The Fearsome Fairies of the Dark Woodlands



While modern mothers and children alike often think of Tinker Bell when they hear of fairies, Appalachian mothers a century or more ago imagined something far more sinister.

17th Century Christian Teachings Regarding Fairies

King James, in his dissertation Daemonologie, stated the term “faries” referred to illusory spirits (demonic entities) that prophesied to, consorted with, and transported the individuals they served; in medieval times, a witch or sorcerer who had a compact with a familiar spirit might receive these services – in essence, they were the entities witches and wizards would go to when their own powers fell short.

A popular Christian tenet for many years held that fairies were a class of demonic angels who had been cast out of heaven when Satan rebelled against God.

Given their supposed demonic origins, fairies were the subject of great fear among the highlanders of Appalachia and would often be blamed for bizarre happenings which could not be explained naturally.

A recorded Christian belief of the 17th Century cast all fairies as demons.  This perspective grew more popular with the rise of Puritanism among the Reformed Church of England and quickly spread to the North American colonies, beginning in New England.

The hobgoblin, once a friendly household spirit, became classed as a wicked goblin.

Dealing with fairies was considered a form of witchcraft, and punished as such.

In William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Oberon, king of the faeries, states that neither he nor his court fear the church bells.

Fairies in Islam

Interestingly, the belief in fairies, tiny mystical creatures which hide beneath of the cover of thick vegetation in the dark wooded areas of a forest, is not limited to European-Americans. As a matter of fact, several cultures throughout the world share some type of belief in these mystical creatures.  The Persians believed in the existence of “Peri”, exquisite, winged spirits renowned for their beauty. Originally from Persian and Armenian mythologies, Peris were later adopted by other cultures.  They were described as mischievous beings that had been denied entry to paradise until they have completed penance for atonement.

With the spread of Islam through Persia, the Peri was integrated into Islamic folklore. They are often regarded as a kind of good jinn, while the evil ones are often identified by Persians as divs.

The belief in Peri still persist among Muslims in India as a type of spiritual creature besides the jinn, shayatin and the ghosts of the wicked.

According to the Persian exegesis of the Qurʼan Tafsir al-Tabari, the peris are beautiful female spirits created by Allah.

They are still part of some folklore and accordingly they appear to humans, sometimes punishing hunters in the mountains who are disrespectful or waste resources, or even abducting young humans for their social events. Encounters with peris are held to be physical as well as psychological.

Native American’s Belief in Fairies

The Europeans and Islamic world situated across the Atlantic were not the only civilizations to believe in tiny creatures hiding in the wilderness – this belief has been part of the folklore of many cultures in human history, including Ireland, Greece, the Philippines, and the Hawaiian Islands; however, the most committed people to this persuasion were by far the Native Americans — and the Cherokee in particular.

While the Holy Bible speaks about ancient “giants” who roamed the earth during the days of Noe, Native American legends speak of a race of “tiny people” who lived in wooded and rocky areas.

Often described as “hairy-faced dwarfs” in stories, petroglyph illustrations show them with horns on their head and traveling in groups of 5 to 7 per canoe.

Native legends often talk of the tiny people playing pranks on individuals, such as singing and then hiding when an inquisitive person searches for the music. It is often said that the little people love children and would take them away from bad or abusive parents or if the child was without parents and left in the woods to fend for themselves.

Other legends say the tiny people if seen by an adult human would beg them not to say anything of their existence and would reward those who kept their word by helping them and their family out in times of need. From tribe to tribe there are variations of what the tiny people’s mannerisms were like, and whether they were good or evil may be different dependent upon the local tribe’s passed down stories.

One of the more widely held beliefs maintained that the tiny people created distractions in order to cause mischief. They were believed to be gods by some.

One North American Native tribe believed that the tiny people lived in nearby caves. The caves were never entered for fear of disturbing the tiny people.

Though the vast majority of things believed about these “tiny people” is seen clearly as the stuff of legend by everyone today, there are a handful of evidences which seem to indicate that there could possibly be a smidgen of validity to some of these widely held stories.

