by Terri Windling
In Germany, the Brothers Grimm collected a number of interesting changeling tales, such as the story of the Rye–Mother (or Grain–Wife), published in German Legends. A nobleman had forced one of his peasants to work binding sheavesduring the harvest, even though the poor woman had given birth but a few weeks before. She took the child to the field, laid it down, and got on with her work, despite her fears for the child because it had not yet been properly baptized. Some time later, the nobleman himself saw a Rye–Mother cross the field. She carried a child in her arms,which she exchanged for the peasant’s baby. The false child began to cry, and the peasant hurried over to nurse it — but the nobleman held her back. He made her wait while the child cried and wailed — until at last the Rye–Mother returned, exchanged the children again, and left with her own child, who now quieted in his mother’s arms.”After seeing all of this transpire,” the Grimms write, “the nobleman summoned the peasant woman and told her to return home. And from that time forth he resolved to never again force a woman who had recently given birth to work.”
In other German stories, mortal children are stolen and held captive by bands of elves, who leave greedy changelings called killcrops behind in the cradle, wailing for food. The killcrop is revealed through the brewing of beer in an eggshell, or some other trick, then threatened with violence to make it flee, restoring the mortal child. Nickerts were German water fairies fond of stealing children from unwary parents, then taking their place in the cradle in order to eat mortal food and milk. Nixies also inhabited German rivers, and could be dangerous. “From time to time nixies would emerge from the Saal River,” wrote theBrothers Grimm, “and go into the city of Saalfeld where they would buy fish at the market. They could be recognized by their large, dreadful eyes and by the hems of their skirts that were always dripping wet.It is said that they were mortals who, as children, had been taken away by nixies, who had then left changelings in their place.”
In Scandinavia, healthy mortal infants had to be guarded from covetous trolls, who found them more beautiful and appealing than their own peevish, hairy troll children. One farmwife, suspecting her own sweet–natured child had been stolen by the trolls, was determined to rid herself of the troublesome creature who had taken his place. She set a cauldron in the hearth, took hold of the porridge spoon and bound a number of rods to it till the spoon reached up to the ceiling. “Well!” the child blurted out. “I am old as the trees and old as the hills, but never in my life have I seen such a long, long spoon for such a small, small pot!” Confirmed in her suspicions, the farmwife beat the changeling with her broom. As he howled and wailed, a trollwife entered the cottage bearing the farmwife’s son and said, “See how we differ! I’ve cherished your son, while you beat my husband black and blue!” She then took the changeling by the hand and disappeared up the chimney.
Similar tales can be found the world over. In India, tigers steal mortal children and leave behind tiger cubs in disguise. When the trick is uncovered and the cubs threatened with harm, the tiger reappears, restores the mortal child, and leaves again with his wild brood. In Japan, children stolen by the fairies are rarely restored to the human world unless the substitution can be discovered before the child eats fairy food. In an odd twist on the theme, in old Persian tales it is the fairies (called peries) whose children are stolen — by evil creatures called djinn, who substitute theirown children instead. We find stories in various cultures in which such substitution, rather than abduction, is the goal. In these tales, mortals are the unwitting foster parents for faery children. Such children are generally odd, dreamy, and incapable of human emotion. Eventually these parents learn that the changeling child is not, in fact, of their blood. The changeling is called back to Fairyland, and the human child is restored.
A number of preventive measures are recommended to insure against fairy abduction. Writing in Notes of the Folk–lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Border, William Henderson tells us, “In the southern counties of Scotland children are considered before baptism at the mercy of the fairies, who may carry them off at pleasure or inflict injury upon them. Hence, of course, it is unlucky to take unbaptized children on a journey . . . Danish women guard their children during this period against evil spirits by placing in the cradle, or over the door, garlic, salt, bread, and steel in the form of some sharp instrument . . . In Germany, the proper things to lay in the cradle are ‘orant’ (which is translated into either horehound or snapdragon), blue marjoram, black cumin, a right shirtsleeve, and a left stocking. The ‘Nickert’ cannot then harm the child. The modern Greeks dread witchcraft at this period of their children’s lives, and are careful not to leave them alone during their first eight days, within which period the Greek Church refuses to baptize them.” Other charms include wreaths made of ivy and oak, which hindered fairy access to a house; also salt on the doorstep, or branches of rowan, or the father’s shirt draped over the cradle.
