From Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Julie Kagawa’s Iron Fey series, changelings are everywhere. Even Supernatural has an episode revolving around these fae, and there are countless other examples out there if you take the time to look. These stories span both centuries and cultures, but all boil down to the same central theme – a human, usually a child, is abducted by an otherworldly being and replaced with a surrogate.
Changelings are most easily spotted by their mannerisms. Temperamental and fussy, they have a ravenous hunger and will eat anything in sight, even the family’s luck and good fortune. But despite constant gorging, the child never gains weight and remains sickly. Many are said to look inhuman, with bony arms and legs, and eyes that hint the “child” is much older than it appears.
Iron placed around a baby’s crib was one way to prevent the switch from occurring, taking advantage of fae’s well known aversion to the metal. Laying a piece of the father’s clothing across a sleeping child also offered protection. Baptism sometimes served as the ultimate ward against the fae, stripping them of any power they may have held over an individual.
Various methods claimed to return the abducted; boiling water in eggshells to force the changeling to expose itself is perhaps the most harmless of these. The worst involved torture – physical beatings, poisoning with foxglove, leaving them outside overnight, and throwing them in a lit fire or hot oven were all considered appropriate ways to deal with changelings.
Tragically, it’s believed that children born with developmental disorders were often labeled as changelings. Folk belief and superstition were often the only tools available to explain why some children are born with handicaps, and unfortunately, commonly led to infanticide.
It would be far more comforting to believe these tales are found only in the distant past and fictitious works, but unfortunately that’s not the case. In 1895, Irishman Michael Cleary was found guilty of manslaughter after brutally torturing and eventually murdering his wife, Bridget Cleary. He claimed that it was not his wife he burned alive, but a faerie changeling, left in her place.
Bridget was 26 years old when she fell ill with mild bronchitis. Described as both beautiful and thrifty, her one “flaw” was that she hadn’t given Michael any children. But she was a loyal wife – no one believed her to have cheated – and, presumably, a caring daughter, as her father lived with the couple. Multiple warning signs were visible in the days leading up to Bridget’s death, but no actions were taken to prevent the inevitable.
She endured torture for at least three days, ranging from being placed over a hot fire grate to beatings, having urine thrown on her and being force fed slices of dry bread without drink, all with witnesses present. Even as neighbors reportedly pleaded with Michael to stop, he insisted the woman before them was not his wife, but a faerie. Three days after a doctor gave him herbs to treat bronchitis, something Michael “had no faith in,” Bridget was burned alive and buried over a mile from their home in Tipperary. Her body wasn’t discovered for six days, and the original charge of murder brought against Michael was reduced to manslaughter.
Bridget Cleary’s case shows us the dangerous superstitious beliefs fairy tales and folklore can give rise to. Today, we widely accept that what happened to her and countless others accused of being changelings or in league with the devil are acts of barbarism, though these crimes were once viewed as appropriate responses to unexplainable circumstances. It makes one wonder though – what practices common today will gain similar reactions from future generations?
Additional links & Resources:
Ireland Legends & Folklore, pages 106-9