EPISODE 13A: CHILD

This episode deals with child abuse and neglect, sometimes resulting in death. A lot of the changeling folklore I will be discussing, is actually the result of rudimentary understanding of medicine, and the societal rejection of autistic people and people with disabilities. If this is something you’d prefer not to listen to, please skip this one. I also use the terms infant, baby and child interchangeably in parts of this episode, while in other parts they are clearly meant to follow their associated ages and meanings.”
 
 
 
The belief that babies are associated with the innocence of life, is a long held one in society. 
 
This idea of purity, is often due to their lack of life experience. They have yet to be influenced, by the corruption of the world. They are in some ways symbolic of the ideal person. 
 
Perhaps that is why, when an infant looks or behaves differently than expected, people take notice. 
 
Is the baby sick? Are they just in a bad mood? Is there an easy explanation to the problem?
 
Or, could it be that something sinister has paid a visit to the home……..
 
 
INTRO PLAYS…….
 
MUSIC PLAYS……
 
 
Dermod O’Byrne of Omah town
In his garden strode up and down;
He pulled his beard, and he beat his breast;
And this is his trouble and woe confessed:
 
“The good-folk came in the night, and they
Have stolen my bonny wean away;
Have put in his place a changeling,
A weashy, weakly, wizen thing!
 
“From the speckled hen nine eggs I stole,
And lighting a fire of a glowing coal,
I fried the shells, and I spilt the yolk;
But never a word the stranger spoke:
 
“A bar of metal I heated red
To frighten the fairy from its bed,
To put in the place of this fretting wean
My own bright beautiful boy again.
 
“But my wife had hidden it in her arms,
And cried ‘For shame!’ on my fairy charms;
She sobs, with the strange child on her breast:
‘I love the weak, wee babe the best!’”
 
To Dermod O’Byrne’s, the tale to hear,
The neighbours came from far and near:
Outside his gate, in the long boreen,
They crossed themselves, and said between
 
Their muttered prayers, “He has no luck!
For sure the woman is fairy-struck,
To leave her child a fairy guest,
And love the weak, wee wean the best!”
 
 
 
 
For hundreds of years the belief in fairies dominated the lives of the people in Ireland and the UK. 
 
The daoine sidhe (deenee shee) or fairy folk, were said to be the cause of all sorts of activity. 
 
Usually this activity was mundane and expected, like rainy weather or the souring of milk. 
 
In these cases, simply showing your respect to the fairies was enough to fix what ailed you.
 
But in other times, this activity was terrifying and disrupting, and had to be solved with extreme measures.
 
 
It was common knowledge that humans, particularly infants, were at risk of be stolen by the fairies. And left in the abductee’s place, would be what is known as a changeling. 
 
But what exactly is a changeling?
 
Depending on the location and time period, a changeling can be a few things, but most commonly it is a fairy child that looks like the human version that was kidnapped.
 
However there is something always just slightly different, either in behaviour or in appearance, with the changeling, which is ultimately how they are discovered.
 
In Scandinavia, a changeling can also be an elaborate wood carving that is left in a cradle by trolls. Using a form of glamour magic, this wooden placeholder looks to be the living, breathing child.
 
Little by little, the spell wears away, and the “imitation child’ begins to get sick…. and not long after…….it dies. 
 
The parents may never be the wiser that their real child was actually lost weeks or months before. 
 
 
If you’re like me, you may be thinking, but WHY would a fairy want a human child and why would they be ok with losing their own child to be raised by humans, or as you’ll learn shortly, sometimes be hurt or killed by humans?
 
It is important to note here, that the reasons I am about to list, were often created to mask medical ignorance, human carelessness, economic suffering and old fashioned cruelty. 
 
That’s not to say these humans didn’t believe the tales they told, they very much did, but I have to wonder if there is some sort of sliding scale of belief that existed in the community. 
 
 
 
The first is that the fairy population needed genetic diversity. Inbreeding led to birth defects. 
 
And unsurprisingly, the second, is that the fairies are easily enthralled by beauty, and value it above all else. Beautiful humans to mate with would naturally make more beautiful faeries. 
 
Clearly these first two reasons are very “human”, so it makes sense to have the same ideas given to all humanoid creatures that exist in our tales. 
 
