Tuesday, 12 February 2013

The Otherworld And Fairy Changelings

The Otherworld

The Celts believed strongly that fairies had kingdoms across the seas in a land that could not be seen by the human eye.  It is, perhaps, what we might call a parallel universe, with the Celts describing this kingdom as being between the earth and the heavens.

The Otherworld was protected by strong fairy magic and many places were suggested for its location, including islands, dunes, dun-hills, forests, rivers and lakesA humble cottage or grand castle could be the Otherworld and it could appear during the night for mortals to see but would usually vanish by morning.  The Otherworld can move from one location to another, or there may even be more than one Otherworld.  However, most traditions put the Otherworld's location in Western Ocean, much like Atlantis.   Legend tells us that the Otherworld is made up of three levels: the upperworld, middle world and underworld and that it is the realm of gods, spirits and the dead as well as fairies.

In 1908, far out in the Atlantic, an island appeared which could be seen from West Ireland.  The island had been seen before and was named Hy Brasil.  Many men of intelligence testified to having seen this island but many explained the sighting as an illusion of the senses, much like a mirage in the desert.  However, those that saw the island, which disappeared soon after appearing, believed they had seen to fairy Otherworld.

A depiction of Hy Brasil which some believe is the Otherworld (Original)

Time moves differently in the Otherworld.  Where a century could pass in the mortal world, only a year would pass in the Otherworld.  It would seem that time in the Otherworld had stood still in comparison to the mortal world.  Those living in the Otherworld do not age as they do in the mortal world, instead remaining young forever.

In Irish manuscripts, the Otherworld bears many names: Tir-na-nOg (The Land of Youths), Tir-Innambeo (The Land of the Living), Tir-Tairngire (The Land of Promise), Tir-N-aill (The Other Land), Mad Mar (The Great Plain) and Mag Mell (The Plain Agreeable).  We will look at the Irish Tir-na-nOg in a later entry as the myths surrounding this belief are very in depth and I would like the opportunity to explain it to you as best I can.

To be able enter the Otherworld one had to acquire a 'passport'.  This was usually a silver branch of the sacred apple tree bearing blossom or fruit.  However, this had to be freely given by the 'queen of the land of the Ever-Living and Ever-Young.  Sometimes an apple was enough to gain entrance.  Once inside the Otherworld it is said that the apple branch could produce music which was so relaxing to the mortal that they forgot their troubles and stopped grieving for those stolen by the fairy women.  The Otherworld is also said to be open to mortals at magical times such as Beltane or Samhain, Midsummer, dusk, dawn or midnight.  Mortals might find the Otherworld in places such as fairy rings, mounds and stone circles.  Sometimes they might be found by accident through a mist gate.
A mist gate is a wreath of strange mist which surrounds a fairy mound, ring, stone circle or other magical place.  If you were to find a gap in the mist you might be able to pass through into the Otherworld.
 Could this be a mist gate? (Original)

Fairy Changelings 
Come at our call, O Sighe mother!
Come and remove your offspring.
Food and drink he has received,
And kindness from Band-o-teagh.
Here he no longer shall stay,
But depart to the Divine Matha.
Restore the child, O Bean-Sighe!
And food shall be left for thy people.
When the cloth is spread on the harvest field
On the short grass newly mown.
Food shall be left on the dresser-shelf,
And the hearthstone shall be clean,
When the Clann Sighe come in crowds,
And sweep in rings round the floor,
And hold their feast at the fire.
Restore the mortal child, O Bean-Sighe!
And receive thine own at our hands.
(An Irish incantation to restore a stolen child from the fairies) 

Medieval folklore tells us that fairies sometimes stole human babies, replacing them with a changeling – a fairy child with identical physical appearance but perhaps less pretty, prone to bursts of temper and whose temperament has gone from contented to fretful. The stolen child was taken to the Otherworld – the fairy realm – where it would remain.  Should a child's temperament change for the worse, it was often assumed that the the child had been changed and this seems to have occurred more in rural communities.  It was never believed that the child might have some mental or physical illness and, in many documented cases, the child was often neglected to the point that it died, or was killed.

A typical tale comes from the mountains of Wales, where a farmer and his wife lived together with their infant son.  One day, when the farmer was working in the fields, the wife was called away to tend the health of an elderly woman who lived nearby.  As her son was sleeping, she decided to leave him at home as she didn't want to disturb him.  However, when the wife was walking home she crossed paths with the Twyleth Teg - the fairies of Wales.  Immediately fearing the worst, she rushed home only to find that her son still slept soundly.  She quickly scattered salt on the windowsills and the doorstep to protect her child, but it was already too late.  Where he had once been a jolly, chubby child, he grew pale and howled in his cradle for hour after hour.  The farmer quickly noticed something was wrong saying, The child is not ours.  He belongs to the Twyleth Teg.  We have to put him out on the hillside and wait to see if the fairies claim him.
The wife, however, refused to do this, continuing to feed, dress and clean the child despite his face now looking like that of a wise old man and his baby teeth growing into points.  The boy's apetite grew and grew while his body and limbs shrunk.  He ate through their supplies and continued to scream for more.  The wife, despairing, left the boy at home and sought the advice of her old neighbour.
The old woman instructed the famer's wife to get a large hen's egg and to break it in front of the child.  Then she needed to fill the shell with porridge, before setting it to boil over the fire.  The wife followed the instructions and, upon placing the egg shell over the fire, the infant asked what are you doing?  The wife was shocked to hear him speak but answered as her neighbour had instructed her to.  I'm making dinner for the men in the fields.  They'll be hungry after working all day.  The infant seemed to find this greatly amusing, and said Acorn before oak I knew, and an egg before a hen, but never before  have I seen, an eggbrew dinner for harvest men.  The boy's words betrayed his age and the wife knew that her husband had been right.  This boy was not theirs.  He belonged to the fairies.  
Quickly, she piled coals onto the fire until it roared with heat.  The boy again asked her what she was doing and she replied Preparing to throw you on the fire.  Snatching him up, the wife threw him onto the fire and watched as he turned into smoke which left the house through the chimney.  And when she turned around, she discovered that the Twyleth Teg had returned her son.
There are many variations of this story.  Sometimes the threat of violence seems to have been enough to betray the nature of the fairy changeling and, in other tales, the wife brews beer instead of porridge in the egg shell.

