O'-The-Wisp".

The Will o' the wisp makes an appearance in the first chapter of Bram Stoker's Dracula, as the Count, masquerading as his own coach driver, takes Jonathan Harker to his castle in the night. The following night, when Harker asks Dracula about the lights, the Count makes reference to a common folk belief about the phenomenon by saying that they mark where treasure is buried.[29]

In J. R. R. Tolkien's work The Lord of the Rings, will o' the wisps are present in the Dead Marshes outside of Mordor. When Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee make their way through the bogs the spindly creature Gollum tells them "not to follow the lights" meaning the will o' the wisps. He tells them that if they do, they will keep the dead company and have little candles of their own.

The hinkypunk, the name for a Will o' the wisp in South West England has achieved fame as a magical beast in JK Rowling's Harry Potter series. In the books, a hinkypunk is a one-legged, frail-looking creature that appears to be made of smoke. It is said to carry a lantern and mislead travelers.

The children's fantasy series "The Spiderwick Chronicles", by Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi, includes will o'the wisps; they are listed in "Arthur Spiderwick's Guide to the Fantastical World Around You." In the series, Will O' The Wisps are described as fat fireflies that lead travellers astray.

The German fantasy novel by Michael Ende The Neverending Story (German: Die unendliche Geschichte 1979 and Ralph Manheim's English translation 1983) begins in Fantastica, when a will-o'-the-wisp goes to ask the Childlike Empress for help against the Nothing, which is spreading over the land. The film based on the book does not contain the Will -o'-the-wisp.

In gaming

Will-o'-the-wisp phenomena have appeared in Gothic II: Night of the Raven, EverQuest, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Super Mario RPG, Ultima Online, World of Warcraft, Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness, Pokémon (as a status-inflicting skill), Skies of Arcadia, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Chrono Cross, the Legacy of Kain series and the trading card game Magic: the Gathering. The Final Fantasy Series also pays tribute to the will-o'-the-wisp character with the Tonberry creature. In Fable II, Will-o'-the-wisps are passive but frequently malignant spirits.

In television

Willo the Wisp appeared as a short cartoon series on BBC TV in the 1980s, voiced by Kenneth Williams.

In music

Several bands have written songs about or referring to will-o'-the-wisps, such as Magnolia electric Co.,[30] Verdunkeln, Leon Russell and Yes. The will-o'-the-wisp is also referred to during the song "Maria" in The Sound of Music.[31]

In classical music, one of Franz Liszt's most challenging piano studies (the Transcendental Etude No.5), known for its flighty and mysterious quality, bears the title "Feux Follets" (the French term for Will-o'-the-wisp). The phenomenon also appears in "Canción del fuego fatuo" ('Song of the will-o'-the-wisp') in Manuel de Falla's ballet El amor brujo,[32] later covered by Miles Davis as "Will-O'-The-Wisp" on Sketches Of Spain. The German name of the phenomenon, Irrlicht, has been the name of a song by the classical composer Franz Schubert in his song cycle Winterreise. Additionally, the first solo album of electronic musician Klaus Schulze is named Irrlicht.

The will o' the wisp also appears in the song "skylark" sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Maxine Sullivan and others

