I recently saw someone cite A Basket of Wishes as an example of a romance novel cover, and it reminded me of something I noticed a while ago. And yes, this is another post on pillywiggins.
Among other appearances, these flower fairies showed up in a spate of romance novels through the 1990s and a little bit into the 2000s. First was A Basket of Wishes by Rebecca Paisley (1995). Then Twin Beds by Regan Forest (1996), A Little Something Extra by Pam McCutcheon (1996), Stronger than Magic by Heather Cullman (1997), Scottish Magic: Four Spellbinding Tales of Magic and Timeless Love (1998), A Dangerous Magic (1999), and Buttercup Baby by Karen Fox (2001).
A Basket of Wishes and Buttercup Baby, the first and last in this list, share a number of similarities.
Beyond the rather by-the-numbers plot setup, one of the most striking similarities is the fairy heroine whose tears are gemstones. The idea of tears becoming jewels has its own Aarne-Thompson motif number, D475.4.5. It appears in the Grimms' tale "The Goose Girl at the Well." In the Palestinian story of "Lolabe," the heroine weeps pearls and coral. This trope is often associated with mermaids. "Mermaid tears" is an alternate name for sea glass. There's a Scottish legend - recorded in 1896 when adapted into a poem - that a mermaid's tears became the distinctive pebbles on the shore of Iona. In Chinese legend, mermaids weep pearls; this idea was recorded going pretty far back, for instance by fourth-century scholar Zhang Hua in his Record of Diverse Matters.
Rebecca Paisley is the first person to apply this motif to pillywiggins. Karen Fox is the second. So far as I know, they remain the only two authors to do so.
As far as differences, they do take place in different time periods. Buttercup Baby is about the pregnancy and slice-of-life fluff. A Basket of Wishes, on the other hand, tends more towards high fantasy and some drama with Splendor’s realm being in danger.
Paisley's writing has a number of folklore references. Her pillywiggins (who are synonymous with fairies) live under a mound and tie elf knots in horses' manes. They are incredibly lightweight, like Indian tales of a princess who weighs as much as five flowers. They have no shadows, like Jewish demons and Indian bhoots or bhutas. Most intriguingly, Splendor reveals that her powers are not always limitless. She can't just vanish maladies like a stutter, an unsightly birthmark, or baldness, but must transfer them to someone else - which she does, giving those attributes to the book's antagonists. This harkens to the fairytale known in the Aarne-Thompson system as Type 503. In a common variation, two hunchbacks visit the fairies. One pleases the fairies and they reward him by removing his hunch. The second man is rude and greedy, and the fairies add the first man's hunch to his own.
Karen Fox, on the other hand, builds a world based on old English literature: A Midsummer Night's Dream and 17th-century ballads about Robin Goodfellow. She uses “pillywiggins” as a singular noun (which is not uncommon as a variant spelling). Unlike Paisley's version, Fox's pillywiggins are not a name for fairykind as a whole, but a specific subspecies.
Fox's use of Ariel as the pillywiggin queen points to Edain McCoy's Witch's Guide to Faery Folk (1994). McCoy was the first to give Ariel as the name of a queen of pillywiggins, and Fox is far from the only author to have followed suit. McCoy's book has been subtly but deeply influential, with large portions posted online by 1996. A now-defunct quiz titled "What type of female fairy are you?", online around 2002, advises the user that "Most of the information used in this quiz was taken (in some cases verbatim) from A Witches' Guide to Faery Folk by Edain McCoy." Pillywiggins are one possible result on the quiz.
The new mythology of pillywiggins has been spread mainly through the Internet through sites like this. Creators in the 80's, 90's and early 2000's, like McCoy, Paisley and Fox, used them as basic winged flower fairies. Later authors played with this. In 2011, Julia Jarman made Pillywiggins a singular fairy who stands out from her glittery peers as bold and boyish. The pillywiggens of Marik Berghs’ Fae Wars novels (2013) are “fierce hunters” who ride on birds. Even in these fiercer examples, though, there remains a focus on their minuscule size and "cuteness." Jarman's heroine receives doll clothes. Berghs' pillywiggens speak in chirps and eat crumbs.
The attraction of the pillywiggin lies partly in its ability to put a name to the modern archetype of the cute, winged flower fairy. In the first known appearance of pillywiggins, they were listed as a type of flower fairy. However, when it now appears in modern Internet parlance, pillywiggin is the name for the flower fairy category.
Despite their similarities, Paisley's and Fox's works both show slightly different takes on pillywiggins. Nearly every author seems to have their own unique approach, while still subtly building up a new piece of folklore. At this point, I feel that if a pre-1970s source for flower-fairy pillywiggins ever shows up, it will be completely unrecognizable compared to the newly evolved myth.
Other posts in this series
If there's one historical mystery I'm dying to know the answer to, it's what was going on with General Tom Thumb's baby. The baby hoax has become one in a long litany of P. T. Barnum's frauds and humbugs. To cut a long story short, two of his performers, under the stage names General and Mrs. Tom Thumb, posed with a baby and performed with it to fake the impression that they had had a child. One website I encountered suggested that as part of the offensive hoax, a different baby was used for every single publicity photo. Another took the opposite tack: that the Thumbs really had a daughter, but that another baby was borrowed for photos because the real baby wasn't "photogenic" enough. Confusion abounds. So now, I'm going to take a plunge into the actual news articles from the time.
Charles Sherwood Stratton, or General Tom Thumb, began his life as one of Barnum's most famous performers when he was about four years old. He and his wife Lavinia Warren - who Barnum "discovered" when she was 21 and Charles 25 - were little people. In December 1862, to drum up attention, Barnum coyly published letters dated December 1862, where he begged Lavinia to come work with him. This method seems to have worked well. In January 1863, Harper's Weekly raved about Lavinia's first appearance and crowed, "General Tom Thumb and Commodore Nutt are henceforth not without hope." From her first appearance, people were trying to pair her off.
The showrunners wasted no time. Her wedding to General Tom Thumb was the following month, in February. The New York Times had all the details, from the design of Lavinia's gown to the list of wedding gifts - “all of which were very nice, excepting the common affair of a cradel [sic] with which some person of little wit and less modesty encumbered the table.” For contemporaries, the idea of the Strattons reproducing was both engrossing and taboo. In the Sketch of the life, personal appearance, character and manners of Charles S. Stratton, the man in miniature, known as General Tom Thumb, and his wife, Lavinia Warren Stratton, an 1863 pamphlet possibly penned by Barnum himself, the Strattons were called a "mimic miniature Adam and Eve." The writer pondered whether they should be "the inventors of a race of humanity which . . . shall grow small by degrees."
The Strattons began entertaining, giving their "levees" and often posing in their wedding costumes. They worked with fellow performer Commodore Nutt and Lavinia's younger sister Minnie.
However, the rumors had begun, which was doubtlessly what Barnum had hoped for all along. On 15 December 1863, the South Australian Register noted, "The American papers record that the wife of General Tom Thumb is enceinte."
The Strattons were performing through November, December and January.
The New York Reformer. February 09, 1864. "Mrs. Gen. Tom Thumb became a mother a few weeks since. Tom is said to have danced a hornpipe at the announcement."
The Daily Ohio Statesman. February 16, 1864. “‘Mrs. Tom Thumb,’ says the Boston Post, ‘is a mother.’ ‘The Post is more premature than the Princess of Wales,’ responds the Cincinnati Commercial, and says to the Post--”Don’t be in a hurry about the little Thumb.’ Of course the Commercial knows, or ought to know, all about the delicate point, as Mrs. Thumb is on exhibition in that city.”
The Quad-City Times, Davenport, Iowa. February 20, 1864. "Mrs. General Tom Thumb is reported to have become a mother, to the great joy of the General."
Tri-states Union. March 4, 1864. "If the report be true, why, look out for a profitable show in six or eight months - Tom Thumb, and Tom Thumb's Wife, and Tom Thumb's Wife's Baby!"
Liverpool Mercury, etc. Tuesday, March 8, 1864. "The wife of General Tom Thumb was delivered of a son and heir on the 22nd of January.”
The Sacramento Daily Union, March 14, 1864. "Mrs. General Tom Thumb, it is said, gave birth to a child on the 12th of January."
The Burlington Weekly Sentinel. March 18, 1864. "The newspapers (scaly fellows) report that Mrs. Gen. Tom Thumb was -- and has --. It turns out, however, to be a hoax... So Tom didn't dance the hornpipe after all, as was reported. In other words, there isn't any little Thumb yet."
The Troy Weekly Times, March 19, 1864. "A Connecticut paper [Charles was from Connecticut] says that 'the statement which has appeared in numerous journals to the effect that Mrs. Tom Thumb had become a mother is somewhat premature as we are assured upon the very best authority that the great event is not expected to occur before the month of July next.'"
Rumors flew from place to place, varying from paper to paper and by word of mouth. The baby might be a boy. The birth might have occurred in January, or it might be expected in July. During all this, the Strattons were apparently still performing.
In October 1864, the troupe departed for a tour in England. They arrived in Liverpool on the steamship City of Washington, and with them was their baby. The Daily Post from Liverpool reported on November 12th, 1864, that the Strattons were accompanied by their "infant daughter" who would be "twelve months old on the 5th of December."
The birthdate could just be the result of careless reporting. However, Barnum had advertised a five-year-old Charles as an older child to make him seem smaller. Maybe this was the same principle. All that aside, December 5, 1863, was the official birth date for the Thumb baby. A medal produced by the Barnum Museum shows an image of the family trio, and refers to the Strattons' daughter with that birthdate. The Sketch of the Lives of C. S. Stratton and his wife, etc (1865) repeats this: "On the 5th of December, 1863, Mrs. Stratton gave birth to a female infant, weighing at the time of its birth but three pounds."
The baby was an instant hit, but the main question was how big she was. Charles and Lavinia were both average-sized infants but stopped growing at a young age. It would have been impossible to say whether the baby was done growing. Everyone had an opinion, though.
The Morning Post in London said that she "partakes of the proportions of her parents."
The Lancet wrote "The diminutive pair seem very proud of their offspring; whether it will be of the same Liliputian stamp we cannot at present say."
And the Morning Herald called the child "heiress to the Stratton name and fortune, but not to the Thumb inches, if we may judge by present looks, for the little girl (called Minnie, after her aunt) is just a year old and already weighs 7 3/4 lbs."
In the midst of all this, the baby had a name: Minnie Stratton, after Lavinia's beloved sister and fellow performer.
On November 24, 1864, the Morning Post in London reported the Tom Thumb company's visit to the Prince and Princess of Wales. "The Princess of Wales bestowed much attention on the pretty little infant."
The baby was "a pretty little girl, with light silken hair and a vivacious disposition," according to the Soldiers' Journal on December 14, 1864.
The London Daily News, on December 20 1864, reported the Thumb party's performance at the Crystal Palace, where Baby Minnie was a hit. "The ladies enjoyed the luxury of a close inspection of the General's baby, and of overwhelming the poor little thing, much to its annoyance, with kisses."
The reporter seems taken with the comedy of Charles Stratton being defeated by a fretful baby: "He made several valiant attempts to induce her to put on a pair of gloves nearly an inch long, and when at last he had had his ears sufficiently boxed, and the gloves thrown in his face for his pains, he made a very skilful retreat, and left the baby in possession of the field. "
The reporter also remarked on the resemblance of the child to her parents.
The advertisements continued, milking the Stratton family image for all it was worth. A letter published in the Times-Picayune in January 1865, and in the Santa Fe Weekly Post, in February 1865, described meeting the performers in Paris. The description of Minnie Stratton ends on an odd note.
