A changeling is a creature found in Western European folklore and folk religion. It is typically described as being
the offspring of a fairy, troll, elf or other legendary
creature that has been secretly left in the place of a human child. The apparent changeling could also be a
stock, an enchanted piece of wood that would soon appear to grow sick and
die. The theme of the swapped child is common among medieval literature and
reflects concern over infants afflicted by as-then unknown diseases, disorders,
A human child might be taken due to many factors: to act as a servant, the love of a human child, or malice. Most often
it was thought that fairies exchanged the children. Some Norwegian tales tell
that the change was made to prevent inbreeding: to give trolls and humans new
blood, humans were given children with enormous strength as a reward. In some
rare cases, the very elderly of the Fairy people would be exchanged in the place
of a human babe, and then the old fairy could live in comfort, being coddled by
its human parents. Simple
charms, such as an inverted coat or open iron scissors left where the child
sleeps, were thought to ward them off; other measures included a constant watch
over the child.
Changelings were first identified in folktales as infants who fail to thrive.
They were considered to have voracious appetites, malicious tempers, difficulty
in movement, and other unpleasant traits that caused concern
to the human parents in the tale. Changelings were said to have an unusual greenish
tint to their skin, or were very pale. They
were said to make piteous cries and possess a vast vocabulary (betraying their
intelligence). In Scotland it was
generally believed that changelings had a great love of playing upon pipes, and would do
anything to get a hold of that or similar instruments, needing no teaching at
all to be able to play.
According to folklore, it is possible to detect changelings in a variety of
ways. Many folktales offer unusual solutions such as brewing beer or stew in an eggshell, suspending the changeling over fire (whether by
way of a creel or
other type of basket), or hauling water
in many eggshells as if they were heavy buckets.
This is said to cause the accused changeling to exclaim "I am hundreds of years
old, and never have I seen the likes of that!". If
implementing the fire option, the changeling is supposed to flee up a chimney or
out the nearest window. In Irish folktales, tea brewed with foxglove, a toxic plant, is said to
send the changeling back to its real parents.
Children suspected to be changelings could have been expected to have very
difficult lives, subjected to daily abuse, neglect, or even murdered to rid
their parents of burden. Generally such killings went unjustified,though one case was
recorded in which a ten-year-old girl was left on a manure pile overnight. She
died of exposure and her parents were brought to trial
Some people believed that trolls would take unbaptized children. Once
children had been baptized and therefore become part of the Church, the
trolls could not take them. One belief is that trolls thought that being raised
by humans was something very classy, and that they therefore wanted to give
their own children a human upbringing.
Beauty in human children and young women, particularly blond hair, attracted the
In Scottish folklore, the children might be replacements for fairy children
in the tithe to Hell;
this is best known from the ballad of Tam Lin.
Some folklorists believe that fairies were memories of inhabitants of various
regions in Europe who had been driven into hiding by invaders. They held that
changelings had actually occurred; the hiding people would exchange their own
sickly children for the healthy children of the invaders.
In other folklore, the changelings are put in place of the child to feed off
of the mother of the child. The kidnapped child then becomes food for the
changeling's mother. This is done for the survival of their kind. Once the
changeling mother and the changeling have drained the life from the human mother
and child, the changeling and its mother begin to search for a new suitable food
source. Other sources say that
human milk is necessary for fairy children to survive. In these cases either the
newborn human child would be switched with a fairy babe to be suckled by the
human mother, or the human mother would be brought back to the fairy world to
breastfeed the fairy babies. It is also thought that human midwives were
necessary to bring fairy babes into the world.
Some changelings might forget they are not human and proceed to live a human
life. Changelings which do not forget, however, may later return to their fairy
family, possibly leaving the human family without warning. As for the human
child that was taken, he or she may often stay with the fairy family
The Mên-an-Tol stones in
Cornwall are supposed to have a fairy or
pixy guardian who can make miraculous
cures. In one case a Changeling baby was put through the stone in order for the
mother to get the real child back. Evil pixies had changed her child and the
ancient stones were able to reverse their evil spell.
