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)
Every seven years, the fairies must pay a tax to Hell: a living sacrifice. To save themselves, they steal humans as changelings to sacrifice in their place. This folktale has served as the seed for many modern-day faerie fantasy books - Tithe by Holly Black being one example. But the idea of the fairy tithe in actual folklore is rare, rare, rare. Only three stories hint at it. These are a) Thomas the Rhymer, b) the trial of accused witch Alison Pearson, and probably most famously, c) the ballad of Tam Lin.
Thomas the Rhymer
Sir Thomas de Ercildoun, famously known as the poet/prophet Thomas the Rhymer, lived about 1220-1298. The romance "Thomas of Ercildoune" has been dated as early as the 14th century, and the oldest existing versions of the ballad adaptation "Thomas the Rhymer" go back to 1700-1750. Everyone has different ideas on when they were originally written. And did the ballad come first, or was it the romance?
In this story, Thomas the Rhymer is swept away to Elfland by a fairy queen who becomes his lover. But he cannot stay. The queen sends him home lest he be seized by a foul fiend of Hell who takes a tithe from among the people of Fairyland. Thomas returns to our world with skills as a storyteller and prophet.
"Thomas of Erceldoune" and "Thomas the Rhymer" are similar to other ballads and poems like "St Patrick's Purgatory" and "The Daemon Lover" in that there are scenes where a mortal, visiting the Otherworld, is able to see Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory from afar. This sets Thomas's Elfland as a spiritual realm akin to both Paradise and Hell, but also clearly separate.
Tam Lin is a famous Scottish ballad. The Complaynt of Scotland (1549) features the oldest existing mention of ""the tayl of the Ȝong tamlene and of the bold braband." A dance "thom of lyn" is also mentioned. These may or may not be Tam Lin.
The ballad form of Tam Lin appeared in "Kertonha, or, The Fairy Court" (collected by Francis James Child as ballad 39C), dated to 1769. Many other versions have been collected.
A young woman, Janet, is in the woods when she encounters a knight named Tam Lin, a man stolen away years ago by the Fairy Queen. Every seven years, on Halloween, the fairies give a tithe to Hell. Tam Lin is likely going to be that tithe. It's up to a now-pregnant Janet to rescue him, which she does in a climactic transformation sequence.
Tam Lin bears a resemblance to the ancient Greek myth of the goddess Thetis. A mortal man was chosen to be her husband, but in order to win her, he had to hold onto her while she transformed into all sorts of shapes - just as Janet must do with Tam Lin. In the same way, Tam Lin overlaps with a lot of other stories, including that of Thomas the Rhymer.
Alison Pearson or Alesoun Peirsoun was a woman from Fife, executed for witchcraft in 1588. In her testimony, she described being taken away by fairies and learning mystic arts of healing from them. She claimed that her cousin William Sympson was also part of this, and that he was responsible for warning and rescuing her:
"Mr Williame will cum before and tell hir and bid hir keip hir and sane hir, that scho be nocht tane away with thame agane for the teynd of thame gais ewerie 3eir to hell."
"Mr. William will come before and tell her and bid her keep her and sane her, that she be not taken away with them again, for the teind (tenth) of them go every year to hell."
Was Alison inspired by the stories of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin, or by a now-lost tradition that birthed both stories?
Each of these three stories deal with a part of the fairy court going to hell. This is always something which the mortal characters are warned about and must avoid. Tithe, teind, kane, and fee are all words used.
Tithe or teind comes from the Old English word for "tenth." A tithe is a tenth of your money or belongings, traditionally given to a church or temple. This is a traditional element in Judaism and Christianity. In this case, the tithe is not paid to a church, but to Hell, and it plays out as a human sacrifice. The religious element implies that the fairies worship the devil.
Kane, on the other hand, is a Scots word referring to a vassal or tenant's fee paid to their landlord. It has nothing to do with tenths, and implies that the fairies hold fealty to Satan.
From another angle, in almost all versions of Tam Lin, this scene takes place at Halloween. (The exception places it at May Day.) The idea that the fairy court went riding at Halloweentide was very common, showing up in the ballad of Alison Gross, Alexander Montgomerie's Poems, and others. Halloween (All Hallows' Eve) and All Saints' Day are Christian feast which were used to supplant the Gaelic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-win). This holiday marked the end of harvest and start of winter. Samhain was a time when spirits and fairies or Aos Si moved freely in the human world. People left out food to appease the dead who might visit, and wore disguises to avoid them.
Most importantly, In the Irish work Lebor Gabála Érenn, from about the 11th century, Samain was tax time. People were forced to deliver two thirds of their children, wheat and milk as a tax to the Fomorians, otherworldly beings who had taken over the land.
Halloween, the time that the fairies go riding, is the time of a harvest tax.
Fairies as servants of Hell
The tithe or kane to hell puts fairies in the position of either worshippers or tenants of Satan.
There's a tradition throughout Europe that fairies are fallen angels (see "Origin of Underground People"). As the story goes, when they were cast out of heaven, they were not quite as evil as the demons, or they did not quite make it all the way to Hell and instead landed on Earth. Katharine Briggs called them "not quite devils and yet subject to Satan."
According to Kathleen McGowan in The Ballad of Tam Lin, the Hell-tithe is a Christian invention meant to demonize the fairies. Hell and human sacrifices would be absolutely foreign to the ancient Celtic fairy.
To McGowan, ancient fairies are essentially good, not evil. She points to their alternate names of "the good folk" and "good neighbors.” Says McGowan, "evil simply could not and did not exist in the land of fairy."
Unfortunately, the name "good folk" cannot be taken at face value. There are many names for fairies - e.g., the Fair Folk, the Gentle Folk, the Seelie (happy, blessed) Court. But taking those names literally would be a major error. They are closer to the ancient equivalent of the Eumenides (Kindly Ones) in the Greek play Orestes, from 5th century BC. The Kindly Ones are really the Erinyes, “Furies,” terrifying and brutal bringers of justice.
See also this Scottish rhyme, where a fairy explains its preferred terminology:
Names like "the good folk" or "the kindly ones" are euphemisms for the more ambiguous imp, elf, and fairy. People called fairies good and blessed not to describe them, but to appease them and avoid summoning them!
But there is still a leap from that to tying fairies directly to demons. The language choices and very concept of Hell and Satan are Christian.
Christians did demonize English and Scottish fairies, along with all spirit beings from other cultures. A big part of this process happened during the English Reformation. Reformed Christians reinterpreted tradition and folklore to fit a Protestant worldview. According to Darren Oldridge, "By the late sixteenth century, it was well established among reformed Christians that such 'doubtful spirits' were figments encouraged by the Roman [Catholic] Church."
Fairies, demons, witches, superstition, illusion, and popery were all wrapped up together. Robin was a euphemistic nickname for the devil and also the name of the famous Robin Goodfellow. Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan (1651) called fairies servants of "Beelzebub, prince of demons." Witch trials featured both Satan and the Fairy Queen, and witches' familiars had names similar to those of folkloric fairies. (See Emma Wilby, "The Witch's Familiar and the Fairy in Early Modern England.") As for changelings, there was plenty of overlap between fairies and demons, with both playing the role of baby-snatchers. (See my blog post "The History of the Cambion.")
The death of Alison Pearson and the oldest surviving references to Tam Lin were both in the mid-to-late sixteenth century, putting them right in the middle of this era. The tithe to hell in Alison Pearson consists of a tenth of the fairy population going down to Hell. That would have been a natural conclusion for people of that time. Of course the fairies were going to Hell; where else would they go?
