Thursday, June 10, 2010


Modern people may be surprised to find how fervently fairy lore was believed up until relatively recently. Even this year, supposedly a builder lost 15,000 pounds because locals wouldn't let him disturb a rock under which fairies lived (read here).

But the most awful, heartbreaking results of fairy beliefs are those having to do with changelings. A changeling is a fairy or stock (wooden figure) made to exactly resemble a human and left in their place, while the real human is abducted and taken to the land of fairies. Fairies most often take children, either to raise or to make work as slaves, or young women to be servants, midwives, or wives. Many people never return to the land of humans, although some stories relate successful rescues of the fairy captives.

Some remedies for changelings are harmless and humorous, such as cooking food in an eggshell. This will cause the changeling to burst out laughing, and (if the changeling was in the form of a baby), betray what he/she really is because it takes intelligence to find it humorous. Other remedies include leaving the changeling out, or holding them on a shovel over a fire. Ostensibly, the fairies will not want one of their kind to suffer, and will replace the changeling with the original.
Arthur Rackham

In Carole G. Silver's Strange and Secret Peoples, she has a whole chapter devoted to changelings. She cites a sickeningly long list of crimes related to claims that the victim was believed to be a changeling.

1826- Anne Rocke killed four-year-old Michael Leahy, who could not walk, stand, or speak, by bathing him three times in icy waters. The boy drowned.

1843-John Trevelyan of Penzance placed son on tree for several hours at Christmastime. Later ordered servants to beat, kick, and starve him.

1845-Female placed in basket with wood shavings and suspended over kitchen hearth until shavings ignited

"Bland Tomtar och Troll", John Bauer

1857-Three Welsh children died by bathing in/being fed foxglove

1869-Changeling exorcised by being dipped three times in an Irish tarn

May 19, 1884-Ellen Cushion and Anastasia Rourke arrested for placing three year old Philip Dillon on a hot shovel. He had no limbs, was suspected to be a changeling, and severely burned.

1895-Bridget Cleary tortured and killed by her husband, neighbors, and six family members

Not only is this shocking to anyone, but as a special educator this strikes a special chord with me. Those who were suspected of being changelings had some kind of physical deformity or mental disability that would lead people to suspect that they must be of another species. Scientists speculate the types of disabilities we now know of that coincided to "signs" of changelings, including spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, William's syndrome, Hurler's syndrome, and Hunter's syndrome. Some of my students have the above disabilities. One wonders if the criminals listed above were really glad of an excuse to get rid of their charges, or if they truly believed they were doing what was best for their loved one. It's frightening to think that these cases are only the recorded ones-how many more people were tortured or killed, unbeknownst to us?


  1. Very enjoyable post; thank you.

    Late 19th Century isn't an awfully long time ago if we think about it. Certainly, it's only small generations away from us with our iPhones and space programs.

    Short-sightedly, it's easy for us to stand aghast at similar incidents in poorer countries and forget that our own Western cultures are rooted in superstitious beliefs. For example, Tanzanian albinos and Irish changelings seem more like cousins than perhaps we are comfortable with.

  2. This is a brilliant site. I love how it's organized into themes and story groups (like this one on changelings). I thought you might enjoy reading some of my blog, The Black Dionysia which, although a single story is also a collage of classic fairy tale and myth, sci-fi and contemporary fiction. A number of changelings also feature prominently in the tale. I'd love to hear any thoughts you might have about it...