The Changeling Belief

By W.Y. Evans Wentz.

The prevalent and apparently the only important theories which are current to explain this belief in changelings may be designated as the Kidnap Theory and the Human-Sacrifice Theory. These we shall proceed to estimate, after which there will be introduced newer and seemingly more adequate theories.

Kidnap Theory

Some writers have argued that the changeling belief merely reflects a time when the aboriginal pre-Celtic peoples held in subjection by the Celts, and forced to live in mountain caverns and in secret retreats underground, occasionally kidnapped the children of their conquerors, and that such kidnapped children sometimes escaped and told to their Celtic kinsmen highly romantic tales about having been in an underground fairy-world with fairies. Frequently this argument has taken a slightly different form: that instead of unfriendly pre-Celtic peoples it was magic-working Druids who - either through their own choice or else, having been driven to bay by the spread of Christianity, through force of circumstances - dwelt in secret in chambered mounds or souterrains, or in dense forests, and then stole young people for recruits, sometimes permitting them, years afterwards, when too old to be of further use, to return home under an inviolable vow of secrecy.  And Mr. David MacRitchie in supporting his own Pygmy Theory has made interesting modern elaborations of these two slightly different theories concerning changelings.

As already pointed out, there are definite ethnological elements blended in the other parts of the complex Fairy-Faith; and so in this part of it, the changeling belief, there are conceivably more of such elements which lend some support to the Kidnap Theory. In itself, however, as we hope to show conclusively, the Theory, failing to grasp the essential and underlying character of this belief, does not adequately explain it.

Human-Sacrifice Theory

Alfred Nutt advanced a theory, which anticipated one part of our own, that ‘the changeling story is found to be connected with the antique conception of life and sacrifice’. And he wrote :- ‘ It is at least possible that the sickly and ailing would be rejected when the time came for each family to supply its quota of victims, and this might easily translate itself in the folk-memory into the statement that the fairies had carried off the healthy’ (alone acceptable as sacrifice) ‘and left in exchange the sickly.’  Though our evidence will not permit us to accept the theory (why it will not will be clear as we proceed) that some such sacrificial customs among the ancient Celts entirely account for the changeling story, yet we consider it highly probable that the theory helps to explain particular aspects of the complex tradition, and that the underlying philosophy of sacrifice extended in an animistic way, as we shall try to extend it, probably offers more complete explanation.

Thus, the Mexicans believed that the souls of all sacrificed children went to live with the god Tialoc in his heaven-world.  Among the Greeks, a sacrificed victim appears to have been sent as a messenger, bearing a message repeated to him before death to some god.  On the funeral pile of Patroclus were laid Trojan captives, together with horses and hounds, a practice corresponding to that of American Red Men; the idea being that the sacrificed Trojans and the horses and hounds as well, were thus sent to serve the slain warriors in the otherworld. Among ourselves in Europe and in America it is not uncommon to read in the daily newspaper about a suicide as resulting from the belief that death alone can bring union with a deceased sweetheart or loved one. These examples, and very many parallel ones to be found the world over, seem to furnish the key to the theory of sacrifice: namely, that by extinguishing life in this world it is transmitted to the world of the gods, spirits, and the dead.

Both Sir John Rhys and D’Arbois de Jubainville have shown that the Irish were wont to sacrifice the first-born of children and of flocks.  O’Curry points out a clear case of human sacrifice at an ancient Irish funeral :- ‘ Fiachra then brought fifty hostages with him from Munster’; and, when he died, ‘the hostages which he brought from the south were buried alive around the Fert (burial mound) of Fiachra.’ More commonly the ancient Celts seem to have made sacrifices to appease place-spirits before the erection of a new building, by sending to them through death the soul of a youth (see p. 436).

It is in such animistic beliefs as these, which underlie sacrifice, that we find a partial solution of the problem of changeling belief. But the sacrifice theory is also inadequate; for, though changelings may in some cases in ancient times have conceivably been the sickly children discarded by priests as unfit for sending to the gods or fairies, how can we explain actual changelings to be met with to-day in all Celtic lands? Some other hypothesis is evidently necessary.

