I've recently had Bridget Cleary on my mind and that along with some synchronicity on social media that brought the subject up in a separate context made me decide to write today about changelings. For those who don't know, Bridget Cleary was a woman in Ireland who died in 1895 when her husband and several family members and neighbors burned her alive after several days of trying to 'cure' her, believing that she was actually a fairy who had taken the real Bridget's place. This belief was rooted in the idea of changelings, that the Good Folk can and do take people and replace them, and that the real person can only be returned if the changeling is forced to reveal itself. Bridget Cleary died and her husband and the others were tried for her murder, but belief in changelings still exists today and is deeply rooted in Fairylore.
The basic premise of the changeling is that it is a foreign being or object left behind in exchange for a desired human who is stolen into Fairy. In some cases the changeling was said to be one of the Good People who magically appeared to be the human but usually acted very differently; if it was a baby who had been taken the replacement would typically be sickly, constantly hungry, and impossible to please, while an adult who was taken might display equally dramatic personality changes. A person who had previously been kind and gentle might become cross and cruel, while a child who had before been pleasant and easy tempered would suddenly be mean spirited and demanding. In other cases the changeling might not be a living thing or spirit at all but rather would be an object like a stick or log enchanted to look like the person, left to waste away and die while the real person lived on in Fairy. Generally this was understood as the person having been replaced by a changeling although there were some occultists during the Victorian period who came to believe that changelings actually represented a type of possession where the human would be overtaken by a fairy spirit and in 20th and 21st century anthropology changelings are often viewed as attempts by folklore to explain medical conditions (Silver, 1999).
The primary targets for fairy abduction were babies and brides, but especially those of great beauty and the best temperment. Physical health was usually an important factor and in at least one story a bride who was in the process of being taken is left when she sneezes, because the Fae want only those in perfect health (Lysaght, 1991). Generally speaking humans in liminal states which included any transitions like birth or marriage were at risk of being taken, with babies and children up to age 8 or 9 being at high risk and women in child-bearing years being in equal danger (Skelbred, 1991; Jenkins, 1991). Other popular targets for abduction included new mothers who might be taken to wet nurse fairy babies, and may or may not be kept permanently or later returned; similarly some humans like midwives and musicians might be borrowed but usually were returned fairly quickly and usually were not replaced with changelings. Those replaced with changelings were those who the Good Folk intended to keep, and the changeling often died or returned to Fairy at some point, leaving the human family to mourn the person they then believed to be dead.
Why the Other Crowd take people is not entirely known but there are many theories. Probably the most common belief is that the fairies steal people in order to supplement their own numbers (Gwyndaf, 1991). This idea usually hinges on the related belief that the Good People reproduce rarely and with difficulty and that they must therefore look to outside sources like humans to strengthen their own population; or to be blunt they take humans to use as breeding stock. This is seen particularly in the variety of stories about stolen brides as well as stories of borrowed midwives where the midwife is taken by a fairy man to the bedside of his wife only to find herself delivering the child of a human girl she recognizes but that everyone thought had died. Another belief was that fairy babies were unusually ugly and so fairies coveted beautiful human babies and would exchange one for the other (Skelbred, 1991). They seem to prefer people who are in some way deviant or have broken societal rules (Jenkins, 1991). This can be seen in both anecdotal evidence where people taken are usually out alone when or where they should not be or have failed to follow the usual protocol for protection, or in ballads and folktales where people are taken while in or near liminal places. On the one hand this can represent one way in which people open themselves up to being taken but it could also represent a deeper underlying motivation, in which perhaps the people are being taken because they have some quality that the Fae folk either admire or need more of themselves. This of course is predicated on the idea that changelings are left in place of people taken for some at least nominally positive use, however it is worth noting that not all theories of fairy abduction are benevolent, by even the most lenient standard. If one favors the idea of the teind to Hell as an actual tithe that occurs and in which humans can be used as substitutes for fairies, then arguably people may be taken to be offered to darker spirits so that the fairies themselves may be spared (Lyle, 1970).
Means of identifying a suspected changeling often involve tricking it into revealing itself. This may be done through careful observation, such as the story of the mother who noted that when she was with her child the baby would cry ceaselessly but when alone in her room the baby would fall silent and the mother outside the room could hear music (Lysaght, 1991). A Scottish story along similar lines involved a changeling infant who was seen playing straw like bagpipes, or in a variant was seen playing a reed for other fairies to dance to (Bruford, 1991; Evans-Wentz, 1911). In older folklore a variety of tricks are suggested including boiling water in an eggshell which in the tales will cause the changeling to sit up and declare that as ancient as it is it has never seen such a thing before; a regional variant involves disposing of ashes in an eggshell (Bruford, 1991). A family could also seek out the advice of a wise person or fairy doctor to assess the suspected changeling and confirm or deny its fairy-nature. Generally if the presence of a changeling was confirmed every attempt was then made to regain the human child; only in very rare cases was the family advised to treat the changeling well and accept its in their family, with the idea that treating it well would earn good treatment for their own child in Fairy (Briggs, 1976).