"Thomas the Rhymer" predates those stories. Thomas' fairy queen is kind and loving. There are different ways you could interpret her character, but she is at least not all bad. Elfland is explicitly separate from both Heaven and Hell. Still, even at that point, there was the idea of a being from Hell taking away the finest fairy specimens as a fee.
Why did this fee need to be paid?
Tam Lin as Changeling
This is one of the most prevalent explanations today, both for Tam Lin's tithe and for the concept of changelings. It's accounted for from many folklorists and scholars. Lowry Charles Wimberly, writing in 1959, stated blithely that this was standard belief in Scotland. Fairies took changelings in order to offer them to Hell. Fairies be crazy.
There are various muddled explanations for the fairy predilection for baby swaps. Some say that they want their own children nursed by human mothers, or that they prefer beautiful human children to their own, or perhaps just out of pure malice and mischief.
Tam Lin offers a bloody and memorable answer: so that fairies can dodge the draft. They don't want to sacrifice a fairy child to Hell, so they use a human instead. This tied in with the idea, particularly strong due to the Reformation, that fairies held fealty to Satan.
However, I see no evidence for this theory.
Tam Lin and Thomas the Rhymer are the only fairy stories that really feature the concept of the hell-tithe. According to Emma Lyle (p. 130), "in the absence of other evidence for the story, it is perhaps more likely that the two narratives are directly related." The relevant stanzas in Thomas of Erceldoune and Tam Lin are similar in language and structure, making it likely that one influenced the other.
So what about the changeling theory?
Firstly, Tam Lin fears that he'll be chosen as the tithe not because he is human, but because he is one of the most handsome: "fair and full of flesh." Only two versions have him in danger specifically because he's mortal. And in Version C (one of the earliest surviving versions), Tam Lin isn't human at all. He identifies himself as "a fairy, lyth and limb" and tells Janet that "at every seven years end/ We’re a’ dung down to hell." So the entire fairy court is going. The versions are actually very inconsistent on whether just one person will be sacrificed, or if a tenth of the population will go, or whether all the fairies are going.
It's also not even clear whether Tam Lin's even on the chopping block. In Child's Version 39A, for example, all we have is his suspicion that he'll be sacrificed, and the Queen of Fairies seems angry not to have lost a potential sacrifice, but to have lost "the bonniest knight in a' my companie."
Secondly, there is no fake changeling Tam Lin hanging out in the human world, so far as we know.
Still, as evidence, Emma Lyle lists multiple Scottish tales with a similar idea. In this tale type, someone (typically a woman) has been carried away by the fairies, but someone (typically a male relative) may retrieve her from the fairies' march on Halloween if he pulls her from her horse and does not let go. In some versions he's successful, but in others, he falters at the last moment and she is lost forever.
Lyle gives ten versions of similar tales, but only one of the examples given explicitly mentions a changeling - cases where a "wife was taken by the fairies, and another woman was left in her place." The wife's death comes suddenly, and then the husband realizes that the woman he buried was a fraud and his real wife has been stolen. Other versions could imply the same thing, when they make references to the wife's supposed death.
Another problem is the lack of any mention of Hell, the Devil, tithes, or kanes. The woman in these stories only says that she will be lost forever. In a couple of the examples, after a rescue goes awry, there is the gruesome detail of the walls of the house being covered with blood the next day. In one example, the stolen girl confides that if the rescue fails, the fairies will kill her out of spite. But that's still not a hell-tithe.
The changeling-as-hell-tithe is a theory from later researchers, based on three different tale traditions.
So it's an intriguing theory tying together these different stories, but has little evidence. It's just been repeated as common knowledge by different researchers.
But what if we look at it through a different lens, laying aside the comparison to changeling tales? Could the hell-tithe be a memory of an older, pre-Christian tradition?
The fairy tithe as remnant of pagan sacrifice
The website tam-lin.org suggests that Tam Lin is a harvest figure or Sacred King. This trope was codified by James Frazer in The Golden Bough, his study of mythology and anthropology. The theme: a king-consort is chosen every spring. His people celebrate him all year until harvest-time, at which point they ritually sacrifice him.
There are many customs of straw effigies being created and burnt at harvest-time. Myths abound where gods of crops, fertility or the sun die and return, like the fields that spring back to life.
So perhaps Tam Lin is being sacrificed as part of a harvest ritual that takes place every seven years. The time of year is definitely right.
This also ties in with the idea of the Samhain tax to the Fomorians, who demanded human sacrifices as well as food from the harvest. The Fomorians were a supernatural, semi-divine race who came from the sea or from underground. Here's our pre-Christian concept that otherworldly beings demanded human sacrifice around Samhain!
Alternately, Fairies: A Guide to the Celtic Fair Folk by Morgan Daimler points to drownings and sacrifices to river deities. According to this theory, "Thomas the Rhymer" takes place near the river Tweed and "Tam Lin" is set off the Ettrick Water, a tributary of the Tweed. Daimler raises the possibility that Tam Lin's sacrifice could be a memory of a regular human sacrifice offered to the Tweed - a small localized tradition, explaining why only these few stories mention the tithe to Hell. This is particularly intriguing because Tam Lin's name could be tied to water. The Gaelic "linn" is a pool, pond, body of water, lake, or sea. This theory is fun but relies on some guesswork and jumps. Alison Pearson, from the more distant Byrehill, Fife, is another issue.
Although often circulated and popular in modern books, the tithe to Hell was apparently never a widespread belief. Only two tales - which are probably closely related - mention it, and one witch trial. No other stories, changeling tales or otherwise make mention of a tithe to hell.
The story we know today has to have picked up a lot of elements after Christianity was established in that area of the world - Satan, Hell, the collusion of fairies and demons. However, it is interesting how far back the separate pieces of Tam Lin go.
A human who obtains a supernatural spouse by holding on as they transform into different shapes? Greek myth.
Otherworldly beings who demand a human sacrifice at Samhain? Irish myth.
A mortal stolen away to the Otherworld, who has to be won back? Pretty much everywhere.
Sources and Further Reading
I found a mention of the word pillywiggin from before 1977!
. . . sort of. The spelling's right, but in this context it has nothing to do with fairies or flowers. In fact, it's possible evidence against pillywiggins as flower fairies.
Firstly, some background. One of the things about the word pillywiggin is that it does sound like an English fairy name, very much so. There are fairy names that are very close. It almost feels criminal that pillywiggin doesn't show up among them in the pages of an English dialect dictionary somewhere.
Pigwiggen. The word appears as early as 1594 in the Tragical Reign of Selimus: "Now will I be as stately to them as if I were master Pigwiggen our constable." Nash's Have with you to Saffron Walden (1596) uses the word "piggen-de-wiggen" as a term for a sweetheart. In 1627, Michael Drayton produced his epic-in-miniature "Nimphidia." Here, Queen Mab has an affair with the fairy knight Pigwiggen, and an angry King Oberon challenges him to a duel. From here, Pigwiggen or Pigwiggin came to mean any excessively tiny thing. The etymology is unknown. The first syllable, "pig," may be related to pug or puck, other types of fairies (a root which could also be related to phouka or pixie). Other suggestions would connect it to "earwig."