Another, yet not as popular reason why a fairy would steal your baby, is that the human baby would grow up as a servant or slave to the fairy family. I’m actually surprised that this doesn’t appear as much as the others, but it is clearly derived from the different waves of invasion that took place in the Celtic lands. 
 
For the trolls, it was thought that being raised by humans was a more respectable and noble upbringing. Essentially setting their child up for a better future. Like the last, this has an undertone of xenophobia. 
 
Another claim that came up often in my research, was that some fairies couldn’t produce their own milk. In order for their children to survive, they needed to be raised on human milk. and when the fairy child was old enough, they would be whisked away back to the fairy realm. 
 
Other tales of changelings, don’t involve fairy children, but rather elderly fairies. They would disguise themselves as a baby in the hopes of receiving compassionate care in their final years.
 
Presumably, unless taken as a slave, the human children would be left to die in the fairy realm. unless of course they could be recovered.  BUT, In order to do that, you had to recognize there was a changeling in your midst first.
 
 
As I mentioned earlier, the changeling generally looked just like the child, but there were signs and symptoms families, especially mothers, were told to look out for. 
 
In Ireland, if your baby wasn’t growing at the speed of others their age, this was the biggest warning sign. 
 
Today this is recognized as failure to thrive, and affects many children around the world. It is commonly brought on by food poverty and neglect, but can have other causes. 
 
In the medieval era, a bad year with crops could result in food shortages, as could an unexpected pregnancy. 
 
If a household had too many mouths to feed, or a mother wasn’t getting enough calories to produce substantial amounts of milk, declaring your child a changeling would seem like a viable option. 
 
I of course, don’t want to negate the cruelty in this, but I can understand the desperation and the mindset behind it. 
 
These same justifications were made if a child was born with any sort of physical birth defect. In poor homes, everyone was expected to eventually work and help support the household. Anything that prevented this would have been an added struggle. 
 
Temperament was also a big warning sign. Babies and children who were grumpy, mean and tormented their siblings were heavily suspected of being a changeling.
 
Another thing to look out for in Ireland that meant your child might actually be a changeling was if they suddenly grew a beard, or abnormally long, sharp teeth. 
 
When it comes to facial hair in children, the only thing I can think of is hypertrichosis, but that is almost always present at birth, and the sudden appearance of the hair is emphasized in these stories.
 
It does make you wonder how that particular warning sign came to be.
 
Spying on your child was always a good idea, especially if you were on the look out for a changeling. 
 
These imposter children were said to jump and dance around when they thought nobody was watching. So if you saw your five month old infant suddenly running around with the family dog, there’s a good chance they are a fairy.
 
And of course, as I stated at the start of this episode, the main thing to look out for was any sort of neurodivergent behaviour or physical deformities. 
 
Before I get into ways to rid yourself of a changeling, I wanted to quickly warn you again, that some of these “cures” are brutal, especially as they were carried out against infants and children with disabilities. 
 
In Ireland and in Wales, egg shells appear quite frequently as a way to force a changeling to reveal itself.
 
Women were often instructed to boil a certain number of egg shells in their home. This would prompt the fairy child to grow curious and out itself by either speaking or running away.
 
Other times, as the egg shells were being boiled, a poker would be placed into the fire until it burned red hot, and then the child would be threatened into confession with it.
 
Sometimes, they would just flat out burned or beaten with the instrument. Typically by placing the poker inside their mouth while being asked to state their real name.
 
It leaves the question as to why, in those cases anyway, they even bothered with the egg shells in the first place. 
 
I do hope to have answers as to why eggshells were magical in this way from a folkloric perspective later, perhaps this is something I can share on Patreon, but a clue appears in a story called the Brewery of Eggshells written by a man named Joseph Jacobs.
 
Acorn before oak I knew, 
An egg before a hen, 
But I never heard of an eggshell brew 
A dinner for harvest men.
 
This rhyme is spoken by the changeling child to one of its siblings, after seeing the meal his mother is making. This reveals that he himself, is something much older than his relatives. 
 
It is reminiscent of the old adage “which came first, the chicken or the egg.” Apparently, the faeries have been around long enough to settle the debate.
 
Other times, suspected changelings would be placed in a basket and hung over the fire in the attempt to burn or scare the occupier out of the infant. This almost always resulted in severe burns, psychological damage and death. 
 