Because the fear of changelings, and more generally of losing a person to the Good People, was so pervasive there were many protections against it and methods of getting a person back. Looking at protections first we see an array of options, beginning with prohibitions against verbally complementing an infant, lest the words attract the fairies' attention and increase the chance of the child being taken. Although in some contexts red was seen to be a Fairy color it was also used as a protection against fairies, something we see more generally in the use of red thread (with rowan); there is at least some anecdotal evidence of the use of red flannel pinned to children's clothes as a way to keep them from being taken (Lysaght, 1991). In Wales early baptism was common because of the belief that a Christian baptism would protect and infant from being taken (Gwyndaf; 1991). So widespread that they might be termed ubiquitous were belief in the power of iron (or steel) and particularly of keeping scissors, a knife, a fire poker, or tongs over or near the cradle. Other commonly found protections include burning leather in the room, keeping bread nearby, fire, silver, giving the woman and child milk from a cow who had eaten the herb mothan, and being carefully and perpetually watched (Skelbred, 1991; Evans-Wentz, 1911). In many stories it was a moment's inattention or an adult falling asleep that allowed the changeling swap to happen, compounded by a lack of any other protections in place.
I will warn the reader before we get into this section that, as Bridget Cleary's story illustrated, often the means of forcing a changeling to leave were brutal and could be fatal to the person on the receiving end. There were just as many methods of forcing a changeling to leave as there were protections against them because the belief was that once the changeling was forced to leave the human child or bride would return. To force a changeling to leave usually involved threatening or harming them, most commonly with iron or fire. In Bridget Cleary's case she was forced to drink an herbal concoction, doused in urine, and jabbed repeatedly with a hot iron poker, as well as having a priest come in and say mass over her; after several days of this she was set on fire and eventually died of her burns (Giolláin, 1991). A piece of iron might be thrown at the changeling, or in one of the more benign rituals salt could be placed on a shovel blade, marked with a cross and heated in a fire, with a window left open near the changeling (Gwyndaf, 1991). The changeling might be beaten, pelted with refuse and animal dung, or starved in order to force its own people to take it back, with the idea that only this cruel treatment could motivate the changeling's biological parents to return the human child to spare their own offspring (Skelbred, 1991). Fire often played a significant role in these rituals, with some involving the changeling being thrown into a fire or placed on an object that had been heated in a fire (Briggs, 1976). Another ritual to force a changeling to leave involved taking it to a river and bathing it three times in the water, and related practices involved leaving the infant or child at the edge of a body of water - a liminal space - so that the fairies would take it back and return the mortal child; a less kind version involved throwing the changeling into a river (Silver, 1999; Evans-Wentz, 1911). In cases where the changeling left and the human did not return, or the changeling had already died naturally, attempts could be made to force the return of the human captive by burning grass or trees on the nearest fairy hill (Briggs, 1976).
Changelings are found across Celtic folklore and stories of changelings exist in both folklore and more recent anecdotes. The idea that sometimes the Other Crowd take people and that those people may be saved and returned to the human community with effort or may instead be lost forever to their own kind is a pervasive one. Ultimately the fairies may take people to increase their own numbers or to diversify their own gene pool, to possess the beauty of a particular person or for darker reasons, but the folklore is clear that they take people usually with the intent of keeping them. Those who are rescued or otherwise returned are usually permanently altered by their time among the Good People and most often the hard evidence we have shows that attempts to get people back and force assumed-changelings out results in the death of the changeling.
Skelbred, A., (1991) Rites of Passage as Meeting Place: Christianity and Fairylore in Connection with the Unclean Woman and the Unchristened Child
Evans-Wentz, W., (1911) The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries
Jenkins, R., (1991) Witches and Fairies: Supernatural Aggression and Deviance Among the Irish Peasantry
Lyle, E., (1970). The Teind to Hell in Tam Lin
Lysaght, P., (1991) Fairylore from the Midlands of Ireland
Bruford, A., (1991). Trolls, Hillfolk, Finns, and Picts: the Identity of the Good Neighbors in Orkney in Shetland
Silver, C., (1999) Strange and Secret People: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness
Gwyndaf, R., (1991) Fairylore: Memorates and Legends from Welsh Oral Tradition
Briggs, K., (1976) A Dictionary of Fairies
O Giolláin, D., (1991) The Fairy Belief and Official Religion in Ireland