Are children, both the newly-born and toddlers, in some sort of danger from the Unseen world, simply by virtue of surviving their births? The testament of the ancients, as it has passed to us in the fund of folklore, would say "yes". A mountain of folklore from Northern and Western Europe deal with the pervasive fear experienced by mothers and the folk of previous centuries regarding "changelings" and the common theme of "stolen children"- and the many traditional steps taken to shield children from the dangers of the unseen and supernatural.
People have struggled to come to grips with these strange beliefs in many ways. The simplest modern explanation would have us believe that "changeling" stories were vibrant folkloric expressions of a very real sort of loss- the common deaths of children at a very early age, rooted in a time when infant and toddler mortality was very high. Perhaps, it is reasoned, parents might prefer to imagine their dead children were in reality "taken" and still alive in some fashion, while the corpse they were burying was merely a copy.
If this was the case- and I don't believe it was- it certainly wouldn't belong to the realm of superstition, but to the common comfort sought by every Christian mother who ever lost a small child, in any age (including this one): the idea that her lost child lives on in heaven, while the earthly body is only a "shell" to be buried. One cannot look at changeling lore and not see the common themes: another world to which children are taken, and the meaningless or fake wooden copy left behind.
But changeling stories have another, more disturbing element, especially in Irish folklore: the idea that the child has been exchanged with a living being, a faery which takes the form of the child and continues to live as the child. Many charms and rituals exist for forcing the faery-people to return the actual child and take back the changeling. Some of those charms include nothing more than forcing the changeling to reveal its true nature by allowing it to see something it finds amazing or ludicrous, after which it cannot hold back from revealing its preternatural intelligence by expressing its wonder or making a comment- such as the boiling of water or beer inside of egg-shells.
The act of displaying its Otherworldly nature is enough to force it to leave or be banished, with the hopeful instant return of the original child.
This is an element of changeling mythos that brings us into a new realm of mystical speculation. Clearly, we aren't dealing with death in some folkloric way, but with the loss of a child to a supernatural "other". For all practical purposes, the "child" is still there, kicking, eating, squawking, and seeming innocent (even if changeling babies were rumored to eat voraciously and seldom be satisfied, and never gain weight) but the parents suspect that something is "wrong" with their child, to the point of believing that they no longer are in possession of their child.
Sadly, some charms to force the faery-people to return the original child required the "changeling" baby to be tormented or tortured in some way- and I have heard that deaths of the suspected changelings sometimes occurred in the rural places.
These sorts of legends beg for an elucidation that goes beyond the simple dismissal of the modern day researchers who are all too quick to say "ignorant superstition" and leave it at that. It is my contention that the ancients felt that ominous, weird forces did threaten "new" children, and there is a very easy-to-understand reason why. A "new" child isn't a "new" thing at all, but, in line with the ancient beliefs, a continuance of a being or entity of some sort (a spirit) from the unseen that has come into this world through the event of birth.
That "new" child is simultaneously a new member of a human community, but an ageless member of the oldest community of all: the community of spiritual forces that we are all a part of. As we have worn out our lives in this world, we have forgotten our more ancient connections with the powers of the Unseen world; I believe that we will recall those connections, on some level, when we all must return to that state at death.
But the ancients clearly believed that something needed to be done to truly separate a child from the grip of the unseen, as soon as it was born- and the Pagan rites of baptism, the "sprinkling with water" of both the ancient Druids and the ancient Teutons, is the primary example of the use of water to magically separate a newborn from the grip of the unseen, and differentiate it fully into a "worldly" state. That names were bestowed during these sorts of rites is also easy to understand; to name something or someone is to bestow on it a status in this world, in the order of our minds and communities. A "naming" is an act of will that differentiates something from the mysterious background-reality out of which all things come, and gives it an identity.
