Changeling. The widespread belief that fairies or other malevolent spiritual forces might secretly substitute one infant for another is amply represented in Celtic oral tradition. Irish corpán sídhe, síodhbhradh, síofra; Scottish Gaelic tàcharan, ùmaidh; Manx lhiannoo shee; Welsh plentyn a newidiwyd am arall (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology).
The Fairy Changeling
(Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms and Superstitions of Ireland. Lady Wilde. 1887.)
ONE evening, a man was coming home late, and he passed a house where two women stood by a window, talking.
“I have left the dead child, in the cradle as you bid me,” said one woman, “and behold here is the other child, take it and let me go;” and she laid down an infant on a sheet by the window, who seemed in a secret sleep, and it was draped all in white.
“Wait,” said the other, “till you have had some food, and then take it to the fairy queen, as I promised, in place of the dead child that we have laid in the cradle by the nurse. ‘Wait also till the moon rises, and then you shall have the payment which I promised.”
They then both turned from the window. Now the man saw that there was some devil’s magic in it all. And when the women turned away he crept up close to the open window and put his hand in and seized the sleeping child and drew it out quietly without ever a sound. Then he made off as fast as he could to his own home, before the women could know anything about it, and handed the child to his mother’s care. Now the mother was angry at first, but when he told her the story, she believed him, and put the baby to sleep–a lovely, beautiful boy with a face like an angel.
Next morning there was a great commotion in the village, for the news spread that the first-born son of the great lord of the place, a lovely, healthy child, died suddenly in the night, without ever having had a sign of sickness. When they looked at him in the morning, there he laid dead in his cradle, and he was shrunk and wizened like a little old man, and no beauty was seen on him any more. So great lamentation was heard on all sides, and the whole country gathered to the wake. Amongst them came the young man who had carried off the child, and when he looked on the little wizened thing in the cradle he laughed. Now the parents were angry at his laughter, and wanted to turn him out.
But he said, “Wait put down a good fire,” and they did so.
Then he went over to the cradle and said to the hideous little creature, in a loud voice before all the people–
“If you don’t rise up this minute and leave the place, I will burn you on the fire; for I know might well who you are, and where you came from.”
At once the child sat up and began to grin at him; and made a rush to the door to get away; but the man caught hold of it and threw it on the fire. And the moment it felt the heat it turned into a black kitten, and flew up the chimney and was seen no more.
Then the man sent word to his mother to bring the other child, who was found to be the true heir, the lord’s own son. So there was great rejoicing, and the child grew up to be a great lord him-self, and when his time came, he ruled well over the estate; and his descendants are living to this day, for all things prospered with him after he was saved from the fairies.
Parasitic cuckoo birds regularly practice brood parasitism, or non-reciprocal offspring-swapping. Rather than raising their young on their own, they will lay their egg in another’s nest, leaving the burden on the unsuspecting parents, which are of another species altogether. More often than not, the cuckoo chick hatches sooner than its “stepsiblings” and grows faster; eventually claiming most of the nourishment brought in and may actually “evict” the young of the host species by pushing them out of their own nest (Wikipedia).
According to Katherine Briggs in Fairies in Tradition and Literature (1967), the changeling is more often male than female. This stolen child usually has blonde hair and a fair complexion. Briggs says it’s believed the dark fairies steal human babies in order to use them for breeding; thus introducing “fair” blood into their fairy gene pool. Most accounts of changelings in the fairy tales can be traced to Lady Wilde’s Ancient Legends. Several other sources are given in Brigg’s text, however. Either book can offer insight into how to retrieve a stolen child if need be, or how to protect one’s own child from being stolen in the first place.
I’ve written about the Bridget Cleary case previously in the Hawthorn Ogham post. To recap: In rural Ireland in 1895, Bridget Cleary’s husband, neighbours, and relatives, murdered her and burned her body. The motive? They were convinced Bridget was a fairy changeling. The active participants of the murder (9 initially charged) maintained their story throughout the entire court case.
The Banshee’s arguably the most famous ghost of them all, and probably the least understood.