"[T]he lion of the party was the baby, a little girl twelve months old, looking the picture of health and, without exaggeration, extremely beautiful. The face has nothing of the dwarf about it, but my observation that she looked as big as an ordinary child of her age was not approved by the secretary, who assured me that the weight was something very far below the average, and, lifting up the expensive lace frock, showed me her little feet in red morocco shoes, which are not larger than those of a moderate sized doll. My inquiry whether the child was expected to grow up a dwarf, met with the cautious answer that there was 'no precedent.' This is, I believe, true. There is, I am pretty sure, no instance of such a small child as Tom Thumb and his wife having been the progenitors of a child. I venture to prophecy, however, that Miss Minnie Stratton (that is the name of the infant) will, if she lives to attain her majority, be nearer the ordinary size of mankind than that of her parents. I do not believe in the foundation of a race of pigmies."
In August 1865, the Sacramento Daily Union reported on the party's visit to Windsor Castle, and actually gave an idea of what their performances were like.
"The performance commenced shortly before four o'clock, being opened by Mrs. Tom Thumb with a song, "My Native Land." This was followed by "Impersonations of Billy O'Rourke" and "Napoleon Bonaparte" by General Tom Thumb. Mrs. Stratton, the General's wife, then introduced her infant daughter."
The baby was yet another part of the act, to be brought out, passed around and cooed over between songs and jokes.
But it was not to last. The Morning Post reported on 26 September 1866 that "Yesterday Minnie Stratton— or, as the child used to call herself, Minnie Tom Thumb— the infant daughter of General and Mrs. Tom Thumb, died at the Norfolk Hotel, Norwich."
She would have been roughly two years old.
The Norfolk News reported on her burial in the local cemetery. Cause of death was given as "gastric fever;" other papers reported it as "inflammation of the brain." Although the funeral was supposed to be private, it was mobbed by about a thousand people. "It is said to be the intention the General to apply for an order to have the corpse removed to America, his native land, when he himself returns.”
The grave still stands in the Norfolk cemetery, and Minnie is listed in the local death records as the daughter of Charles Stratton. Newspapers reported cancellations of performances "owing to the death of little Minnie Stratton." The Strattons' fellow performers Commodore Nutt and Minnie Warren were on their own for several shows. Minnie Stratton's death was treated seriously.
And that was it. The party went back to performing.
In July 1878, Minnie Warren died in childbirth. Her baby, who also died, weighed six pounds. According to obituaries, Minnie had expected a miniature baby and sewed clothes based on doll patterns, "one-sixth the size of garments for ordinary babies." Her husband, however, as well as P.T. Barnum, had been apprehensive, according to the news.
One obituary for Minnie Warren mentioned "the memory of the spurious Thumb baby." At this point, at least some Americans had decided that Minnie Stratton - whose heyday took place an ocean away - was a hoax.
But the troupe itself made no such admission. Sylvester Bleeker, the Strattons' manager for many years, gave an 1882 interview mentioning the child.
"Mrs. General Tom Thumb's baby was one of the prettiest little girls I have ever seen...It was a perfect picture of Minnie Warren, Mrs. Thumb's sister, and everybody knows how beautiful she was. Lavinia Warren was married to Charles S. Stratton (Gen. Tom Thumb) in 1863... The baby was born a year after, and the event was heralded all over the world. The child was like other children in size, but was prettier than the average, and was healthy and bright. Mrs. Thumb idolized her baby, and when death took it from her, the blow was almost more than she could bear. The little girl lived to be two years and eight months old, and died of gastric fever in Norwich, England. She was made a great pet by the English ladies, who were in the habit of giving her sweet meats and candies, and I think this was one of the causes that led to little Minnie's death."
Charles Stratton's obituary in the New York Times, published July 1883, mentioned that "He had one child, born in Brooklyn 14 years ago, who only lived two years. It was of ordinary size.” (This would place the child’s birth in 1869 and death in 1871.)
An odd sidenote: the Galveston Daily News, in August 1892, reported the wedding of another couple of performers with dwarfism. There, the writer mentioned in passing "They say . . . that Tom Thumb's son is nearly 6 feet high and that he is very proud of his little mother.”
Then, in April 1901, an article was published in several papers titled "Tom Thumb's Widow Reveals Secrets of the Show." It claims that about a year after the Strattons' wedding:
"an innocent little item was smuggled into the English papers to the effect that the Tom Thumbs had A Baby Son. It was widely copied, and by the time Mr. Barnum and his midget charges arrived the British public was worked up to a considerable degree of expectancy as regarded the baby. In Egyptian Hall, London, they were exhibited all over again - General Thumb, Mrs. Thumb, and the baby. The performance was repeated all over Europe, and the Thumbs came back richer than they had ever been before. People have occasionally wondered since then whatever became of that baby! ...
"I never had a baby," [Lavinia] declared recently. “The Exhibition Baby came from a foundling hospital in the the first place, and was renewed as often as we found it necessary. A real baby would have grown. Our first baby - a boy - grew very rapidly. At the age of four years he was taller than his father. This would never do... We appealed to Mr. Barnum. He agreed with us. He thought our baby should not grow. Thus we exhibited English babies in England, French babies in France, and German babies in Germany. It was - they were - a great success."
This article is widely quoted, but does nothing but raise questions. Early reports did say that they had a son - but when they went touring, it was with a baby girl. This also implies they paraded around with a baby for over 4 years. They were married at the beginning of 1863 and could not have debuted their baby until at least November 1863. The baby's death was announced in England in September 1866. There wasn't time for a baby boy to grow to age four and for more babies to follow. Something here is fishy. Was Lavinia misremembering her past?What was going on here?
And "taller than his father"? This phrase is reminiscent of the declaration that Minnie Stratton, age one, weighed “7 ¾ lbs., which we take it is more than her father weighed at the same age.” That’s as much as an average newborn weighs today, so I’m not sure what they were trying to say there. It is clear that the marketing team was trying to push the idea that the baby was unusually small, but observers were not always convinced and there was some arguing over whether the baby would grow. Now we’ve got an affirmation that the baby did indeed grow. Or is this line, perhaps, an echo of the rumor that Tom Thumb’s son grew up to be six feet tall?
Lavinia would be of no further help. In 1906, she wrote a series of five articles for the New York Tribune Sunday Magazine, and went on to publish an autobiography. She never mentioned the baby, though she included many details about her tour through Europe beginning in 1864. That year, newspapers had made much of the baby - but in Lavinia's account, there's not even a hint of any baby's existence. No real baby, no hoax baby. No babies whatsoever, except for her sister's tragic pregnancy.
In April 1946, Edna L. Bump - wife of Lavinia's nephew Benjamin J. Bump - wrote a letter to the editor of New York Times regarding an article on the Strattons.
"The Tom Thumbs never had a child. The child shown in that picture was borrowed for a publicity stunt when they were employed by Barnum."
Benjamin mentioned the baby hoax in his own pamphlet about the Strattons, "The Story that Never Grows Old," in 1953. Alice Curtis Desmond, in her 1954 book Barnum Presents General Tom Thumb, quoted Benjamin on this strange "family secret." In Desmond's account, Barnum was solely responsible for the hoax. "He hired infants wherever the circus happened to be, with their mothers as nursemaids" (page 215). (Note that these are not foundling hospital babies; their parents are along for the ride.) Here, Lavinia was a victim of the hoax, broken-hearted by her inability to have a child.
Gradually, this new narrative spread. People stopped mentioning a child born to General Tom Thumb, and instead told the story of a manipulative baby-exploiting hoax. The rediscovery of Minnie Stratton's grave and death records came as a shock when publicized in the BBC documentary The Real Tom Thumb: History's Smallest Superstar (2014).
One online article declares that the baby in the photographs was actually Lavinia's nephew "Gus." I have been unable to find any support for this suggestion. However, with research through ancestry.com, I did learn that Lavinia had a nephew named William Sherwood Wilbar, or Willie, born to her sister Sarah on May 9, 1864. The same time as those birth rumors.
There’s nothing to indicate that William ever posed as the Strattons’ child for photos. However, it’s intriguing that he shared a middle name with Charles. Could the rumors have been colored by the fact that Lavinia’s sister was pregnant, and that the Strattons might have been seen in the vicinity of a newborn boy?
I still hold that Lavinia probably could not have carried a child to term. If it was anything like her or Charles, it would have been a fairly large baby and complications would easily have arisen. That was exactly how her sister Minnie later died. The official narrative was that Lavinia gave birth to a three-pound girl. Improbable, but Minnie Warren seems to have bought into the idea.
Lavinia was also touring during the time a Stratton baby would have been born. It makes sense for the baby to be a fraud, although that makes the grave mysterious. But the later account of the fraud is just as confusing and doesn't match up with the timeline shown by newspapers.
A big part of the hoax is the photos that are left. These would have been sold as souvenirs. I’ve been collecting all the photos I can of the Stratton family, and there are two groups in particular that seem to have been taken in long photo sessions at different periods in time. You can identify two studios, with common set pieces. The clothes – particularly Lavinia’s gowns – are also clear markers.
As for the baby, there are clear differences between the two groups of photos, BUT it is hard to say whether we are looking at two different children, or one child at different stages of development. There is no obvious “OMG that’s a completely different kid!!!” There’s no huge difference in facial structure.
In the first group of photos, attributed to the famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, the baby lies cradled in Lavinia’s arms, wearing a long christening-syle gown as she gazes directly at the camera. (A photo where she is smiling - here - is the most-reproduced picture of the trio). Her long wisps of hair are visible in several copies, and in one colorized photo have been painted bright yellow. The image at the top of this post has several pictures of the Mathew Brady baby.
In the second group of photos, which I believe were taken by the London Stereoscopic and Photographic Company, the baby now sits unsupported, and is much more active (typically seen with face slightly blurred in movement, often looking away from the camera). Her hair looks like it is parted in the middle and smoothed back. She wears dresses with wide skirts. Her size relative to the Strattons does seem roughly the same as before, but it’s hard to tell due to the long gown used in the previous photos. You can see one such photo in this post.
You can find more photos with a simple Google search. What do you think? Are there different babies in the different photos? What was going on with Lavinia's mysteriously inconsistent interview? And who is the child buried in Minnie Stratton's grave?
"The Name of the Helper" is the title assigned to the Aarne-Thompson type 500 family of fairytales. The main character is usually a young woman, confronted with an impossible task of spinning. She must produce a ridiculous amount of thread, or even spin it into gold. There’s no way for her to do it, until she receives otherworldly help from a strange being. However, she must now guess this creature’s name (hence the title of the tale type). Rumpelstiltskin is the most famous example, but there are many others, usually nonsense names, perhaps with a rhyme or repetitive rhythm. In Celtic countries, the helper’s name nearly always includes the syllable “tot” or “trot.” I have a theory on where this syllable came from, but first, the list:
Habetrot is interesting in that she has a whole group of associates, one of whom has the name Scantlie Mab (harkening to Queen Mab). There's a possibly connection from Habetrot to Holle, Perchta and other European goddesses associated with spinning. This goddess, who appears in many variants with hundreds of names, can be benevolent or fearsome. She usually travels at night with a group of attendants, entering houses where offerings of food should be waiting. She might be a tutelary guardian who helps women spin, or a bogeywoman who punishes them for spinning on the wrong day. The very word "fairy" might be tied to "fata" or "fate," beings in mythology who spun the thread of life.
In French, a related character bore the name Dame Abonde or Lady Habundia, meaning "abundance." She and her attendants, the good ladies, entered houses at night.
