Tag Archives: changelings

Lady Wilde and the Fairy-Haunted Hills

Today for Fae-tastic Friday we’re going to wrap up our mini-series of guest blogs about changelings. This final posting is about Lady Wilde, who I’m a little chagrined to admit, was never on my radar before reading Shannon’s blog. Whether you’re in the same boat as me or you’ve read the Lady Wilde’s work before, I hope you will enjoy this last entry into our series on changelings 🙂

Lady Wilde and the Fairy-Haunted Hills

by Shannon Phillips

By Frank Harris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Frank Harris [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
One of my favorite sources for fairy lore is the book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, & Superstitions of Ireland, with Sketches of the Irish Past by Jane Francesca Agnes, Lady Wilde—better known to history as Oscar’s mama. Although her own literary efforts were largely eclipsed by her son’s, Lady Wilde published poetry under the pen name “Speranza,” and was a fascinating woman in her own right: an early activist for women’s rights, a passionate supporter of Irish independence, and an enthusiastic recorder of countryside stories and beliefs.

Her book of Irish folklore, first published in 1887, gives us a snapshot of traditional Irish culture at a time when it was just beginning to yield to modernization. “In a few years such a collection would be impossible,” she writes in the preface, “for the old race is rapidly passing away to other lands, and in the vast working-world of America, with all the new influences of light and progress, the young generation, though still loving the land of their fathers, will scarcely find leisure to dream over the fairy-haunted hills and lakes and raths of ancient Ireland.”

Although in that, I think she was wrong—many of us are still dreaming of fairy-haunted hills! One of the reasons I think her book is so valuable, though, is that it reminds us that originally these stories weren’t just “stories”: fairies, spirits, and changelings were considered very real in Lady Wilde’s day. And these were matters of life and death.

On the question of changelings, Lady Wilde writes:

“This superstition makes the peasant-women often very cruel towards weakly children; and the trial by fire is sometimes resorted to in order to test the nature of the child who is suspected of being a changeling. For this purpose a fairy woman is usually sent for, who makes a drink for the little patient of certain herbs of whose power she alone has the secret knowledge, and a childless woman is considered the best to make the potion. Should there be no improvement in the child after the treatment with herbs, then the witch-women sometimes resorts to terrible measures to test the fairy nature of the sufferer.

“A child who was suspected of being a change because he was wasted and thin and always restless and fretful was ordered by the witch-woman to be placed for three nights on a shovel outside the door from sunset to sunrise, during which he was given foxglove to chew, and cold water was flung over him to banish the fire-devil. The screams of the child at night was frightful, calling on his mother to come and take him in; but the fairy doctor told the mother not to fear; the fairies were certainly tormenting him, but by the third night their power would cease, and the child, would be quite restored. However, on the third night the poor little child lay dead.”

So there is a kind of terrible sadness behind the changeling legends. Not just Come away, O human child / To the woods and waters wild… but real lives, real children rejected by their families or even tortured to death in a doomed attempt to “cure” them. It’s easy to think of those in our own society who have suffered misguided interventions because their differences were stigmatized—so called “gender variant reparative therapy” springs to mind, or the autistic children who have suffered abuse in the name of treatment. Maybe we have our own changelings still.

But not all the stories Lady Wilde gives are so sad. In one of my favorite passages, she mentions that when a woman went into childbirth, it was common for the family to go through the house and unlock every chest and drawer. As soon as the baby was born, these boxes and drawers would be snapped shut and locked. The idea was that fairies might try to creep into the house and hide, in order to be ready to steal the baby at the first opportunity—and the family was hoping to trap them!

Other substances thought to have some power over changelings were salt; the branches of a mountain ash (for girls) or alder tree (for boys); the name of God and the sign of the cross; or a nail from a horseshoe. But above all these others: fire. Two unlit coals, one laid beneath the cradle and another beneath the churn, were thought to be sufficient to prevent fairy mischief. Or a lit coal might be drawn in a circle around the cradle, to create a barrier the fairies could not cross. Even the threat of burning was thought to be enough to force a changeling to reveal itself.

Changelings are usually marked by their weakly, wizened forms. But sometimes they are revealed by their preternatural knowledge or abilities. In one story Lady Wilde tells, the father realizes his child is a changeling when the baby picks up four straws to play with: “And when he got them, the child played and played such sweet music on them as if they were pipes, that all the chairs and tables began to dance; and when he grew tired, he fell back in the cradle and dropped asleep.”