“When the Banshee calls she sings the spirit home. In some houses still a soft low music is heard at death.” – George Henderson 1911 (Survivals in Belief Amongst Celts)
There’s an Irish tradition promoting the Banshee as only ever interacting with certain families. Although folklorists have also made this statement in the past, it’s entirely false. The Banshee’s known by many different names, was encountered in many varied forms, and was believed to have existed by a wide array of people[i].
In Ireland, the Banshee is also called Banshie, Bean Si, Bean Sidhe, and Ban Side amongst other names. A great deal of surviving Banshee lore comes from outside of Ireland, however. In Scotland, for example, the Banshee may be referred to as Ban Sith or Bean Shith. On the Isle of Mann she’s called Ben Shee, while the Welsh call her close sister Cyhyraeth[ii].
The she in Banshee, or sidhe, suggests and older source for the stories. The sidhe were the old gods who had fled the Irish invaders to live inside of the hollow hills. They were also known as the Tuatha De Danaan or “the fair folk.”
“Banshee: A female wraith of Irish or Scottish Gaelic tradition thought to be able to foretell but not necessarily cause death in a household.” – James MacKillop (Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology)
In the 1887 book Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland by Lady Wilde, we’re told that the Irish Banshee was more likely to be beautiful, while the Scottish Banshee was more likely to appear in the image of an older crone-like woman. Like most things in Celtic lore, however, this wasn’t always consistent.
The Banshee would usually warn of death by: wailing, appearing as an apparition, playing or singing music, tapping on a window in the form of a crow, be seen washing body parts or armor at a stream, knocking at the door, whispering a name, or by speaking through a person that she had already possessed – a host or medium[iii]. The noble families of Ireland generally viewed the spirit’s attendance as a great honour. Some sources do say that the Banshee served only five Irish families, but others say that several hundred families had these spirits attached to them[iv]. The five families usually stated to have had Banshee attendants are the O’Neils, the O’Brians, the O’Gradys, the O’Conners, and the Kavanaghs. Many stories, however, are of other families.
The Ó Briains’ Banshee was thought to have had the name of Eevul[v], or Aibhill as she is called in the book True Irish Ghost Stories. Likewise, a great bard of the O’Connelan family had the goddess Aine (sometimes called Queen of Fairy), attend him in the role of a wailing Banshee in order to foretell – and honour – his death[vi]. Cliodhna (Cleena) is a goddess-like Munster Banshee, who people claimed was originally the ghost of a “foreigner.” Most Banshees remained nameless, however.
The description of the Banshee varies a great deal throughout the many accounts. If she was young she often had red hair, but she could have “pale hair” as well. She was often described as wearing white, but sometimes she could be seen wearing green or other colors such as black or grey. Red shoes were sometimes mentioned, but so was a silver comb,[vii] which she either ran through her hair or left on the ground to capture some curious passerby. Most described her eyes as being red from crying, or keening, or to be menacing and evil looking. The eyes were also often said to be blue. In J.F. Campbell’s 1890 Popular Tales of the West Highlands, the Banshee was said to have webbed feet like a water creature. Sometimes she was wrapped in a white sheet or grey blanket – a statement that reveals an older funerary tradition and a possible source for the modern white sheet-ghosts of Halloween.
In True Irish Ghost Stories we’re told that the Banshee could not by seen by “the person whose death it [was] prognosticating.” This statement is not consistent with all of the stories either:
“THEN Cuchulain went on his way, and Cathbad that had followed him went with him. And presently they came to a ford, and there they saw a young girl thin and white-skinned and having yellow hair, washing and ever washing, and wringing out clothing that was stained crimson red, and she crying and keening all the time. ‘Little Hound,’ said Cathbad, ‘Do you see what it is that young girl is doing? It is your red clothes she is washing, and crying as she washes, because she knows you are going to your death against Maeve’s great army.’” – Lady Gregory 1902 (Cuchulain of Muirthemne – retelling of 12th CE)
The Banshee – who’s often said to have her roots in stories of Morrigan the Irish war goddess[viii] – could also follow families abroad. One famous story regarding the O’Grady family takes place along the Canadian coastline where two men die[ix]. St. Seymour shares another tale in which a partial Irish descendent sees a Banshee on a boat in an Italian lake. In Charles Skinner’s 1896 Myths and Legends of Our Own Land we’re also told of a South Dakota Banshee living in the United States.