Most of the children kidnapped were boys, so another method of thwarting the fairies was to dress little boys in girls’ clothing and then to call them by female names. Newborn babies, it was advised, must be zealously guarded their first three days, and then closely watched until their baptism, when the threat of abduction lessened. Yet even older children could be stolen or tempted into Fairyland. Just as today young children are warned that they must never take candy from strangers,generations ago they were warned to beware of faeries that lurked in the countryside. . .eductive creatures who would whisk them away, never to be seen again.
When we hear fairy tales, we’re hearing a story we believe in just for the length of the tale — stories of impossible things, enchanted princesses and cats in boots. Fairy legends, however, were cautionary tales meant to illustrate the particular dangers of encounters with creatures that many people once believed in. The 16th century preacher Martin Luther recounts this tale of a changeling in Germany. “Eight years ago at Dessau, I, Dr. Martin Luther, saw and touched a changeling. It was twelve years old, and from its eyes and the factthat it had all of its senses, one could have thought that it was a real child. It did nothing but eat; in fact, it ate enough for any four peasants or threshers. It ate, shit, and pissed, and whenever someone touched it, it cried. When bad things happened in the house, it laughed and was happy; but when things went well, it cried. It had these two virtues. I said to the Princes of Anhalt: ‘If I were the prince or the ruler here, I would throw this child into the water — into the Molda that flows by Dessau. I would dare commit homicidium on him!’ But the Elector of Saxony, who was with me at Dessau, and the Princes of Anhalt did not want to follow my advice. Therefore,I said: ‘Then you should have all Christians repeat the Lord’s Prayer in church that God may exorcise the devil.’ They did this daily at Dessau, and the changeling child died in the following year. . . . Such a changeling child is only a piece of flesh, a massa carnis, because it has no soul.”
Changeling stories are both fascinating and horrifying when we realize how such tales once accounted for the mysteries of wasting illnesses, physical deformities, or mental illness. Children afflicted with diseases such as cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida, or by congenital problems such as Downs syndrome, could be explained away as fairy changelings, sometimes with deeply tragic results. As late as the 19th century in England and Ireland, changeling stories in the press told of children subjected to violent “cures” intended to make the fairy flee and bring back the “real,” healthy child.Sir William Wilde (medical commissioner for the Irish census, and father of Oscar Wilde), writing in 1854, decried “the cruel endeavors to cure children and young persons of such maladies generally attempted by quacks and those termed ‘fairy men’ and ‘fairy women’.”
The most famous case of “fairy doctoring” involved a grown woman in 1895, and riveted newspaper readers all across the British Isles. This was the murder of Bridget Cleary, a handsome young Irish woman who was killed by her husband, family, and neighbors because they thought she was a fairy changeling. The facts are these: Bridget, a twenty–six–year–old dressmaker, and her husband Michael, a cooper, lived in a comfortable cottage near her family home in southern Ireland. Bridget fell sick with an undiagnosed illness (it may have been simple pneumonia); within a few days she was feverish, raving, and (according to her husband) no longer looked like herself. When regular medicine did not help, the family called in a “fairy doctor” — for the cottagewas located close to a fairy hill, which was bad luck. The “fairy doctor” confirmed that the ill woman was actually a fairy changeling and the real Bridget had been abducted, taken under the hill by the fairies as a consort or a slave. The doctor devised several ordeals designed to make the changeling reveal itself. Bridget was tied to the bed, forced to swallow potions, sprinkled with holy water and urine, swung over the hearth fire, and eventually burned to death by her increasingly desperate husband. Convinced it was a fairy he had killed and buried (with the aid of her family and neighbors), Michael then went to the fairy fort to wait for the “real” Bridget to ride out seated on a milk white horse. Bridget’s disappearance was soon noted, the body found,the crime brought to life, and Michael and nine others were charged and prosecuted for murder. Although the most flamboyant, this was far from the only case of changeling–murder in the Victorian press, although the poor “changelings” were more commonly children with physical or mental ailments.