Follow this, and a character like Habetrot must be a deity associated with textiles, who leads a group of otherworldly ladies, and watches over young women.
However, the majority of the Tot/Trot family is male. They cannot be tutelary goddesses. They also tend to be malevolent. Habetrot's name may be a later addition to the Habetrot story, which is less related to Rumpelstiltskin and instead belongs to the family of "The Three Aunts" (Norway) and "The Three Spinning Women" (Germany). In these stories, rather than any baby-stealing plot, several strange-looking but kind old women (three of them, just like the Fates in Greek myth) help the heroine attain a happy marriage and a leisurely life. They ask nothing in return for their help, and remain unnamed, as there is no need to find out their names. There is a scene where the girl overhears Habetrot's name, but it's really not important to the story. Incidentally, "Habetrot" resembles "Habundia" with the "trot" sound added on, and both are benevolent fairy ladies who lead a train of followers.
Plenty of people have already looked at the "tot/trot" family. W. B. Yeats' "Even Trot" (who, like Habetrot, is benevolent) gives a very literal and moralizing translation: "Go steadily along, but let your step be even; stop little; keep always advancing; and you'll never have cause to rue the day that you first saw Even Trot."
Sir John Rhys, inspecting Welsh variants, connected Sili go Dwyt to seily or seely - happy or blessed - connected with the Seelie Court or seely wights, old fairy names. Although "go Dwyt" could literally mean tidy, Rhys suggests that the dwt came from twt or tot. Although Trwtyn-Tratyn is a masculine name, Rhys finds the word trwtan or trwdlan to mean a deformed serving maid. From Gwarwyn-a-throt, he translated gwarwyn as "white-necked" and throt as connected to trot. Trot and twt, says Rhys, are not native Welsh words - but I don't think he offers any real theory on what they do mean.
R. Morton Nance did have at theory. Based on Mollyndroat possibly meaning a druid's servant, Nance suggested that the Icelandic Gillitrut means "druid's gillie" (a ghillie being a servant). So a droat, trot or trut is a druid.
I would take a different approach. Going back to England, the Denham Tracts list of monsters and bogeys includes two intriguing names: gally-trots and tutgots.
A gally-trot is a frightening apparition in Suffolk folklore. Edward Moor wrote that it was an apparition known in Woodbridge, which sometimes appeared as a white dog as big as a bullock, and chased people. It especially haunted a place called Bathslough. Moor declares that he "can make nothing of the name; nor much of the story." (Suffolk Words and Phrases, 1823). "Gally" means to scare or worry (hence the word gally-beggar, or scarecrow). The “trot” part is less clear – perhaps because it runs at people. One English bogey-spirit of the “black dog” family is called Padfoot for the sound of its walk, so maybe this is a common idea.
Could there be a connection from the gally-trot to Gilitrutt?
As for tutgots: Tut-gut, along with tut and tom-tit, were Lincolnshire words for a hobgoblin. Tutgot may be interpreted as tut-gotten, or taken away by the fairies and goblins. (Brogden, Provincial Words and Expressions current in Lincolnshire.) (So if a tom-tit is a goblin, is Tom Tit Tot literally named "Goblin" by this reckoning? That seems a bit on-the-nose for a story about an impossible guessing game.)
The English Dialect Dictionary quotes a story where a man was spooked on the road by a glimpse of something white, and remarked, "I thowt I'd happened of a tut" - or, "I thought I'd run into a tut." Pishey Thompson, in The History and Antiquities of Boston, mentions a "hobgoblin, or sprite" known as the "Spittal Hill tut" who took the form of a horse, and would harass and chase away anyone who passed by Spittal Hill. It might have been the site of a murder, or maybe the creature was guarding treasure.
So then, a tut or trot is a bogey-beast, a white apparition which takes animal form and chases people. In the case of both the gally-trot and the Spittal Hill tut, there is a particular place which it likes to haunt. The Spittal Hill tut in particular lives at a hill where either a body or treasure could be buried, like a burial mound.
You might say that the Rumpelstiltskin fairy also has a particular haunt; the hero must find out the name by following the fairy back to his or her home, usually out in a forsaken wild place and often subterranean. Habetrot lives in a cavern and Titty Tod beneath a fairy mound. Was the tut or the trot a hobgoblin which inspired these characters?
Is this a fairy name with a forgotten root? Where does the shared ancestor lie in all these names? Two suggestions appear to me.
One is that it is derived from "tot," a word for a little child, which may come from Scottish. Maybe it is related to the Icelandic word tottr, or dwarf. Compare also the Danish name Tommeltot, used for the Danish thumbling. (In England, Tom Thumb and the possibly related Tom Tumbler appear as monsters in Reginald Scot's Discovery of Witchcraft (1584), and Tom Thumb in his earliest appearances is associated with fairyish and demonic traits.)
Tom Tit Tot is close to the bird name tomtit, which itself is a shortened version of "tom titmouse." One sense of the word "tit," like "tot," is used for anything small, and is a common name for small birds. So then, perhaps, Tom Tit Tot means Tom Little Little. The character in question is "a small little black thing with a long tail." That would fit, as would the frequent description of Rumpelstiltskin characters as little men and little women.
But in some cases, like Mollyndroat's, the Rumpelstiltskin figure is a giant. That doesn't fit.
Maybe trot is the way to go instead. "Totter" also means an uneven walk, bringing "tot" back in. Could this be a reference to the fairy having a strange walk?
There are many different types of otherworldly creatures in folklore and myth, but there is a consistent thing about their feet. They have deformed legs, backwards feet, or inverted knees. The Brazilian Curupira and Ghanaian mmoatia are described with feet affixed backward. The henkies of Shetland and the Orkney Islands were trolls who would "henk," or limp, when they danced. Fauns of Greek mythology were goat-legged and hoofed. They lent this trait to Puck and to popular depictions of the Devil. Also from Greek myth, sirens were depicted as everything from human-headed birds to women with bird feet. This is another surviving trait. Jacob Grimm mentioned a group of dwarfs who wore long cloaks covering their feet; when someone sprinkled ashes on the ground to catch their footprints, it was discovered that the dwarves had the feet of ducks and geese.
Jacob Grimm, seeking evidence of a Germanic goddess named Berhta or Perchta, found many variants on the name "Bertha with the foot" - "Berte as grans pies," "Baerte met ten breden voeten," as well as the idea of a goddess-like figure with a bird's foot. The goddess Perchta is often described with one mismatched foot - either too large, or the foot of a goose. Grimm decided that "It is apparently a swan maiden's foot, which as a mark of her higher nature she cannot lay aside (any more than... the devil his horse hoof) and at the same time the spinning-woman's splayfoot that worked the treadle."
A god or goddess associated with spinning might very well have odd feet and an unusual gait. Rumpelstiltskin types are often described to walk around or pedal at a wheel when spinning. Dancing is also a frequent activity for them. Rumpelstiltskin is caught saying his name while "jumping about as if on one leg." Terrytop and his friends dance with a clattering noise "as if they had on each foot a pewter platter." The kindlier Habetrot is found "walking backwards and forwards" spinning with her distaff. She and all of her attendants are deformed from the work of spinning nonstop all their lives.
In "The Three Spinning Women," “[t]he first [woman] had a broad flat foot, the second one had such a large lower lip that it hung down over her chin, and the third one had a broad thumb.” They attribute these traits to peddling, licking and twisting thread.
So the name might be based on "tot," for a little creature, a dwarf ("tottr"). Or it could be "trot" or "totter," meaning that the creature is an otherworldly being with strange feet or one splayfoot. Or something entirely different! Somehow I doubt that it is derived from "druid," but I could be wrong. There's also a German nightmare spirit named a "drude" or "trute." The word "trot" has been used to mean old woman.
I, for one, enjoy the idea that the tot or tut was a now-forgotten English hobgoblin, and that was how people came up with the names of Tom Tit Tot, Habetrot, the gally-trot, and others. Being "tutgot," or taken by tuts, was a worrying prospect, and indeed, Terrytop and Tom Tit Tot are eager to carry off young maidens for dark purposes. Tut or trot would be a root word, much like Puck with Puck-hairy and nisse-puk, and Hob with Hobgoblin, hobby-lantern and hobbit. Incidentally, the roots of both Puck and Hob are mysterious, too ancient to truly determine.
However, I try to be wary of tying words together based on a surface resemblance, so I'll leave it at the basics. There is a widespread folktale type where a fairy's name must be uncovered. In Celtic countries that name usually includes the stem "tot," "trot," "top," "tod," or something similar, to the point where this concept has merged into other stories - like Habetrot, who is quite different from Rumpelstiltskin, and Gwarwyn a Throt, whose story is otherwise just random antics of a brownie-like house fairy.
Despite the fact that this fairy is associated with spinning - traditionally a feminine activity - he is generally male. He is also generally evil, wanting to steal away human women and children. If female, the character is slightly more likely to be benevolent—perhaps bleeding into the archetype of Perchta and Holle—but that's not a hard and fast rule.
The Three Little Pigs is one of the most iconic fairytales, instantly recognizable in any list. But where did it come from? In fact, the earliest known version of the story actually features not pigs, but pixies.
This story, Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 124, resembles tales like "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids" (ATU 123) and "Little Red Riding Hood" (ATU 333) where a predator tries to gain access to its prey's home through trickery or force. The listener identifies with a child like Red Riding Hood, or a domesticated animal like the goats or pigs. Sometimes the victim escapes with a clever trick. In other versions, he or she is gobbled up whole, and may or may not escape the wolf's belly.
However, the three pigs are sort of latecomers.
In 1853, an untitled story about a fox stalking a group of pixies was published in English forests and forest trees, historical, legendary, and descriptive. The story was also recorded in “The Folk-Lore of Devonshire” in Fraser's Magazine vol. 8 (1873). The pixies in the fox story live in an oddly domestic colony; two who dwell in wooden and stone houses are eaten. The fox, in search of prey, knocks at each door and calls "Let me in, let me in" before breaking the house open. However, a clever third pixie lives in an iron house which the fox can't break into. At the end, the fox finally captures the pixy in a box. However, the pixy uses a magical charm to trick him into switching places, and the fox dies.
This is the earliest known version of the story. So how did we get to pigs?
In 1877, Lippincott's Monthly Magazine featured William Owens' article "Folk-Lore of the Southern Negroes," featuring the story of "Tiny Pig." Seven pigs are hunted by a fox, who goes to each of their houses and asks entrance. The pigs each reply in rhyme, "No, no, Mr. Fox, by the beard on my chin! You may say what you will, but I'll not let you in." The fox proceeds to blow down each house and eat the occupant. Only the seventh one, Tiny Pig, has built a strong stone house, and the fox finds that he cannot blow it or tear it down. The fox attempts to enter through the chimney, but Tiny Pig has a fire waiting for him.
In an odd note, Owens compares "Tiny Pig" to an Anglo-Saxon tale called "The Three Blue Pigs." He implies that this was the source for the African-American tale. He gives no source for this story, but it seems he expected his readers to recognize it. However, Thomas Frederick Crane, a collector of Italian tales, seemed baffled by the reference and wrote that he was unable to find the tale.