Notably, around 1657, Josua Poole's English Parnassus, or, a Helpe to English Poesie gave a list of denizens of the fairy court. Nearly all of the names were from "Nimphidia." Except that instead of Pigwiggen, it gives Periwiggin - a word even closer to "pillywiggin." The next name in the list is "Periwinckle," so it may be an error of accidentally combining two similar names. (Periwinckle or Perriwinckle was Oberon's barber in the 1638 play Amyntas, or the Impossible Dowry.) Also possible is that the writer unconsciously brought in the word "periwig," meaning a wig.
Pigwiggen later developed into the similar Pigwidgeon. Pigwidgeons appeared as gnomelike beings and miniature fairies in the fantasy writing of Frank Richard Stockton (1834-1902) and others.
Skillywidden is the given name of one fairy in a story from Cornwall (Popular Romances of the West of England, 1865). In a reversal of the usual changeling tale, a farmer discovers a tiny fairy child in the heather and takes him home. The farmer's children play with him and name him Bobby Griglans (i.e., Bobby Heather). However, one day they see a fairy man and woman crying for their lost child, "Skillywidden." They release the fairy child, who runs to his mother and vanishes off into Fairyland.
Intriguingly, there is a real-world Skillywadden Moor as well as a farm and a barn under the same name, all neighboring the location where the story is set. Note the different spelling. I'm not sure whether the moor took its name from the story or vice versa. The etymology is obscure. It could mean white wings, from Cornish askell (fin or wing) and gwydn (white). By comparison, the Cornish word for a bat is sgelli-grehan or skelli-grehan, literally "leather wings." Alternately, 1000 Cornish place names explained (1983) tentatively defines Skillywadden as "poor nooks."
Compared to Pillywiggin, this name has same number of syllables and many of the same letters: _illywi__en. When I contacted English folklorist Jeremy Harte, he pointed out that Skillywidden and Pigwiggen combine perfectly into Pillywiggen. Someone could easily have mixed up the two words.
The writer Enys Tregarthen frequently used the word “skillywidden” as a generic term for baby fairies. In Folk Tales from the West (1971), Eileen Molony retold the Skillywidden story and left the fairy nameless, but used "skillywiddons" for his species of hairy, mischievous sprites. Skillywiddens could definitely qualify as "popularized," the word used for pillywiggins in their first known appearance.
Pilwis is the name of a German field spirit (okay, not English, but bear with me). The variant spellings are where it gets interesting: pilwitze (plural pilwitzen), pilewizze, pelewysen, and pilwihten. In Jacob Grimm's Teutonic Mythology, the word was compared variously to wood-sprites, "hairy shaggy elves," and witches. Pilwisses or bilwisses were part of a class of feldgeister, or field spirits, who haunted cornfields. They ranged from malevolent bogeymen to personifications of the harvest. Like other elves, bilwisses might tangle hair, cause nightmares, or live in trees.
I've collected a number of other words.
The Pellings were a Welsh family supposedly descended from a fairy named Penelope (Y Cymmrodor, 1881).
A wiggan tree is an ash tree (also wicken-tree, wich-tree, wicky, witch-hazel or witch-tree). There are ties between ash trees, magic, and witches in folklore.
Piggin was the name of several familiar spirits in 16th/17th-century witch trials. Ursula Kemp, for instance, claimed a black toad named Piggin. (The name means pail or ladle.) (Rosen, Witchcraft in England, 1558-1618.)
Pillicock appears in songs and rhymes such as Shakespeare's King Lear ("Pillicock sat upon Pillicock hill"). It's generally glossed as a slang term for penis. So is pillie wanton. However, Robert Gordon Latham's Dictionary of the English Language makes a valiant effort at interpreting Pillicock as a fairy name connected to Puck and the Pilwiz.
Outside the fairytale field, pigwiggan or Peggy Wiggan is a bad fall. A piggy-whidden, from Cornish, is a runt piglet. A piggin-riggin is a small boy or girl. Pillie-winkie is a child's game. (English Dialect Dictionary vol. 4). Pirlie-winkie or peerie-winkie is the little finger and peerie-weerie-winkie is something excessively small (Transactions of the Philological Society). Wigan is an English town, and at least at one point in time was home to a site known as Pilly Toft (The history of Wigan, 1882)
So these are common word constructions. Bear this in mind for later. Now: the pre-1977 sort-of mention of the word pillywiggin.
Louisiana's Crowley Signal, December 14, 1917, featured an article on page 8 titled "Speed Up Your Needles; Soldiers Need Warm Garments."
"[T]hose who are pilly-wiggin along with their knitting, thinking most anytime will do; and "it isn't very cold yet;" and "after Christmas I'll try" . . ."
Finally! But there are issues. Not only is the word hyphenated, but it's apparently a verb (to pilly-wig?).
A word "pilliwig" does show up in a few historical newspapers and magazines. "The Fate of Mr. Pilliwig" was a short story by N. P. Darling that appeared in Ballou's Monthly Magazine in 1871. All the characters had made-up surnames, another being Slingbillie. Similarly, in an 1880 article in the Huntingdon Journal, "pilliwig" was used as a random childish nonsense word.
The most puzzling occurrence: in Kansas in the 1890s, pilliwig or pilly-wig briefly became a synonym for liquor.
September 12, 1895, Enterprise Eagle, Enterprise, Kansas
"[I]t seemed that the "pilly-wig" that he was alleged to have been selling affects the memory..."
February 26, 1896, The Solomon Sentinel, Solomon, Kansas
At the "largest brewing house in the world" . . . "its Guides shewed us the plant and processes for making "pilliwig" and other decoctions which maketh fools of men."
June 17, 1896, The Solomon Sentinel, Solomon, Kansas
"We regret to learn that Bro. J. W. Murray of Dillon Republican is so badly under the weather that he is compelled to take his medicine at the hands of a "pilliwig doctor." He says: "On these hot days when thirst is gnawing at your vitals and your tissues are consumed as by a burning fever, a visit to the hop tea dispensary on Main Street will put you in running order again."
October 29, 1897, The Solomon Tribune, Solomon, Kansas
There was a hot time in the old town last Saturday night. Two fights occured by the influences of "pilliwig."
So, to sum up, we have one 1910s instance of a verb pilly-wig/pilly-wigging. Going by context, I would interpret the meaning as "procrastinating"; perhaps doing a very small amount at a time, or spending time on nonsense.
There is no evidence of a noun “pillywiggin” existing before the 1970s. However, we do have instances of “pilliwig” used as a nonsense word. It pops up every decade or so through the late 1800s and 1900s (more in America than in England, it seems). However, it has no context or continuity. It’s so devoid of meaning that it can be used for anything and everything, from a clown in a 1960's children's TV show, to booze. To me, that lack of meaning indicates that pillywiggins in pop culture just weren't a thing.
Maybe pillywig is recurrent because there are so many similar words in English that this is a natural word construction. Different authors could easily have come up with the same word, or have read a previous use of the word and subconsciously remembered it.
Some 20th-century children's author could easily have constructed the word "pillywiggin" for a fantasy creature. I haven't given up on that possibility. However, it would be equally easy for fairy names like Pigwiggen and Skillywiddens to be garbled, combined, or misspelled. We have evidence of that very thing happening with "Periwiggin."
Also in this series:
There's a popular conception that fairytales all take place a very long time ago, in ancient times with princesses and castles and knights. That's partly true. But then why are there no "modern" fairytales?
I believe most people who told oral folktales, while they may have featured princesses and castles and so on, pictured the events as happening in towns like their own, with technology like their own. Contemporary settings.