And some of the stories contain a seed of hope for bereaved parents. For when a child is stolen by the fairies and cannot be rescued, there is at least the hope that they will have happy lives among the Fair Folk and grow up to be loved by a fairy bride or groom. And as Lady Wilde relates: ” The children of such unions grow up beautiful and clever, but are also wild, reckless and extravagant. They are known at once by the beauty of their eyes and hair, and they have a magic fascination that no one can resist, and also a fairy gift of music and song.”

I’ll give one more changeling story from Lady Wilde. It’s my very favorite, because in this case the issue is resolved when the fairy mother comes looking for her own stolen son. As she tells the parents: “My people, who live under the fort on the hill, thought your boy was a fine child, and so they changed the babies in the cradle; but, after all, I would rather have my own, ugly as he is, than any mortal child in the world.”

So the fairy mother takes her baby back, and gives the mortal parents advice on how to storm the fairy fort and rescue their own son. They follow her advice to the letter, and the outcome is a happy one: “By the spell of fire and of corn the child was saved from evil, and he grew and prospered. And the old fort stands to this day safe from harm, for the man would allow no hand to move a stone or harm a tree; and the fairies still dance there on the rath, when the moon is full, to the music of the fairy pipes, and no one hinders them.”


Shannon Phillips lives in Oakland, where she keeps chickens, a dog, three boys, and a husband. Her first novel, The Millennial Sword, tells the story of the modern-day Lady of the Lake.



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Changelings and ASD

This is the third installment of my series of Changeling-themed guest blogs for Fae-tastic Friday. Today’s blog is brought to us courtesy of Kari Castor. Kari looks at the possibility of a connection between changeling stories and ASD.

Changelings and ASD

by Kari Castor

If you’re familiar with fairy folklore at all, you likely know that fairies have a penchant for abducting humans and carrying them away to Fairyland.  Sometimes a fairy, or some simulacrum (often made of wood), is left in place of the abducted human.  These strange creatures, which take the appearance and place of the abductee, are known as changelings.  Changelings are characterized by a variety of different traits – they may have physical deformities, or wither away of illness, or they may be distant and unresponsive, or agitated and difficult to calm.

I’ve always been particularly interested in the ways folklore and mythology arises from real people trying to make sense of real events or situations, and tales of changelings seem to offer many clues about the truths behind the legends.

Story after story about changelings features children who never stop crying.  The original, healthy child is replaced with a clamorous, sickly creature who often doesn’t speak and will not grow (or, if it does grow, remains as helpless as an infant).  It’s not hard to see why modern researchers have suggested that tales of this sort may provide us with evidence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).  Children with ASD often seem to be developing normally, and then unexpectedly withdraw from social interactions as the disorder manifests.  They may not respond to their own names, have difficulties interpreting social cues, and lack empathy.  They sometimes have repetitive movement patterns (rocking back and forth, for example) or harm themselves (through actions such as head-banging).  Hundreds of years ago, a mother faced with a child who has suddenly begun exhibiting such upsetting behaviors might well have believed her own child had been replaced by a strange, fay creature.

Consider, too, that ASD may appear alongside a wide range of co-occurring conditions, such as epilepsy, that would certainly have affected a child’s ability to grow and thrive without proper care and treatment.  ASD and co-occuring conditions seem likely suspects to account for the truth behind many changeling stories.

Of course, history (even folk history) is never that simple.  Autism spectrum disorder may indeed be part of the genesis for changelings, but it’s clear that it isn’t the whole story.  Rather, the changeling seems to have arisen as a sort of catch-all explanation for a variety of illnesses, both physical and mental.  It was most commonly applied to children, especially infants, but young women also seem to have been vulnerable to becoming changelings.

Martin Luther (you might remember him as the guy who nailed the The Ninety-Five Theses to the door of a church in Wittenburg, thus starting the Reformation), appears to have believed in the existence of changelings.  His writings show a complicated understanding of deformed and disabled children, but he references them as the product of the devil, not of fairies.  In one oft-referenced (though admittedly somewhat unverifiable – John Aurifaber, one of the first collectors of Luther’s words, is known to have made embellishments) incident in 1540, he is said to have recommended that a 12-year-old boy, who was described as being incapable of anything but basic life-sustaining functions, be suffocated, explaining his reasoning in this way: “Because I think he’s simply a mass of flesh without a soul. Couldn’t the devil have done this, inasmuch as he gives such shape to the body and mind even of those who have reason that in their obsession they hear, see, and feel nothing? The devil is himself their soul.”