The Banshee could also be a trickster of sorts. She was said to mess with “the loom” in Alexander Carmichael’s 1900 Carmina Gadelica. There’s even a blessing in the section, which is chanted over the item. In W.Y. Evens-Wentz’ 1911 Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries we’re told of a Banshee who could be placated by giving her barley-meal cakes on two separate hills. This action reminds us of the tithes often left for other trickster fairies, and doesn’t seem to be a customary gift one would leave for a ghost. As Katherine Briggs once said[x], however, fairies fall into two categories, “diminished gods and the dead.” Unfortunately, our modern conception of fairies does little to remind us that either one of these forms would be considered as a spirit-being today. As Evans-Wentz further explains:
“It is quite certain that the banshee is almost always thought of as the spirit of a dead ancestor presiding over a family, though here it appears more like the tutelary deity of the hills. But sacrifice being thus made, according to the folk-belief, to a banshee, shows, like so many other examples where there is a confusion between divinities or fairies and the souls of the dead, that ancestral worship must be held to play a very important part in the complex Fairy-Faith as a whole.” – W.Y. Evans-Wentz 1911 (Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries)
The Banshee being attached to a certain family could be extremely beneficial and would have not been seen as a negative. As already stated, any family would’ve been seen as extremely important if a Banshee (or several) attended them. In George Henderson’s 1911 Survival in Belief Amongst Celts, a Banshee, or Maighdeann Shidhe, even gave the “Blue Stone of Destiny” to the Scottish hero Coinneach Odhar. In return for favours, however, it would’ve been extremely important to honour these spirits whenever possible, either out of respect for the Banshee, or from a place of fear in order to placate them.
In modern times, the Banshee became associated more and more with evil. As a portent of death she shared many things in common with the approaching Carriage of Death, the death candles, Ankou[xi] or even with the Grim Reaper. In her more ancient visage, she could easily be compared to the Norse Valkyrie (as the Morrigan often is) or to any other Shieldmaiden whose task it was to collect the dead[xii]. To the commoner of modern times, such a role was reserved for the Angels of God and for the Holy Church alone.
Furthermore, the Banshee – like other mystic beings of Celtic lore – was also able to appear in various non-human forms. A fact which would later make her seem in league with the devil:
“The Banshee is dreaded by dogs. She is a fairy woman who washes white sheets in a ford by night when someone near at hand is about to die. It is said she has the power to appear during day-time in the form of a black dog, or a raven, or a hoodie-crow.” – Donald MacKenzie 1917 (Wonder Tales From Scottish Myth & Legend)
Whether the Banshee does, or ever did, exist is a matter of conjecture. One thing is certain, however, the most famous ghost of them all is the one in which few people actually know anything about. The Banshee was more than a shrieking omen of death. In fact, individual Banshees appeared and behaved quite differently from one another in different stories. Her attachment to a particular family was a relationship that was embraced by the Celtic people with pride, and with honour. Her haunting of a particular place, on the other hand, was met with wary bribes. An unknown Banshee – like a stray dog – could have been seen as something quite different altogether. It would have been this Banshee that brought with it fear – which was usually seen as nothing short of a greeting from death itself.
The Banshee in Celtic folklore seems much more interesting, when we realize that many of our modern ghost stories share the exact same elements. A deceased female relative forewarning death, a disembodied voice, a spirit attached to a particular family, or a haunted landmark may not seem to have anything to do with a Banshee today, but none of these stories are really all that different from the old ones at all. Like it or not, in modern folklore the Banshee still remains. It’s only our terminology that has changed.
[i] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.
[iii] St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan. True Irish Ghost Stories. 1914.
[iv] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.
[v] Thos Westrop. Folklore. 1910.
[vi] W.Y. Evans-Wentz. The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. 1911.
[vii] This may be an overlap with the mermaid, which history likewise seems to have forgotten was also a spirit.
[viii] James MacKillop. Oxford Dictionary of Celtic Mythology. 1998.
[ix] This would most likely be referring to the east coast but could also be the west coast, as well.
[x] Katherine Briggs. The Fairies in Tradition and Literature. 1967.