How to Spot a Fairy

Fuseli, The Changeling

Our forebears often saw fairies- and knew that they had done so.  The certainty about the nature of experiences that is frequently disclosed in accounts is derived from various factors- circumstance, context, experience- but in no small measure it came from the witness knowing already what to expect. 

I’d like to look at this issue here, with particular reference to the identification of fairy changelings.  I’ll start with a couple of handbills from the 1690s which advertised ‘freak shows’ in London.  Even as recently as the nineteenth century, dead mermaids were put on display for the public to see; I assume that these were either confected fakes or they were the remains of manatees or seals or such like.  Live fairies are another matter entirely, though.

In 1690 a ‘changeling child’ was displayed at the Black Raven tavern, West Smithfield.  It was described as a “living skeleton,” which had been captured by Venetians from a Turkish ship.  The girl had been born to Hungarian parents and was nine years old, it was claimed, but she was only one foot six inches high.  Her legs, thighs and arms were very small “no bigger than a man’s thumb” and her face was as small as the palm of an adult’s hand, with a “very grave and solid” expression, as if she was sixty years of age.  If the girl was held up to the light, you could see all her ‘anatomy’ inside.  She never spoke, but mewled like a cat.  She had no teeth, but she had a voracious appetite all the same.

A second hand-bill of about the same date advertised a “living fairy” who could be seen at the Rose Tavern, Brydges Street, Covent Garden.  He was supposed to be 150 years old; he had been found around sixty years previously but had not aged since then.  His head was a “great piece of curiosity,” having no skull and “with several imperfections worthy of your observation.”

Doubtless both of these exhibits were profoundly disabled individuals who were being exploited by the proprietors of the touring show, but my interest is in the fact that they conformed to pre-existing ideas of what a fairy would look like.  What is, perhaps, most interesting is that the shared preconception seemed to be of a deformed and shrivelled creature- not at all the beautiful fairy princess we might be inclined to expect.

As I have often described before, one of the main occupations of British fairies was abducting people, most especially babies and young children.  Whilst a toddler might just wander off and not return, a baby in a cradle tended to be substituted for a fairy replacement- the changeling or ‘killcrop’ (a term seemingly taken from German: Luther discussed kilkropffs, for example, which is very possibly how the term became familiar and entered English). 

Changelings were accepted as being widespread and common.  For example, in December 1846 the Newcastle Courant carried a feature on the Devonshire pixies, in the course of which it was noted, casually and very much in passing, that a woman who was a fairy changeling was at that very time living in Totnes.  The people of South Devon were aware that this woman was a fairy and- it seems- were not especially surprised about that.  Part of their certainty must (again) have come from the fact that she looked like a fairy.  What did Victorians expect to see?

Scottish author James Napier recounted a changeling story in his book, Folklore, in 1879.  The child in question was suspected of having been swapped because “it seemed to have been pinched” and subsequently, it became very hungry, “gurning and yabbering constantly.”  These were give-away signs.  Another Scot, John Monteath, described in his book on Dunblane Traditions (1835) that changelings were “unearthly skin an’ bane gorbels.” In Scots, a gorbel is an unfledged bird, so this phrase is suggestive of the shrivelled, skinny look of the infant.  Likewise, in his story of ‘The Smith and the Fairies,’ John Francis Campbell described how the blacksmith’s son took to his bed and moped, becoming “thin, old and yellow.” (Popular Tales, vol.III)

In August 1892 the Dublin branch of the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children issued its annual report.  Amongst the cases featured was that of a child neglected by its parents because they believed it to have been a changeling.  The reason for this (though it was probably worsened by their lack of care) was that the child was a “living skeleton,” which was exactly the term used for the girl advertised on the 1690 handbill.   On New Year’s Day 1898 the Hampshire and Portsmouth Telegraph carried a feature on Welsh superstitions associated with New Year’s Eve. The paper reprted that it was still felt to be vital to watch a child’s cradle at this turning point of the year lest the tylwyth teg snatch the babe and leave a plentyn newid (a ‘changed child’). This fairy would be a “frightful looking, shrunken, puling brat, not infrequently becoming idiotic.”  The paper added what a disgrace to the parents it was if such a substitution had been allowed to take place. 

What’s consistent in all these examples is the starved look of the infant- despite the fact that they frequently gobbled up food.  Perhaps it’s significant that in one Scottish poem a milkmaid wooed by a fairy gives her lover a crucifix to wear- and his glamour is dispelled, revealing him as a “brown, withered twig, so elf twisted and dry.”  In another Scottish account, a man is sure that his wife has been taken by the fairies rather than having died.  He has her coffin opened- and finds a dry leaf inside.

