Sunday, 3 December 2017

Changeling Children and Poisoned Milk

Each night, I read Michael Rosen's 'We're Going on a Bear Hunt' aloud to my son, Finn Jr. It's one of the few children's books that meet his exacting standards. I no longer need the book to prompt the words as I can quote each verse verbatim, which is good because I get to look at Helen Oxenbury's whimsical illustrations.

In anticipation of a future where night time stories have a little more psychological depth, I have begun to research Faerie stories. These are the stories of the otherworld that mirrors our own and is peopled by immortal creatures who look human, but envy our youth and promise and our ability to change. The stories are told from the mountainous Himalayas to the craggy coasts of Ireland. Ancient versions of the myths are recorded on clay tablets in Sumerian (the written language common to Babylon and Nineveh in the 3rd Millennium BCE). Modern versions can be found in the writings of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman and Susanna Clark. As with all folklore, there is no urtext and the stories vary by time and location. But all inform our common humanity. 

Take the story of Lilitu - alluded to in poems associated with the Gilgamesh cycle and later appearing as the succubus Lilith in Jewish mythology - this Babylonian Faerie lives in the otherworld and cannot raise children of her own because of her venomous breastmilk. She longs for a child and so steals into the world of humans at night and suckles human infants. Those babies that are suckled by Lilitu take their fill of poisoned milk at night, refuse to suckle at their mother's breast by day and inevitably die. 

You can see how this works as a supernatural explanation of high infant mortality - a death rate that was most likely due to the crowded conditions and poor sanitation in your average Mesopotamian city. Blame the elves not the city governors. Although there is an underlying theme of demonisation of the childless woman. 

The myth of the 'Changeling' is another story that features heavily in Faerie folklore. Here a human child is swapped for an immortal Faerie that has been enchanted to look like the stolen baby. The Faeries raise the child in the otherworld. The parents lose out on the youth and promise that a new life represents.

If you are concerned that your baby might be a Changeling, the traditional way to prove it is to boil water in an eggshell. Human babies cannot speak, but changelings can. The Changeling child will be so intrigued by your peculiar eggshell water boiling actions that he will ask what you are doing. The dark side of all this is that Changelings could be abandoned in the forest. The myth may hint at a darker reality of infanticide in times of famine and the stories humans tell themselves to justify
their most evil actions.

As interesting as all this research has proved, I don't think I'm going to be reading Finn Jr any of these stories anytime soon. For the time being, I think we'll stick with hunting bears.

" shiny wet nose, two big furry ears..."