This article was written by (c)@David Halpin
The precise definition of a changeling can vary from place to be place but generally we can say that they are a fairy who has exchanged places with a human child. Some accounts will end with the human child being spellbound in the Otherworld but reasonably well looked after, whereas others, such as this tale, end with the child being discovered or recovered in a terrible state of neglect. In many cases the human child does not recover from the experience.
After some suspicion based upon the changeling’s unusual behaviour, many of the accounts end with the human mother somehow tricking the fairy into revealing itself. In Irish folklore this may be achieved by pretending to leave the house and spying on the changeling child who, thinking it is alone, may sing about its deeds and age or play a musical instrument or exhibit tremendous skill at a spinning wheel, for example.
Many reasons have been put forward for the belief in changelings and some of these are associated with illness and dire social circumstances.
For this post we will examine the folkloric beliefs as opposed to the more tragic psychological and physiological possibilities.
Folklore, then, tells us that changelings choose a human child for a number of reasons. Throughout European stories of this fairy-being there is a recurring factor regarding both fairy birth and midwifery. Previous posts have documented accounts from Ireland and mainland Europe where a woman has been taken to the Otherworld in order to assist with a fairy birth. In comparable instances young men are taken in order to father fairy children. We see this motif in contemporary UFO lore which also shares many other common aspects of changeling accounts.
Some folklorists have argued that earthly sustenance is required by the fairy child but contradicting this are the many tales in which the changeling turns out to be hundreds of years old.
Another reason given for a changeling to take a child is that they must pay a tithe which may be for a certain number of years or, alas, a permanent one in some cases. A Christian interpretation of fairy origins account for this belief as in some traditions fairies must pay a seasonal tithe to the devil, or every seven years in other cases.
Another interesting difference in how changelings are perceived is in relation to babies being born with a caul over their faces. The caul in changeling tradition signals a likelihood that the child has been marked by the fairies or, worse, already taken.
This contradicts many ancient European traditions where this occurrence was seen as being lucky and the sign of a healer or witch. The Good Walkers or Benandanti of Italy are a famous example of this. These people were an agrarian cult who were able to travel to the spirit realm and battle against evil spirit forces.
For more on this I recommend Carlo Ginzburg’s book The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Night_Battles
Although a belief in changeling-type beings is pre-Christian, a later factor which was seen to determine whether or not a child might be taken was whether they were baptised or not. Another was that if the child was particularly striking or beautiful it was more likely to attract the good people.
In the following tale the changeling does not seem to hide his true form as it allows the mother to witness his withered features and long teeth. The act of crossing water is one that is renowned for breaking a fairy spell and in this case, along with throwing the changeling into a deep pool, is one which the mother utilises in order to have her child returned.
A final observation on this account is the sound of a flock of birds the mother hears as the veil between the human world and fairy world is crossed momentarily. This turns up in many accounts of fairy abductions and is one of the less explained associated phenomena. A similar example is that of the maid who was abducted by the good people close to Boleycarrigeen stone circle. In this case the maid reported that she heard a sound similar to a horses bridle or reins being shook just before she entered the Otherworld.
The Glengarry Fairy.
” There once lived in Glengarry a widow with a young child who was a boy. One day she went to the well for water; and when she was returning to the house, she heard the child, whom she had left sleeping quietly in the cradle, screaming as if he were in great pain. She hastened in, a gave him a drink as quickly as she could. This quieted him for a little while, but he soon broke out again as badly as ever. She gave him another drink; and while he was at her breast she looked at him and saw that he had two teeth in his mouth, each more than an inch long, and that his face was as old and withered as any face she had ever seen. She said to herself: “Now I am undone, but I will keep quiet until I see what will come of this.”
Next day she lifted the lad in her arms, put a shawl about him, and went away as though she was going to the next farm with him. A bug burn ran across her path, and when she was going over the ford, the creature put his head out of the shawl and said: “Many a big fold have I seen on the banks of this stream!”
The woman did not wait to hear more of his history, but threw him into a deep pool below the ford, where he lay for a while, tumbling about and reviling her, and saying if he had known beforehand the trick she was going to play him, he would have shown her another.
She then heard a sound like that of a flock of birds flying about her, but saw nothing until she looked at her feet, and there beheld her own child with his bones as bare as the tongs. She took him home with her, and he got gradually better, and was at last as healthy as any other child.”
Original Source: James MacDougall, Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English, Edinburgh: John Grant, 1910, pp. 115-119
(C.) David Halpin.