Abductions of individuals targeted to become fairies’ lovers and spouses are told throughout Europe, but even more common are accounts of stolen infants. The folkloric record makes it clear that pre-industrial Europeans’ greatest fear concerning fairies was that the latter would steal a newborn baby, leaving in its place a misshapen fairy child known as a changeling. Accounts of such abductions are found throughout Europe, and beyond, stretching from the pre-Christian era into the twentieth century.
As late as 1924 it was reported that in sections of rural Germany many people were still taking traditional precautions against the supernatural exchange of infants. Outside of Europe the opinion survived even longer. Writing in 1980, Hasan M. El-Shamy reports: “The belief that the jinn may steal a human infant and put their own infant in its place is widespread in numerous parts of Egypt”.
This superstition’s longevity and widespread distribution is easily explained.
We all want reasons for events that fall outside of our control, especially those that have a direct bearing on our welfare. The changeling belief explained why some children fail to develop normally and justified the withdrawal of family support for such handicapped individuals.
Descriptions of fairy changelings gleaned from a sampling of legends suggest that the stories ultimately stemmed from actual experiences with children suffering from such ailments as autism, Down syndrome, hydrocephalus, or any other condition that resulted in a child’s failure to thrive and develop properly. Symptoms specifically described in the legends include a swollen head, strangely staring eyes, a flat nose, incessant crying, misbehavior, failure to learn to talk or walk, and a voracious appetite.
A noteworthy aspect of most changeling legends is that the parents whose child was misbehaving or failing to properly develop were not the ones who first suggested that the infant was a changeling. This diagnosis typically was made by someone outside the family: a priest, neighbor, landlord, fairy doctor, or even a perfect stranger. There was thus a shared responsibility for any actions that followed, and these were often very drastic. A standard approach was to torture the suspected changeling, thus forcing its fairy parents to rescue it. The abuses inflicted on these babies were unspeakably cruel, and if actually carried out would have been fatal.
… It is impossible to determine how often these extreme punishments were actually inflicted on malformed or mentally retarded children. In 1826 in Jalee, Ireland, a grandmother drowned her four-year-old grandson, who could neither stand, walk, nor speak. Brought to trial, she testified that she had not intended to kill the child, but rather “to put the fairy out of it.” She was found not guilty.
Cruel abuse was not the only way to force demonic parents to reclaim their misshapen children, although this was the most frequently described method. A more humane approach was to force the changeling to laugh or to make him utter an expression of surprise, which-according to popular belief-would expose his true identity and force his supernatural parents to take him away.
Brewery of Eggshells
IN Treneglwys there is a certain shepherd’s cot known by the name of Twt y Cymrws because of the strange strife that occurred there. There once lived there a man and his wife, and they had twins whom the woman nursed tenderly. One day she was called away to the house of a neighbour at some distance. She did not much like going and leaving her little ones all alone in a solitary house, especially as she had heard tell of the good folk haunting the neighbourhood.
Well, she went and came back as soon as she could, but on her way back she was frightened to see some old elves of the blue petticoat crossing her path though it was midday. She rushed home, but found her two little ones in the cradle and everything seemed as it was before.
But after a time the good people began to suspect that something was wrong, for the twins didn’t grow at all.
The man said: “They’re not ours.”
The woman said: “Whose else should they be?”
And so arose the great strife so that the neighbours named the cottage after it. It made the woman very sad, so one evening she made up her mind to go and see the Wise Man of Llanidloes, for he knew everything and would advise her what to do.
So she went to Llanidloes and told the case to the Wise Man. Now there was soon to be a harvest of rye and oats, so the Wise Man said to her, “When you are getting dinner for the reapers, clear out the shell of a hen’s egg and boil some potage in it, and then take it to the door as if you meant it as a dinner for the reapers. Then listen if the twins say anything. If you hear them speaking of things beyond the understanding of children, go back and take them up and throw them into the waters of Lake Elvyn. But if you don’t hear anything remarkable, do them no injury.”
So when the day of the reap came the woman did all that the Wise Man ordered, and put the eggshell on the fire and took it off and carried it to the door, and there she stood and listened. Then she heard one of the children say to the other:
Acorn before oak I knew,
An egg before a hen,
But I never heard of an eggshell brew
A dinner for harvest men.
So she went back into the house, seized the children and threw them into the Llyn, and the goblins in their blue trousers came and saved their dwarfs and the mother had her own children back and so the great strife ended.