It is an offspring by a troll, faerie, elf, or other legendary creatures that have been secretly left in the place of a child. Sometimes the term is also used to refer to the child who was taken.
A human child might be taken due to many factors:
- To act as a servant.
- The love of a human child.
In some rare cases, the very elderly of the faerie people would be exchanged in the place of a human baby, and then the old faerie 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.
Some people believed that trolls would take unbaptised children. Once children had been baptised 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 fair-haried ones), attracted the faeries. Some folklorists believe that faeries 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.
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 faerie family, possibly leaving the human family without warning. As for the human child that was taken, he or she may often stay with the faerie family forever.
Changelings Across Cultures
- Cornwall - The Mên-an-Tol stones in Cornwall are supposed to have a faerie or pixie 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.
- Ireland - In Ireland, looking at a baby with envy – “over looking the baby” – was dangerous, as it endangered the baby, who was then in the faeries’ power. 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 faerie woman came to her home with the human child, saying the other faeries had done the exchange, and she wanted her own baby. Belief in changelings endured in parts of Ireland until as late as 1895 (and still thrives, although in less significant amounts). Changelings, in some instances, were regarded not as substituted faerie children but instead old faeries brought to the human world to die.
- Anglo-Scottish Border - It is believed that elves (and faeries) live 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. Often, it was thought, a baby would be snatched and replaced with a simulation of the baby, usually a male adult elf, to be suckled by the mother. 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.
- Wales - In Wales the changeling child 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 egg shell. 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.
- Since most beings from Scandinavian folklore are said to be made of iron, so Scandinavian parents often placed an iron item such as a pair of scissors or a knife on top of an unbaptised 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 (however, this is a strongly inadvisable method…).
Every intelligent grandmother knows that the fire must not be allowed to go out in a room where there is a child not yet christened; that the water in which the newborn child is washed should not be thrown out; also, that a needle, or some other article of steel must be attached to its bandages [diapers]. If attention is not paid to these precautions it may happen that the child will be exchanged by the trolls, as once occurred in Bettna many years ago.
A young peasant’s wife had given birth to her first child. Her mother, who lived some distance away, was on hand to officiate in the first duties attending its coming, but the evening before the day on which the child should be christened she was obliged to go home for a short time to attend to the wants of her own family, and during her absence the fire was allowed to go out.
No one would have noticed anything unusual, perhaps, if the child had not, during the baptism, cried like a fiend. After some weeks, however, the parents began to observe a change. It became ugly, cried continuously, and was so greedy that it devoured everything that came in its way. The people being poor, they were in great danger of being eaten out of house and home. There could no longer be any doubt that the child was a changeling. Whereupon the husband sought a wise old woman, who, it was said, could instruct the parents what to do to get back their own child.
The mother was directed to build a fire in the bake oven three Thursday evenings in succession, lay the young one upon the bake shovel, then pretend that she was about to throw it into the fire. The advice was followed, and when the woman, the third evening, was in the act of throwing the changeling into the fire, it seemed, a little deformed, evil-eyed woman rushed up with the natural child, threw it in the crib, and requested the return of her child. “For,” said she, “I have never treated your child so badly and I have never thought to do it such harm as you now propose doing mine,” whereupon she took the unnatural child and vanished through the door.
- In Asturias (North Spain), there is a legend about the Xana, a nymph that lives near rivers, fountains and lakes, sometimes helping travellers on their journeys. The Xanas were conceived as little female faeries with supernatural beauty. They could deliver babies, “xaninos,” that were sometimes swapped with human babies in order to be baptised. 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!".
- The birth of a child is considered a great gift; If a nursing mother takes good care of a baby, the ancestors will protect her and facilitate further multiplication of her kin. But if she is careless and shows unworthy of their gift, protection is drawn back and negative forces freely roam, aiming to steal the child in the moment of neglect. The devil, witches, faeries, and demons of all kinds might kill the child, or exchange the human child for a demon child.
- Legends have it that the biggest danger of a changeling occurs during the 40 days after childbirth, while the rightful baby is still not baptised.
- Not making the sign of a cross over the child, or in the corners of a bath which the mother uses, also makes the baby vulnerable to the attack.
- Numerous precautions are made to save mother and a child from mythological creatures. Some of the common measures are keeping a sharp object near the nursing mother, leaving the candle to burn all night long, leaving a bowl of water under the icon. Russian custom is to put the broom in the corner, or under the cradle, to act as a “guardian”. Poles confide in medallions of the saints, which they hang in the doorways and in the windows, and the red hats out on the baby’s head were also popular. Serbian custom is to tie a red bracelet to a baby’s ankle, which is popular in other countries as well.
- If protection measures failed and the changeling is successfully foisted upon the ignorant parents, it behaves voraciously, aggressively, grows slowly, begins to walk and talk later than the other children. It cries a lot, sleeps badly, looks disproportional, laughs weirdly and according to some legends, even grows horns.
Changelings (faerie) seem to be a folklore belief prominent in Europe; but there are similar beliefs in other parts of the world, although there may be insufficient information. Such include:
- The ogbanje.
- Aswangs (changelings).
There are folklore tales of child-stealing by supernatural creatures in other cultures (such as Native America), but child replacing is not as common outside of Europe.