Soul-Wandering Theory

Comparative study shows that non-Celtic changeling beliefs parallel to those of the Celts exist almost everywhere, - that they centre round the primitive idea that the human soul can be abstracted from the body by disembodied spirits and by magicians, and that they do not depend upon the sacrifice theory, though animistically closely related to it. For example, according to the Lepers’ Islanders, ghosts steal men - as fairies do - ‘ to add them to their company; and if a man has left children when he died, one of whom sickens afterwards, it is said that the dead father takes it.’  In Banks Island, Polynesia, the ghost of a woman who has died in childbirth is greatly dreaded: as long as her child is on earth she cannot proceed to Panoi, the otherworid; and the relatives take her child to another house, ‘because they know that the mother will come back to take its soul.’  When a Motlav child sneezes, the mother will cry, ‘Let him come back into the world ! let him remain.’ Under similar circumstances in Mota, the cry is, ‘ Live; roll back to us ! ‘The notion is that a ghost is drawing a child’s soul away.’ If the child falls ill the attempt has succeeded, and a wizard throws himself into a trance and goes to the ghost-world to bring the child’s soul back.  In the islands of Kei and Kisar a belief prevails that the spirits of the dead can take to themselves the souls of the living who go near the graves.  Sometimes a Polynesian mother insists on being buried with her dead child; or a surviving wife with her dead husband, so that there will be no separation.  These last practices help to illustrate the Celtic theory behind the belief that fairies can abduct adults.

Throughout Melanesia sickness is generally attributed to the soul’s absence from the body, and this state of disembodiment is believed to be due to some ghost’s or spirit’s interference, just as among Celts sickness is often thought to be due to fairies having taken the soul to Fairyland. An old Irish piper who came up to Lady Gregory’s home at Coole Park told us that a certain relative of his, a woman, had lain in a semi-conscious state of illness for months, and that when she recovered full consciousness she declared she had been with the ‘good people’.

Folk-beliefs like all the above, which more adequately explain the changeling idea than the Human-Sacrifice Theory, are world-wide, being at once Celtic and non-Celtic.


Demon-Possession Theory

There has been among many peoples, primitive and civilized, a complementary belief to the one that evil spirits or ghosts may steal a soul and so cause in the vacated body illness if the abduction is temporary, and death if it is permanent: namely, a belief that demons, who sometimes may be souls of the dead, can possess a human body while the soul is out of it during sleep, or else can expel the soul and occupy its place.  When complete possession of this character takes place there is - as in ‘ mediumship ‘ - a change of personality, and the manner, thoughts, actions, language, and the whole nature of the possessed person are radically changed. Sometimes a foreign tongue, of which the subject is ignorant, is fluently spoken. When the possession is an evil one, as Dr. Nevius has observed in China, where the phenomena are common, the change of character is in the direction of immorality, frequently in strong contrast with the character of the subject under normal conditions, and is often accompanied by paroxysms and contortions of the body, as I have often been solemnly assured by Celts is the case in a changeling.

A conception like that among the Chinese, of how an evil spirit may dispossess the soul inhabiting a child’s or adult’s body, seems to be the basis and original conception behind the fairy-changeling belief in all Celtic and other countries. When a child has been changed by fairies, and an old fairy left in its place, the child has been, according to this theory, dispossessed of its body by an evil fairy, which a Chinaman calls a demon, while the leaving behind of the old fairy accounts for the changed personality and changed facial expression of the demon-possessed infant. The Chinese demon enters into and takes complete possession of the child’s body while the child’s soul is out of it during sleep - and all fairies make changelings when a babe is asleep in its cradle at night, or during the day when it is left alone for a short time. The Chinese child-soul is then unable to return into its body until some kind of magical ceremony or exorcism expels the possessing demon; and through precisely similar methods, often aided by Christian priests, Celts cure changelings made by fairies, pixies, and corrigans. In the following account, therefore, apparently lies the root explanation of the puzzling beliefs concerning fairy changelings so commonly met with in the Celtic Fairy-Faith :- ‘ To avert the calamity of nursing a demon, dried banana-skin is burnt to ashes, which are then mixed with water. Into this the mother dips her finger and paints a cross upon the sleeping babe’s forehead. In a short time the demon soul returns - for the soul wanders from the body during sleep and is free - but, failing to recognize the body thus disguised, flies off. The true soul, which has been waiting for an opportunity, now approaches the dormant body, and, if the mark has been washed off in time, takes possession of it; but if not, it, like the demon, failing to recognize the body, departs, and the child dies in its sleep.’

