Why Many of Our Appalachian Ancestors Believed in Fairies

Photo courtesy of Rick Hoppmann
Photo courtesy of Rick Hoppmann

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

Highly superstitious, our ancestors’ belief system often married fundamental Christian doctrine with old world paganism and the results were a fascinating blend of bizarre and often outrageous ideas to explain the dark forests beyond their cabins.

Though the belief in fairies can be traced back well before his time, England’s King James declared “faries” to be 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.

Fascinatingly, it was not just Appalachia’s European settlers who believed in the existence of fairies.  As they began to mingle with Native Americans, they discovered that many of their beliefs regarding fairies were shared by the land’s original inhabitants — especially the Cherokee.

While the Bible speaks about ancient “giants” who roamed the earth during the days of Noah, 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 was often believed by Native Americans that the little people loved 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 that if the tiny people were ever spotted by an adult human, they would beg the person who observed them not to tell anyone and would reward those who kept their word by helping them and their family out in times of need. From tribe to tribe there were variations of what the tiny people’s mannerisms were like, and whether they were seen as being good or evil varied from local tribe to tribe.

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.

Among our Scots-Irish ancestors, the belief in fairies was even more rampant.

“Fairy trees”, often small thorny trees, were considered dangerous to chop down as they were thought to be the homes of fairies; one such tree was left alone in Scotland, though it prevented a road being widened for seventy years.

The highlanders believed 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.

Of all the superstitions held by our ancient ancestors, 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.

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.

According to Asliman’s work, 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.

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.

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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