In our cosy modern lives, with our central heating, our mobile phones, and our soft toilet roll, it is often possible to forget how dark the world outside can be.
A lot of the darkness in historical folklore has been replaced with sanitised modern retellings. Yet folklore at heart plays on our primal, universally held fears about the world and our place in it and the resonance of many of the stories can be felt today.
Perhaps a perfect example of this is the legend of the Changeling.
The loss of a child is one such universally terrifying event. In Irish and Scottish folklore, the changeling story centres on a baby being stolen away by the fairies, only to be replaced with an ugly, squalling, imperfect copy; a changeling child.
Modern fantasy paints fairies as wish-granting and beautiful but the original were far darker and more suspicious. Fairies would take human babies for a variety of reasons. Some stories said the fairies found human babies beautiful and wanted them to replace their own unpleasant or broken babies. In other extreme stories, the babies were taken to fulfil the fairies’ debt to Hell.
Often a changeling child could be spotted as they would not develop like a human child – they would remain dependent and child-like, perhaps indefinitely.
The stories of changelings were so well-known that even the medieval church theologian Martin Luther had a view on changelings, dubbing them humans without souls and therefore just lumps of flesh…
This lead to some real abuse of the perceived ‘changeling’ children. One German story spoke of a child that would wail constantly and never seemed sated by his mother’s milk. A nobleman told the woman to take the child to a meadow and beat it until the Devil came and took the child back, returning her real child.
It has been suggested that this was a historical way of explaining handicapped children and even giving a possible excuse to hurt or remove them.
Even relatively late in history, changelings were used as an excuse for violence. The most famous example being Bridget Cleary, an Irish woman who was murdered by her husband in 1895. Her husband believed she had been abducted by fairies and pleaded that he had only slain the changeling. He burned her to death.
Despite these dark and disturbing origins, art and poetry since have been filled with beautiful changeling inspired stories. W.B. Yates poem ‘The Stolen Child’ is one such poem. It captures the wonder and the terror which the faery realm reflects from the human realm. Even in our cosy modern lives, it’s hard to not be moved by it.
‘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.’