An 1876 New York Times article describes numerous graves discovered in Tennessee that contain skeletons of Pygmies. Initially, the remains were thought to be those of children, however, later examination revealed that this is probably not the case:

“In this state [Tennessee], burying grounds have been found where the skeleton appear all to have been pygmies… it is affirmed that the skulls are found to have possessed the dentes sapientiae [Wisdom teeth] and must have belonged to persons of mature age. … two bodies that were found in the vast limestone cavern… neither of them more than four feet high: the hair seemed to be sandy or inclining to the yellow.”

According to Cherokee legend, a group of tiny people known as the “Yunwi Tsunsdi’” inhabited the Appalachian Mountains. These individuals were believed to have spent much of their time drumming and dancing.  It has been postulated that if there was any truth to this Cherokee belief, then the bones found in Tennessee could belong to those of the “Yunwi Tsunsdi’”.

The Pigmy Tribes of the Ohio Valley, states, “One far flung theory is presented by Virgilio R. Pilapil, who asserts that the Tennessee graves did contain pygmy remains and that the pygmies arrived in ancient times from southeast Asia, where today’s diminutive Aetas live.”

Charms and Protections Against Fairies

Large portions of the below account have been made possible thanks to the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia’s article titled, “Fairies”. The below section is made available through Creative Common / Share-Alike License. Wikipedia® is a registered trademark of the Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing knowledge.

With laws denouncing the celebration of fairies as a form of witchcraft and a great distrust in the tiny witches, the witch doctors, clergymen and elderly of the day provided numerous instructions on how to guard oneself against an attack from fairies:

In terms of protective charms, wearing clothing inside out, church bells, St. John’s wort, and four-leaf clovers are regarded as effective.

In Canadian folklore, the most popular type of fairy protection is bread, varying from stale bread to hard tack or a slice of fresh home-made bread. Bread is associated with the home and the hearth, as well as with industry and the taming of nature, and as such, seems to be disliked by some types of fairies – not to mention the fact that Jesus stated, “I am the bread of life…”

On the other hand, in much of the Celtic tradition, baked goods are a traditional offering to the fairies, as are cream and butter.

“The prototype of food, and therefore a symbol of life, bread was one of the commonest protections against fairies. Before going out into a fairy-haunted place, it was customary to put a piece of dry bread in one’s pocket,” writes one commentator.

In County Wexford, Ireland, in 1882, it was reported that “if an infant is carried out after dark and a piece of bread is wrapped in its bib or dress, this will protect it from any witchcraft or evil.”

While many fairies will confuse travelers on the path, the will o’ the wisp can be avoided by not following it.

Certain locations, known to be haunts of fairies, are to be avoided; C. S. Lewis reported hearing of a cottage more feared for its reported fairies than its reported ghost.

In particular, digging in fairy hills was unwise.

Paths that the fairies travel are also wise to avoid. Home-owners have knocked corners from houses because the corner blocked the fairy path, and cottages have been built with the front and back doors in line, so that the owners could, in need, leave them both open and let the fairies troop through all night.

Locations such as fairy forts were left undisturbed; even cutting brush on fairy forts was reputed to be the death of those who performed the act.

Fairy trees, such as thorn trees, were dangerous to chop down; one such tree was left alone in Scotland, though it prevented a road being widened for seventy years.

In Scotland, fairies were often mischievous and to be feared. No one dared to set foot in the mill or kiln at night, as it was known that the fairies brought their corn to be milled after dark. So long as the locals believed this, the miller could sleep secure in the knowledge that his stores were not being robbed. John Fraser, the miller of Whitehill, claimed to have hidden and watched the fairies trying unsuccessfully to work the mill. He said he decided to come out of hiding and help them, upon which one of the fairy women gave him a gowpen (double handful of meal) and told him to put it in his empty girnal (store), saying that the store would remain full for a long time, no matter how much he took out.

It is also believed that to know the name of a particular fairy could summon it to you and force it to do your bidding.

Before the advent of modern medicine, many physiological conditions were untreatable and when children were born with abnormalities, it was common to blame the fairies.

Deadly Fairy Games: The Changeling

Of all the superstitions held by our ancient ancestors of Europe, it’s hard to imagine any which has claimed the number of innocent lives as much as the belief in changelings.

A changeling was believed to have been a creature the fairies had left in place for a human child they had stolen – though the child’s features and physical appearance may have been unchanged, it was commonly believed that the child itself had been taken and living inside the shell of what was once the child was a fraudulent counterfeit.