The tale seems to have been strongly present in African-American folklore of the time. In addition to this appearance in Lippincott's Magazine, Nights with Uncle Remus: Myths and Legends of the Old Plantation by Joel Chandler Harris (1883) featured "The Story of the Pigs." Five build houses for themselves from "bresh," sticks, mud, planks, and rock. Brer Wolf sweet-talks and lures each one, coaxing them to open the doors of their respective homes. In this way, he devours them one by one. Only the Runt sees through his deception. In a scene reminiscent of both Red Riding Hood's dialogue with a disguised wolf, and the Seven Kids' protests that the wolf doesn't resemble their mother, Runt sees through each of Brer Wolf's claims that he's one of her siblings. Again, there is the ending with the chimney and the pig's waiting fire. A Harris story published later, "The Awful Fate of Mr. Wolf," told a similar narrative with Brer Rabbit as the protagonist.
"The Three Goslings" appeared in Thomas Frederick Crane's Italian Popular Tales in 1885. This is another close variation on the story, but with geese rather than pigs. Here we find the wolf blowing down houses. Ultimately, the third gosling pours boiling water into the wolf's mouth to kill him, and then cuts open his stomach to free her sisters. (I'm not sure why the boiling water didn't hurt them.) Crane collected this from Tradizioni popolari veneziane raccolte by Dom. Giuseppe Bernoni, vol. 3 (c. 1875-77). He also included a story called "The Cock," which similarly featured a wolf blowing down animals' houses (in this case built of feathers).
Our modern famous trio of pigs can be traced back to James Orchard Halliwell's Nursery Rhymes of England (1886). The tale was titled "The Story of the Three Little Pigs." Here is the final pig living in a brick house. Here are the rhyming couplets with the wolf calling out, "Little pig, little pig, let me come in" and huffing and puffing houses in. A few scenes, such as the wolf trying to lure out the pig and the pig duping him, are identical to scenes in the pixie story. As in the Italian stories, the wolf blows down the houses, and as in the African-American versions, the ending has the wolf's descent through the chimney. (However, the pig boils him and eats him, reminding one of the Italian gosling's boiling pot of water.) The British version featuring the pigs gained popularity through Joseph Jacobs' English Fairy Tales (1890), which cited Halliwell. Another version showed up in Andrew Lang's Green Fairy Book (1906).
Some African and Middle-Eastern versions tell the same story with different animals, such as sheep or goats. In some areas, human main characters seem more popular, as in the Moroccan tale of Nciç (Scellés-Millie, Paraboles et contes d’Afrique du Nord, 1982). A sultan and his seven sons travel to Mecca, but one by one the sons lose courage and build houses - one with walls of honey, another with walls of date paste. The seventh and smallest son Nciç builds an iron house and faces off against a ghoul.
The story of the fox and the pixies remains an outlier. It is the first known tale to introduce the now-familiar framework of the Three Little Pigs. However, it is also oddly rare. Pigs, fowl, goats, and humans all star in similar tales, but I've never encountered another version with pixies.
And what exactly makes foxes a natural enemy of pixies? The 1873 article in Fraser's Magazine remarks that "There is a very curious connection between the pixies and the wild animals of the moor, especially with the fox, which features in many local stories. These turn frequently on a struggle in craft and cunning between the fox and the pixie." However, the only story cited is this one - not exactly a large sample size - and the author admits that the story of the pixies living in individual houses of iron, etc., is atypical.
Meanwhile, in the other stories recorded in English Forests, pixies are "merry wicked sprites" who torment horses, lead humans astray in the woods, and steal babies. These are not cute winged fairies. They appear as "large bundles of rags," or occasionally tiny sprites dressed in filthy rags. Rather than being harmed by iron like some folkloric fae, they are miners and metalworkers. In one story, they are apparently immune to gunfire ("they were not to be harmed by weapon of 'middle earth'").
In the fox story, however, they are hapless creatures easily devoured by a woodland animal. The only pixy-ish thing they do is at the very end, when the final survivor uses an unspecified "charm" to entrap the fox.
I believe the answer is lies in a confusion between similar words. The word "pixy" is close to "pig" - and that's before you get into related words like puck or pug. One variation is pigsies or pigseys.
Pigsie is a Devonshire term for pixie. The story of the fox and the pixies is from Dartmoor, in Devon.
The pixie version could have arisen through a misinterpretation of the animal pig (or piggie) as the supernatural creature pigsie. If it was originally about pigs, that would explain why similar tales frequently feature animal heroes, and the same tale was widespread with pig protagonists even on the other side of an ocean. It would also explain why the Dartmoor tale's pixies act so unpixylike and helpless, with only one mention of magic thrown in at the end almost as an afterthought.
I can only think of a couple of versions of The Three Little Pigs which feature fairies as protagonists, and they are modern take-offs. In 1996, a book titled Feminist Fairy Tales by Barbara Walker featured a parody of the Three Little Pigs as "The Three Little Pinks." In this fable about girl power, a misogynistic gardener named Wolf comes at odds with three flower fairies who share the task of painting flowers pink. I found this parody less than impressive. But it's still intriguing in how it cycles - perhaps unknowingly - back to one of the earliest published versions of the tale.
Oh, and there was an early 20th century version of "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids" which featured a goblin and seven little breeze spirits. That was "The Gradual Fairy" by Alice Brown, published in 1911.
I do wonder about the "Three Blue Pigs" tale mentioned by William Owens, which could potentially date back before the tale of the fox and the pixies. Perhaps it didn't survive. That would be a fascinating find, though.
There was no real concerted effort to start recording folktales until about the 19th century. However, collectors like the Grimms insisted that their stories were ancient. They were recording traditions that went far back into history. However, the school of thought later drifted towards the idea that the stories were all fairly modern. However, this has now switched course.
During one period, some folklorists fell into the trap of drawing similarities based on surface resemblances. Tom Thumb and Tam Lin have similar names, so they must have originally been the same character. Shakespeare's tiny fairy Mab and the Irish goddess Medb are visually similar names, so they must be the same character. (Never mind that Medb is pronounced more like Meave.)
But what we should really look at are the elements of the story. The Italian story of Giovanuzza the Fox includes neither cat nor footwear, but it's clearly the same story as Puss in Boots. It's possible to have a Red Riding Hood tale with no mention of the iconic red hood. Instead of a wolf, there could be a tiger. Sara Graça da Silva and Jamshid J. Tehrani, in their study of ancient fairytales, suggest that Red Riding Hood and the story of the Seven Kids share a common ancestor.
Aglaia Starostina identified stories from a 9th-century Chinese manuscript as analogues of Sleeping Beauty. Spindles and shuttles? No. A young woman fated to "die" only to be revived? Yes. Syair Bidasari, a Malay poem probably from around 1750, has similarities to Snow White.
Scholars also find fairy tale motifs buried in ancient mythology. Iona and Peter Opie, in Classic Fairy Tales, compared Red Riding Hood's dialogue with the wolf ("What big eyes you have, Grandma!" "All the better to see you with") to the story of Thor and the giants in the Elder Edda, where he impersonates a bride in order to steal back his hammer.
"Why are Freyja's eyes so ghastly?" asks Thrym, catching a glimpse of them beneath her veil.
"It is because she has had such a longing to see you," replies Loki, "she has had no sleep for eight nights."
My go-to fairytale, Tom Thumb, is hard to trace back before, well, "Tom Thumb," a 17th-century British chapbook. However, elements go back far into the history of storytelling. The Greek myth of Kronos and the story of Jonah both describe a person being swallowed but surviving and escaping. The Greek god Hermes, much like Thumbling, starts driving cattle on the very day he's born. Japanese mythology has the tiny god Sukunahikona (appearing in the Kojiki, possibly the oldest surviving Japanese literary work), and the legend of Princess Kaguya, a tiny baby girl discovered by a childless couple. This--and the Japanese version of Tom Thumb, Issun-boshi, also being very old--makes me wonder if the story originated in Asia.
Graham Anderson's Fairytale in the Ancient World looks specifically for fairytale motifs appearing in ancient myths. Anderson mentions a scene in Petronius' Satyricon, a novel from the 1st century AD, where someone remarks, "the man who was once a frog is now king." That seems like a reference to the Frog Prince. Anderson finds ancient connections to Cinderella, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, Rumpelstiltskin, and many other stories. In some cases, the connections feel like a stretch - like pulling together different strands of Greek myth to suggest that a nymph named Chione (Snow) was an early Snow White and Artemis played the part of her murderous stepmother. In others, there are some compelling coincidences. In a 2nd-century Greek novel, a convoluted tale features a woman named Anthia (flower) who fakes her death, and Anderson suggests that this was a pragmatic adaptation of Snow White.
A few people have sent me links to Da Silva and Tehrani's study, and it is fascinating - although it took me forever to figure out what they were actually doing, and I may still be grossly oversimplifying it. They used phylogenetics, the study of language. If two different languages both have an example of, say, Hansel and Gretel, then there's a good chance that you can trace the story back to the nearest common ancestor of both languages. The farther back that common ancestor, the older the tale. The story they trace back the furthest is ATU 330, ‘The Smith and the Devil,' possibly existing as far back as the Bronze Age. In this story, a smith makes a deal for his soul with an evil being, but then tricks the being.
That feels like guesswork to me. Still, you need some guesswork when dealing with oral tales that were not written down until centuries later. This study has been criticized for biases and a sample size which is much too small and Europe-centric (see the letter by D'Huy et al). However, the authors responded to say they were aware of the limited sample size and had acknowledged this shortcoming in their paper, arguing that critics overlooked their actual points.
Another tale that has been pointed out by other scholars as particularly ancient (in that they can trace back recorded versions to Ancient Egypt) is the "Tale of Two Brothers."
Brownies and boggarts are both terms for household spirits, fairies that haunt the home. And sometimes, they're one and the same. An angered brownie will stop cleaning and doing chores around the house, and become a boggart, causing mischief and destruction. I happen to like this idea... but is it accurate?
In folklore, there are many classes of spirits, including household spirits. There are brownies, hobgoblins, hobs, kobolds, dobbies, silkies, and countless others. They are usually benevolent, helping around the house as long as they are discreetly rewarded with a simple bowl of milk or other food. Clothing is a more perilous gift and usually results in them leaving. (This is where you get "Master has given Dobby a sock!")
Boggarts are a wilder variation. They are close to bogeymen - notice that "bog" root syllable, related to "bug," "pug," "puck" and "pooka." Some haunt outdoor places. Others are attached to particular houses and families, and behave like poltergeists. Like other house spirits, they are frequently the ghosts of the deceased.
House-spirits could absolutely change with the tides. The German house-spirit or kobold, Hinzelmann, was helpful and playful (although with a mischievous streak), but sometimes behaved as a poltergeist - driving off suitors who visited the family's daughters, for instance. Another, Hödeken, was "kind and obliging" but also strangled an insolent servant boy and cooked him into a soup. From there on, he became so violent that he had to be exorcised. And still another, Goldemar or Vollmar, had a similar escapade of cooking and devouring a human who insulted him.
In a Danish family of tales like "The Nis and the Boy," a house-spirit called a nis has an ongoing rivalry with a boy who mocked him. This is ATU Type 7010, The House-Fairy's Revenge for Being Teased. In "The Penitent Nis," the nis believes that the humans neglected to put butter in his offering of porridge, so he kills their cow. However, he then finds butter at the bottom of his bowl. To make things right, he leaves treasure in the barn. The same thing happens in the Swedish tale "The Missing Butter," except that here the tomte steals a cow from the neighbors to replace the one he killed.
In Popular Tales of the West Highlands vol. 2, there is a story of a "bauchan" which annoyed and tormented a man named Callum, but which also often aided him. It might steal a prized handkerchief or cause other trouble, but was always helpful in a pinch. It brought a load of much-needed firewood through a snowstorm, and accompanied Callum to America and helped him start a farm there (pp. 91-93).
