The word faery conjures up images of kindly small spirits, in tune with nature and practising benevolent enchantments. However, throughout Ireland and many other lands there are many tales in folklore that refer to a rather darker side of the Faery Folk.
Capricious, wild and sometimes cruel, faeries were also capable of casting a more unwelcome enchantment upon humans – that of the changeling.
Changeling Motives for Mischief
Put simply, a changeling is where a human is taken back to the land of the faeries and a substitute left in their place.
This most commonly occurs with babies, as they are said to be particularly highly prized. The replacement would typically be one of three things. Usually a sickly faery baby or a senile older faery would be left in the place of the stolen child. Alternatively, the baby might be replaced with an enchanted log, known as a stock, which would take the appearance of the child but would wither and die shortly after.
Faery births are reportedly not only quite rare but can be extremely hazardous, so a healthy live infant is not always guaranteed, prompting faeries to steal human children instead.
Faeries are not only extremely beautiful themselves but value beauty in other things. Were a child to be born to them that was deformed or sickly, it would likely be cast out and replaced with a more appealing one.
They are also said to sometimes take babies in order to feed from their human milk, which they find sweeter and more nourishing than their own. It is much rarer for an adult to be apparently substituted by a faery replacement, although the notorious Bridget Cleary case was one famous exception.
However, it is believed that sometimes human adults will be taken in order to introduce new blood to the Fae race and make it stronger and healthier.
Protective Charms Against Changelings and Faeries
Since faeries are drawn to beautiful things, it is crucial to avoid attracting their attention by complimenting a particular bonny baby. Anyone paying too much attention to a baby, known as overlooking, might be regarded as having suspicious motives and possibly eyeing it up ready for a substitution.
Similarly, paying too many compliments to an attractive man or woman will attract unwarranted attention, as the faeries will want to see what makes them so appealing. Faeries are supposed to be frightened away by iron, so keeping some of this close at hand will prevent them from getting too near.
This is why so many homes in years gone by had a horseshoe nailed to the wall or door and why they are regarded as lucky. Knives and irons from the fire placed near the cradle should also help protect the child, provided they don’t actually get their hands on them. Having the child baptised and placing a cross near the head of the bed were also said to help keep the faery folk away.
How to Spot an Imposter
Although the substitution might initially be difficult to spot, over time there may be clear signs that there is an imposter in the home. A faery baby will be sickly and possibly deformed or with a birthmark.
They are extremely difficult to settle and have a high-pitched wail of a cry that is almost intolerable. Some may have teeth or even long sharp nails. They are greedy, seldom satiated by milk but often taking food from others. As they grow older they will be wilful and bad-tempered, prone to fierce outbursts of rage or periods of aloofness around others.
Many will die young, but those that reach adulthood may exhibit signs of madness. Additionally, any household unlucky enough to be cursed in this way will have nothing but poor luck until the real baby or adult is safely returned home.
There are a number of other tests that can be carried out to see if a substitution has been made, many of which are fairly brutal. Submerging the child or adult in water for extended periods of time will supposedly force the faery to show its true self. Holding them over a fire or branding them with a poker can also apparently have the same effect, as the mischievous spirit will escape the host body via the chimney.
Is There Any Remedy?
If it is believed that a substitution has been made, then forcing the imposter to reveal itself is the only way to ensure the safe return of the stolen loved one. Apparently they are confused by eggshells, so serving food in these will cause them to laugh out loud, speak their true name and age and thus give away their real identity.
They are also said to love music and are unable to resist playing if instruments are left near them, again showing their true nature and leading to the captive’s release. If the faery baby is treated kindly by its human family, it is believed that sometimes it will be switched back as a reward. However, most tales have a rather less happy ending.
This was particularly the case for Bridget Cleary, a young woman murdered in 1895 by her husband and family. She fell ill after a walk and was diagnosed as having bronchitis by her local doctor. However, the village Seanachie, or storyteller, pronounced her to be a changeling. He and her husband subjected her to several days of torture, including forcing her to drink vile herbal concoctions, covering her in urine, beating her and holding her near the fire, aided by several members of her family.
She was eventually burned to death in what became known as one of the most notorious faery murders in Irish history. At his trial her husband Michael Cleary was convicted of manslaughter as opposed to murder after claiming the woman he had burned was not his wife but a faery imposter.
In a modern context there may be many reasons to explain why some children fail to thrive, such as genetic defects or sudden infant death syndrome. However, the notion of faery substitution is a powerful one that has even been used as a defence for killing in so-called faery murders such as that of Bridget Cleary.
Whatever the reality, there is no doubt that the idea of the changeling remains one of the most sinister in Irish folklore.
Image credit: Martin Casey