From the Welsh Evening Express, October 26th 1898

So fixed was the association between a whingeing child with an insatiable hunger and fairy abduction that Horlicks even made reference to the tradition in an advert for their product that ran during the late 1890s.

Although the Smithfield changeling was dumb, it was the preternatural knowledge and loquacity of the swapped infant that often gave away its true nature.  Lewis Spence tells the story of a Sutherland woman out walking one day when her one-year old baby suddenly recites some lines of verse.  She abandons the creature and runs home, fortunately finding her true child back in its cradle.

Changelings were not necessarily taken for malign reasons: the fairies often sought a playmate for their own children, but they didn’t give much thought to the feelings of the human family.  Such was the desperation of those parents to recover their own bairns that many terrible measures were attempted.  The case of leaving the child all alone out in the countryside that was just mentioned was very mild compared to some remedies.  For example, people resorted to threatening suspected changelings with red-hot pokers, holding them on shovels over the fire or placing them in hot ovens.  Such cruelty was provoked by the perfectly understandable anxiety to be reunited with the lost baby.  The abuse was bolstered by the assurance that it was justified because the child no longer looked the same- instead, it looked like fairy.

Further Reading

For a more extended consideration of this subject, see my books Middle Earth Cuckoos (2021) and Faery (2020).

Changelings: fairy thefts of human children

jennet-francis-struggles-with-the-fairies-for-her-baby

“Some night tripping fairy had exchanged/ In cradle clothes our children where they lay…” Shakespeare, Henry IV Part One, Act I, scene 1.

I have several times alluded to the very widespread belief in changelings, but I want to examine it more closely in this posting.  It was an article of the fairy faith throughout the British Isles that our ‘good neighbours’ were not averse to snatching human infants if the opportunity presented itself.  The fairy queen herself, is accused of this crime by Ben Jonson:

“This is she that empties cradles/ Takes out children, puts in ladles.” (Entertainment at Althorpe, 1603).

Why change children?

The fairies were believed to prefer infants with fair hair and pale skin and to take only boys (Rhys Celtic folklore p.221; Wentz Fairy faith p.148).  We may recall the child over whom Titania and Oberon squabble in A midsummer night’s dream.  She has newly acquired a servant, “A lovely boy, stolen from an Indian king; She never had so sweet a changeling.”  Oberon wants the youth as his ‘henchman,’ as a ‘knight in his train’ but Titania will not release him (Act II, scene 1).

What was the changeling?

In place of the stolen human child was left the ‘changeling’, a creature consistently identifiable because it looked like an old man- being ugly, deformed, small, weak and bad-tempered.  Whatever care it received, the substitute remained frail and did not grow, being peevish at all times.  In other words, in earlier times before medical knowledge had developed, if a newborn was discovered to be mentally disabled or defective, this was put down not to congenital or perinatal problems but to a supernatural intervention: the real child had been abducted and an ‘oaf’ (an elf) left in its place (the ‘ouphs’ of Shakespeare’s Merry wives of Windsor are derived from the same source).  Drayton in Nymphidia sumarises the state of sixteenth century popular belief on pediatrics:

“…when a child haps to be got/ Which after proves an idiot/ When folke perceive it thriveth not/ The fault therein to smother;/ Some silly doting brainless caulf/ That understands things by the half/ Say that the fairy left this aulf/ And took away the other” (The court of fairy).

We may also note mention from Wales of a belief that the fairies might pay mortals to steal suitable children for them.  Rhys relates the story of an old woman from Cwm Tawe who was believed in her neighbourhood to abduct healthy babes and replace them with old urchins in return for fairy gold (Rhys p.255).She would enter homes begging for alms and then offer to rock the cradle. Whilst the mother’s back was turned, the fairy whelp hidden beneath her cloak would hastily be swapped for the healthy child and the crone would make her escape.

The stolen children seemed generally to be well cared for and to enjoy life at the fairy court, spending their time in feasting, dancing and music.  Hunt (Popular romances of the West of Englandtends to support this in his story of Betty Stogs.  He said it was believed in the ‘high countries’ of Penwith (Morva, Zennor and Towednack) that the fairies would take poorly cared for children and clean them.  This was Stogs’ experience- she neglected her home and her child but the pixies removed it, washed its clothes and left it near the cottage covered in flowers.