In British Goblins, Wirt Sikes - discussing the household goblin called the Bwbach - remarks that "The same confusion in outlines which exists regarding our own Bogie and Hobgoblin gives the Bwbach a double character, as a household fairy and as a terrifying phantom."
Even Shakespeare’s Puck, Robin Goodfellow, or Hobgoblin fits this description. Puck is best known for his mischief and messes – he “frights the maidens,” keeps butter from churning or beer from foaming, and “mislead[s] night-wanderers, laughing at their harm.” But he also bestows good luck and does housework: "I am sent with broom before, to sweep the dust behind the door." These traits were common for Puck or Robin Goodfellow whenever he appeared in chapbooks and ballads around this era. He’s equal parts will o’ the wisp, bogeyman, poltergeist and brownie.
But those are all different house spirits from different countries. The theme here was brownies and boggarts.
Despite often being ghosts and monsters, boggarts could be benevolent in their role as house-spirit. Lancashire Folk-lore (1882) mentions the "Boggart of Hackensall Hall," who appears as a horse. It did all the chores, but if a warm fire was not lit on the hearth for it, it became furious and noisy.
In Howard Pyle's story "Farmer Griggs's Boggart" (1885), a boggart is "a small imp that lives in a man's house... doing a little good and much harm." Here, a boggart enters the house and gains the family's welcome by promising to do the housework, and at least at first, he really does help. Only later does his true malevolent nature rear its head.
Nor were brownies always good. John Brand wrote in 1703 that "Not above forty or fifty years ago, every family had a brownie, or evil spirit." Katharine Briggs mentioned a Scottish tale in which a human girl kills a sinister brownie, and is in turn killed by his mother Maggie Moloch. Meg Mullach has elsewhere been recorded as a brownie's name. There is also a tale where a greedy farmer fired some of his staff, and Maggie became destructive and mischievous until he hired them back.
Why the connection specifically from brownies to boggarts? Maybe it's the alliterative sound. They lend themselves to association. In the same way, the similar "bogles" were mentioned alongside brownies in early fairy-related literature. In the preface to the Eneados, his translation of Virgil's Aeneid, the Scottish bishop Gawain Douglas wrote "Of brownyis and of bogillis faill this buke" - "of brownies and bogles full is this book." That was in 1513. Similarly, in Polwart's Last Flyting Against Montgomery (c. 1580s), we hear of "Bogles, Brownies, Gyre-carlings, and Gaists."
In Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, Volume 2, John Rhys calls the "Bwca'r Trwyn" (Bwca of the Nose) "both brownie and bogie in one." "Bogie" is the Welsh equivalent of "boggart." It follows a bwca, or house spirit, who becomes troublesome after his favorite human leaves and must be exorcised. concludes that "the brownie and the bogie reduce themselves here into different humours of the same uncanny being." I.e., there's overlap between two similar classes of fairy here. He adds, however, "Their appearance may be said to have differed . . . the bogie had a very long nose, while the brownie of Blednoch had only 'a hole where a nose should hae been.'"
Rhys also told a story where a servant girl, as a prank, put stale urine into the milk left out for the household's benevolent bwca. At this trick, he grew enraged and beat her, then left forever. (Rhys 593-594).
The English folklorist Katharine Mary Briggs seems to have been interested in this particular tale type of brownies gone bad. In The Personnel of Fairyland (1953), she collected a tale near-identical to that of the Bwca'r Trwyn, and titled it "From Brownie to Boggart." Here we are at last: brownies and boggarts explicitly identified as the same thing.
"...as a dog will sometimes grow mischievous and morose when it is unhappy, so the brownie gave himself over more and more to mischief until he was no better than a boggart." Briggs' titular character, fallen from house-cleaning grace, wreaks havoc with the farm animals, smashes dishes, and makes noise all night. Briggs throws in a unique description, telling us that the brownie "even grew a boggart's long, sharp nose."
In this book, Briggs was trying to establish various classes of fairy, and she selected certain names for those classes. Plenty of folklorists have done this as they tried to classify fae. In Briggsian taxonomy, it is simply that good house spirits are "brownies" and bad house spirits are "boggarts."
She was hardly the first to use "brownie" as a classification. Callum's bauchan, in 1860, was "a regular brownie." The story of Bwca'r Trwyn, with its brownies and bogies, was published in 1901. Briggs does, however, seem pivotal in pairing brownies with boggarts specificially. Her taxonomy shows up in her other books and articles as well. In The Fairies in Tradition and Literature, she identifies a ghostly "Silkie" who went from benevolent to poltergeisty as a case where a "Brownie had turned into a Boggart."
As always, with stuff of this nature, popular culture both feeds on it and influences it.
Juliana Horatia Ewing published a story titled "The Brownies" in 1865, which inspired the girl's club name. According to Ewing:
"The Brownies, or, as they are sometimes called, the Small Folk, the Little People, or the Good People, are a race of tiny beings who domesticate themselves in a house of which some grown-up human being pays the rent and taxes. . . They are little people, and can only do little things. When they are idle and mischievous, they are called Boggarts, and are a curse to the house they live in. When they are useful and considerate, they are Brownies, and are a much-coveted blessing."
It ultimately turns out that human children are the "brownies" and "boggarts." I remember being disappointed when I read it as a child, since it was sadly lacking in actual magic and turned out to just be a moral tale.
I think Ewing may indeed be the driving force here. I am not sure whether she originated this idea, but she definitely pushed it into the public eye. This story inspired the girls' club name, for one thing. It could have influenced Katharine Briggs as she picked out the names of her fairy classes.
The Spiderwick Chronicles, by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black, newly popularized the alter-ego approach. Thimbletack the brownie and sometime boggart first appeared in The Field Guide, published May 2003. The film adaptation made this even more explicit. Thimbletack would hulk out into a larger green version of himself, but could be instantly calmed down with food.
Another author who takes this tack is Mark Del Franco in his books Skin Deep (2009), Unperfect Souls (2010), and Face Off (2010), in which brownies are capable of temporarily "going boggart." It seems to be like entering a manic state and can happen easily, swapping between helpful and industrious and absolutely crazed.
So are brownies and boggarts the same thing?
As shown here, many stories show an angry house-spirit turn violent. Even the most benevolent fairy beings are still dangerous. However, I'd caution against sweeping claims that brownies and boggarts are traditionally two sides of the same coin. As far as I'm concerned, brownies and boggarts specifically are entirely separate ideas from different sources. A boggart is an English term dating to around the 1560s. A brownie is an originally Scottish term dating to around the 1510s. Juliana Horatia Ewing popularized them as two names for a Jekyll-and-Hyde-style creature, and Katharine Briggs continued that.
In folklore, you're more likely to find brownies, boggarts, kobolds, nisses, tomten, bogies and other beings that are simply ambiguous, capable of help or mischief without changing their names or appearances. Insult was the best way to turn a house spirit vindictive and cruel, but they also seemed to turn mischievous when left idle and bored. As Wirt Sikes said, these creatures - whatever they were called and wherever they showed up - always had a double nature. And they didn't need a double name. One name was enough to encompass both sides of their blurred identity.
The alter-ego boggart is still a cool idea. It's one of those concepts that is genuinely fun, so it gets adopted into more and more adaptations of folklore. One of my own stories-in-progress features brownies who transform into boggarts.
Who was Mordred's wife? Mordred is the son and eventual doom of King Arthur in Arthurian legend. Several retellings give that Mordred had sons of his own, so there must have been a wife or something out there. But her name and identity slips through our fingers. Even her existence is only inferred.
Or is it?
In some of the earliest versions, Mordred's wife is Guinevere. Yes, that Guinevere. In the Historia Regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain) (c. 1136), Mordred weds Guinevere as part of his takeover. He has Arthur's lands, Arthur's throne, and Arthur's queen. The Historia leaves it unclear how Guinevere felt about this, but later versions varied. She might be happy to comply, or she might flee and barricade herself in the Tower of London. In the Alliterative Morte Arthure (c. 1400), Guinevere even bears children to Mordred - although based on the timeline, these cannot be the grown sons of Mordred seen in other sources.
In the romance Escanor (c. 1280), Mordred has an "amie" or love who is a vain and evil maiden. We do not hear her name, or any other details, though.
Then there is Hector Boece's History and Chronicles of Scotland (c. 1527). Here, we here of "Modred and his Gude-father Guallanus." Gude-father means father-in-law; thus, Mordred married a daughter of Guallanus or Gawolane. I have seen this name interpreted as Gawaine, Cadwallon Lawhir of Gwynedd, or Caw of Prydyn. This will be important in a moment.
Now we get to the big ones: Gwenhwyfach and Cwyllog.
Gwenhwyfach or Gwenhwyvach is a woman who appears briefly in the Welsh Triads. When she slapped Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), one of the "Three Harmful Blows of the Island of Britain," it led to the battle of Camlann, the civil war and final implosion of Arthur's reign. In the early Arthurian work Culhwch and Olwen, Gwenhwyach is briefly mentioned as Gwenhwyfar's sister.
Around 1757, a Welsh scholar named Lewis Morris wrote the encyclopedic Celtic Remains, listing many personages from Welsh tradition. He listed Gwenhwyfach as the wife of Medrod (Mordred). He combines the different causes for Camlann, making her Mordred's queen. The quarrel between the two queens (over some nuts, of all things) leads the two kings to battle and ruin. Other writers picked up this tack, as in Thomas Love Peacock's novel The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829).
Marrying Guinevere’s quarrelsome sister to Arthur’s evil son at least makes narrative sense. Each tied to the civil war that ends Arthur’s reign, Gwenhwyfach and Mordred are a natural match.
It also ties into the idea that Mordred sought to marry Guinevere. Gwenhwyfach's name may be derived from her sister and at one point they may even have been the same character.
However, the origin of Gwenhwyfach as Mordred's wife seems to have originated with Morris. There are no older sources or legends to connect the two characters. According to A Welsh Classical Dictionary, the confusion may have arisen over a late version of the genealogy Bonedd y Sant. One of the people listed is Saint Dyfnog, son of Medrod. Medrod is a common alternate spelling for Mordred in these sources. The mother of this Dyfnog is given as Gwenhvawc, daughter of Ogvran Gawr. Only one problem: it's the wrong Medrod. This Medrod is the son of Cawrdaf, not Arthur. True, Mordred was originally just Arthur's nephew, but even before that he would have been associated with Arthur's family, Arthur's sister.
But the confusion's not over yet. Lewis Morris returns with... Cwyllog.
Remember the daughter of Gawolane? Gawolane was interpreted by some as Caw of Prydyn, who had a bevy of children, including the famous historian Gildas. This would make Mordred and Gildas brothers-in-law. The Mordred/Gildas connection "explained" why Gildas gave an unflattering portrayal of Arthur's successor, Constantine, who killed Mordred's sons. This was the tack Morris took in Celtic Remains.
He returned to this idea in his 1760 manuscript of the "Alphabetic Bonedd." But this time, he gave a different identity for Mordred's wife. This time she was Kwyllog or Cwyllog, a Welsh saint.
Here is a suggestion of a very different story. Gwenhwyfach was violent and unsympathetic, but Cwyllog’s story holds more tragedy. This wife of Mordred was a holy woman. After her villainous husband's death, she entered religious life, and the parish of Llangwyllog (supposedly built around 605) was named after her. Her feast day is January 7.
There are some issues. In 1907, Sabine Baring-Gould recounted this version but remarked that Cwyllog's feast day "does not occur in any of the calendars." In addition, Caw of Prydyn's multitudinous children were listed in Culhwch and Olwen, but Cwyllog is not among them.