Folktale collecting's major boom began around the early 1800s with the Brothers Grimm. We also had a wave of fairytale writers, like Hans Christian Andersen, inspired by folktales. The result of the folklore movement was fairytales frozen in time. Now that they were in print, they existed as the product of that time period.
Just for context, the telegraph was invented in 1837. The first telephone was 1876, the light bulb 1878. You had Napoleon, the Louisiana Purchase, the American Civil War (in no particular order). People living in the 1800s would have lived to see the first films and World War II.
The image at the top of this post is an illustration of the Grimms' tale "The Four Skillful Brothers." It looks very fantastical and medieval, right? That looks like the kind of dragon you'd slay with a sword. Spoiler alert: someone shoots that dragon with a gun. Guns actually appear a lot of fairytales, from the Grimms and otherwise.
You see the same thing in literary fairytales like Hans Christian Andersen's. In Andersen, there's a wide range. The Marsh King's Daughter features Vikings, but The Steadfast Tin Soldier has tin soldiers, muskets, ballet, and plumbing.
Today, there's a sort of "fairytale canon" in the popular mind, strongly influenced by Disney. Even Disney fairytales tend to be set in a vague, anachronistic past. For instance, Snow White is a mishmash of elements from different historical periods. Their clothing is medieval fantasy, but there's gas technology and a Bunsen burner in the Evil Queen's lair. The Bunsen burner was invented in the 1850s.
Are there any modern fairytales set in modern times? It depends on what you mean. Although oral storytelling isn't as popular, we do have people continuing to retell and adapt fairytales as movies or as books. In many cases, these retellings are set in contemporary times. See Cinder Edna, a picture book by Ellen Jackson, where the main character takes a bus to the ball. There are also plenty of fantasy short stories which have modern flavors. Or even Internet folklore like Slenderman.
But I do think that if you set out to collect oral folktales being told today, you will find fairytales set in worlds like those the storytellers inhabit. There are collections created well into the 20th century. Hasan el-Shamy has collected folktales from the Middle East. Another example is Barbara Rieti's Strange Terrain: The Fairy World in Newfoundland, published 1991. At one point in 1985, she attempted to track down the origins of a local tale of a little girl taken away by fairies. You would think of that as happening in a long-ago distant time - which Rieti initially did. But then she actually met the person involved, who was then in her sixties (and who did not seem happy at her experience being turned into a fairytale). She had been lost in the woods for over a week and suffered from hypothermia. This happened in the 1930s.
I think there's a Disney-influenced imagining of fairytales as all taking place in the distant past, further influenced by a lack of context for just how recently these tales were set down in print.
The good and wicked fairies in Sleeping Beauty have an interesting heritage. In medieval legend, fairies and fays often attended the birth of heroes to prophesy their fates. These stories go back even further, to mythology and ancient religions, where goddesses looked upon newborn children and laid out their fates.
Perceforest is a French prose romance first printed in 1528, but may have been composed as early as 1330. It's very very long, but there's one section in particular that is clearly a version of Sleeping Beauty. This interlude tells of Troylus and Zellandine, ancestors of Sir Lancelot (yes, that one). When Zellandine was born, her aunt was given the task of setting a table with food for the goddesses who witnessed the childbirth, so that they would be pleased and lay out a blessed life for the child. These three goddesses were Venus, Lucina, and Themis. In myth, Venus is the goddess of love, Lucina of childbirth, and Themis of order. Themis is also the mother of the three Fates, and in this tale she is identified as the goddess of destiny. When the goddesses sat down to eat, Themis' knife was missing. It had just fallen under the table, but Themis felt insulted; thus, she cursed Zellandine to prick her finger with flax while spinning and fall into an unending sleep. The goddess Venus, more kindly disposed to the child, found a way around the curse.
When Zellandine falls into a sleep from which she cannot be wakened, the goddess Venus arranges for her paramour, Troylus, to be carried into her tower. Influenced by Venus, Troylus has sex with Zellandine and she becomes pregnant and gives birth while still unconscious. Her newborn son Benuic, trying to suckle, sucks on her finger and draws out the splinter of flax, awakening her.
In "Sun, Moon and Talia" - included in the Italian Pentamerone (1634) - the story is much the same, except that there are no goddesses in attendance. Instead, wise men and astrologers cast the newborn Talia's horoscope and foretell that a splinter of flax will endanger her. The story proceeds in much the same way, with a few exceptions. Instead of one baby, the sleeping Talia gives birth to twins named Sun and Moon. And the story does not end with her awakening. The king who found her already has a wife! In her jealousy, she attempts to have Talia and the kids cooked and eaten. Sympathetic servants save them, the queen is put to death, and Talia lives a long and happy life with her family.
Unlike Zellandine, Talia displays no trauma after what is, honestly, a rape. Zellandine loves her betrothed but still feels violated, and the narrative at least hints that Troylus' actions are wrong. Talia and the king, though, are hunky-dory.
In 1697, Charles Perrault retold this tale as "The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood." The three goddesses of Perceforest are echoed by seven fairies who show up to give gifts at the christening, and an eighth, elderly fairy who shows up unexpectedly. Everyone thought she was dead, so unfortunately they did not provide her a place setting with jewel-encrusted golden utensils like the other seven fairies. When the other fairies give gifts of beauty and good temper, she adds an early death. Like Venus, another fairy softens the curse to a sleep (this time around, it is specifically for one hundred years) and lays the path to an eventual happy ending and romance.
The unsavory elements of "Talia" are softened. Perrault's prince doesn't even kiss Beauty. He just happens upon her at the very moment when she naturally awakens. Their children Dawn and Day are born legitimately after a proper wedding and consensual sex. Even the jealous first wife from "Talia" is replaced by a monstrous mother-in-law.
These three stories are all different, but all point to legends about Fate and Destiny. In fact, the word "fairy" may ultimately derive from the Latin Fata, or fate. You have the the Greek Fates or Mourai, the Norse Norns, and others worldwide. In the Greek myth of Meleager, the Fates appear a week after his birth to foretell his fate that he will die as soon as a certain piece of wood on the fire is consumed. His mother seizes the wood and puts it in a safe place, but of course eventually the wood is burnt and Meleager perishes with it. These Fates were portrayed as three old women spinning thread; each thread was a human life. Klotho spun the thread, Lakhesis measured it out, and Atropos cut it.
There is another medieval work, from before Perceforest, which features a scene similar to Sleeping Beauty. There is no enchanted sleep, but there is the encounter with otherworldly women who have strong feelings on table settings. Le Jeu de la Feuillée by Adam de la Halle is a French play which has been dated from around 1262 to 1278. In one scene, the characters set a table for the fairies: three beautiful ladies named Morgue, Arsile and Maglore, attended by Fortune.
Morgue and Arsile crow over the lovely table and the beautiful knives they've been given to eat with, but Maglore doesn't get a knife and is not happy. Morgue and Arsile go on to bestow gifts of good fortune on the men who set the table; for instance, giving one of them fame as a poet. The angry Maglore, however, gives bad fortune (such as baldness).
Morgue is Morgan le Fay. She was often portrayed as part of a group with attendants, sisters or companion queens. In her oldest known appearance, she was the leader of nine sisters. She played the "fay attending on the birth" role in stories of Ogier the Dane and Garin de Montglane. In many tales, her group is a multiple of three; the Norse and Greek Fates are three in number. Three is significant. Birth, life and death. Childhood, adulthood, and old age.