“Jamie Freel and the Young Lady” was written in the late 19th century (though it certainly has its roots in earlier lore) by a young Irish woman named Letitia Maclintock, and was included by William Butler Yeats in his volumes Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasants and Irish Fairy Tales.  In it, the hero Jamie Freel is witness to a fairy abduction: “He saw the young lady lifted and carried away, while the stick which was dropped in her place on the bed took her exact form.”  When the young woman is finally returned to her home (thanks to the efforts of Jamie, of course), her parents are at first angry and disbelieving — they’d buried the wooden effigy and mourned their daughter’s death a year prior.

In 1895 (just 4 years after Maclintock’s death at the age of 24) a 26-year-old Irish woman named Bridget Cleary went missing.  Her body was discovered after a weeklong search, buried in a shallow grave.  Her husband and nine other people, Bridget’s family members and neighbors, were tried for her murder. Their defense?  They believed she was a changeling, and were trying to get the real Bridget back from the fairies.  Bridget had fallen ill after a trip to deliver eggs to a family member, and as her condition continued to worsen, her husband became suspicious.  The herbal remedies he began with didn’t have the desired effect, and as more people became involved in the situation, the attempted solutions became more and more extreme.  I won’t reproduce the grim details here, but suffice it to say that Bridget was tortured and eventually burned.  Her husband was certain, after killing the “imposter,” that his real wife would return to him.

Sadly, Bridget Cleary’s case has a fairly typical ending.  Those who were suspected of being changelings were subjected to a variety of “treatments” intended to reveal the changeling’s true nature and facilitate the return of the “missing” individual.  Edwin Sidney Hartland, in his 1981 volume The Science of Fairy Tales: An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology, recounts a number of stories involving the abuse and killing of suspected changelings.  They are burned, or flung into rivers, or abandoned to the elements.  One method even involves setting the changeling child on the floor and having every occupant of the house throw a piece of iron at it.  It’s dark stuff.

The theory behind these methods appears to be the idea that killing (or threatening to kill) the changeling would compel the fairies to return their captive.  And, in the fairy tales and folklore passed down to us, it often works.  The changeling is either killed or returned to its own kind, and the family is reunited with their whole and hale missing loved one.  Unfortunately, the truths upon which these stories are based often had much less happy endings.  Tales of changelings may have given some comfort to parents whose children died of mysterious ailments at a time when child mortality was high.  They likely also provided a convenient excuse for the sacrifice of a physically or mentally disabled child, whose existence must have placed a difficult burden on a family without the knowledge or resources to properly care for such a child.  In a time when children were expected to be productive members of the household from an early age, parents of children who would consume time and resources without being able to contribute were faced with a terrible dilemma.  It is little wonder that these parents would have seized on the “changeling” explanation as a way to make an impossible choice a little less impossible.


Kari Castor is a writer and educator. Her fiction and poetry has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies, including most recently In Gilded Frame, Spark: A Creative Anthology Vol. 3, and Serial Killers Tres Tria. She is co-writer of the monthly comic series Shahrazad and, in addition, serves as line editor for Big Dog Ink comics. She lives in the Chicago area with her husband, two dogs, and a cat named after a space princess. Find her online at www.karicastor.com.



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Protect Me From What I Want

Holy whackado it’s Friday. Again. How did that happen so quickly?!

Well, the good news therein is that I have a new post from the changeling mini-series I’m running here for Fae-tastic Friday. This post is brought to you by Laura VanArendonk Baugh whose contribution to the Fae anthology, And Only The Eyes Of Children does more than just brush up against the ideas of changelings in fiction. Enjoy 🙂

Protect Me From What I Want

by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

Protect me from what I want.

This refrain speaks to our human tendency to desire what is not good for us, or to desire too much of a good thing. One Snickers bar is a tasty treat; an entire pile of Snickers bars is a health and dental disaster.

Folklore and literature are full of wishes which come terribly true in hideous ways. “The Monkey’s Paw” (by W.W. Jacobs) is a delightfully chilling story of wishes granted in awful exactitude, powerful enough to have entered our cultural lexicon. (If you somehow haven’t read it, you can find it here: http://gaslight.mtroyal.ab.ca/mnkyspaw.htm)

Sometimes, what we ask for and what we want are not the same.

One fantastic thing about writing in folklore is the ability to rework long-accepted tenets into something new which feels comfortably in line with the old. When writing “And Only the Eyes of Children,” I started with the Fae fascination with human children. Fairy stories frequently describe the Fae depositing a fairy child into a human cradle or interacting with human kids – but we rarely if ever see the Fae raising their own young. Why is that? I considered that an immortal or nigh-immortal species would necessarily have a very low birthrate. I hope the resulting premise fits well with existing Fae lore.