Cwyllog's name may in fact be a back-formation from the place-name Llangwyllog. The actual saint would be Gwyrddelw - a son of Caw of Prydyn. His feast day falls on January 7 in two existing calendars, that being the date of the local festival for the parish of Llangwyllog.
So Cwyllog and Gwenhwyfach are later tie-ins, both of which seem to have originated from the pen of the same 18th-century author.
First, Lewis Morris may have seen a genealogy which mentioned a Gwenhvawc who was married to a Medrod and combined that with Gwenhwyfach's connection to Camlann - never mind it was the wrong Mordred. He later revised this, or added a second wife, when he connected Mordred's "gude-father" Gawolane to Caw of Prydyn, and thus to an apocryphal daughter of Caw. In fact, not only is Cwyllog possibly fabricated, but there's nothing to connect Gawolane to Caw. Both explanations are clever, but probably in error.
The earliest tradition we have is that Mordred married or sought to marry Guinevere. He may have been connected to stories where Guinevere was kidnapped, or he may have been her lover, a predecessor to the later character of Lancelot.
Last time, I looked at stories where fairies steal humans. The human dwells in Fairyland as a lover, an adopted child, a pet, or a servant. Sometimes the fairies leave a doppelganger in their place, so that no one will miss them. But there's another side to the coin: tales where humans steal fairies.
It's hard to say why fairies take humans. Storytellers give any number of reasons, or none at all. But it's usually pretty clear why humans take fairies.
In the tale of the selkie, swan wife, or fairy bride, a man sees an otherworldly being take off her magic cloak or garment. He steals it and holds it hostage so that she will stay with him as his bride. That's the most classic tale of a human stealing a fairy. Invariably, she gets her coat back and vanishes.
Sometimes rather than steal a coat, the man makes a deal with the otherworld, and there are conditions on their marriage. Again, he inevitably breaks the bargain. For instance, in some Welsh variants, the bargain may be that he never strike his fairy wife. He accidentally taps her one day without meaning to, and she vanishes forever.
Human women might win fairy men, too. In many versions of Tam Lin, the titular character is a human stolen away by the Fairy Queen. In at least one version, however, there's no mention of him ever being human. He introduces himself as "a fairy, lyth and limb."
Greed for Gold
In another widespread tale, a man catches a leprechaun or fairy and tries to threaten him into giving over his store of treasure. The fairy shows him where it's buried, under a certain tree or plant. The man marks the tree, perhaps with a scarf or marking, and runs home to fetch a shovel - but when he returns, the fairy is gone, and every tree bears an identical mark.
In the Cornish tale of "A Fairy Caught" or "Skillywidden," a human farmer captures a fairy child and treats him rather like a pet, while hoping to get fairy gold from him.
For even on their own, without magical gold, fairies are valuable. An 1851 news article from Ireland contains a mention of a supposed mermaid sighting. The reaction is telling: "It is a pity the crew could not catch her, as, in that case, the exhibition of such prodigy would make the fortune of all the fishermen on the shores."
Greed for Power
Hidden stores of gold are one thing; hostage potential and fairy magic are another. In the German tale of "The Wonderful Plough," a farmer manages to capture a fairy being in an iron pot. After a long captivity, he forces the fairy to give him a special plow that can be drawn easily through the fields.
This reminds one also of witches with familiar spirits and the concept of sorcerers summoning demonic familiars. An old English manuscript has a spell "To Call a Fairy," laying out the instructions and incantations for summoning a being called Elaby Gathen and binding it to one's will. Fairies are powerful servants - like Prospero's manservant Ariel in Shakespeare's play The Tempest.
This theme continues into modern literary tales. In "Bubblan," a 1907 tale by Swedish author Helena Nyblom, translated into English as "The Bubbly Boy," a family captures a merchild by accident. The father, a fisherman, holds him hostage to force the merfolk to send him good catches of fish.
The story of the Green Children of Woolpit is often regarded as a fairy story. Dating from 12th/13th-century accounts, two children with strange green skin, speaking an unknown language, showed up in the village of Woolpit. Both were taken in and baptized and eventually lost their green coloring. The boy died not long after baptism, but the girl adjusted to her new life, learned English, and eventually confided that she was from an underground land where everyone had green skin. This is a case where the fairy children are treated as kindly as their discoverers know how. The humans try to make the fairy children acclimate to human life.
Sometimes a human couple who long for a child wind up with a supernatural one instead. In Undine, a novella published in 1811, a fisherman and his wife adopt a water-sprite child and lovingly raise her as their own. This is a more benevolent relationship on the humans' part - but it's possibly implied that the water fairies killed their biological child. Their daughter, playing by the water, seemed "attracted by something very beautiful in the water" and sprang in, only to be lost. The very same day, a "beautiful little girl" - the titular Undine - arrives at the home of the grieving parents.
Another tale where humans willingly take in a merchild is the Chilean "Pincoya's Daughter," in Brenda Hughes' Folk Tales from Chile. And there's Ruth Tongue's "The Sea-Morgan's Baby" (presented as traditional) in which humans raise a mermaid foundling. This seems particularly frequent with water beings. Maybe it's Undine's influence.
Colman Grey, an English tale, is a lot like Skillywiddens, but the human family finds a starving fairy child and takes him in out of pity. Benevolent enough, but the storyteller mentions that the family was aware there was a chance for good fortune if they pleased the fairies.
The South African psikwembu or shikwembu are ancestral gods whose behavior and stature is similar to that of European fairies. In one story recorded by Henri A. Junod, a woman finds what she believes is a child lost in the woods, and carries him home. When she arrives, he cannot be removed from her back, and people realize his true nature. The priests do a ritual and the god disappears. However, although her actions were well-meaning, the woman dies as a result of the encounter.
Amusements, Pets or Curiosity
In the Suffolk tale of "Brother Mike," a farmer catches fairies in the act of disturbing his wheat stores and manages to capture one in his hat. Like the farmer in "Skillywidden," he takes the fairy home "for his children." In this case, however, the fairy pines away and dies in captivity.
In the cases of the fairy in "Brother Mike" and Skillywidden, the small size of the fairy is emphasized; in one, the fairy is captured in a hat, in the other, carried inside a "furze cuff" (furze cutters wore leather gloves to protect their wrists from furze needles). These tiny fairies, like dolls or kittens, are seen as appropriate to the child's sphere. They are dehumanized and treated like playthings or pets.
In some tales, a human picks up a fairy completely by accident. A fisherman may draw up a mermaid in his nets, for example. However, some humans choose to keep the fairy captive. Others immediately release them, such as in the German story of Krachöhrle, where a man realizes that he has not caught a badger but an elf, and quickly releases it from his trap. The same thing happens in an English tale from Lancashire.
Some stories don't give enough details to prove what's going through the human kidnapper's head.
A legend collected by W. H. D. Longstaffe in County Durham in England: a correspondent's grandmother had seen fairies wash their clothes in the River Tees, and one day encountered "a miniature girl, dressed in green, and with brilliant red eyes." The woman took the strange little child home and fed it. However, it is difficult to tell whether the woman was well-meaning or simply nosy and intrusive. The tiny fairy girl seemed "composed" when found, and when taken indoors, cried so much that the woman was "obliged" to put her back where she found her. The woman's willingness to return the fairy child makes it seem that she had good intentions in the end, but the fact that she knew exactly where to return her to, and the fact that she kept the fairy's stone chair, make me suspicious.
In Teutonic Mythology vol. 2, Jacob Grimm collected the tale of "The Water-Smith" or "The Smith in Darmssen Lake." In the middle of a certain lake is a strange blacksmith who sits in or on the water and works on whatever ploughs or tools are brought to him. (A fairy who works in iron? Intriguing.) One farmer, however, snatches the smith's son - a child who is completely hairy or rough - and raises him as his own. As an adult, the waterkind (water child) or ruwwen ("Shag" or "Roughy") leaves his human family in a story reminiscent of "The Young Giant" tale type, and returns to his watery home. The story feels oddly incomplete. It's not clear why the farmer kidnaps the Roughy; the action is sudden, impulsive and bizarrely cruel. After he does so, the blacksmith vanishes and never does work again. What did the farmer want? Curiosity, perhaps? Or maybe he wanted to use the child to start a rival to the blacksmith's business, or keep the smith's abilities for himself, or maybe he even believed he was helping the fairy child.
The list of why humans abduct fairies is shorter and less esoteric than why fairies abduct humans. It's easy to imagine what a human's reaction would be to finding a fairy in their power. There's also the possibility that a human can pick up a fairy by accident or mistake in a completely random encounter; I don't know that I've come across any stories where a fairy takes a human by accident.
What fascinates me is how much overlap there is.
In the end, we assign our own thoughts and rationales to the otherworld. We imagine for fairies the same motivations which we hold.
The story appears all over the world. Fairies take humans into their world, leaving doppelgangers behind. Sometimes fairies leave their own child, or a grown fairy, or an elderly decrepit one - or just a piece of wood carved to look like the stolen person.
But explanations are harder to obtain. Scattered stories give a variety of causes for this odd fairy behavior. It seems there are quite a few uses that fairies have for humans. Here are thirteen possible explanations I've collected.
1. No reason given/malice/caprice
A majority of changeling tales give no reason. For instance, in "Rumpelstiltskin," the fairylike being is eager to obtain a human infant, but we never learn why.
Fairies just like to take people, along with anything, really. Westropp's Study of Folklore on the Coasts of Connacht, Ireland explains that fairies “carried off children and robbed milk and butter. The sprites could exercise malignant power on infants especially before baptism, stealing the handsome ones and replacing them by puny withered changelings . . . Women who die in childbirth are believed to have been carried off to fairyland."
In a story recorded by John Rhys in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, a woman banishes a "crimbil" and regains her son - "But when she asked him where he had been so long, he had no account in the world to give but that he had been listening to pleasant music. He was very thin and worn in appearance when he was restored." This indicates that the fairies did not even care much for the human they had taken.
2. The human trespassed on fairy domain
A human who goes into fairy territory is always at risk. Don't step into fairy circles or eat their food! In the tales of Sir Orfeo and Thomas the Rhymer, a human attracts the attention of fairy royalty when they sleep in the shade of a particular tree. In "Child Rowland," Burd Ellen falls into the elf-king's power because she runs around the church widdershins.
Similarly, a human may be taken as revenge for a broken taboo or for spite. In a Swedish tale, a servant-girl takes home a cow belonging to the fairies. The angry trolls promise that they will have revenge, and on the girl's wedding day they snatch her away (Lindow p. 96).
3. Fairies want a beautiful child instead of their own ugly baby
"People fear that the misshapen dwarfs who live beneath the earth, and who would like nothing more than to have beautiful, well-formed human children, will steal newborns, leaving their own malformed children, called changelings, in their place." (J. D. H. Temme, Folk Legends from Altmark)
According to Thomas Keightley, fairies look for human infants with the intention of offloading any fairy children "which they foresee likely to be feeble in mind, in body, in beauty, or other gifts."
According to Icelandic Legends (page liii) "the finest children are the most sought for, and the most hideous oldling is put in their place." (So fairies get some cute babies and also find a cheap retirement home for Grandpa. Two birds, one stone!)
Fairies may have a special preference for blondes in particular. Katharine Briggs (An Encyclopedia of Fairies, p. 195) says that golden-haired children are the most in demand from fairies, citing the Welsh tale of Eilian of Garth Dorwen, where the abducted woman is explicitly mentioned as blonde.