This sort of naming gives a sort of protection. The ritual of baptism utilizes water, which was itself seen as symbolic of the "primal, watery layers" of the ultimate origins of things- the Bog-Weird, the murk or the "primordial ooze" that some say was the true origin of physical life in this world. The water is a symbol of the dark depths of unconsciousness, the murky depths of the originating unseen, and Fate. If the bright flame of fire is the light of this world, the dark waters are symbols of the other. To sprinkle or baptize a child with water is a symbolic re-exposure to the unseen, so that the child can be then named and re-integrated formally into this world, as the unseen watches.
It is no mistake that so many of the ancients of Europe believed that death was marked by the soul's passage over a watery boundary- it had a correlation to the passage over water into this world in the first place- passage through the physical watery fluid of the womb, and the following "sprinkling" of the consecrating waters over the infant. The Christian rite of baptism neatly replaced the "water sprinkling" rite of the ancients, and continued to uphold this ancient logic.
Apparently, the "connections" we have in the Unseen world are not always so eager to give us up to our fateful journey (through conception and birth) into the world of men and women, and, it was believed, the strange forces that lingered near children might try to steal them back, or cause tragic accidents or sickness to kill them, thereby getting them back again. Alwyn and Brinley Rees, in their indispensable work "Celtic Heritage" report:
"In the west of Ireland to the present day, a newborn child is palpably within the grip of unseen forces, and precautions have to be taken lest it be born away by the fairies. It will be remembered that it was a supernatural claw that snatched Pryderi from his mother's side. The danger of abduction is greatly reduced by baptism, and the child is sometimes given a temporary name, or a lay baptism is resorted to, to protect it until a proper ceremony can be arranged. Baptism is also widely believed to be efficacious in restoring a child to health, that is, in preventing it from slipping back into the unseen world. By being returned through water to the world beyond, and brought back again by the proper ritual, the child is separated more completely from its uncanny associations with the unseen world. From now on, its relations with that world will be channeled through the proper rites" (p. 242-243.)
There is an interesting relationship to the newborn and its unseen "other"- for, as I have covered in great detail in my many writings concerning Witchcraft, the Witch- a human man or woman who intentionally "crosses the boundary" between this world and the unseen, does so through relationship with a familiar power from the "other side" which is precisely that "Other". The Witch cultivates, as an adult, the "uncanny associations" that the Rees mention, and which children come into this world still strongly in the grip of. Baptism rites, either Pagan or Christian, are attempts to "de-witch" or "un-witch" a child, so that it can safely and more easily develop into a worldly life.
It may be strange to imagine the Unseen powers trying to "reclaim" a newborn; but when one examines the opposite extreme, the end of life, it is easy to understand. When our loved ones die, we normally don't want to let them go- if we could do some ritual that would literally pull them back from the Unseen, mysterious condition they have gone into, many would certainly do it. Would we be so different from those mysterious forces that may mourn a friend or comrade of theirs departing from the unseen to become integrated into this world of materiality, and who are using their power to bring that comrade "home"? The point, I think, is that transitions are never easy, on either end of life's spectrum, because the fact of parting is a tearful occasion. But for the order of things to work, we must integrate successfully, and transition successfully, as dignified beings.
The Rees go on to say:
"If we are right in interpreting the changeling as a personification of the otherworldly side of a human child's nature, these tales may refer to a pre-Christian rite analogous to baptism, whereby the human child itself was ritually "expelled" or "exposed" so as to separate it from the supernatural and save it from being possessed by its mysterious "other" self" (p. 243).
The Folklore Society of Great Britain, in 1894, put out their Folk-Lore, A Quarterly Review of Myth, Tradition, Institution and Custom. All of their works are treasure-troves of folkloric insight into the strange metaphysics of the Unseen; this edition contained many treasures, including a Scottish lullaby-poem, discovered in 1801 scrawled on the fly-leaf of a book, in the "thin, sharp-pointed handwriting used by ladies at the beginning of the century", but which probably belonged to the last century.