Reported light locations

Europe

North America

Canada
United States

See also

References

Footnotes

  1. ^ Marie Trevelyan (1909). Folk-Lore and Folk-Stories of Wales. London. p. 178. http://books.google.com/books?id=zmYHrsC6cYIC&printsec=frontcover. Retrieved 2010-09-18. 
  2. ^ Ghost Worlds: A Guide to Poltergeists, Portals, Ecto-Mist, & Spirit Behavior By Melba Goodwyn, Llewellyn Publications, www.llewellyn.com
  3. ^ "Ghost Lights and Orbs". Moonslipper.com. http://www.moonslipper.com/ghostlightsandorbs.html. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  4. ^ Stephen Wagner. "Spooklights: Where to Find Them". About.com. http://paranormal.about.com/library/weekly/aa080601a.htm. Retrieved 2007-12-08. 
  5. ^ Randall Floyd (1997). "Historical Mysteries: Ghostly lights as common as dew in Dixie". Augusta Chronicle. http://chronicle.augusta.com/stories/060897/fea_floyd.html. Retrieved 2007-12-08. 
  6. ^ "Download Attachment". Luigi.garlaschelli.googlepages.com. http://luigi.garlaschelli.googlepages.com/WILLOWISexperiments.pdf. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  7. ^ Owens, J.G., 1891. "Folk-Lore from Buffalo Valley." Journal of American Folk-lore. 4:123-4.
  8. ^ Persinger, M.A. (1993). Perceptual and Motor Skills. "Geophysical variables and behavior: LXXIV. Man-made fluid injections into the crust and reports of luminous phenomena (UFO Reports) — Is the strain field an aseismically propagating hydrological pulse?". 
  9. ^ Derr, J.S. (1993). Perceptual and Motor Skills. "Seasonal hydrological load and regional luminous phenomena (UFO reports) within river systems: the Mississippi Valley test.". 
  10. ^ A Review of accounts of luminosity in Barn Owls Tyto alba.
  11. ^ Mark Hoerrner (2006). "History of the Jack-O-Lantern". buzzle.com. http://www.buzzle.com/articles/history-jacko-lantern-irish-tale-halloween.html. Retrieved 2007-05-09. 
  12. ^ "World Myth" page 113[dead link]
  13. ^ "lambent - alphaDictionary * Free English On-line Dictionary". Alphadictionary.com. http://www.alphadictionary.com/goodword/word/lambent. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  14. ^ "House Shadow Drake - Water Horses and Other Fairy Steeds". Shadowdrake.com. http://www.shadowdrake.com/waterhorse.html. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  15. ^ "Colypixy". Pandius.com. http://www.pandius.com/coltpixy.html. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  16. ^ Folklore of Guernsey by Marie de Garis (1986) ASIN: B0000EE6P8.
  17. ^ "Bengali Ghosts; byAmbarish Pandey; Apr 7, 2009; PAKISTANTIMES website". Pak-times.com. 2009-04-07. http://www.pak-times.com/2009/04/07/bengali-ghosts/. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  18. ^ "Blog post by the author Saundra Mitchel of the novel "Shadowed Summer" at Books Obsession". Booksobsession.blogspot.com. 2009-10-09. http://booksobsession.blogspot.com/2009/10/hbt-guest-post-with-author-saundra.html. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  19. ^ a b Ghost lights that dance on Banni grasslands when it’s very dark; by D V Maheshwari; August 28, 2007; The Indian Express Newspaper
  20. ^ "I read somewhere that on dark nights there are strange lights that dance on the Rann. The locals call them cheer batti or ghost lights. It's a phenomenon widely documented but not explained." SOURCE: Stark beauty (Rann of Kutch); Bharati Motwani; September 23, 2008; India Today Magazine, Cached: Page 2 of 3 page article with these search terms highlighted: cheer batti ghost lights rann kutch [1], Cached: Complete View - 3 page article seen as a single page [2]
  21. ^ Hall, Jamie. Half Human, Half Animal: Tales of Werewolves and Related Creatures. Bloomington, Indiana: Authorhouse, 2003. 142.
  22. ^ Mizuki, Shigeru. "Graphic World of Japanese Phantoms". 講談社, 1985. ISBN 978-4-06-202381-8 (4-06-202381-4).
  23. ^ "ref". Terrabrasileira.net. http://www.terrabrasileira.net/folclore/regioes/3contos/boitata.html. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  24. ^ a b c d e Pettigrew, John D. (March 2003). "The Min Min light and the Fata Morgana. An optical account of a mysterious Australian phenomenon" (PDF). Clin Exp Optom 86 (2): 109–20. doi:10.1111/j.1444-0938.2003.tb03069.x. PMID 12643807. http://www.uq.edu.au/nuq/jack/MinMinCEO.pdf. 
  25. ^ a b Kozicka, M.G. "The Mystery of the Min Min Light. Cairns", Bolton Imprint
  26. ^ entry on will-o'-the-wisp in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition Copyright © 2007, 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2007. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved
  27. ^ Samuel Taylor Coleridge. "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". Electronic Text Center. http://etext.virginia.edu/stc/Coleridge/poems/Rime_Ancient_Mariner.html. Retrieved 2007-05-30. 
  28. ^ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. "The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily". http://wn.rsarchive.org/RelAuthors/GoetheJW/GreenSnake.html. 
  29. ^ Bram Stoker. "Dracula". The Free Library. http://stoker.thefreelibrary.com/Dracula/1-2. Retrieved 2007-11-09. 
  30. ^ "Discography » Magnolia Electric Co. - Sojourner Box Set". Magnolia Electric Co.. http://www.magnoliaelectricco.com/archives/237. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  31. ^ "The Sound of Music - Maria Lyrics". Lyricsmania.com. http://www.lyricsmania.com/maria_lyrics_sound_of_music_the.html. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 
  32. ^ "Lyrics from "El amor brujo"". Web.archive.org. 2009-10-26. http://web.archive.org/web/20091026222622/http://geocities.com/ubeda2002/falla/amorbrujo.htm. Retrieved 2011-11-18. 

Notations

  • The Denham Tracts by Michael Denham
  • The Haunted Abbot by Peter Tremayne
  • Remarkable Luminous Phenomena in Nature by William Corliss
  • Het dwaallicht by Willem Elsschot

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