‘O, that it could be prov’d,
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children, where they lay,’
William Shakespeare, Henry IV Act1, Sc1
The belief that the Tylwyth Teg would exchange their weak or disabled children for those of mortals is widespread throughout the British Isles, and Wales certainly has more than its fair share of tales which involve the theft of children.
It was believed that fairies were particularly active in leaving changelings on St John’s Eve (23rd June) and parents of children were often particularly careful on this day. There were several methods by which fairies could be prevented from abducting a child and leaving their own, and these included a mother’s presence, tongs placed cross-ways on the crib and the early baptism of the child.
The legend persisted through to the 19th century, for many reasons. As Elias Owen suggested, many mothers, ‘who had sickly or idiotic babies would, in uncivilised places, gladly embrace the idea that the child she nursed was a changeling’. It was believed that should the fairy child be placed at risk, the mother of the child would rescue her child and return the human baby. The risk varied, from leaving a child in a wood overnight, to the throwing of the ‘fairy’ child into a river.
The latter remedy was to be conducted in the presence of a conjuror, who would cry out at the river,
‘Crap ar y wrach’, which translates to, ‘A grip on the hag’
After which the mother would respond, ‘Rhy hwyr gyfraglach’, or, ‘Too late decrepit one’.
With that, the child was to be thrown into the river and abandoned. On returning to her home, it was believed the mother would find her own child safe and sound. A quite horrible prospect, and one which makes the blood run cold, in the possibility that it might have actually happened.
At Llanfwrog, a mother took her child gleaning (the collecting of the leftovers from a field after harvesting) and left it sleeping close by. The fairies came and took the child without the mother noticing, and as the unfortunate woman collected her 'child', she did not realise that it had been taken and replaced with a fairy child. However, it was not long before she noticed that the child would not feed and became weak and ever more sickly, nor would it try to walk.
On discussing the matter with her neighbours, they gave her some curious advice, that on the face of it seemed utterly ridiculous, but she was eventually convinced by her friends that it would work.
That evening, on returning home, the mother suffered another disappointing attempt to feed her ‘child’. Frustrated, she made to follow the instructions given to her by her neighbours. She took an egg shell and, rather hesitantly pretended to brew beer in it. It was with considerable surprise that she heard from behind, the child speak,
‘Mi welais fesen gan dderwen,
Mi welais wy gan iar,
Ond ni welais I erioed ddarllaw
Mewn cibyn wy iar.’
‘I have seen an oak having an acorn,
I have seen a hen having an egg,
But I never saw before brewing
In a shell of a hen’s egg.’
Thus the providence of the child was discovered, although nothing is known of the mother’s response…which is possibly a good thing.