Europe has widespread traditions of leaving out meals for a goddess-fairy and her retinue on certain nights (often around midwinter). If the house is in order and the food has been left out properly, the goddess will be pleased and bless the house - but when angered, some versions turn violent. In many cases, this goddess oversees tasks of spinning. She may have names like Spillaholle (Spindle Holle), Spillagritte, Spellalutsche,or Spinnsteubenfrau. Again we have a goddess tied to spinning, just like the Fates.
One other similar medieval tale: in the 13th-century French work Huon of Bordeaux, the hero meets Oberon, a diminutive sorcerer. Oberon 's birth was attended by noble and royal fairies, but one grew angry because she "was not sent for as well as the others." As a result, she cursed him never to grow taller than a three-year-old. Intriguingly, the 14th-century Turin manuscript identifies Oberon's mother as none other than Morgan le Fay.
The Sleeping Beauty we know today has strong similarities to both "Talia" and Perceforest. The incident of the missing knife travels from "Le Jeu de la Feuillee" (13th century) to Perceforest (16th century) to Perrault (late 17th century) where each fairy receives "a solid gold casket containing a spoon, fork, and knife of fine gold, set with diamonds and rubies."
"Sun, Moon and Talia" does not fit into the pattern as neatly. Despite the supernatural qualities of Talia's sleep, it's apparently random. Zellandine and Sleeping Beauty are victims of Fate personified, a being which can be angered or appeased by human actions. But for Talia, it's just something that is going to happen, not for any observable reason. Her future is not bestowed by a fairy, but detected by learned men who study her horoscope. Similarly, there are two ninth-century Chinese Sleeping Beauty stories, "Shen Yuanzhi" and "Zhang Yunrong," where it is also simply the heroine's destiny to die young/fall into a coma.
However, even in the story of Talia, where there is no angry goddess of fate, her doom is still tied to the act of spinning. She enters her deathlike sleep when she encounters an old woman spinning thread. As Perrault's Beauty pricks her hand on a spindle, Talia gets a splinter of flax under her fingernail.
Also, when she gives birth, she is attended by two fairies (fate in Italian) who care for the newborns and arrange food and drink for her. Just like other fays and goddesses, they show up for a birth.
"Talia" and the Chinese tales, some of the oldest surviving Sleeping Beauty stories, leave the listener with questions. I'm not sure whether a culture believing in gods of fate filled in those questions, or whether those questions are remnants from a culture that believed in gods of fate. But put all these stories together and it makes sense: Sleeping Beauty's terrible fate was the work of an angry goddess, later reinterpreted as a fairy. Why was this goddess angry? Because the ritual welcoming her to the child's birth, the ritual meant to ensure the child's good health and future, had not been properly performed. So the thread spun by the Greek Fates became a weapon against the child whose life it represented. Another goddess of fate, who had been properly appeased, intervened to help. The moral: honor the gods to ensure your child's good future.
Charles Perrault's fairytale "Le Petit Poucet" - literally "The Little Thumb," my preferred name for it being "Hop o' my Thumb" - has a lot to unpack. In one of the most memorable scenes, Hop o' my Thumb flees with his brothers while the ogre pursues them in seven-league boots. However, the ogre tires and falls asleep, and Hop steals the boots for himself. He goes on to use them as a royal messenger.
Seven-league boots (or as Perrault called them, "bottes de sept lieues," will allow the wearer to walk seven leagues in one step. A league was roughly the distance that a person could walk in one hour, so about three miles. Seven-league boots would thus carry you twenty-one miles at every stride.
Seven is a number rich in symbolism and particularly recurrent in "Hop o' my Thumb." Hop is one of seven brothers. The ogre has seven daughters.
This was not the first appearance of seven-league boots in Perrault's fairytales. In his version of Sleeping Beauty, there is a brief appearance by "a little dwarf who had a pair of seven-league boots, which are boots that enable one to cover seven leagues at a single step." This is where we actually learn what the boots do - "Le Petit Poucet" leaves the definition out. The dwarf in Sleeping Beauty even serves as a messenger, exactly the same vocation as Hop o' my Thumb. He is a bit character and most adaptations do not include him.
Is this a cameo by Hop? Do Perrault's tales share a universe? And what drew Perrault more than once to this specific image, of the incredibly small man in the magic boots?
The idea of magical footwear that enables people to travel incredible distances is a universal one, but it seems Perrault made up this particular variation. It spread quickly. In Finnish, they are "seitsemän peninkulman saappaat." In Russian, сапоги-скороходы (sapogi-skorokhody, or fast-walker boots). In German, they are siebenmeilenstiefel.
In the Hungarian tale of "Zsuzska and the Devil" - basically a genderflip of Hop o' my Thumb - the heroine steals tengerlépő cipődet, or sea-striding shoes. "The Bee and the Orange Tree" by Madame d'Aulnoy and "Okerlo" by the Grimms feature seven-league boots and a chase scene. The Grimms' "Sweetheart Roland" includes meilenstiefel, literally "mile-boots." An African-American version of the story is "John and the Devil's Daughter," by Virginia Hamilton in The People Could Fly.
The idea goes far back in history and mythology. In Greek mythology, of course, there are the Talaria, the winged sandals which allow the god Hermes to fly. In Chinese myth, there are the Ǒusībùyúnlǚ (Cloud-stepping Shoes), which allow the wearer to walk on the clouds. In the Irish tale of King Fergus, the luchorpain gives Fergus shoes that let him safely walk underwater or on water. In Teutonic Mythology, Jacob Grimm mentioned "gefeite schuhe" or "fairy shoes," "with which one could travel faster on the ground, and perhaps through the air." He directly compares these to Hermes' winged sandals and to the seven-league boots.
In some versions, the magical traveling shoes are part of a set.
In the 1621 version of Tom Thumb, Tom receives multiple gifts from his fairy godmother: a cap that bestows knowledge, a ring of invisibility, a girdle that enables shapeshifting, and finally “a payre of shooes, (that being on his feete) would in a moment carry him to any part of the earth, and to be any time where hee pleased.” In a brief scene, Tom dons the shoes and is "carried as quicke as thought" across the world to view anthropophages, cyclopes, and other monsters.
"Jack the Giant-Killer" (1711) borrowed these elements, with Jack winning from a giant a coat of invisibility, a cap of knowledge, a fine sword, and "shoes of swiftness."
This is similar to "The King of the Golden Mountain" (Grimm), where the hero tricks three giants into giving him a magic sword, a cloak of invisibility, and "a pair of boots which could transport the wearer to any place he wished in a moment." A similar tale is the Norwegian "Soria Moria Castle" (Asbjørnsen and Moe) with boots that make strides of twenty miles. In "The Iron Shoes," a Bavarian tale collected by Franz Xaver von Schonwerth, the hero's boots let him travel a hundred miles per step and run alongside the wind. There are a multitude of other examples.
These objects are all common in legend and might originate in Greek mythology: the sandals of Hermes, the helm of Hades which grants invisibility, and the many transformations of Proteus. A mantle of invisibility belonging to King Arthur is mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen (c. 1100) and other Welsh myths. The tarnkappe - a similar object - plays a role in the Middle High German epic of the Nibelungenlied (c. 1200). Shapeshifting with or without the help of a magic object is a widespread trope throughout world mythology.
The hero typically receives these magical tools from a supernatural force: he receives them from the gods or a fairy, or steals them from a monster. The ancestor of them all is the Greek hero Perseus. He is entrusted by the gods with the helm of invisibility and winged sandals, which he uses to slay Medusa the Gorgo.