A child was especially thought to have become a changeling when he or she suddenly and without any explanation became sick or developed an unexplained disease, disorder, or developmental disability.

It would be impossible to detail the countless number of changeling stories said to have occurred over the centuries, but it is believed that thousands of children may have died due to their parents mistaking them to have been a changeling.

  1. L. Ashliman, Professor Emeritus of German at the University of Pittsburgh, is an American folklorist and generally considered to be a leading expert on folklore and fairytales.

Asliman translated an 1816 German account of a supposed changeling, A Changeling is Beaten with a Switch,  which goes along the following:

According to Asliman’s translation, in 1580, near Breslau, a new mother was working to harvest a large crop of hay one summer.  The woman, who had barely had a week to recover from the birth of her child, took the baby and placed it on a small clump of grass, and left it alone while she helped with the haymaking.

After she had worked a long time, she returned to the newborn infant and upon simply looking at it, she began to cry and scream aloud – the child was not hers but had become a changeling.

As the story goes, the baby sucked the milk from her “so greedily and howled in such an inhuman manner that it was nothing like the child she knew.”

She took the baby home and after several days of the child not acting like the babe she knew, she told her story to the nobleman who told her, “If you think that this is not your child, then do this one thing. Take it out to the meadow where you left your previous child and beat it hard with a switch. Then you will witness a miracle.”

As the story concludes, the woman followed the nobleman’s advice and went out and beat the child with a switch until it began screaming very loudly. Then the Devil brought back her stolen child, saying: “There, you have it!” And with that he took his own child away.

It was believed that one’s baby could be returned by the fairies by doing a number of different things; a popular practice involved confusing the changeling by cooking or brewing in eggshells – this nonsense would force the changeling to speak, thus revealing its true age.

More violent levels included attempting to trying to burn the changeling in the oven as well as hitting or whipping the changeling, all of which would immediately summon the changeling’s parents or the devil who would then be ready to trade back the human baby for the changeling.

As difficult as this belief in changelings may be to believe in modern society, these were not some fringe notions held by a wily few a handful of centuries ago, but shared and even propagated by many of the leading minds of the hour.

William R. Albury, PhD, is adjunct professor of history in the School of Humanities at the University of New England, Armidale, Australia, and he writes, “The idea of the changeling draws on the ancient folk belief that an abnormal child was not the real child of its putative parents, but a spirit, such as an elf, fairy, or goblin, left in the real child’s stead. Having been abducted from the parents, the true child was raised amongst its supernatural abductors, while the otherworldly child remained.

Consistent with the more severe manifestations of autism, most changelings lacked typical social behavior. Refraining from talk or laughter, they would cry incessantly, remain silent, or seem to find enjoyment at someone else’s distress. On rare occasions, a changeling might unexpectedly utter a word or two, giving the impression that the creature obstinately refused to speak despite an ability to do so.

“Often changelings were described as physically grotesque, but some of them, like some autistic individuals, were said to be of normal appearance and show exceptional ability in a single area such as music or concentrated work (MacCulloch). A well-known historical example of a reputed changeling is the 12-year-old Saxon boy to whom Martin Luther referred in a biblical commentary of 1535 and a discussion with his associates in 1540.

“As the child was said to be able to do nothing but eat and excrete, Luther regarded it as a mass of flesh animated not by a human soul but by a devil. The situation, he believed, was one in which the devil had acted “to remove a child completely and put himself into the cradle in place of the stolen child” (Miles 30-31).

Suspected changelings were thrown into water, beaten severely, left unfed in fields or forests or burned in hot stoves – all in hopes of the parents getting their original baby back.

However, Pittsburgh’s Professor Asliman, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on European superstitions, postulates that these ghastly actions may not have been simply the unwitting work of innocent and ignorant parents, but rather an acceptable excuse for legal and socially acceptable infanticide.

“There is ample evidence that these legendary accounts do not misrepresent or exaggerate the actual abuse of suspected changelings…. A peasant family’s very subsistence frequently depended upon the productive labor of each member, and it was enormously difficult to provide for a person who was a permanent drain on the family’s scarce resources. The fact that the changelings’ ravenous appetite is so frequently mentioned indicates that the parents of these unfortunate children saw in their continuing existence a threat to the sustenance of the entire family. Changeling tales support other historical evidence in suggesting that infanticide was not infrequently the solution selected,” writes Asliman.

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