Changelings - Fairies

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005


Among the accusations hurled against fairies is that they steal humans. Sometimes this is simple kidnapping—someone simply disappears—but traditionally fairies leave a substitute from among their own race. Changeling technically names this fairy replacement but the word has also come to include the entire phenomena as well as the abducted human.

Not everyone is equally vulnerable to being stolen. Common victims include:

Image Midwives and wet-nurses, ostensibly stolen to serve fairy mothers

Image Handsome young men stolen to become lovers and/or prisoners of fairy queens, as in the folk ballad Tam Lin

Image Babies and young children

The abduction of children is the most feared changeling phenomenon. Two types of children are at risk: particularly beautiful, vigorous children and absolutely ordinary, run-of-the-mill healthy children. Frail children are not at risk; however the changeling left in exchange is often frail, sickly, and wizened.

One common explanation suggests that fairies, a dwindling, scarce race, believe that humans are sturdier, healthier, and more prolific, and thus seek to incorporate human bloodlines into their communities to strengthen them. Small children and infants are easiest to integrate into their communities. (The added implication is that fairies secretly observe human communities and individuals very closely.) The kidnapping of midwives and wet-nurses is also intended to serve similar purposes. (And once upon a time, midwives did more than just deliver babies; they performed blessing rituals believed necessary for the baby’s good health and fortune.)

Changelings occur in many traditions as far afield as North Africa and the Middle East. Trolls, nixies, and Korrigans are accused of stealing children, as are sidhe; however Irish legend has a particularly extensive catalog of changeling lore and so changelings are often understood as a purely Celtic phenomenon. It is possible however that this intensive attention to changelings masks Pagan spiritual, magical, and healing traditions.

Because, of course, there’s more to it: fairy tales inevitably end with the return of the old person or personality. The unspoken story is that “changeling” is also the name given to people who voluntarily went to live with fairies, often eventually returning to their communities in a changed state. Their personalities are described as “changed” or “different,” often distant, although, as these tales are never told by the changelings themselves but by (often hostile) observers, one may assume that the changelings may have had reasons to keep their distance. They also traditionally return as masters of herbal and magical knowledge.

Changelings serve as conduits between people and the fairy community. They also initiate and train fairy doctors, teaching them fairyhealing techniques.

Fairy tales and folklore often focus on methods of reversing the switch—of getting the old person back and returning the changeling to the fairies. Three traditional methods exist:

Image Trooping fairies leave their fairy mounds and strongholds several times a year. A direct exchange may be made during this time, although to be successful, specific magical spells and rituals are required.

Image The fairy changeling, often weak and frail, must be nurtured so that he or she transforms into a happy, healthy, vigorous child. Supposedly when this occurs, the fairies will prefer having their own child back and will affect the change themselves.

In general, one must be kind to the changeling if one ever wants to see one’s own child again. The unspoken threat is that if the changeling is misused or abandoned, the fairies will inflict similar treatment (or worse) on the human child. The exception to that rule emerges in the school of fairy exorcisms.

Image If fairies are perceived as demons then the “stolen victim” hasn’t been kidnapped; instead they are possessed. Fairies are exorcized like demons. Exorcism rites from around the world often involve beating or torturing the possessed victim in the belief that when life within the host becomes sufficiently unpleasant, the resident demon will voluntarily withdraw or can be forced to leave.

The danger, as noted by many traditions, is that these intensive exorcism rites may end up doing more damage (sometimes fatal) than the possession itself. Because sidhe, unlike zar, are allegedly afraid of fire, victims of fairy possession have been burned in efforts to make the fairies depart.

What if efforts are not made to affect a switch or if attempts are unsuccessful?

The fairy child abandoned to live with humans often grows up to be a sniveling, dullwitted person. No longer a child, he was no longer classified as a changeling but as an ouphe, the original “oaf.”

And what of the stolen human? Reports vary: some are reported to yearn for their human life and lost friends and family. Others are reportedly happy among the fairies, living a life of joy, music, and dance.

The most famous changeling was Thomas the Rhymer, a thirteenth-century Scottish prophet, a historically documented individual also known as Thomas of Erceldoune, subject of a famous ballad. Depending on the version of his legend, Thomas either kissed or made love to a Fairy Queen; he was either instantly transported to Fairyland or rode together with the Queen on her white horse. After seven years, she either transported him back or he grew homesick and requested leave to go. The Fairy Queen offered him a choice of gifts: he could become a harper or a seer. Thomas chose the latter.

See also Fairy Doctors, Fairy Faith, Fairy Magician, Fairy Witch; ANIMALS: Foxes; DICTIONARY: Dybbuk, Zar; MAGICAL ARTS: Ritual Possession.