Hop o’ my Thumb bears absolutely no resemblance to the popular modern version of Tom Thumb - which is why it drives me nuts when people mix up the titles! However, there are a few similarities to the 1621 prose Tom Thumb.
Could Perrault have been inspired by Tom Thumb? Is that why he included an unusually small character wearing magic running shoes in two separate stories? Or did he take inspiration from the many other tales of magical shoes?
In this case, I think it's very possible he was inspired by the 1621 Tom Thumb. The beginning of Hop o' my Thumb always struck me as a bit out of place; his nickname and implied supernatural state of birth are irrelevant to the story. It's almost as if they were imported from another tale . . . a tale closer to Tom Thumb.
On a final note that interested me: unlike Perseus, Hop o’ my Thumb, and Jack the Giant-Killer, Tom Thumb does not use his magical tools to fight any monsters (although he has two run-ins with murderous giants). However, when traveling with his magic shoes, he does see monsters: "men without heads, their faces on their breasts, some with one legge, some with one eye in the forehead, some of one shape, some of another."
Their presence serves to indicate just how far he has traveled. Monopods or sciapods are legendary people with only one leg. Blemmyae or akephaloi are headless men with their faces on their chests. Cyclopes or Arimaspi are beings with only one eye. They appeared in the work of Greek writers like Herodotus and Pliny the Elder. Their legends showed up in bestiaries and maps throughout the Middle Ages. Pliny the Elder placed cyclopes in Italy, blemmyae in North Africa, and monopods in India. Some bestiaries put the one-eyed "Arimaspians" in Scythia, in eastern Europe.
So magical boots of travel are a very widespread and old idea, usually used in combination with other magical tools, but occasionally appearing on their own. They may have been Perrault's own creative touch. In tales similar to Hop o' my Thumb, there is frequently a chase where the hero must escape the villain, and does so by various means. Hansel and Gretel ride away on a duck. Other characters, like those in Sweetheart Roland, disguise themselves in a transformation chase. Perrault gave his hero magic boots for this scene, and codified them not just as magic boots but as seven-league boots (repeating the use of the number seven). Their presence, along with Petit Poucet's name, is fascinatingly reminiscent of the 1621 English Tom Thumb. What makes it even more interesting to me is that Perrault also used that Tom Thumb-esque character in Perrault's Sleeping Beauty.
One thing I didn't realize until I started researching folklore in depth is how much drama there is behind the scenes. For instance, take the story of "The Soul Cages."
The whole thing started when Thomas Crofton Croker began his collection Fairy Legends and Traditions of the South of Ireland. However, as the story goes, he lost his manuscript right before publication. A number of his Irish friends generously lent their help, writing out material and adding the folktales they knew. The result was a collaborative effort between many authors. Croker chose to publish the book anonymously, as the work of many, and it hit shelves in 1825. It was instantly popular. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm translated it into German as Irische Elfenmarchen in 1826.
Croker claimed all credit. Then he got right to work on producing more material. Around 1827, he published Volume 2, but this one was under his name alone.
One of the tales in Volume 2 was "The Soul Cages." Here, a fisherman befriends a merrow (merman) named Coomara (sea-hound). Coomara lends him a hat that will let him breathe underwater and invites him to visit his home on the seafloor. They have a nice meal and chat, but as the merrow shows him around, the fisherman notices a strange collection of lobster traps. Coomara explains that they are "soul-cages," containing the spirits of drowned sailors which he traps. The merrow makes out that he's doing the souls a favor by keeping them safe with him, but the Catholic fisherman is horrified. He contrives to get the merrow drunk, and then opens each of the cages to release the souls inside. From then on, the fisherman regularly pulls this trick to release souls as the merrow catches them.
Croker noted the story's striking resemblance to the German "Der Wassermann und der Bauer," or "The Waterman and the Peasant," which had appeared in the Brothers Grimm's Deutsche Sagen (1816-1818). In fact, when placed side by side, the stories shared identical plots. "The Soul Cages" is simply a more elaborate retelling of the Grimms' tale with Irish names and stereotypes stapled on.
There arose another issue. It seems there was controversy over Croker's manner of attributing sources - or rather, not attributing them. As one example, contemporary poet A. A. Watts wrote in Literary souvenir (1832):
...See Crofton Croker,
That dull, inveterate, would-be joker,
I wish he'd take a friendly hint,
And when he next appears in print,
Would tell us how he came to claim,
And to book prefix his name –
Those Fairy legends terse and smart,
Of which he penned so small a part,
Wherefore he owned them all himself,
And gave his friends nor fame, nor pelf.
One of Croker's helpers was the Irish writer Thomas Keightley. He went on to publish his own work, including the highly ambitious collection The Fairy Mythology in 1828. And he was steamed about not being credited properly in Fairy Legends. He said several times that credit wasn't important to him, but he still displayed a strong feeling that he had been used and cheated.
In his 1834 work Tales and Popular Fictions, Keightley declared that he was the uncredited source for a large number of tales in the first and second volumes of Fairy Legends. He laid claim to "The Young Piper," "Seeing is Believing," "Field of Boliauns," "Harvest Dinner," "Scath-a-Legaune," "Barry of Cairn Thierna," various pieces of other tales, and - most pertinently at the moment - "The Soul Cages." But it was a collaborative effort, as "another hand" - i. e., Croker - added details to these stories. Keightley adds that he had nothing to do with Volume 3, "which was apparently intended to rival my Fairy Mythology". Although hinting that he has experienced "hostility" over it, he also says he has "been amused at seeing [himself] quoted by those who intended to praise another person." He dismisses Fairy Legends as a bad depiction of Irish culture and dismissively says that he doesn't really care about getting the credit for such a "trifling" book. There are layers of cattiness here.
Croker never explicitly denied that Keightley had authored those stories. His combined volume of Fairy Legends in 1834 left out a number of stories, including "The Soul Cages." The new foreword suggested that the removal of these tales would "sufficiently answer doubts idly raised as to the question of authorship." This contributed to public perception that Keightley really had written the stories he claimed.
In an 1849 interview, Croker included Keightley in a list of people who helped him with the book, but indicated that they were essentially secretaries "writing, in most instances, from dictation." However, they were all skilled authors and scholars in their own right, and considering his apparent bow to pressure in 1834, this seems suspicious.
Collaboration on folktale collections was not uncommon, but in this case there were clearly both confusion and hard feelings.
Keightley did not include "The Soul Cages" or any of his Croker-collaboration material in The Fairy Mythology in 1828. But by 1850, a new edition had appeared. This time, Keightley included an English translation of "The Waterman and the Peasant" - and tucked away in the appendix was "The Soul Cages." Here, as a footnote, Keightley made a stunning announcement:
We must here make an honest confession. This story had no foundation but the German legend in p. 259 [The Peasant and the Waterman]. All that is not to be found there is our own pure invention. Yet we afterwards found that it was well-known on the coast of Cork and Wicklow. "But," said one of our informants, "It was things like flower-pots he kept them in." So faithful is popular tradition is these matters! In this and the following tale there are some traits by another hand which we are now unable to discriminate.
So here we are. "The Soul Cages" was an original creation by Keightley. More than that, it was plagiarized. It was stolen from the Brothers Grimm and not Irish at all.
Keightley has drawn harsh criticism from those who noticed the tiny note. Anne Markey called The Soul Cages "an elaborate confidence trick on Croker, Grimm, and subsequent commentators." (However, she also dated Keightley's confession to an 1878 edition, much later.)
