In Ireland, Scotland and in European culture in general, since the ancient times, there are hundreds of legends and traditions linked to the fairy world. In most cases they were fairy tales and stories which were taking inspiration from the devotion of human beings for the creatures of the woods. However, there is also a series of anecdotes which link back to the darker world of superstition:
The legend of Changeling
It is said that once the fairies, anything but gentle creatures, used to kidnap children, mistaking them for their own race. The children taken from the mortal kingdom would assume, from that moment, the place of the changeling. Basically the little humans were replaced inside their own cradles, during the night, by fairies and sprites. The following day the poor parents were finding these odd creatures with a wicked and ill look without understanding what had happened to their own babies.
Below: Der Wechselbalg (Changeling in German) by Henry Fuseli, 1781
In other cases the fairies were casting their spells to a blackened log (generally oak), to make it resemble the child they were thinking about kidnapping. After the enchantment, it happened that this type of changeling, identical to the replaced child, would get ill and die within few hours of the night. At that point the only consolation for the family was that the true child was in the Realm of the Fairies. It could happen that the family of the victim were taking the changeling to the Hill of the Fairies, hoping that by leaving it around the sacred trees of the fairies, they would return their own child.
Why were fairies kidnapping humans though?
The reasons advanced by the popular legends seem to bring back to two main theories: the first one, of Christian origin, supported the idea that fairies, angels which had fallen punished by God for their pride, for this banished from the Eden and forced to live in the underground and the Earth, were supposed to have human blood to secure to themselves access to the Paradise.
A second theory supported that the children of the fairies were not very pretty and lively as the human ones therefore the magic creatures of the woods, willing to carry on a respectful race, were kidnapping human children.
According to a third hypothesis the milk (and not the blood) of the mortal children was fundamental for the survival of the fairy population enough that they were often kidnapping some mortal women too; this way they could breastfeed both the humans and the fairies, returning them vitality and longevity. It is said that the changeling were constantly crying and that, despite the abundance of food, their growth would stop or would forward irregularly. Either way though, they would die early.
Below: painting by John Bauer: two trolls with a human child
The tradition tells that the fairies were able to enchant the changeling so that it would look exactly like the kidnapped human. In a following moment though, the difference between the two creatures was showing up: the changeling were very precocious and able to talk and jump out of the cradles even when very young, unlike the real ones. The mothers of the children, aware of the propensity of fairies for baby boys, used to dress their male child as girls, with skirts and pink garments and would hang around their cradles crosses and iron pieces (as that was the metal hated by the fairies), hoping that this would have prevented them from getting closer.
When instead the exchange had already taken place, the first attempt to figure out whether the child was a changeling was to prepare some chamomile and pour it within an eggshell. At that point the enchanted creature would have replied “In the many years of my existence I’ve seen things, but never pouring chamomile into an eggshell” after which it would have disappeared.
Unfortunately though, the children considered changeling who did not respond to the test of the eggshell would then risk their own life due to new tests and exorcisms that they would endure. In some cases there was the fire test: the”possessed” child was thrown inside the fire, waiting that, from the tip of the fireplace, it would show up again, this time though as the original child.
Sometimes there was the whip method instead; as Cassandra Eason explained:
“In 1843 the West Brighton newspaper reported the case of a certain J. Trevelyan of Penzance, accusato d accused to have mistreated his children. The child said to have been regularly beaten up by his parents and servants and to have been left outside the house since he was only 15 months. His parents defended themselves by stating that he was a changeling and the case against them moved to the archives”.
Below: the devil mistakes a newborn for a changeling. artwork by Martino di Bartolomeo
Another terrible case was the one of Bridget Cleary, the Irish woman that in 1895 was killed by her husband after a series of convulsions, given by a bronchitis caught during a storm. What the man was instead trying to insinuate was that she had visited the “Fairies Fort” in the wood. Mrs Cleary underwent several exorcisms performed by a priest in presence of her family. She was eventually hit to death by her husband, who threw her in the fire. After the event they took the body back to the wood of Fairies Fort, hoping that they would have returned the real wife.
How thin was the difference between a real health issue and the suspect of abduction by the fairies?
Cassandra Eason, in an interview to Doctor Clarke, from the Essex University, explained: “The description of the changeling is not identifiable with a specific pathology but brings back to a series of disabilities that, considered openly or together, would indicate a child as diverse. When in the past a child was born with certain unusual features, it was preferable to think they were possessed by the devil. In reality, the starvation was often responsible for the stop to the normal growth, especially in poor families. At the time, a high percentage of children had growth issues and the mortality rate for newborns was approximately 50-60 %. The theory of the changeling was some sort of comfort for a unfortunate family which had given birth to a not socially acceptable child”.
A comfort, the one described by Doctor Clarke, that throughout the years had started to turn into an official explanation for the parents of little one suffering from autism or Asperger syndrome, conditions which often entered people’s life in their 2nd or 3rd year. The children were stopping to talk out of the blue, forgot the words previously learned, assumed repetitive stereotyped behaviours, demonstrating a constant attraction for a world invisible to the ones around them, almost as if there was something else from another dimension.
Noteworthy is the poetry of the Irish author William Butler Yeats in his “The Stolen Child”, later on joined with music by the Canadian singer Loreena Mc Kennitt, which goes:
Come away, O human child!
To the waters and the wild
With a faery, hand in hand.
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand
Yeats believed that during his studies and trips to the wood, to have met a Queen of faeries, who had threatened him to not dig too much on the Kingdom of the faeries or he would have paid with his own life. The poet, expert of Celtic traditions and the linked legends was close friend of Lady Speranza Wilde, mother of the renown Oscar, who was as well a fairies enthusiast.
Below: Bland Tomtar och Troll, by Swedish artist John Bauer, 1913
In the first series of extracts of his book titled “Handbook of the Irish Revival: An Anthology of Irish Cultural and Political Writings 1891-1922”, in an article of the Irish Post he said:
“Like ghosts and goblins, they still live and have power in the imagination of Irish men and women; and this does not only happen in remote places but also in big cities. At Howth, for example, 10 miles away from Dublin, there is a fairies path in which a great colony of creatures travels during the night from the hill to the sea and then back home. There is a warehouse in a field where, since an epidemic of cholera had spread for some months, got populated with fairies and evil spirits”.
By carrying, Yeats mentioned the cities of Sligo and of his access bridge to the Kingdom of Fairies. All places possible to be spot on a map. An idea that even the writer Hannah Kent agrees with, by setting up one of her novels on the changeling not in a fictional location but instead in the county of Kerry, in the famous town of Killarney.
To this day, in Italy there is an association which supports autism and disability named “I bambini delle fate”, literally the fairies children. The company was founded in 2005 by the businessman Franco Antonello after he discovered that his son Andrea suffered from a serious form of autism. The association, which name is nothing but random, represents one of the model of social and economical interaction for subjects suffering from autism, giving hope to thousands of families. The story of Franco and Andrea who have faced together the tough journey instead of rejecting it, inspired the book of Fulvio Ervas “Se ti abbraccio non aver paura”(if I hug you do not be afraid), as well as hundreds of interviews and TV programs.
Franco Antonello, example of model father, decided to start a journey towards healing for his son Andrea, who today has learnt how to hug, smile and translate his inner world to the outer one. A therapy, the one of the landscape and the nature which with great beauty leaves a precise message: we cannot expect to change the children of the fairies, but we can try, along with them to enter a Kingdom invisible to us.