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Chapter V

The Plentyn-newid--The Cruel Creed of Ignorance regarding Changelings--Modes of Ridding the House of the Fairy Child--The Legend of the Frugal Meal--Legend of the Place of Strife--Dewi Dal and the Fairies--Prevention of Fairy Kidnapping--Fairies caught in the Act by Mothers--Piety as an Exorcism


THE Tylwyth Teg have a fatal admiration for lovely children. Hence the abundant folklore concerning infants who have been stolen from their cradles, and a plentyn-newid (change-child-the equivalent of our changeling) left in its place by the Tylwyth Teg. The plentyn-newid has the exact appearance of the stolen infant, at first; but its aspect speedily alters. It grows ugly of face, shrivelled of form, ill-tempered, wailing, and generally frightful. it bites and strikes, and becomes a terror to the poor mother. Sometimes it is idiotic; but again it has a supernatural cunning, not only impossible in a mortal babe, but not even appertaining to the oldest heads, on other than fairy shoulders. The veracious Prophet Jones testifies to a case where he himself saw the plentyn-newid--an idiot left in the stead of a son of Edmund John William, of the Church Valley, Monmouthshire. Says Jones: 'I saw him myself. There was something diabolical in his aspect,' but especially in his motions. He 'made very disagreeable screaming sounds,' which used to frighten strangers greatly, but otherwise he was harmless. He was of a 'dark, tawny complexion.' He lived longer than such children usually lived in Wales in that day, (a not altogether pleasant intimation regarding the hard lot to which such children were subjected by their unwilling parents,) reaching the age of ten or twelve years. But the creed of ignorance everywhere as regards changelings is a very cruel one, and reminds us of the tests of the witchcraft trials. Under the pretence of proving whether the objectionable baby is a changeling or not, it is held on a shovel over the fire, or it ts bathed in a solution of the fox-glove, which kills it; a case where this test was applied is said to have actually occurred in Carnarvonshire in 1857. That there is nothing specially Welsh in this, needs not to be pointed out. Apart from the fact that infanticide, like murder, is of no country, similar practices as to changelings have prevailed in most European lands, either to test the children's uncanny quality, or, that being admitted, to drive it away and thus compel the fairies to restore the missing infant. In Denmark the mother heats the oven, and places the changeling on the peel, pretending to put it in; or whips it severely with a rod; or throws it into the water. In Sweden they employ similar methods. In Ireland the hot shovel is used. With regard to a changeling which Martin Luther tells of in his 'Colloquia Mensalia,' the great reformer declared to the Prince of Anhalt, that if he were prince of that country he would 'venture homicidium thereon, and would throw it into the River Moldaw.' He admonished the people to pray devoutly to God to take away the devil, which 'was done accordingly; and the second year after the changeling died.' It is hardly probable that the child was very well fed during the two years that this pious process was going on. Its starved ravenous appetite indeed is indicated in Luther's description: It 'would eat as much as two threshers, would laugh and be joyful when any evil happened in the house, but would cry and be very sad when all went well.'


A story, told in various forms in Wales, preserves a tradition of an exceedingly frugal meal which was employed as a means of banishing a plentyn-newid. M. Villemarqué, when in Glamorganshire, heard this story, which he found to be precisely the same as a Breton legend, in which the changeling utters a rh)-med triad as follows:

Gwcljz vi ken guelet iar wenn,
Gwcljz mez ken gwelet gwezen.
Gweljz mez ha gweliz gwial,
Gweliz derven e Koat Brezal,
Biskoaz na weliz kemend all.

In the Glamorgan story the changeling was heard muttering to himself in a cracked voice: 'I have seen the acorn before I saw the oak: I have seen the egg before I saw the white hen: I have never seen the like of this.' M. Villemarqué found it remarkable that these words form in Welsh a rhymed triad nearly the same as in the Breton ballad, thus:

Gweliz mez ken gwelet derven,
Gweliz vi ken gwelet iar wenn,
Erioez ne wiliz evelhenn
[Keightley, 'Fairy Mythology']

Whence he concluded that the story and the rhyme are older than the seventh century, the epoch of the separation of the Britons of Wales and Armorica. And this is the story: A mother whose child had been stolen, and a changeling left in its place, was advised by the Virgin Mary to prepare a meal for ten farm-servants in an egg-shell, which would make the changeling speak. This she did, and the changeling asked what she was about. She told him. Whereupon he exclaimed, 'A meal for ten, dear mother, in one egg-shell?' Then he uttered the exclamation given above, ('I have seen the acorn, etc.,) and the mother replied, 'You have seen too many things, my son, you shall have a beating.' With this she fell to beating him, the child fell to bawling, and the fairy came and took him away, leaving the stolen child sleeping sweetly in the cradle. It awoke and said, 'Ah, mother, I have been a long time asleep!'