In relation to this Demon-Possession Theory, the writer has had the opportunity of observing carefully some living changelings among the Celts, and is convinced that in many such cases there is an undoubted belief expressed by the parents and friends that fairy-possession has taken place. This belief often translates itself naturally into the folk-theory that the body of the child has also been changed, when examination proves only a change of personality as recognized by psychologists; or, in a distinct type of changelings, those who exhibit great precocity in childhood combined with an old and wizened countenance, there is neither a changed personality nor demon-possession, but simply some abnormal physical or mental condition, in the nature of cretinism, atrophy, marasmus, or arrested development. One of the most striking examples of a changeling exists at Plouharnel-Carnac, Brittany, where there is now living a dwarf Breton whom I have photographed and talked with, and who may possibly combine in himself both the abnormal psychical and the abnormal pathological conditions. He is no taller than a normal child ten years old, but being over thirty years old he is thick-set, though not deformed. All the peasants who know him call him ‘the Little Corrigan’, and his own mother declares that he is not the child she gave birth to. He once said to me with a kind of pathetic protest, ‘Did M.- tell you that I am a demon?’


The Kidnap Theory, resting entirely upon the ethnological and social or psychological elements which we have elsewhere pointed out as existing in the superficial aspects of the essentially animistic Fairy-Faith as a whole, is accordingly limited in its explanation of this specialized part of the Fairy-Faith, the changeling belief, to these same elements which may exist in the changeling belief. And, on the showing of anthropology, the other theories undoubtedly offer a more adequate explanation.

By means of sacrifice, according to its underlying philosophy, man is able to transmit souls from this world to the world where dwell the gods and fairy-folk both good and evil. Thus, had Abraham sacrificed Isaac, the soul of Isaac would have been taken to heaven by Jehovah as fairies take souls to Fairyland through death. But the difference is that in human sacrifice men do voluntarily and for specific religious ends what various kinds of fairies or spirits would do without human intervention and often maliciously, as our review of ancient and modern theories of sacrifice has shown. Gods and fairies are spiritual beings; hence only the spiritual part of man can be delivered over to them.

Melanesians and other peoples whose changeling beliefs have now been examined, regard all illness and death as the result of spirit interference; while Celts regard strange maladies in children and in adults as the result of fairy interference. And to no Celt is death in early life a natural thing: if it comes to a child or to a beautiful youth in any way whatsoever, the fairies have taken what they coveted. In all mythologies gods have always enjoyed the companionship of beautiful maidens, and goddesses the love of heroic youths; and they have often taken them to their world as the Tuatha De Danann took the great heroes of the ancient Celts to the Otherworld or Avalon, and as they still in the character of modern fairies abduct brides and young mothers, and bridegrooms or other attractive young men whom they wish to have with them in Fairyland (see our chapters iv-vi).

Where sacrifice or death has not brought about such complete transfer or abduction of the soul to the fairy world, there is only a temporary absence from human society; and, meanwhile, the vacated body is under a fairy spell and lies ill, or unconscious if there is a trance state. If the body is an infant’s, a fairy may possess it, as in the Chinese theory of demon-possession. In such cases the Celts often think that the living body is that of another child once taken but since grown too old for Fairyland; though the rational explanation frequently is purely pathological. Looked at philosophically, a fairy exchange of this kind is fair and evenly balanced, and there has been no true robbery. And in this aspect of the changeling creed - an aspect of it purely Celtic - there seems to be still another influence apart from human sacrifice, soul-abductions, demon or fairy-possession, and disease; namely, a greatly corrupted folk-memory of an ancient re-birth doctrine: the living are taken to the dead or the fairies and then sent back again, after the manner of Socrates’ argument that the living come from the dead and the dead: from the living (cf. our chapter vii). In all such exchanges, the economy of Nature demands that the balance between the two worlds be maintained: hence there arose the theories of human sacrifice, of soul abduction, of demon or fairy-possession; and in all these collectively is to be found the complete psychological explanation of the fairy-changeling and fairy-abduction beliefs among ancient and modern Celts as these show themselves in the Fairy-Faith. All remaining classes of changelings, which fall outside the scope of this clearly defined psychological theory, are to be explained pathologically.


This is taken from The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries.





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