This re-envisioning of folkloric elements can bring us many new stories which feel like part of the Fae canon. Here’s another blend on the traditional changeling tale, one I at least had not seen before.

While many changeling stories feature children with unnatural abilities or unexpected mental capacity, others tell the story of children which simply do not grow physically as they should.

“But after some time had passed by, the good people began to wonder that the twins did not grow at all, but still continued little dwarfs.” – British Goblins: Welsh Folklore, Fairy Mythlogy, Legends and Traditions, by Wirt Sikes, p 60

Meanwhile, fairy stories warn us universally not to barter with the Fae. The Good Neighbors do not lie, but they can bend words in wondrous ways.

When these basic assumptions of Fae lore are combined, one can find the concept for the song “Changeling Child,” recorded by Heather Dale. The lyrics tell of a barren woman who asked of the Fae, and received, a baby. But as always, the fairies are too true to their word.

How their home was joyful
with a son to call their own
But soon they saw the years that passed
would never make him grow
The fairies would not answer her
The stones were dark and slept
A babe was all she asked for, and their promises they’d kept

Sometimes, what we want and what we ask for are not the same.

There are many stories of fairy changelings and the resulting trials, often horrific, to force the fairy child to reveal himself or the fairy parent to reclaim its young. Sometimes the offered explanation for changelings is that the fairies wish to raise a human child themselves; I like to suppose the Fae might need the humans to raise their own, the cuckoo bird of the supernatural world. (There’s a story premise!) Often it is simply a malicious trick played until the humans catch on, a sardonic prank which costs the humans dear.

I wonder, in an agrarian society where children were not merely a new generation but also a necessary labor force and security for old age, if some parents wanted them too badly. If we knew that desiring something too much, even a good thing, might lead to self-deception and harm. And so we told stories of women who longed for children and then found that their children weren’t what they’d wanted, after all.

Protect us from what we want.


Laura was born at a very early age and never looked back. She overcame childhood deficiencies of having been born without teeth or developed motor skills, and by the time she matured into a recognizable adult she had become a behavior analyst, an internationally-recognized animal trainer, a costumer/cosplayer, a dark chocolate addict, and a Pushcart Prize-nominated author with a following for her folklore-based stories and speculative fiction. Find her at www.LauraVanArendonkBaugh.com.



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Changelings in World Mythology

I’m wrapping up Fae-tastic Fridays on my blog. Though I may occasionally share something more Fae-related here it won’t be on a regular basis… after one last series of awesome blog posts, that is. Some of the contributors to Fae have come together and written an awesome series of blog posts about changelings. Even better, they’ve given me permission to share them here, on my blog.

The first such post is this one, Changelings in World Mythology by Kristina Wojtaszek. As the title suggests, Kristina seeks to educate us about the various ways changelings have been represented around the world. Enjoy!

Changelings in World Mythology

by Kristina Wojtaszek

Europe is well known as the hub of fairy mythology, and the changeling myth is one popular native. But just as various animal species can adapt similar forms, myth often undergoes its own convergent evolution across cultures. It makes one wonder whether the changeling myth might have sprung up elsewhere. After all, fairies share many malicious kin around the globe. There are the Islamic djinn, the aziza of Africa, the mogwai of China and Native American jogah to name just a few. But while many types of specters are well versed in deceiving mortals, not all of them have specialized in the cruel art of kidnapping. And kidnapping is the very soul of the changeling myth, though it isn’t the only defining factor.

The shape-shifting kitsune from Japan, for example, may trick, possess, drown, interbreed with, and even kidnap humans. Similarly, Brazillian encantados may shift from the shape of a river dolphin to human form (often with a hat to cover their blowhole and/or bulbous forehead) to seduce and potentially kidnap men, women or children. Stories about them are vaguely reminiscent of selkies. However, while a selkie or kitsume may kidnap their human-born children and return with them to homes in another realm, and while an encantado may drag an unsuspecting victim into the depths of its inhuman, underwater world, they aren’t well known for sacrificing one of their own to take the place of the kidnapee. Even rarer is the example of these spirits leaving an object behind as a human replacement. This, it seems, is an important factor in the changeling myth; the changing of places and/or the presence of a “stock.”

A stock, or fetch, is an enchanted object (often little more than a piece of wood) left in place of the person kidnapped. As with all fairy enchantments, the glamour only lasts so long, and the supposed living person will soon reveal itself to be little more than a mundane object, or will grow ill and die (because it was never really alive). In the case of changing places, the replacement left is a living fairy. An old or sick fairy may be left, accounting for the sudden aging and illness of the changeling, or a perfectly healthy citizen of fairydom may be sacrificed, as we sometimes see with fairy infants taking the place of human babes. Regardless, after someone is taken, it always follows that someone or something is left. This is a theme that fits in well with the kind of fairy justice found in European folklore; there are rules for everything, but that doesn’t mean those rules are entirely fair, especially in regards to humans.

