THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE
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 is made in the following words to this popular error:–
And her base Elfin brood there for thee left; such, men do changelings call, so chang’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 neighbor-hood, 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 endeavor 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 Egg Shell Pottage
The following tale exhibits another phase of this belief (Changeling). The story is to be found in the “Cambrian Magazine”, vol. ii., pp. 86, 87.
“In the parish of Treveglwys, near Llanidloes, in the county of Montgomery, there is a little shepherd’s cot, that is commonly called Twt y Cwmrws (the place of strife) on account of the extraordinary strife that has been there. The inhabitants of the cottage were a man and his wife, and they had born to them twins, whom the woman nursed with great care and tenderness. Some months afterwards indispensable business called the wife to the house of one of her nearest neighbours; yet, notwithstanding she had not far to go, she did not like to leave her children by themselves in their cradle, even for a minute, as her house was solitary, and there were many tales of goblins or the ‘“Tylwyth Teg”’ (the Fair Family or the Fairies) haunting the neighbor-hood. However, she went, and returned as soon as she could; but on coming back she felt herself not a little terrified on seeing, though it was mid-day, some of ‘the old elves of the blue petticoat,’ as they are usually called; however, when she got back to her house she was rejoiced to find everything in the state she had left it.
But after some time had passed by, the good people began to wonder that the twins did not grow at all, but still continued little dwarfs. The man would have it that they were not his children; the woman said that they must be their children, and about this arose the great strife between them that gave name to the place. One evening when the woman was very heavy of heart she determined to go and consult a “Gwr Cyfarwydd” (i.e., a wise man, or a conjuror), feeling assured that everything was known to him, and he gave her his counsel. Now there was to be a harvest soon of the rye and oats; so the wise man said to her:–‘When you are preparing dinner for the reapers empty the shell of a hen’s egg, and boil the shell full of pottage and take it out through the door as if you meant it for a dinner to the reapers, and then listen what the twins will say; if you hear the children speaking things above the understanding of children, return into the house, take them, and throw them into the waves of Llyn Ebyr, which is very near to you; but if you don’t hear anything remarkable, do them no injury.’ And when the day of the reaping came, the woman did as her adviser had recommended to her; and as she went outside the door to listen, she heard one of the children say to the other:
Gwelais vesen cyn gweled derwen, Gwelais wy cyn gweled iar, Erioed ni welais verwi bwyd i vedel Mewn plisgyn wy iar!
Acorns before oak I knew, an egg before a hen, Never one hen’s egg-shell stew enough for harvest men!
On this the mother returned to her house and took the two children, and threw them into the Llyn, and suddenly the goblins in their trousers came to save their dwarfs, and the woman had her own children back again, and thus the strife between her and her husband ended.”
The writer of the preceding story says that it was translated almost literally from Welsh, as told by the peasantry, and he remarks that the legend bears a striking resemblance to one of the Irish tales published by Mr. Croker.
Many variants of the legend are still extant in many parts of Wales. There is one of these recorded in Professor Rhys’s “Welsh Fairy Tales”, “Y Cymmrodor”, vol. iv., pp. 208-209. It is much like that given in the “Cambrian Magazine”.
TITLE: WELSH FOLKLORE
BY: REV. ELIAS OWEN, M.A, F.S.A.