Imagine you live in the 17th century. After surviving the ordeal of childbirth, you now have to find enough food for your family and keep a roof over your head. You might think that’s plenty to worry about on its own. But for some families, the extra worry of changelings was very real.
So what are changelings? We’re going to find out! Come with me and we’ll go on a magical journey. We’ll explore what changelings are, how to guard against them, and the sinister side of changeling stories…
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Any Google search will throw up different folklore for different nationalities. So for the purposes of space, I’m sticking to the UK.
What are changelings?
Changelings are beings left behind to replace stolen children. Humans blamed both faeries and trolls for stealing the children. Apparently, trolls thought their offspring would be more respectable if raised by humans.
Some also believed that faeries bore frail children, and they swapped their fragile offspring for more robust human babies.
However, not all beings left behind were replacement children. Some old elves adopted the guise of children so humans would care for them in their old age.
Alternatively, unusual children might point to relationships between humans and non-human creatures. Some believed that “the supernatural parent would eventually stake some claim over his or her child” (Eberly 1988: 60).
Others were replicas made of wood, that appeared to be living children due to faerie magick. This happens in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (aff link), when the Gentleman creates a changeling of Arabella using part of a moss oak. Such changelings would very soon sicken and die, leaving the parents to grieve for an apparently dead child.
How do you spot changelings?
You could spot changelings because they didn’t grow, no matter how much they ate. Apparently, they also had a wizened or deformed appearance. Some were quite active but others simply lay in their cradles like dolls.
However, despite their ugliness, changelings often demonstrated inexplicable wisdom and didn’t speak the way children do. One story tells of a mother who asked her child to prepare a meal in an empty eggshell. Amazed by the request, the changeling expressed his surprise and gave himself away. The faeries returned her own child as a result.
Walter Gregor (1881) notes that suspicion rested on cross children that wasted away. The parents either placed the child in front of a blazing fire or suspended it a basket above one. I should point out here that the child wasn’t put in the fire. Just near enough that it would prompt a changeling to disappear up the chimney.
Gregor also notes that to bring back the actual child, parents would suspend the changeling in a basket over a fire from a hazel tree branch. If it screamed, revealing its changeling nature, the parents took it to a crossroads where a corpse would be passed over it. The faeries restored the real child.
Could parents guard against changelings?
Unbaptised children faced the biggest risk, especially fair-haired kids. According to William Henderson (1879), people in Northumberland considered it unlucky to take unbaptised children on a journey in case the faeries stole them. Placing garlic, bread and steel in the cradle guarded against this sort of theft.
Parents might hang an open pair of scissors over a cot to deter faerie theft. Or they might stick an iron pin into the baby’s clothes. After all, faeries are severely allergic to iron. Other parents might make the sign of the Cross above the baby, and sprinkle the cot with holy water.
Thomas Keightley relates a Scottish tale in which two lads were at a friend’s home when they heard his child cry out in its cradle. Its mother uttered a blessing and the lads set off on an errand. A part way down the lane, they found a healthy child beside the road – it was their friend’s child! The faeries abandoned it after spiriting it away because of its mother’s blessing.
They took the child with them and returned it home next time they were in the area. They spoke to the child’s mother, who complained of her child’s sudden illness. The boys produced the child, much to the mother’s joy. The lads built a fire and put the sickly child in a creel above the kindling. The child – or rather the faery in disguise – took off up the chimney, swearing all the way.
The darker side of changeling stories
In northern England, people believed faeries would treat the real babies well. But sadly the genuine hysteria over changelings led to some unfortunate incidents. In 1826, a woman drowned a four-year-old who couldn’t speak or stand. She claimed she drove out the faerie and surprisingly the judge acquitted her of murder.
In the 1890s, a man in Ireland murdered his wife after an illness led to a local accusing her of being a changeling. Convicted of manslaughter, the lack of a murder verdict reflected the fact that her husband maintained he killed the changeling, not his wife.
Perhaps changelings offered a helpful motive if parents chose to dispose of unwanted children. Susan Schoon Eberly notes the attitude of people towards disabled children in earlier centuries. For some, the exchange of the real child for a changeling became a form of “supernatural intervention” as retribution for an earlier sin (1988:60).
There are no doubt countless more such stories in the annals of history. What better way to dispose of unwanted people than claim they’re actually a changeling?
What do you think? Are changelings possible or just misunderstood?
Eberly, Susan Schoon (1988), ‘Fairies and the Folklore of Disability: Changelings, Hybrids and the Solitary Fairy’, Folklore, 99 (1), pp. 58-77.
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