Now that we’ve narrowed the definition, we suddenly find that the cross cultural relations of changelings have drastically dwindled. Still, there are a few out there, and they are striking in resemblance to their European cousins. The aswangs are one such species. In Filipino folklore the aswangs are shape shifters that can take the form of an animal by night, but by day live as everyday villagers. While in animal form, they travel to other villages where they hunt fetuses, babies and small children, as well as corpses to eat. They can become thin enough to hide behind a single stalk of bamboo, and some say they have an insect-like proboscis for reaching children from a distance, or stripping the unborn from a mother’s womb. When they are finished with this gruesome task, they often leave behind plant matter or a tree trunk as a duplicate of the victim (or victim’s body in the case of cadavers). According to belief, if your neighbor is quite shy and reserved and often has blood shot eyes from being up all night, he or she could well be a blood thirsty aswang. Occasionally these suspected killers are even hunted down and put to death. While European fairy thieves don’t usually spend their lives in human form and are less likely to have the same nasty appetites, the similarity between plant matter or tree trunks and stocks of wood are too obvious to deny.

Another species held responsible for the death of young infants and the unborn haunts the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria. The ogbanje, or sometimes called abiku, are actually the spirits of children that have died (the term abiku can also refer to the spirit that caused the child’s death). Comparatively, it is not unusual in European fairy lore for fairies to be no more than ghosts, and some are even recognized as friends or relatives by humans who have been taken to (or have stumbled upon) the fairy realm. The African ogbanje are blamed for multiple stillbirths and a high rate of infant loss for a mother because they are believed to reincarnate themselves again and again. The only way to be released from the spirit’s hold is to destroy an object thought to tie it to the mortal world. This object, called an iyi-uwa, might be a rock or doll the child played with, a tooth or lock of hair, or even a scrap of the deceased child’s clothing. In some cases, a family offering serves for an iyi-uwa, which is given to the shaman responsible for releasing the spirit. While these spirits don’t leave a replacement for the life taken, the bodies of lost and stillborn infants can be viewed as stocks in that they are predestined to die, just as most of the sickly changelings of European myth are meant only to last a little while.

Another ghostly example of a changeling relative is the Chinese shui gui, which translates to “water ghost.” As the unhappy spirit of a person who drowned, these ghosts linger around waterways waiting for their next victim. But unlike kelpies and their kin, the shui gui doesn’t stop at murder, but goes on to possess their victim’s body. This, of course, creates a changeling; a human who looks the same as ever, but whose soul has been replaced by another’s. Meanwhile, the victim’s soul is now a shui gui trapped in the same watery location, ready to begin the cycle again. The idea of possession and “drifting souls” is quite common in Asian folklore, and occasionally bears striking similarities to European changelings.

In India we have an interesting example of human abduction in the form of nagas.   Believed to be more advanced than humans, nagas seemed to see us as less intelligent animals which they often stole away into their underground cities either for eating, torturing, or sometimes, interbreeding with. There were other such races of highly intelligent humanoids living below ground in both Indian and Chinese legend, and they are highly comparable with the ancient Egyptian gala. Gala were servants of Osiris, god of the underworld, sent forth to do his bidding. Part of this bidding was to abduct humans and bring them down into the land of the dead. Again we see a parallel between these and the European fairies who inhabit underground mounds and share many other traits with the dead. What is most interesting about the gala is that small depictions of these mythical creatures have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs with inscriptions on them instructing them to serve the person much as a slave would. It seems that in this case, humans turned the tables on the changeling myth, capturing beings from another realm to serve our own needs in the human afterlife.

Whether we define changelings by their deeds, their motives, or the counterparts they’ve left behind, it is clear that changelings have inhabited a much broader range than Europe alone. As is the motive behind much of mythology, it seems that our very human fears (namely of kidnapping, illness, altered personalities and death) have laid the groundwork for changeling mythology across the globe.


Kristina Wojtaszek grew up as a woodland sprite and mermaid, playing around the shores of Lake Michigan. At any given time she could be found with live snakes tangled in her hair and worn out shoes filled with sand. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management as an excuse to spend her days lost in the woods with a book in hand. She currently resides in the high desert country of Wyoming with her husband and two small children. She is fascinated by fairy tales and fantasy and her favorite haunts are libraries and cemeteries.


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