Sir John Rhys, in Celtic Folklore Vol. 2 (pp. 667-668), mentioned twice that fairies like to steal blond babies above all others. Fairy babies, in contrast, are "swarthy," "sallow," and "aged-looking."
In addition to blond hair, fairies apparently had a preference for male children. Adult abductees were men or women, in fact possibly usually women, but the typical changeling story features a baby boy. According to some sources, the practice of dressing boys in girls’ frocks until age ten or eleven was intended to deceive fairies who might steal away a boy and replace him with a changeling (Irish Folk Ways).
Lady Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland gives an interesting variation. An old hag switches a human child for a hairy, ugly, grinning creature. However, as the human parents bewail their misfortune, a young woman in a red handkerchief enters and begins to laugh. She's the fairy parent of the changeling, and was just as upset by the switch! The other fairies, preferring the "fine child" of the humans, stole hers to replace it. But she proclaims, "I would rather have my own, ugly as he is, than any mortal child in the world" - and instructs the human parents on how to steal back their offspring.
Lady Wilde also cited an interesting idea that physical beauty might not last forever. She described a tradition that although fairies will kidnap human brides, "after seven years, when the girls grow old and ugly, they send them back to their kindred, giving them, however, as compensation, a knowledge of herbs and philters and secret spells, but which they can kill or cure."
4. Fairies want breeding stock or human lovers
Perhaps there is such emphasis on beautiful human children because the fairies want to ensure good genetics in their future generations.
In a German tale, a "maniken" informs the stolen child's mother that "her son would someday become the king of the underground people. From time to time they had to exchange one of their king's children for a human child so that earthly beauty would not entirely die out among them." (Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg, 1879, p. 46)
Lady Wilde also said that "handsome children" are taken by the Sidhe and "wedded to fairy mates when they grow up."
The fairies definitely seemed to look at some humans as potential mates and lovers. In many Rumpelstiltskin-type tales, instead of trying to steal a baby, the fairylike helper wants the woman to become his wife and live with him underground, in Fairyland or Hell. Examples are "Mistress Beautiful," "Doubleturk," "Zirkzirk," "Purzinigele," and "Duffy and the Devil," as well as many others.
In medieval ballads, this is the most common reason for humans to go away with the fairies - see Thomas the Rhymer, Sir Lanval, or Sir Guingamuer. In another family of tales, a woman is stolen away by a fairy and bears him children. There's "Agnete and the Merman," "Little Kerstin and the Mountain King," "Jomfruen og Dværgekongen," and "Hind Etin." In stories like that of Eilian, a human midwife visits the fairies only to recognize the mother in childbed as a long-lost member of her own village.
5. Fairies raise human children out of love
In some tales, the fairies are kind foster families to the humans they adopt. For instance, in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," Titania has a changeling boy as a squire, and Oberon wants him as one of his knights. Titania lavishes affection on the child (“crowns him with flowers, and makes him all her joy”), and claims she is raising him out of love for his mother, a dear friend of hers who died in childbirth. This is, of course, Shakespeare's spin on tradition.
Diane Purkiss, in Troublesome Things: A history of Fairies and Fairy Stories, draws a connection to Greek nymphs. The exposure of newborns - leaving unwanted children in the wilderness to die - was not uncommon in Ancient Greece. Good news though - myths said that nymphs would raise these children. Nymphs could be motherly figures, taking care of the infant god Zeus, for instance. In the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite, a woman plans to abandon her illegitimate baby, comforting herself with the idea that mountain nymphs will take care of him. However, Purkiss says, modern Greek nymphs have developed in the popular mind to become malicious baby-stealers.
In the Cornish tale of Betty Stogs, recorded by Robert Hunt, a lazy and slovenly woman neglects her baby and it vanishes with the fairies. On this occasion, however, the pixies simply wash it, care for it, and lovingly return it wrapped in soft moss and flowers. In this case there is no changeling; the baby's absence is brief, and serves only to knock some sense into the neglectful parents.
In many tales, mistreating the fairy child is the best way to get the human back. In Norwegian variants, though, it’s common for the angry fairy parent to rebuke the human, implying that they have been kind and loving foster parents in contrast.
Selma Lagerlof wrote a story called "The Changeling" where the troll parents treat the stolen child exactly as the human parents treat the changeling. The human mother goes against tradition by refusing to mistreat the changeling, which ends up saving her own child's life.
If stolen and recovered humans did not waste away after their return, they often came back with wondrous knowledge and gifts from the fairies. Thomas the Rhymer retained prophetic powers. In the Scottish tale of "The Smith and the Fairies," a stolen boy returns with an uncanny gift for sword-forging.
6. Fairies want to make humans like themselves.
Sometimes the stolen child becomes one of the fairies, transformed either in whole or in part.
In John Fletcher's play The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1608), we hear of:
A virtuous well, about whose flowery banks
The nimble-footed Fairies dance their rounds,
By the pale moon-shine, dipping oftentimes
Their stolen children, so to make them free
From dying flesh, and dull mortality.
According to The Borderer's Table Book (1846), changelings were treated quite well: "the elves were... so liberal as to tend it with great kindness, and, by degrees, they brought it to partake almost of their own qualities . . . . it lived and was treated as one of themselves."
Similarly, in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Deutsche Sagen, it's mentioned that some of the "nixies" of the Saal River were once human - "mortals who, as children, had been taken away by nixies."
Ralph of Coggeshall recorded the tale of a strange spirit called Malekin which haunted a certain house around the late 12th century. Malekin was invisible, but sounded like a toddler and once appeared as a small child in a white tunic. He (or she?) claimed to have once been a mortal child, born in Lavenham. When his mother left him in a field while she worked harvesting, he was taken away. Malekin had existed in spirit form for seven years, and in another seven years would be restored to a human state.
7. Fairies punish neglectful parents
Fairies are known to pinch and abuse slovenly humans and aid those who are hard-working; it seems they take an interest in our proper conduct. Betty Stogs and her husband are careless parents who don't spend time caring for their baby or keeping it clean. In more widespread stories, the baby is taken while the mother goes to fetch wood, bind sheaves, or other household tasks. This is shown in the tale of Malekin.
n a tale collected by the Grimms, a nobleman forces one of his tenants to help bind sheaves even though she has a six-week-old baby still nursing. She lays the child on the ground while she works, but to his shock the nobleman observes an "Earth-woman" steal and replace the baby. They get the baby back, but in the moral, the nobleman "resolved to never again force a woman who had recently given birth to work."
This is a cautionary tale about leaving young infants unattended. Neglectful parents are shown the need to change their ways, but also – as D. L. Ashliman points out – such superstitions served some benefits. They insisted that women must have a rest period after childbirth. New mothers should be recovering and caring for their newborns, not forced back into strenuous physical labor.
Parents were warned by changeling superstitions to keep a close watch on their children. Mother and newborn had to be closely guarded. Talismans, such as a piece of the father’s clothing kept nearby, or scissors hung over the cradle, were used to protect the child. If these rituals were neglected, fairies might strike at any moment. The parents are responsible for keeping their offspring out of the fairies’ hands. In this case, a changeling swap implied neglect. Walter Scott mentioned a story where the mother, recovering and alone, is unable to stop her child’s abduction on her own. Here the blame is placed on the nurse, a lower-class woman, who had been drinking and fell asleep rather than guarding her charges.
In another widespread class of tales, the parent carelessly wishes for the child to be taken away. For instance, in the 13th-century tale of "The Daughter of Peter de Cabinam," a man angrily wishes that his crying daughter would be taken away by demons. His unthinking words come true, and she's taken to the demons' realm beneath a lake to toil as a servant. The father manages to regain her seven years later, but she is sickly and mute. Although they're called demons, her captors' behavior and home is very fairylike.
In “Polednice,” a poem by Karel Jaromir Erben based on the Slavic folklore, a woman threatens her noisy child that she will give him to the polednice (a spirit personifying sunstroke) if he doesn't obey. To her horror, the spirit actually arrives at her summons and the story ends tragically.
8. Fairies require human servants
This is what happened to Peter de Cabinam's daughter. Lady Wilde in Ancient Legends of Ireland mentions that young men are taken by the fairies to become "bond-slaves."
In "The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor" (Bottrell 1873), the fairies who capture a woman "wanted a tidy girl who knew how to bake and brew, one that would keep their habitation decent, nurse the changed-children, that wern’t so strongly made as they used to be, for want of more beef and good malt liquor, so they said."
In a Swedish tale, a girl taken by trolls is forced not only to labor for them but to don a cap of invisibility and steal food from human farms for them. (Lindow no. 32)
9. Fairies require human protection for their own children
This may be more of a literary invention. However, Robert Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England gives the story of "The Piskies' Changeling," in which a fairy child is found abandoned, and we hear that piskies sometimes to this with "infants of their race for whom they sought human protection; and it would have been an awful circumstance if such a one were not received by the individual so visited." Here is an entirely different dynamic!
Anna Eliza Bray, in The borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, mentions that a woman who was kind to her changeling "so pleased the pixy mother that some time after she returned the stolen child, who was ever after very lucky."
10. Fairies just really like milk
The days after birth were a dangerous time. Either women or newborns might be swept away, and a common theme was that fairies wanted humans to serve as wet nurses. According to Thomas Keightley, "Lying-in-women and 'unchristened bairns' they regard as lawful prize. The former they employ as wet-nurses, the latter they of course rear up as their own."
In the ballad "The Queen of Elfland's Nourice," a mortal woman is taken from her own newborn to nurse the Queen of Elfland's child, and told she will be allowed to go home afterwards.
In a Hessian legend, a dwarf-woman brings back the real baby, but refuses to hand it over until the human mother has nursed the changeling with "ennobling human milk." (Grimm, Deutsch Mythology, via Keightley)
In Asturian folklore, xanas may sneak their babies into human families in order to get them milk. (Del folklore asturiano, pp. 36-38). Although some stories have it that xana mothers did not have enough milk, others state that xanas don't even have breasts (Baragaño, Mitología y brujería en Asturias p. 22).
In a more sinister turn, in "The Red-Haired Tailor of Rannoch and the Fairy," a rapacious adult fairy poses as a screaming human baby solely to get milk. (James MacDougall, Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English)
11. Fairies want baptism for their own kids
Usually baptism is supposed to ward off changelings, and this is why an unbaptized child is in especial danger. Once the baby's baptized, the fairies cannot touch them. However, in Robert Buchanan’s poem “The Changeling,” a mother asrai explicitly wants her child to have a human soul and a chance at Heaven. And a few rare folktales make it seem like there's a basis for this.
In an Asturian tale, a woman notices that her child has been switched. She runs to the cave where the "Injana" (similar to anjana or xana) lives, and demands her baby back.
The Injana responds,
— Tráelo acá, mala mujer:
no te lo di para que me lo criaras,
dítelo para que me lo bautizaras.
“Bring it here, evil woman:
I didn't give it to you to raise it for me,
I gave it to you to baptize it for me.”
In one Swedish tale, a troll changeling is about to be baptized. You might expect him to be displeased, but it seems the trolls had planned for exactly this; he cries out gleefully that he is "off to the church to become a Christian" (Lindow pg. 92). Lindow notes that the changeling is "delighted" at the possibility of being baptized. In other stories, Christian salvation is normally a gift denied to fairykind - see my blog post The Salvation of Mermaids.
(Other versions of this tale don't always include baptism. The English "Changeling of Brea Vean" is being carried to a healing well, and in a story from the Grimms, the changeling is being taken on a pilgrimage at the end of which he will be weighed. Both are religious rituals meant to encourage a sickly child to thrive.)
