Changelings occupy quite a prominent role in folklore, and I thought I’d turn my focus to them in this post.
Any Google search will throw up different folklore for different nationalities, but for the purposes of space, I’m sticking to the UK.
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. Old elves who wanted humans to care for them in their old age could be changelings.
Others were replicas made of wood, that appeared to be living children due to faerie magick. This is the case in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (affiliate 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, meaning that parents with ugly or disabled children blamed changelings, instead of accepting their children as they were.
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. The changeling would give himself away, and the faeries would return her own child.
Walter Gregor (1881) notes that suspicion rested on cross children that wasted away. The child was either placed in front of a blazing fire, or suspended in a basket above it. I have to 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. A scream meant it was a changeling and it would be taken to a crossroads where a corpse would be passed over it. The real child would be restored.
Were all children at risk of being stolen?
Unbaptized children faced the biggest risk, especially fair haired kids. According to William Henderson (1879), people in Northumberland considered it unlucky to take unbaptized children on a journey in case the fairies 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, or 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.
In northern England, people actually 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 she was acquitted of murder.
In the 1890s, a man in Ireland murdered his wife after an illness that 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.
A story about changelings
I was fascinated by changelings for years, particularly since children might believe themselves to be changelings. Social outcasts or misfits would look for a reason why they didn’t fit in.
So if you’d like to read two short stories inspired by changeling folklore, then just sign up below!
Want more folklore in your inbox?
Add your email below and get these posts in your inbox every week.
You'll also get 2 free creepy tales inspired by the folklore of changelings!