In today’s world, fairies are depicted as cute, sparkly beings with paper thin wings. The online new age community spreads the misconception that fairies are “beings of divine light” and healers. In their defense, the idea of fairies from our childhood fairy tales indeed delights us and entices us to reminisce. But this fluffy image of the fairy isn’t historically accurate. In fact, our European ancestors feared most of the fairy people. The fairy changeling, and the process of adopting one, was perhaps the most feared type of fairy, which we will discuss in detail here.
The Irish people believed (and still believe) strongly in fairies. They are called different things in Ireland and Scotland, depending on the region and person. Some terms you’ll hear include the “good folk” the “wee folk” or the “sidhe”. The term “good folk” can give the wrong impression. It doesn’t mean the fairies were always benevolent in nature. Instead, the Irish figured the name “good folk” would at least appease the fairies. Not draw them to anger. The fairy folk were acknowledged and frequently feared. This is why there are stories of leaving offerings to the fairies on doorsteps, hanging horseshoes over barn doors, and never traveling during twilight hours. These were a means of appeasing and avoiding the good folk. Staying out of their way and in their good favor.
With that being said, legends tell of unlucky individuals who run into the fairies while they are out on one of their “raids” (rides) through the countryside. Sometimes the experience is positive, but more often than not the individual is abducted. Then taken on a ride through the countryside OR straight to fairyland. Once a person returns from fairyland, they are forever changed…years have gone by and they find themselves in an old, frail body and all of their loved ones gone.
The Will O’ the Wisp was a fuzzy, blue or white light that led twilight or late-night travelers astray. Sometimes it even led them over a cliff and to their deaths. I could go on and on with stories of how the “good folk” weren’t always so good to human kind. And from these beliefs emerged the fairy changeling.
What is a fairy changeling and why were they so feared? A fairy changeling was a fairy child left in place of a kidnapped human child. Remember, science and modern medicine weren’t advanced then. So our European ancestors believed when things went wrong, when crops failed, when cows didn’t give milk, it was because of the fairies. (When they weren’t blaming the faires, it was most definitely the local witch’s fault). When a baby was born with defects, or if it grew sick, they believed it was actually a fairy changeling and that the real human baby had been whisked away by the fairies.
You might think, I’m sure a fairy baby is a beautiful being so would people really mind? I’m being somewhat sarcastic here, it’s just a joke folks. But seriously, fairy changelings were the opposite of pretty or cute. The folklore tells many stories of the baby being kidnapped and a hideous, deformed creature being left in its crib. Only to scare the living daylights out of the child’s poor parents the next morning.
But why would fairies steal human children and leave their own? Some said fairies envied human children because of their beauty. While others said fairies stole human children to raise as their own and then use in their evil doings later on. Still others believed the fairies replaced human children with fairy changelings so that their babies would be fed and cared for by rich human beings. Then they would return to take the fairy changeling once it had grown big and strong. But the fairies didn’t just steal babies, they were known to abduct adults…people they felt had a particular skill they could use. People they thought might be magical in nature.
People who were most at risk for being kidnapped and replaced by fairy changelings included newly-wed brides and newborns (along with new mothers). The thought was that brand new babies who weren’t purified or baptized were at high risk of being fairy-napped. As were their mothers or anyone else who wasn’t baptized. New brides were at risk because they were in a “pure” state, before consummating their marriage with their husbands.
According to W.Y. Evans-Wentz (pg. 87), “many precautions were taken to safeguard them until purification and baptism took place, when the fairy power became ineffective.” These precautions included placing iron around the bed, burning leather in the room, and feeding the mother and baby a special cow’s milk. This milk was infused with a plant called pearl-wort, which was a plant thought to ward off the fay.
And according to Edain McCoy (pg. 78), fairy changelings were avoided by using smoke in an area to ward off the fairies (smudging!) As smoke was known to be a common fairy deterrent. In addition, families would keep their children’s true names secret and call them a nickname or by their middle name instead. This is why there were so many Marys and Johns, etc. running around in those days! If the fairies didn’t know your real name, they had no power of you. Names had power.
If you suspected your loved one was taken and a fairy changeling left in their place, there were ways to tell. Many stories tell of parents putting the fairy changeling into the fireplace, only to watch the fairy changeling shoot up the chimney and leave for good. The next day, or by that night, the human child was brought home. But these are TALES, remember. Unfortunately, people believed this was a real thing even a century ago! That sounds like a long time ago, but truly a hundred years is a small span of time. Your great grandparents might have been alive then!
In Ireland in 1895, a woman named Bridget Cleary came down with bronchitis. She had been ill for days and even visited by the local doctor who confirmed the illness as bronchitis. Bridget’s husband decided the medicine he was supposed to give his wife wouldn’t work. That, in fact, his wife was a fairy changeling in disguise. That his real wife had been “taken by the fairies” and replaced with this coughing, weakened fairy changeling. There were a few events that led Michael Cleary to this conclusion. One, that his wife was wearing the devil’s colors, and two that she was receiving a lot of attention around town for her personality and tailoring skills. It sounds to me like Michael was feeling insecure and less of a man and so his paranoid mind and superstition took over all logic. In order to get his wife back, he carried out some of the worst superstitions about fairy changelings.
Michael Cleary was charged with murder just days after Bridget’s burnt body was found buried in a ditch. Bridget had urine thrown on her and was burnt in the fireplace by Michael Cleary and other members of her family. Why was she tortured in such a hideous manner? They ALL believed she was indeed a fairy changeling, and to get their beloved Bridget back, they had to perform these tasks to expel the fairy imposter. Bridget never came back, because she was a sick woman who needed medicine and her family’s love. This story always makes me so sad! It was even featured in an episode of “Lore” on Amazon Prime just last year. A popular Irish nursey rhyme goes, “Are you a witch? Are you a fairy? Or are you the wife of Michael Cleary?”
Vikings. Valhalla. Thor and Odin. I’ll bet you are at least partially familiar with these …August 30, 2023