There is, too, a little evidence that the fairies sought to make their captives immortal like themselves.  In The faithful shepherdess Fletcher describes how the elves danced at a well by “pale moonshine, dipping often times/ Their stolen children, so to make them free/ From dying flesh and dull mortality” (Act I, Scene 2). This belief may go some way to explain an odd account from Wales of a suspected changeling that had to be dipped daily for three months in a cold spring, the result of which was that it thrived, growing ‘as fast as a gosling’ (Rhys p.256).

The theft of healthy normal babies and their replacement by an aged elf or a defective fairy infant was perceived to be a very common problem, then (note as a further illustration the song The fairy boyby Samuel Lover, 1840, performed by Lucy Ward on her 2011 album Adelphi has to flyNavigator Records).  Children were especially vulnerable in the time before they were baptised and variety of protective measures were deployed.  These included placing bindweed or iron (for example tongs or shears) around the cradle, the burning of leather in the room or the administering to the baby of either milk from a cow grazed on pearl-wort or water in which had been steeped cinders from a fire over which the child had been passed (Wentz, Fairy faith in the Celtic countries, pp.87 & 91).  Sir Walter Scott in Borders minstrelsy reports that another protective was to weave wreathes from oak and ivy withies at the full moon in March.  These were kept for a year and any children showing signs of consumption would be passed thrice through the hoops, thereby ensuring them against further supernatural assaults.

Exposing the changeling

The parents, once the presence of a changeling child had been realised, had to expose the substitute.  If it was an aged fairy, some trick would be performed to get it to reveal itself, such as brewing beer in an egg shell, which would provoke its curiosity.  It would exclaim that it had seen oaks grow from acorns and chickens from eggs, but it had never seen beer brewed in an egg shell (or pasties for the reapers mixed in a shell) .  Sometimes the preternatural knowledge of the changeling might be exposed by chance: Wentz relates one Highland case where the child was seen to leap from its cradle to play the bagpipes when the parents were away.

Expelling the changeling

There were several other means of expelling a changeling.  Salt might be burned as a magical means of repelling it or a shovel might be heated and held before its face.  Magic was resorted to:  the Cornish used a four leafed clover placed upon the ‘winickey’ impostor to recover the abducted baby and from Wales we learn of a curious ritual involving a hen: the mother had to find a black hen without a single white feather and had to kill it; then every window and door in the home except one would be sealed and the whole hen would be set before a wood fire to bake.  At the point that all its feathers fell off, the crimbil child would leave and the rightful infant would have been returned (Rhys p.263).

If these attempts did not succeed and an infant elf was still suspected, far worse treatment could follow, typically placing the baby on a shovel over the fire- but throwing the child in a river, ducking it in cold water daily, neglecting its needs, throwing pieces of iron at it or, lastly, placing it outside at night or on the beach as the tide came in, might also be tried (Wentz pp.111, 146, 171 & 177).  The idea was that the changeling’s cries would summon the fairy parents who would save their child and return the stolen human infant.  Wirt Sikes in British Goblins (1880, c.5) discusses the Welsh tradition of the plentyn newid (the new child) and remarks disapprovingly upon the cruelties from time to time inflicted as a result of this changeling belief.

Some parents, however, accepted the ‘changeling’ as their own and cared for the disabled neonate just as much as they would be expected to do for a healthy baby.  I have mentioned before how a mother who behaved in this manner was rewarded financially by the fairies during the infant’s life.  Another example comes from a Scottish witch trial.  John Ferguson approached Jonit Andirson for advice on his ‘shag-bairn’,   a child the family suspected of being a changeling.  Andirson confirmed their diagnosis and advised that she could not retrieve their baby from the fairies; however, if they cared for the changeling as their own, ‘they would not want.’

changeling_rackham

We have seen Ben Jonson’s mention that a ladle would replace the abductee.  This suited his rhyme but is not traditional.  Sometimes, rather than a living being, a ‘stock’ was substituted- a log fashioned in the likeness of the missing person who was, in actuality, ‘away with the fairies.’  This motionless, speechless form (a “a lingering voracious Image” in Kirk’s words) was left at the home in bed to act as a cover for the fact that the man or woman had been taken to fairyland for some purpose- perhaps as a midwife or wet nurse to a fairy mother.  Some readers will recall that in Susanna Clark’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a bog-oak likeness is left in place of Lady Emma Pole who is abducted to dance at the fairy balls.

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017); see too my books Faery (2020) and Middle Earth Cuckoos (2021).  For a different view of fairy treatment of human infants, see my posting on fairy child care.  See too my discussion of the ‘changeling incident‘ in Diana Gabaldon’s book Outlander.  I’ve also posted a case study of a particular Cornish changeling case.