A Changeling Baby (Original)

Many reasons have been given for the fairies' stealing human children.  Some tell us that the children they take are destined to live their lives as servants and slaves, or even as pets for the amusement of their fairy masters.  Some tales suggest a darker purpose - blood.  The fairies must pay the devil in blood every seven years and they prefer to pay with human blood rather than their own.  Other traditions tell us that the beauty of human children is what attracts a fairy, also leading them to steal beautiful women, artists and musicians.  Procreation in fairy lore is widely debated, with some stories telling us that fairies do procreate but not as often as mortals and, by occasionally interbreeding with humans, as well as claiming mortal children as their own, they bring new blood, strengthening their own bloodlines.  Other traditions, however, suggest that fairies cannot breed or do so very rarely, causing them to resent human fertility and to steal children because of their jealousy.

In the Highlands of Scotland, according to J. G. Campbell, a changeling was known by its large teeth, its inordinate appetite, its fondness for music and it powers of dancing, its precocity and from some unguarded remark as to its own age.  In Germany, an usuallly thick head and neck, or abnormal proportions of the head were thought to be at least one of the marks of a changeling.  'The Prophet Jones' who had quite a knowledge of Welsh folklore once described what he believed to be a changeling: There was something diabolical in his aspect, but especially in his motions.  He had a dark, tawney complection and made disagreeable screaming sounds.  And so it becomes apparent that if a child were to be mentally disabled or physically disfigured, if a child had what might be considered strange habits, it was usually regarded as a changeling.

Fairy changelings are not always children, but merely take on the appearance of a child.  They are sometimes nasty, old fairies that enjoy causing misery ; or they are fairies that crave human food and breastmilk.  In some cases, the fairy changeling is so old that it has been abandoned by its own race who are happy to be rid of it in exchange for a beautiful, chubby human child.  In these cases, the changeling usually withers and dies as the human parents watch and grieve for the loss of a baby that they believe to be their own.
There are, however, some cases where the changeling is not a fairy at all.  Instead the human child is replaced with a stock of wood or a block of wax, enchanted to resemble the child.  In these cases, once discovered the 'infant' must be thrown onto the fire, whereupon either the wood burns, or the wax melts, and the human child is restored.


There were recommendations to prevent fairy abductions.  It was advised that unbaptized children should not be taken on journeys in Scotland.  During the period before a baptism, Dutch mothers protected their children by placing garlic, salt, bread and a sharp instrument made of steel either in the child's cradle or over a door.  In Devonshire, mothers would pin their children to their sides to prevent them from being stolen by pixies and, the iron in the pin was probably regardedas an efficient way to keep the elves away.  In Germany they put orant (horehound/ soapdragon), blue majoram, black cumin, a right shirtsleeve and a left stocking in the child's cradle to prevent the Nickert from harming the child.  The modern Greeks, even now, dread witchcraft and avoid leaving their children alone for the first eight nights, during which the Greek Church refuse to baptize a child.
Charms made from oak and ivy which stopped a fairy from entering the house were also used, along with salt scattered on the doorstep, branches of Rowan and the father's shirt being draped over the child's cradle.  Interestingly, most children that were supposedly stolen were boys, so another way to prevent this was to dress boys in girls' clothing and to call them by a girls' name.  Newborn babies needed to be guarded for the first three days and then watched closely until their baptism, lessening the threat of abduction.  However, older children could also be stolen or tempted into the Otherworld and were warned to beware of the fairies that lived in the countryside.


A number of afflictions were often diagnosed as the child being a changeling including wasting illnesses, physical deformities, mental illnesses, cystic fibrosis, cerebal palsy, spina bifida and Downs synodrom.  Up until the 19th century in England and Ireland, these children were often subjected to violent and unpleasant 'cures' intended to force the fairy to flee and to bring back the 'real' child.  

While some of these cures were sometimes harmless, such as cooking food in an eggshell, others involved leaving the child outside to fend for itself or holding the child on a shovel over an open fire, in the belief that the fairies wouldn't allow their own kind to suffer and would replace the changeling with the human child.  One case, in 1826, tells us of Anne Roche who killed her child when his grandmother recommended Anne bathe him three times in the icy waters of the local river.  Anne succeeded only in drowning the child.  In 1845, a female 'changeling' was subjected to being placed in a basket full of wood-shavings and was suspended over the kitchen fire until the shavings ignited.  Other 'cures' involved feeding or bathing the child in solutions of foxglove which often proved fatal.

Next time I will tell you about one of the most famous changeling cases ever reported.  I will also tell you about royal changelings.
Please note, I do not claim to have any ownership of the images on this blog.  Where possible, I will provide a link to where I found the image.

No comments:

Post a Comment