Placing an instrument next to your child’s bed or cradle was a gentler approach to revealing a changeling. It was common knowledge that all daoine sidhe (deenee shee), from fairies to trolls, love music. The intruder would be so overcome with temptation, that they would end up playing the instrument.
 
 
Of course, the best way to deal with changelings, was to prevent it from happening in the first place. There are tons of superstitions and methods on how to do this, so I have picked the ones I find most interesting. 
 
Because boys were more susceptible to fairy abductions, likely because neurodivergent behaviour is more outwardly prominent in them, and physical disabilities are more common in them, they would sometimes be dressed in girls and women’s clothing until they were close to puberty. 
 
I mentioned early on that beautiful children were of particular interest to faeries. This is why people were advised not to fawn over a baby’s looks, especially in public. 
 
Baptism was also a great way to protect your baby. And The earlier this could be accomplished the better. Until then, they were not to be left alone for even a minute, with family members often sleeping in shifts so someone could always take watch. 
 
With cases of changelings being documented well into the 19th century, The government resorted to try and change the public’s mind about how to protect or resolve a changeling problem.
 
They said, that regardless of what happens, the best way is to love the fairy child, as much as your own. 
 
As you have learned this episode, Changeling folklore is vast and has been told and retold for centuries. 
 
To close out this episode, I would now like to take this opportunity to share with you one of these stories. 
 
This is the The Kintalen Changeling
 
Retold by James MacDougall, in Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English, first published in 1910.
 
There was living in Kintalen a woman who had a male-child with neither the growth nor the bloom of other children of his age. 
 
From morning to evening he would not cease one minute from crying, and he would eat far more food than was natural for the like of him.
 
It was harvest, and there was not a person on the farm who could draw a sickle but was out on the reaping field, except the mother of the child. 
 
She, too, would have been out were it not for fear that the nasty screaming thing would break his heart crying, if she should leave him in charge of any other person.
 
It happened that there was at the time a tailor in the house, making clothes. 
 
The tailor was a shrewd, observant man, and he was but a short time within until he became suspicious of the lad in the cradle. "You," said he to the woman, "may go to the reaping, and I will take care of the child.”
 
The woman went away. But she had barely taken her feet over the threshold when the withered object she had left behind began shrieking and crying loudly and sorely. 
 
The tailor listened to him a good while, keeping his eye on him, till he was sure that he was nothing but a changeling. 
 
He now lost patience with him, and cried in a sharp, angry voice: "Stop that music, lad, or I'll put thee on the fire.”
 
The crying ceased for a while, but afterwards it began a second time. "Art thou at it again, piper of the one tune?" said the tailor. "Let me hear that music any more from thee, and I will kill thee with the dirk." 
 
When the fairy beheld the frown on the tailor's countenance and the dirk in his hand, he took such a fright that he kept quiet a good while.
 
The tailor was a cheerful man, and to keep from wearying he began to hum a tune. In the middle of the music the ugly elf raised a loud howl. 
 
But, if he did, he was not allowed to go on with his warble but a very short time. 
 
The tailor leaped off his work-table, went, dirk in hand, over to the cradle, and said to the fairy: "We have enough of that music, take the right great bagpipes and give us one good tune on them, or else I'll put the dirk in thee.”
 
The fairy sat up in the cradle, took the pipes which he had somewhere about him, and struck up the sweetest music the tailor had ever heard. 
 
The reapers heard it on the field, and instantly dropped their sickles and stood listening to the fairy music. 
 
At length they left the field, and ran in the direction whence the music came. 
 
But before they reached the house the tune had ceased; and they knew not who played it or whence it came.
 
When the reapers returned home in the evening, and the tailor got the mistress of the house alone, he told her everything that happened while she was at the reaping, and that her child was nothing but a changeling. 
 
He then told her to go with him to the Ardsheal side of the bay, and to throw him out in the Loch. 
 
She did as was told her, and as soon as the nasty little elf touched the water he became a big grey-haired old man, and swam to the other side of the bay. 
 
 When he got his foot on dry land, he cried to her that if he had known beforehand what she was going to do he would have made her never think of doing such a thing again.
 
She returned home and found her own child at the door before her, hale and sound.

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