I have encountered this tale frequently among the Welsh, and it always keeps in the main the likeness of M. Villemarqués story. The following is a nearly literal version as related in Radnorshire (an adjoining county to Montgomeryshire), and which, like most of these tales, is characterised by the non-primitive tendency to give names of localities: 'In the parish of Trefeglwys, near Llanidloes, in the county of Montgomery, there is a little shepherd's cot that is commonly called the Place of Strife, on account of the extraordinary strife that has been there. The inhabitants of the cottage were a man and his wife, and they had born to them twins, whom the woman nursed with great care and tenderness. Some months after, indispensable business called the wife to the house of one of her nearest neighbours, yet not withstanding that she had not far to go, she did not like to leave her children by themselves in their cradle, even for a minute, as her house was solitary, and there were many tales of goblins, or the Tylwyth Teg, haunting the neighbourhood. However, she went and returned as soon as she could;' but on her way back she was 'not a little terrifed at seeing, though it was midday, some of the old elves of the blue petticoat.' She hastened home in great apprehension; but all was as she had left it, so that her mind was greatly relieved. 'But after some time had passed by, the good people began to wonder that the twins did not grow at all, but still continued little dwarfs. The man would have it that they were not his children; the woman said they must be their children, and about this arose the great strife between them that gave name to the place. One evening when the woman was very heavy of heart, she determined to go and consult a conjuror, feeling assured that everything was known to him . . . . Now there was to be a harvest soon of the rye and oats, so the wise man said to her, "When you are preparing dinner for the reapers, empty the shell of a hen's egg, and boil the shell full of pottage, and take it out through the door as if you meant it for a dinner to the reapers, and then listen what the twins will say; if you hear the children speaking things above the understanding of children, return into the house, take them and throw them into the waves of Llyn Ebyr, which is very near to you; but if you don't hear anything remarkable do them no injury." And when the day of the reaping came, the woman did as her adviser had recommended to her; and as she went outside the door to listen she heard one of the children say to the other:

Gwelais fesen cyn gweled derwen;
Gweiais wy cyn gweled iâr
Erioed ni welais ferwi bwyd i fedel
Mewn plisgyn wy iár!

Acorns before oak I knew;
An egg before a hen;
Never one hen's egg-shell stew
Enough for harvest men!

'On this the mother returned to her house and took the two children and threw them into the Llyn; and suddenly the goblins in their blue trousers came to save their dwarfs, and the mother had her own children back again; and thus the strife between her and her husband ended.' ['Cambrian Quarterly,' ii., 86.]


This class of story is not always confined to the case of the plentyn-newid, as I have said. It is applied to the household fairy, when the latter, as in the following in stance, appears to have brought a number of extremely noisy friends and acquaintances to share his shelter. Dewi Dal was a farmer, whose house was over-run with fairies, so that he could not sleep of nights for the noise they made. Dewi consulted a wise man of Taiar, who entrusted Dewi's wife to do certain things, which she did carefully, as follows: 'It was the commencement of oat harvest, when Cae Mawr, or the big field, which it took fifteen men to mow in a day, was ripe for the harvesters. "I will prepare food for the fifteen men who are going to mow Cae Mawr tomorrow," said Eurwallt, the wife, aloud. "Yes, do," replied Dewi, also aloud, so that the fairies might hear, "and see that the food is substantial and sufficient for the hard work before them." Said Eurwallt, "The fifteen men shall have no reason to complain upon that score. They shall be fed according to our means." Then when evening was come Eurwallt prepared food for the harvesters' sustenance upon the following day. Having procured a sparrow, she trussed it like a fowl, and roasted it by the kitchen lire. She then placed some salt in a nutshell, and set the sparrow and the salt, with a small piece of bread, upon the table, ready for the fifteen men's support while mowing Cae Mawr. So when the fairies beheld the scanty provision made for so many men, they said "Let us quickly depart from this place, for alas the means of our hosts are exhausted. Who before this was ever so reduced in circumstances as to serve up a sparrow for the day's food of fifteen men?" So they departed upon that very night. And Dewi Dal and his family lived, ever afterwards, in comfort and peace. [Rev. T. R. Lloyd (Estyn), in 'The Principality.']


The Welsh fairies have several times been detected in the act of carrying off a child; and in these cases, if the mother has been sufficiently energetic in her objections, they have been forced to abandon their purpose Dazzy Walter, the wife of Abel Walter, of Ebwy Fawr, one night in her husband's absence awoke in her bed and found her baby was not at her side. In great fright she sought for it, and caught it with her hand upon the boards above the bed, which was as far as the fairies had succeeded in carrying it. And Jennet Francis, of that same valley of Ebwy Fawr, one night in bed felt her infant son being taken from her arms; whereupon she screamed and hung on, and, as she phrased it, 'God and me were too hard for them.' This son subsequently grew up and became a famous preacher of the gospel.

There are special exorcisms and preventive measures to interfere with the fairies in their quest of infants. The most significant of these, throughout Cambria, is a general habit of piety. Any pious exclamation has value as an exorcism; but it will not serve as a preventive. To this end you must put a knife in the child's cradle when you leave it alone, or you must lay a pair of tongs across the cradle.

Jennet Francis struggles with the fairies for her baby

But the best preventive is baptism; it is usually the unbaptised infant that is stolen. So in Friesland, Germany, it is considered a protection against the fairies who deal in changelings, to lay a Bible under the child's pillow. In Thuringia it is deemed an infallible preventive to hang the fathers breeches against the wall. Anything more trivial than this, as a matter for the consideration of grave and scholarly men, one could hardly imagine; but it is in precisely these trivial or seemingly trivial details that the student of comparative folk-lore finds his most extraordinary indices. Such a superstition in isolation would suggest nothing; but it is found again in Scotland, [Henderson, 'Notes on the Folk-Lore of the Northern Counties ] and other countries including China, where a pair of the trousers of the child's father are put on the frame of the bedstead in such a way that the waist shall hang downward or be lower than the legs. On the trousers is stuck a piece of red paper, having four words written upon it intimating that all unfavourable influences are to go into the trousers instead of afflicting the babe.' [See Doolittle's 'Social Life of the Chinese.']

Next: Chapter VI: Living with the Tylwyth Teg