In Ireland, looking at a baby with envy "over looking the baby" was
dangerous, as it endangered the baby, who was then in the fairies' power. So too was
admiring or envying a woman or man dangerous, unless the person added a
blessing; the able-bodied and beautiful were in particular danger. Women were
especially in danger in liminal states: being a new bride, or a new mother.
Putting a changeling in a fire would cause it to jump up the chimney and
return the human child, but at least one tale recounts a mother with a
changeling finding that a fairy woman came to her home with the human child,
saying the other fairies had done the exchange, and she wanted her own baby.
of surprising a changeling into speech by brewing eggshells is also told in
Ireland, as in Wales.
Belief in changelings endured in parts of Ireland until recent times;in 1895, Bridget Cleary was killed by her husband who
believed her to be a changeling.
In the Anglo-Scottish border region it was
believed that elves (or
fairies) lived in
"Elf Hills" (or "Fairy Hills"). Along with this belief in
supernatural beings was the view that they could spirit away children (and even)
adults and take them back to their own world (see Elfhame).
Often, it was thought, a baby would be snatched and in the place a simulation of
the baby would be placed, usually being a male adult elf, to be suckled by the
real baby would be treated well by the elves and would grow up to be one of
them, whereas the changeling baby would be discontented and wearisome. Many
herbs, salves and seeds could be used for discovering the fairy-folk and ward of
their designs. In
one tale a mother suspected that her baby had been taken and replaced with a
changeling, a view that was proven to be correct one day when a neighbour ran
into the house shouting "Come here and ye'll se a sight! Yonder's the Fairy
Hill a' alowe." To which the elf got up saying "Waes me! What'll come o' me wife and bairns?" and made his way out of the
Byerholm near Newcastleton
in Liddesdale sometime during
the early 1800s, a dwarf called Robert Elliot or Little Hobbie o' The
Castleton as he was known, was reputed to be a changeling. When taunted by
other boys he would not hesitate to draw his gully and dispatch them, however being that he was
woefully short in the legs they usually out-ran him and escaped. He was
courageous however and when he heard that his neighbour, the six-foot three-inch
William Scott of Kirndean, a sturdy and strong borderer, had slandered his name,
he invited the man to his house, took him up the stairs and challenged him to a
duel. Scott beat a hasty retreat
ballad 40, The Queen of Elfan's
Nourice, depicts the abduction of a new mother, drawing on the folklore
of the changelings. Although it is fragmentary, it contains the mother's grief
and the Queen of
Elfland's promise to return her to her own child if she will nurse the
queen's child until it can walk.
The ritual impurity
of the parturient mother and her child exposed them, according to traditional
Maltese belief, to unusual danger especially during the first few days after
birth. A changeling child (called mibdul, "changed") was taken to St Julian's
Bay, where a statue of
the saint stands, and given a sand-bath. A cordial was also administered, in
attempts to return the child.
Since most beings from Scandinavian folklore are said to be
afraid of iron, Scandinavian parents often placed an iron item such
as a pair of scissors or a knife on top of an unbaptized infant's
cradle. It was believed that if a human child was taken in spite of such
measures, the parents could force the return of the child by treating the
changeling cruelly, using methods such as whipping or even inserting it in a heated oven. In at
least one case, a woman was taken to court for having killed her child in an
In one Swedish changeling tale,
the human mother
is advised to brutalize the changeling so that the trolls will return her son,
but she refuses, unable to mistreat an innocent child despite knowing its
nature. When her husband demands she abandon the changeling, she refuses, and he
leaves her whereupon he meets their son in the forest, wandering free. The son
explains that since his mother had never been cruel to the changeling, so the
troll mother had never been cruel to him, and when she sacrificed what was
dearest to her, her husband, they had realized they had no power over her and
In another Swedish fairy tale (which is depicted
by the image), a princess is
kidnapped by trolls and replaced with their own offspring against the wishes of
the troll mother. The changelings grow up with their new parents, but both find
it hard to adapt: the human girl is disgusted by her future bridegroom, a troll prince, whereas the troll girl is bored by her life and
by her dull human future groom. Upset with the conditions of their lives, they
both go astray in the forest, passing each other without noticing it. The
princess comes to the castle whereupon
the queen immediately
recognizes her, and the troll girl finds a troll woman who is cursing loudly as she works. The troll girl bursts
out that the troll woman is much more fun than any other person she has ever
seen, and her mother happily sees that her true daughter has returned. Both the
human girl and the troll girl marry
happily the very same day.