But was it a confidence trick? Was it revenge against Croker for not citing his sources - an attempt to discredit him? Was it a test to see if Croker would even notice?
Honestly, I'm glad that Keightley confessed, even in the sneaky side way he did it. His confession, hidden in a footnote of an appendix of a later edition, was too little, too late. The story had already spread into the public consciousness, and is still circulated by people who never got that easily missed memo. But at least he told the truth at some late point. He even personally wrote to the Grimms to explain.
Or so I'd heard. Then I found out that there are reproductions of Keightley's letters to the Grimms in Volume 7 of the series Brüder Grimm Gedenken.
Keightley wrote to the Grimms to ask advice and feedback on The Fairy Mythology. When he mentioned Croker, the level of venom was astounding. He called Croker “a shallow void pretender” and “a parasitical plant.” According to him, Croker couldn't even speak German, and when he had corresponded with the Grimms, it had really been Keightley translating everything. In his version of the story, Croker was working on “a mere childs book” when Keightley suggested something grander; Keightley and friends then generously contributed material for two volumes of Fairy Legends. But Croker (a writer of “feebleness and puerility”) hogged the spotlight and insulted Keightley's writing abilities to boot, calling him simply a "drudge" good for nothing but writing down what he was told. Keightley insisted that he had been "defrauded" of the tales he collected for Legends, and that Croker was still trying to one-up him and compete with him.
Keightley quickly realized that his colorful account might be taken as unprofessional. In a letter dated April 13, 1829, he backtracked, demurring that he was just an Irishman with "hot blood" - but reiterating that his version contained the hard facts. He explained further,
I know not whether you have translated the 2nd vol. of the Fairy Legends or not. If you have not I cannot blame you for Mr. C. intoxicated with the success of the first volume thought the public would swallow any nonsense & he therefore in spite of me put in some pieces of disgraceful absurdity. The history of the legend called the Soul-cages is curious. I had read, in English, to Mr. C. several of your Deutsche Sagen. One morning he called on me & said that he thought the “Waterman" would make an excellent subject for a tale & that he wished I would write it. I objected that we did not know it to be an Irish legend. “Oh what matter! said he, who will know it? I accordingly wrote the tale which is therefore entirely my invention except the groundwork. You will however except the nonsense-verses & some other puerilities which you will give me credit for not being capable of. But the most curious circumstance is that after the Soul-cage was written I met with two persons from different parts of Ireland who were well acquainted with the legend from their childhood.
According to Keightley's version, this was no prank or confidence trick - at least not on his part. Croker had the idea to plagiarize the Grimms. If there are any scenes you think are dumb, it's because Croker added them. But it's actually okay, Keightley says, because people really were telling similar stories in Ireland.
If this reproduction of the letter is accurate, then I now feel less sympathetic to Keightley. In his casting of blame, he comes off as immature and two-faced.
Keightley may not have published his thoughts on Croker in Fairy Mythology, but he made very sure to always include that he had heard the Soul Cages story in Ireland afterwards. He needed that excuse. Admitting he'd fabricated a story torpedoed his credibility as a folklorist. At least this way he could cling to some plausible deniability. He was practically forced to write the story, he claimed, and afterwards he found out it was genuine anyway.
No one can really say whether or not he really heard the story in this later context. Anne Markey suggests the story slipped into folklore after its origins in Croker's book, but this depends on timing. Keightley's public confession was later, but he confessed to the Grimms only two years after "The Soul Cages" was published. That was hardly enough time for the story to have seeped into public consciousness, especially when Keightley's new informants had supposedly known the story since childhood.
I do not know of any other stories of this type in Ireland. Thomas Westropp, in his "Folklore Survey of County Clare" (1910-1913), noted that he'd found no other examples of this story in Ireland. He expressed "great doubt" on its authenticity.
However, we do have the German tale of "The Waterman and the Peasant," and similar tales from Czech areas.
"Yanechek and the Water Demon" ends with the main characters drowning and being collected by the demonic vodník. "Lidushka and the Water Demon's Wife" has a happier ending, in which a girl successfully releases the souls in the form of white doves. These tales were identified as Bohemian in origin in Slavonic Fairy Tales (1874) by John Theophilus Naaké.
Elfenreigen deutsche und nordische Märchen, by Marie Timme, an 1877 collection of Germanic-based fairytales, features the melancholy story of "The Fallen Bell." A nix, furious that he no longer receives human sacrifices, drowns a small girl and keeps her soul beneath a sunken bell.
These examples point to an origin around Germany and the Czech Republic. They retain a creepy tone which "The Soul-Cages" lost. The villains are explicitly demonic, the trapped souls truly suffering. Meanwhile in "The Soul-Cages," the fisherman remains drinking buddies with the easily duped merman while freeing any souls he catches. Coomara isn’t even an evil being. By his own account, he is just trying to help the drowned souls, and this is supported by the fact that he never does the fisherman or his family any harm. The story is goofy rather than eerie, and the main takeaway is the Irish stereotypes.
The tormented history of "The Soul-Cages" betrays the ease with which any folklorist could sneak in a story and claim it was traditional. Everyone was aware of this. Markey points out that Keightley himself highlighted at least two tales of suspicious origin in other collections. Even the Grimms, whom both Croker and Keightley idolized, hadn't really gotten their stories from the German peasant folk, but from middle-class readers of French fairytale collections. The Grimms also made major edits to polish the collection for a public audience.
So, in summary:
If you believe Keightley's letter, "The Soul Cages" was not intended as a prank on Croker, or anything of that nature. He said Croker was fully aware of its nature and was the person who came up with the idea. At this point we will never know for sure whether that's true. However, Croker himself pointed out the similarities to the Grimms' story and printed the two tales in the same volume. Publishing your plagiarized work with the original for comparison seems phenomenally stupid. Keightley would probably love to inform us that Croker was exactly that stupid. I still don't know if Croker ever responded to the reveal of The Soul Cages' true origin.
Whatever else occurred, I find it interesting that this story gave us the song "The Soul Cages" by Sting.
One classic fairytale is "Le Petit Poucet" by Charles Perrault - often translated in English as Hop o' My Thumb. A poor woodcutter and his wife, starving in poverty, decide to lighten their burden by abandoning their seven children in the woods. The youngest child, Hop o' my Thumb, attempts to mark the way home with a trail of breadcrumbs, but it's eaten by birds. The lost boys make their way to an ogre's house where they sleep for the night. The ogre prepares to kill them in their sleep; however, an alert Hop o' my Thumb switches the boys' nightcaps for the golden crowns worn by the ogre's seven daughters. While the ogre mistakenly slaughters his own children in the dark, the boys escape. Hop also manages to steal the ogre's seven league boots and treasure, ensuring his family will never starve again.
This tale is Aarne Thompson type 327B, "The Dwarf and the Giant" or "The Small Boy Defeats the Ogre." However, this title ignores the fact that there are stories where a girl fights the ogre, and that these stories are just as widespread and enduring.
One ogre-fighting girl is the Scottish "Molly Whuppie." Three abandoned girls wind up at the home of a giant and his wife, who take them in for the night. The giant, plotting to eat the lost girls, places straw ropes around their necks and gold chains around the necks of his own daughters. Molly swaps the necklaces and, while the giant kills his own children, she and her sisters escape. Then, to win princely husbands for her sisters and herself, Molly sneaks back into the giant's house three times. Each time she steals marvelous treasures (much like Jack and the Beanstalk). At one point the giant captures her in a sack, but she tricks his wife into taking her place. She makes her final escape by running across a bridge of one hair, where the giant can't follow her.