Some unknown Scottish mother had penned this lullaby for her child. I will give the Lullaby as it was written, and then give a modern transliteration of it, for those who may not be quite so up on their comprehension of the rich local, dialectical terminology and word-usages of that age:
"The Boomen and Maukins are scourin the steep,
The puir wee bit mousie's nae mair at her ease,
For the howlet is scrieghin amang the lane trees,
But ye'll sleep my luvelie, Hushe, Hushe and baloo,
And I'll keep the Boomen frae medlin wi' you.
Wheesh there, Wullie Moolie, Hushe, Hushe noo my pet,
Hear, Hear how he's jinglin the hesp o' the yett,
He'll be here in a jiffie, Hushe, Hushe now my dear,
For queyt sleepin babies he winnae come near,
Gae 'wa ugly Wullie, my bairnie I'll keep,
Ye dinna tak wee yins wha'll cuddle and sleep,
Na! Hushe and baloo babie, Hushe and baloo,
There s nae Wullie Moolie sall ever get you."
"Boomen" are supernatural creatures, like goblins or bogles; Maukins- malkins- are witches in cat or hare form. The "Wullie Moolie" would appear to be a booman of its own, but a very particular type: a "wooly earthy" thing ("mool" means earth)- either a spiritual presence known well in this woman's part of Scotland, or something more ancient/sinister; the devil himself? It would appear to be a chthonic, hairy thing, and the Devil gets that appearance often enough. Whatever it is, it, like the boomen and witches (all representing the powers of the unseen world) are a threat to young children.
In modern English:
"The boomen and maukins are scouring the hills, (or countryside)
The poor, tiny mouse is no more at her ease,
For the owl is screeching among the trees of the lane,
But you'll sleep my lovely, hush, hush and easily sleep,
And I'll keep the boomen from meddling with you.
Shush there, Wullie Moolie, hush, hush now my pet,
Hear, hear how he's jingling the clasp of the gate,
He'll be here in a jiffy, hush, hush now my dear,
For quiet, sleeping babies he won't come near.
Go away, ugly Wullie, my baby I'll keep,
You don't take small babies who'll cuddle and sleep.
Now! Hush and easily sleep, baby, hush and easy sleep,
There's no Wullie Moolie shall ever get you."
I think this rare bit of folklore encompasses more than just a woman's heart-felt lullaby; it can also be read as a protection charm. The dangers of the world around are reflected in the animal kingdom- the night is dangerous even for the poor mouse who is terrified by the screeches of owls. That same night has bogles and witches "scouring"- looking for something? But this child will sleep, and it appears that sleeping and being quiet is the best protection from the "Wullie Moolie"- for it is attracted by cries in the night. One can easily divine one of the earliest kinds of protection for children from this- certainly the earliest pre-cultural humans risked being found by night-predators because of the cries of their infants.
Being quiet in the dangerous darkness would just seem to be common sense. No Scottish woman from the late 1700's would have had any knowledge of pre-cultural humanity cowering in the jungles, hoping that tigers or lions (quite wooly or furry things themselves) didn't find them in the night. But human beings are not designed to be nocturnal; we, like all diurnal creatures who are naturally helpless or less capable in the dark know instinctively how to hide and be quiet. I think it is hard-wired into us to both fear the dark and to not move around or make much noise in it, in the same way that baby chicks come forth from the womb naturally afraid of the shadows of predator birds that they have never seen.
If any of these ancient, instinctual/intuitive impulses had anything to do with this lullaby, they were fully unconscious on the mother's part. But these unconscious powers don't stay down in the dark; they emerge in surprising other ways. I'm not at all suggesting that boomen and maukins are just "folkloric symbols" for unconscious fears born in pre-cultural predation; I know that some people have advanced this theory, but I don't agree. I think that the deep, watery chasm of inherited biological experience that layers deep in our humanity does contain ancient fears, but they are only a part of a bigger story. Entities like Boomen and Maukins are quite real in their own right, and belong to that shadowy, unseen world that the "primal wilderness darkness" is only a single historical manifestation of.
And children, as we have seen, are more vulnerable to them, for many reasons. May the wisdom of the old people help us to understand these mysteries and thereby help our young ones on their journeys through life.