In Asturias (North Spain) there
is a legend about the Xana, a sort of nymph who used to live near rivers, fountains
and lakes, sometimes helping travelers on their journeys. The Xanas were
conceived as little female fairies with supernatural beauty. They could deliver
babies, "xaninos," that were sometimes swapped with human babies in order to be
baptized. The legend says that in order to distinguish a "xanino" from a human
baby, some pots and egg shells should be put close to the fireplace; a xanino
would say: "I was born one hundred years ago, and since then I have not seen
so many egg shells near the fire!".
In Wales the changeling child (plentyn cael (sing.), plant cael
(pl.)) initially resembles
the human it substitutes, but gradually grows uglier in appearance and
behaviour: ill-featured, malformed, ill-tempered, given to screaming and biting.
It may be of less than usual intelligence, but again is identified by its more
than childlike wisdom and cunning.
The common means employed to identify a changeling is to cook a family meal
in an eggshell. The child will exclaim, "I have
seen the acorn before the oak, but I never saw the likes of this," and vanish,
only to be replaced by the original human child. Alternatively, or following
this identification, it is supposedly necessary to mistreat the child by placing
it in a hot oven, by holding it in a shovel over a hot fire, or by bathing it in
a solution of foxglove.
Real children were sometimes taken to be changelings by the superstitious,
and therefore abused or murdered.
Two 19th century cases reflected the belief in changelings. In 1826, Anne
Roche bathed Michael Leahy, a four-year-old boy unable to speak or stand, three
times in the Flesk; he
drowned the third time. She swore that she was merely attempting to drive the
fairy out of him, and the jury acquitted her of murder.
In the 1890s in Ireland, Bridget Cleary was killed
by several people, including her husband and cousins, after a short bout of
illness (probably pneumonia). Local storyteller Jack Dunne accused Bridget of
being a fairy changeling. It is debatable whether her husband, Michael, actually
believed her to be a fairy many believe he concocted a "fairy defence" after
he murdered his wife in a fit of rage. The killers were convicted of
manslaughter rather than murder, as even after the death they claimed that they
were convinced they had killed a changeling, not Bridget Cleary.
The ogbanje (pronounced similar to
"oh-BWAN-jeh") is a term meaning "child who comes and goes" among the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria. When a woman would have numerous
children either stillborn or die early in infancy, the traditional belief was
that it was a malicious spirit that was being reincarnated over and over again
to torment the afflicted mother. One of the most commonly-proscribed methods for
ridding one's self of an ogbanje was to find its iyi-uwa, a buried object that ties the evil spirit to
the mortal world, and destroy it.
Many scholars now believe that ogbanje stories were attempting to explain
children with sickle-cell anemia, which is endemic to West Africa and afflicts around
one-quarter of the population. Even today, and especially in areas of Africa
lacking medical resources, infant death is common for children born with severe
The similarity between the European changeling and the Igbo ogbanje is
striking enough that Igbos themselves often translate the word into English as
Aswangs, a kind of ghoul from Filipino folklore, are also sometimes said to leave
behind duplicates of their victims made of plant matter. Like the stocks of
European fairy folklore, the Aswang's wood duplicates soon appear to sicken and