This tale was published by Joseph Jacobs; his source was the Aberdeenshire tale "Mally Whuppy." He rendered the story in standard English text and changed Mally to Molly. In Scottish, Whuppie or Whippy could be a contemptuous name for a disrespectful girl, but it was also an adjective for active, agile, or clever.
This story probably originated with a near-identical tale from the isle of Islay: Maol a Chliobain or Maol a Mhoibean. J. F. Campbell, the collector, says that the spelling is phonetic but doesn't provide many clues to the meaning. Maol means, literally, bare or bald. Hannah Aitken pointed out that it could mean a devotee, a follower or servant who would have shaved their head in a tonsure. This word begins many Irish surnames, like Malcolm, meaning "devotee of St. Columba." When the story reached Aberdeenshire, the unfamiliar "Maol" became Mally or Molly, a nickname for Mary.
According to Norman Macleod's Dictionary of the Gaelic Language, "moibean" is a mop. "Clib" is any dangling thing or the act of stumbling - leading to "clibein" or "cliobain," a hanging fold of loose skin, and "cliobaire," a clumsy person or a simpleton. Perhaps Maol a Chliobain means something like "Servant Simpleton" - a likely name for a despised youngest child in a fairytale. Maol a Mhoibean could mean something like "Servant Mop."
There are a wealth of similar heroines. The Scottish Kitty Ill-Pretts is named for her cleverness, ill pretts being "nasty tricks." The Irish Hairy Rouchy and Hairy Rucky have rough appearances, and Máirín Rua is named for her red hair and beard (!). Another Irish tale with similar elements is Smallhead and the King's Sons, although this is more a confusion of different tales.
The bridge of one hair which Molly/Mally crosses is a striking image. This perhaps emphasizes the heroine's smallness and lightness, in contrast to the giant's size. In "Maol a Chliobain," the hair comes from her own head. In "Smallhead and the King's Sons," it's the "Bridge of Blood," over which murderers cannot walk.
Based on examples like these, Joseph Jacobs theorized that this tale was Celtic in origin. However, female variants of 327B span far beyond Celtic countries.
Finette Cendron is a French literary tale by Madame d'Aulnoy, published in 1697, which blends into Cinderella. The heroine has multiple names - Fine-Oreille (Sharp-Ear), Finette (Cunning) and Cendron (Cinders).
Zsuzska and the Devil is a Hungarian version. Zsuzska (whose name translates basically to "Susie") steals ocean-striding shoes from the devil, echoing Hop o' My Thumb's seven-league boots. According to Linda Dégh, female-led versions of AT 327B are quite popular in Hungary.
Fatma the Beautiful is a fairly long tale from Sudan. In the central section, Fatma the Beautiful and her six companions are captured by an ogress. Fatma stays awake all night, preventing the ogress from eating them, and the group is able to escape and feed the ogress to a crocodile. In the ending section, the girls find husbands; Fatma wears the skin of an old man, only removing it to bathe, and her would-be husband must uncover her true identity. (This last motif seems to be common in tales from the African continent.) Christine Goldberg counted twelve versions of this tale in Africa and the Middle East.
The Algerian tale of "Histoire de Moche et des sept petites filles," or The Story of Moche and the Seven Little Girls, features a youngest-daughter-hero named Aïcha. She combines traits of Hop o' my Thumb and Cinderella, and defends her older sisters from a monstrous cat. This is only one of many African and Middle Eastern tales of a girl named Aicha who fights monsters.
And the tale has made its way to the Americas. Mutsmag and Muncimeg, in the Appalachians, are identical to Molly Whuppie. Meg is a typical girl's name, and I've seen theories that the "muts" in Mutsmag means "dirty" (making the name a similar construction to Cinderella). It could also be "muns," small, or from the Scottish "munsie," an "odd-looking or ridiculously-dressed person" (see McCarthy). German "mut" is bravery. (See a rundown of name theories here.)
In the 1930s, "Belle Finette" was recorded in Missouri. Peg Bearskin is a variant from Newfoundland.
In Old-Fashioned Fairy Tales (1882) by Juliana Horatia Ewing, we have "The Little Darner," where a young girl uses her darning skills to charm and manipulate an ogre.
One of the largest differences between the male and female variants of 327B is the naming pattern. Male heroes of 327B are likely to be stunted in growth - a dwarf, a half-man, or a precocious newborn infant.
Le Petit Poucet is "when born no bigger than one's thumb" - earning him his name. In English, he has been called Thumbling, Little Tom Thumb, or Hop o' My Thumb. The last name is my favorite, since it helps to distinguish him. Note that despite the confusion of names, he is not really a thumbling character. His size is only remarked upon at his birth. He is thumb-sized at birth, but in the story proper, he is apparently an unusually small but still perfectly normal child.
Look at other similar heroes' names:
The names of girls who fight ogres focus on the heroine's intelligence or beauty (or lack of beauty). The heroine is often a youngest child, but I have never encountered a version where she's tiny, as Hop o' My Thumb is. The girl's appearance can play a role in the tale, but if so, the focus is usually on her being dirty, wild or hairy. Where the hero of 327B is shrunken and shrimpy, the heroine has a masculine appearance. Máirín Rua has a beard; Fatma the Beautiful disguises herself as an old man.
Outside Type 327B, there are still other female characters who face trials similar to Hop o' my Thumb and Molly Whuppie. Aarne-Thompson 327A, "The Children and the Witch," includes "Hansel and Gretel" (German) and "Nennello and Nennella" (Italian). Nennello and Nennella mean something like "little dwarf boy and little dwarf girl." Nennella, with her name and her adventure being swallowed by a large fish, is the closest to a Thumbling character. Bâpkhâdi, in a tale from India, is born from a blister on her father's thumb - a birth similar to many thumbling stories. In the opening to the tale, her parents abandon her and her six older sisters in the woods. However, after this episode, the tale turns into Cinderella.
In Aarne-Thompson type 711, the beautiful and the ugly twin, an ugly sister protects a more beautiful sister, fights otherworldly forces, and wins a husband. This encompasses the Norwegian "Tatterhood," Scottish "Katie Crackernuts," and French Canadian "La Poiluse." It overlaps with previously mentioned tales like Mairin Rua and Peg Bearskin.
One central motif to 327B is the trick where the hero swaps clothes, beds, or another identifying object, so that the villain kills their own offspring by mistake. This motif appears in in many other tales, even ones with completely different plots. A girl plays this trick in a Lyela tale from Africa mentioned by Christine Goldberg. In fact, one of the oldest appearances of this motif appears in Greek myth. There, two women - Ino and Themisto - play the roles of trickster heroine and villain.
Madame D’Aulnoy’s “The Bee and the Orange Tree” and the Grimms’ "Sweetheart Roland" and "Okerlo" are very similar to 327B. However, they are their own tale type, ATU 313 or “The Magic Flight.” In these tales, a young woman is always the one fighting off the witch or ogre. She’s the one who switches hats, steals magic tools, and rescues others. The main difference is that while the heroes of ATU 327 are lost children, the heroes of ATU 313 are young lovers.
But back to the the basic 327B tale. Both "The Dwarf and the Giant" and "Small Boy Defeats the Ogre" are flawed names, given that stories where a girl defeats the ogre are so widespread. These ogre-slaying girls pop up in Ireland, Scotland, Hungary, France, Egypt, and Persia, and have thrived in the Americas. I fully expect to find more out there.
Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.