Fairy Changelings


It was firmly believed, at one time, in Wales, that the Fairies exchanged

their own weakly or deformed offspring for the strong children of

mortals. The child supposed to have been left by the Fairies in the

cradle, or elsewhere, was commonly called a changeling. This faith was

not confined to Wales; it was as common in Ireland, Scotland, and

England, as it was in Wales. Thus, in Spenser's Faery Queen, reference

ade in the following words to this popular error:--

And her base Elfin brood there for thee left;

Such, men do chaungelings call, so chaung'd by Faeries theft.

Faery Queen, Bk. I, c. 10.

The same superstition is thus alluded to by Shakespeare:--

A lovely boy, stol'n from an Indian king,

She never had so sweet a changeling.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II., Sc. 1.

And again, in another of his plays, the Fairy practice of exchanging

children is mentioned:--

O, that it could be prov'd,

That some night-tripping Fairy had exchanged

In cradle-clothes our children, where they lay,

And call'd mine, Percy, his Plantagenet:

Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

Henry IV., Pt. 1., Act I, Sc. 1.

In Scotland and other countries the Fairies were credited with stealing

unbaptized infants, and leaving in their stead poor, sickly, noisy, thin,

babies. But to return to Wales, a poet in Y Brython, vol. iii, p. 103,

thus sings:--

Llawer plentyn teg aeth ganddynt,

Pan y cym'rynt helynt hir;

Oddi ar anwyl dda rieni,

I drigfanau difri dir.

Many a lovely child they've taken,

When long and bitter was the pain;

From their parents, loving, dear,

To the Fairies' dread domain.

John Williams, an old man, who lived in the Penrhyn quarry district,

informed the writer that he could reveal strange doings of the Fairies in

his neighbourhood, for often had they changed children with even

well-to-do families, he said, but more he would not say, lest he should

injure those prosperous families.

It was believed that the Fairies were particularly busy in exchanging

children on Nos Wyl Ifan, or St. John's Eve.

There were, however, effectual means for protecting children from their

machinations. The mother's presence, the tongs placed cross-ways on the

cradle, the early baptism of the child, were all preventives. In the

Western Isles of Scotland fire carried round a woman before she was

churched, and round the child until he was christened, daily, night and

morning, preserved both from the evil designs of the Fairies. (Brand,

vol. ii, p. 486.) And it will be shortly shewn that even after an

exchange had been accomplished there were means of forcing the Fairies to

restore the stolen child.

It can well be believed that mothers who had sickly or idiotic babies

would, in uncivilized places, gladly embrace the idea that the child she

nursed was a changeling, and then, naturally enough, she would endeavour

to recover her own again. The plan adopted for this purpose was

extremely dangerous. I will in the following tales show what steps were

taken to reclaim the lost child.

Pennant records how a woman who had a peevish child acted to regain from

the Fairies her own offspring. His words are:--Above this is a

spreading oak of great antiquity, size, and extent of branches; it has

got the name of Fairy Oak. In this very century (the eighteenth) a

poor cottager, who lived near the spot, had a child who grew uncommonly

peevish; the parents attributed this to the Fairies, and imagined that

it was a changeling. They took the child, put it into a cradle, and left

it all night beneath the tree, in hopes that the Tylwyth Teg, or Fairy

Family, or the Fairy folk, would restore their own before the morning.

When morning came, they found the child perfectly quiet, so went away

with it, quite confirmed in their belief.--History of Whiteford, pp.

5, 6.

These people by exposing their infant for a night to the elements ran a

risk of losing it altogether; but they acted in agreement with the

popular opinion, which was that the Fairies had such affection for their

own children that they would not allow them to be in any danger of losing

their life, and that if the elfin child were thus exposed the Fairies

would rescue it, and restore the exchanged child to its parents. The

following tale exhibits another phase of this belief.

The story is to be found in the Cambrian Magazine, vol. ii., pp. 86,