12. Fairies need human midwives
Much like wet-nurses, fairies like to use humans as midwives. However, these midwives are typically allowed to go straight home once their task is completed.
Even for this brief time, some may be replaced with a changeling; Biddy Mannion returns home from aiding a fairy birth, only to cross paths with the doppelganger who has been keeping her place. "What a gomal your husband is that didn't know the difference between you and me," the fake Biddy comments.
13. Fairies need replacement tithes to hell?
The story goes that every seven years or so, fairies must offer a living sacrifice to Hell. Not wanting to give up fairy babies, they grab up human babies instead to offer those as a kind of draft dodging. The hell-tithe has been given as a fact of fairylore by Katharine Briggs, Lady Wilde, and many other prominent folklorists running through possible reasons for changelings. However, this story isn't reflected by tradition.
For exaxmple, Walter Gregor, in Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, gives the hell-tithe as an explanation for changelings . . . but also directly quotes Tam Lin (pp. 60-62). This leaves it unclear whether he has actually heard folktales which feature a fairy hell-tithe, or whether he is tying in the story of Tam Lin on his own.
Tam Lin is one of only three tales which mention a fairy tithe to hell, making this a rare concept. These tales do indicate that humans visiting Fairyland are in danger of being selected as a living sacrifice. However, they are not in danger because they’re human – it seems to just be a danger of proximity, or the fact that they are “fat and full of flesh” or healthy specimens. In addition, none of these tales feature any exchange of changelings.
I would dismiss this explanation as a later theory based on unconnected tale types.
The changeling as symbolism for death/illness/disability
There's a lot of overlap between fairies and the dead. Remember one of the first books quoted in this post: "Women who die in childbirth are believed to have been carried off to fairyland." All of these changeling myths are associated with a vulnerable time in the lives of mothers and infants.
There are two types of changeling tales. In one, a sickly or disabled child is actually a demon which must be caught in the act. The mentally or physically handicapped child is an impostor; the parents' real, healthy and attractive child was stolen. This myth dehumanized handicapped or sick people and was a way to excuse infanticide - not just in stories, but in real life - see Young, 2013.
In the other, a deceased or missing loved one (typically a wife) turns out to actually be alive. Their "corpse" was a false image. They may yet be rescued if their families just manage to complete the right ritual.
Both types of changeling tales speak of grief and denial. This was people searching for a reason why something bad had happened - or perhaps a scapegoat.
Sometimes they came up with a reason why otherworldly forces did what they did. However, more often there was no point. In the Malleus Maleficarum, (1487), fairy activity is attributed to demons. It calls the supposed cases of changelings - simply and brutally - "another terrible thing which God permits to happen to men."
A search for a "reason" belongs more to later scholarly efforts. For people who believed in changelings, questioning it bore no purpose; questions might even attract the wrath of otherworldly forces. The issue was not "Why did this happen?" but "What do we do now?"
The classic resolution to the story of the changeling: A fairy doppelganger has posed as a human baby and successfully pulled the wool over its human hosts' eyes. However, someone (typically the mother) realizes what's happened. To trick the changeling, she uses empty eggshells as milk pans, stewpots, or brewing cauldrons. The fake infant is so surprised that he suddenly begins to speak. Sometimes he is startled, sometimes amused. "I have never seen the like of that before" is the most common exclamation, as he unthinkingly reveals his great age. Then, in a flash, all is set right and the real baby is returned.
This story is widespread throughout Europe. But why? What is the significance of eggshells?
Bear in mind that people actually believed in changelings well into the 20th century. Other remedies for a changeling were things like putting it on a hot shovel, leaving it out in the elements overnight, or threatening the suspected elf with torture. In an infamous 1895 case, a man named Michael Cleary killed his sickly wife Bridget, insisting that she was a fairy and his real wife had been taken away. He was found guilty of manslaughter. There were other such cases that made it to the news and incited outrage, and probably far more that were never publicized. As suggested by D. L. Ashliman, changeling beliefs may have been a more palatable excuse to kill a disabled relative who was seen as burdensome.
The eggshells are a gentler method. Rather than threatening the child in brutal ways which remind of real practices, this story is more palatable. The parents need not threaten anything wearing the face of an innocent baby. The changeling is ancient and manipulative, but it is still possible to trick it. It reveals itself and (usually near-instantly) the problem is solved. Even if beating it or leaving it on a trash heap overnight is still required, the parents now know for sure that they are torturing a monster and not their own flesh and blood.
There are plenty of superstitions regarding eggs, and the shells were often associated with witches and fairies. Pliny in the 1st century makes a reference to breaking eggshells, apparently to protect against magical harassment. At least by 1584, in Reginald Scot's Discoverie of Witchcraft, there was an elaborate explanation: witches and fairies used eggshells as boats or houses. In one case, a witch was accused of sympathetic magic using eggshells in a cauldron to simulate ships at sea, then wrecking real ships by stirring the cauldron. In this tradition, the shells are associated with sympathetic magic. They are a simple tool easily subverted by dark forces and used for mischief.
In Waldron’s Description of the Isle of Man, a mermaid says that humans "are so very ignorant, as to throw away the water they boil their eggs in."
Campbell's Superstitions of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland (1900) tells us that "water in which eggs have been boiled or washed should not be used for washing the hands or face." This is highly unlucky. Also, it was an idiom for someone who'd done something dumb to say "I believe egg-water was put over me."
Campbell mentions a man who asked a mermaid "what virtue or evil there was in egg-water . . . She said, 'If I tell you that, you will have a tale to tell.'"
One possible explanation: according to Legends & Superstitions of the County of Durham (1886), washing in egg-water causes warts.
On the other hand, the accused witch Elspeth Reoch, in 1616, said that fairies had instructed her to roast an egg and use its sweat to wash her hands and rub her eyes, which would give her any knowledge she wished.
I wonder if there is some connection from the egg to birth and babyhood. Most changeling traditions focus on newborns, the days after birth, the period before christening. The changeling is posing as an infant too young to speak. Eggshells are a symbol of new life, and the fairies have choked off life from the family's home by stealing the newest life there.
However, eggshells in changeling tales are also somewhat random. Anything, not just eggs, can be used by humans to bewilder fairies. In an Icelandic tale, a woman binds rods to a spoon to create a long handle, confusing the changeling into exclaiming, "Well! I am old enough, as anybody may guess from my beard, and the father of eighteen elves, but never in all my life, have I seen so long a spoon to so small a pot."
Even when the stories do feature eggshells, they may be used in different ways. They may be left in front of the changeling as-is, or used as pots to boil water or cook food.
Sir Walter Scott retold a Scottish tale where a fairy changeling spoke up when left alone with twelve eggshells all broken in half. In this case, the bewildered fairy says it has "Seven years old was I before I came to the nurse, and four years have I lived since, and never saw so many milk pans before." In this case, rather than the human parent confusing the fairy by telling them they're making dinner in an eggshell, the fairy itself misidentifies the shells. This points to traditions where fairies live inside eggshells and use them as boats, or where fairies are extremely miniature.
In at least one case, fairies seem disturbed and possibly even offended by such behavior. In "The Egg-Shell Dinner," collected by Thomas Crofton Croker, a farm is plagued not by changelings but by mischievous spirits. A wise woman instructs the farmer's wife to boil a tiny amount of pudding in an eggshell, ostensibly as a meal for six hungry farmworkers. The fairy-poltergeists announce,
"We have lived long in this world; we were born just after the earth was made, but before the acorn was planted, and yet we never saw a harvest-dinner prepared in an egg-shell. Something must be wrong in this house, and we will no longer stop under its roof."
Sometimes the eggshells themselves are boiled in water. In Thomas Crofton Croker’s version of the “Brewery of Eggshells,” the mother is told to “get a dozen new-laid eggs, break them, and keep the shells, but throw away the rest; when that is done, put the shells in the pot of boiling water.”
The fairy has reversed the way things should be – a cunning, articulate, ancient being behaves like a baby too young to speak. So the human family performs another reversal. In a nonsensical and wasteful display, the mother throws away food and cooks garbage. Once the changeling is gone, things may return to their normal state.
In nearly all cases, there are mentions of how the changeling does nothing but eat ravenously - screaming for milk or eating the family out of house and home. Therefore, in some versions, the eggshell theme makes it clear that there is now an end to the changeling's "free ride," which prompts them to call it quits.
In Ireland: Its Scenery, Character, &c, vol. 3, people suggest getting rid of a changeling by this method: "to make egg-broth before it, that is, to boil egg-shells and offer it the water they were boiled in for its dinner, which would make it speak at once."
And in a Danish tale, a girl serves a voracious changeling the most inedible pudding possible, containing bones and pighide. He declares, "Well, three times have I seen a young wood by Tis Lake, but never yet did I see such a pudding! The devil himself may stay here now for me!" With that, he's gone.
So inedible or unappetizing food drives off the changeling who is just using the family for a free meal. (At the same time, this is tacit permission to starve the troublesome child who isn't thriving.)
Also note that whether or not the ritual includes an eggshell, it is still nearly always associated with cooking. This could be a memory of real-life rituals in which "changelings" were treated by being burned. Rather than putting the changeling itself into the fire, the changeling is forced to watch something else being heated in the fireplace. There's an implicit threat.
In cases where the Slavic water demon Dziwożona or Boginka sometimes left changelings, human mothers were to take the changeling to a garbage heap, whip it with a rod, and pour water over it using an eggshell, all while calling to the Boginka to "Take yours, return mine!"
(Madrej glowie dość dwie slowie, Krzyżanowski, 1960, p. 73) Perhaps this is a confusion of the eggshell story with the idea of torturing a changeling.
Similarly, in 1643, accused witch Margaret Dickson had performed healing rituals which suggest she attributed sicknesses to fairy changelings. After her attempt to heal a sick child had no effect, she told its mother to throw it onto the fire because "the bairne was not hirs" and was really a hundred years old. The mother ignored this advice and the child began to recover.
In a second case, Dickson advised a man to place meal baked with twelve eggs in front of a fire, and his crippled child on the other side. Then he was to walk around the house, calling the spirits to "give me my daughter againe, and if the bairne mend the bread and egges wald be away, and if not the shells and bread wald be still." Was this an offering - a trade of food for the return of the healthy child? (Scottish Fairy Belief: A History, pg. 97)
These stories are rationalizations, excuses. Note that in nearly all of these tales, the changeling isn't just a fairy baby, but an ancient, malicious, cruelly clever being which takes joy in the human parents' agony.
Many changeling tales end with the note that even after the ordeal of burning or beating, the rescued child is frail or physically changed. This is explained as the result of its time in Fairyland... but... well... Look at the story with historical cases in mind, and it becomes very dark indeed.
I much prefer the modern story "The Changeling" by Selma Lagerlöf, where the mother's tender care for the changeling - and her absolute refusal to torture it - convinces the trolls to return her real son.
I also like the Orkney tale of the Rousay Changeling, where a woman recovers her child by tracking down the fairy who took him, and smacking said fairy in the face with a Bible.
It should be mentioned that not all suspected changelings were harmed. As mentioned, one of Margaret Dickson's "patients" apparently flat-out refused to follow her advice. In a few stories, we hear that human parents who took care of their fairy fosterlings were blessed with good fortune (as in the tale of the Changeling of Sportnitz). Another Scottish witch, Jonet Andirson, confirmed to a suspicious father that his child was a "sharg bairn," but told him that so long as he had that sick child in his house, he would not want - i.e., if he was good to the fairy child, his family would be taken care of. (The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland, vol. 8, p. 347)
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.