“Come away, O human child.
To the waters and the wild,
With a faerie hand in hand,
For the world’s more full of weeping than you can understand.”
WB Yeats, The Stolen Child
The worldwide stories of faerie changelings come under a group of folklore motifs recorded in the Aarne-Thompson index as F321: ‘Faerie steals child from cradle and leaves faerie substitute.’ The basic premise of these motifs is that the faeries, through supernatural means, are capable of abducting babies from humans, while replacing them with one of their own, usually a wizened old faerie who would proceed to eat and drink voraciously, and maintain a surly silence. With external advice the parents are usually advised of how to rid themselves of the changeling and restore their own baby from the faeries. The ruse is carried through and (usually) works. There are many variations on the story, but the Brother’s Grimm summed up in concise form the main components of a typical changeling story from mid 19th-century Germany:
“A mother had her child taken from the cradle by elves. In its place they laid a changeling with a thick head and staring eyes who would do nothing but eat and drink. In distress she went to a neighbour and asked for advice. The neighbour told her to carry the changeling into the kitchen, set it on the hearth, make a fire, and boil water in two eggshells. That should make the changeling laugh, and if he laughs it will be all over with him. The woman did everything just as her neighbour said. When she placed the eggshells filled with water over the fire, the changeling said:
‘Now I am as old
As the Wester Wood,
But have never seen anyone cooking in shells!’
And he began laughing about it. When he laughed, a band of little elves suddenly appeared. They brought the rightful child, set it on the hearth, and took the changeling away.”
A common variation on this plot would be for the changeling to be threatened with (or sometimes given) a roasting over the fire, which was usually enough for them to reveal themselves and thereby break the spell. This basic story type can be found in folklore throughout the world, suggesting that the culturally embedded motifs represented by the stories had great importance to the people who propagated them. Changelings certainly abound in Scottish folklore. Kim McNamara-Wilson recounts a story collected by JF Campbell and first published in 1862 in his Popular Tales of the West Highlands:
“One story speaks of a smith, father to a healthy and happy thirteen year old boy on the Isle of Islay. One day, the boy mysteriously fell ill and his condition and temperament continued to worsen tenfold each day. Though his appetite increased at the same rate, he was in fact rapidly losing weight. In misery, the father confided in a very wise and respected old man in the town. The old man told him that most likely the boy had been taken by the Daoine Sith, and they had left a Sibhreach in his place. Distraught, the father wondered if he’d ever see his son again. The old man instructed him to take several broken eggshells and fill them with water, then place them carefully around the hearth in the boy’s room. He did so, and within no time, the boy was jumping from his bed in a fit of laughter shouting, “I’ve been alive 800 years and have never seen the likes of this!” Hearing that, the father pushed the Changeling into the fire, and it shot up the chimney. The real boy was spit out from the Faerie mound nearby at that very moment, and the father and son were soon after reunited.”
While most of these folkloric changeling stories were first collected and published in the 19th century, the changeling motif extends back into the Middle Ages. In the recent publication Elf Queens and Holy Friars, Richard Green demonstrates that the changeling story was a cultural mainstay by at least the 12th century. In the early 13th century, William of Auvergne goes into some detail describing the ‘ignorant people’s’ belief in faerie changelings: “They say they are skinny and always wailing, and such milk-drinkers that four nurses do not supply a sufficient quantity of milk to feed one. These appeared to have remained with their nurses for many years, and afterwards to have flown away, or rather vanished.” He was not alone, amongst medieval chroniclers, to discuss the phenomenon with the implicit suggestion that the belief was a given reality amongst the rural population. But William, and the literate class of which he was a part, would usually use the changeling stories as demonstrations of the uneducated people’s foolish beliefs, and their need to swap their faerie-tales for the orthodox Christian position, which stated that such malevolent acts were the work of the Devil alone.
But Richard Green delves a bit deeper into the medieval record to find a widespread vernacular tradition of faerie changelings. He focuses on the surviving texts of medieval mystery plays, to show that the language of the changeling motif was fully integrated into the culture, down to the town and village level, where many mystery plays were performed. Many faerie themes found their way into the plays, including stories of changelings. In the Chester Cycle of mystery plays from the 15th century, the character of King Herod is even invoked to call Christ: “That elfe and vile changeling.” The mystery plays were always places where subversive ideas could be expressed in theatrical form against the Church and state. They give us an opportunity to understand how the vernacular population viewed folktale motifs, performed to them as representations of commonly understood beliefs, such as the changeling stories. The inclusion of faerie changelings as a natural part of many of the plays, might suggest that there was a genuine and general belief in them, in direct contradistinction to Church doctrine.
These beliefs seem to have been maintained as an oral tradition at various levels through time and across geographical area until, by the time they came to be collected and recorded in the 19th century, the changeling stories were told almost exclusively as having happened during previous generations or at an indistinct time in the past. Unlike many folkloric faerie motifs, they have not continued to be incorporated into the setting of contemporary stories beyond the early 20th century. So, on the assumption that the changeling phenomenon was culturally important through the Middle Ages to the 20th century; where did it come from, why was it popularised, and why did the belief end so definitively, whilst other faerie beliefs continued? Maybe even more importantly; what does the phenomenon mean?
The Meaning of the Faerie Changeling Phenomenon
When folklorist/anthropologist WY Evans-Wentz was collecting the faerie folklore of the Celtic countries, at the beginning of the 20th century, he included several changeling stories, which incorporated the usual components of human babies being stolen from their cradles and replaced with grizled old faeries, who were nonetheless human enough to fool the parents. At this time, one of the favourite interpretations for the motif was that it was a folk-memory of an indigenous pre-Celtic race of people, who, once pushed into liminal environmental areas by the incomers, would steal Celtic babies, and perhaps even replace them with their own dead or dying. Time has turned this race into faeries; their exploits remembered only in folklore. Evans-Wentz agreed with this interpretation to an extent, and it does give a physicality to the changeling folktales, which might explain their longevity. But there is no evidence for the stories of this potential historical reality being continued over such a long timespan through folklore. And much of the changeling folklore is very evidently meant to represent the contemporary culture producing the stories.
The general current academic consensus sees the phenomenon as an articulation through folklore of a need to understand infant sickness and death. In pre-industrial societies infant mortality was high, and until you survived through to about five years of age, your life-expectancy remained low. In rural subsistence economies an ill or infirm baby would have been a substantial burden on a family. John Lindow has recently discussed the socio-cultural pressures underlying the changeling phenomenon. He suggests that they were stories that were based around the reality of not having enough food, and trying to integrate a sick or disabled child into the household. He notes, correctly, that the rituals to reverse the changeling swap always involve food and its preparation, drawing the conclusion that: “The changeling was an extra mouth to feed, while at the same time, his illness deprived the household of a worker. In that sense the illness indeed made an exchange: a positive productive worker for an unproductive dependent. Legends of changelings mapped that unarticulated exchange onto the articulated exchange of a supernatural being.”
This attempt to explain the injustice of infant sickness through the introduction of a supernatural element into the folklore may well help us understand the deeper meanings of the stories. The Christian explanation for infant sickness and death was not enough and at the vernacular level, people sought and created a certain type of story, with defined motifs that would help to explain why children might be infirm, and the pressures it put on a family, especially in a subsistence economy. Unfortunately, many of the changeling stories include some radical solutions for dispatching the faerie and securing the return of the human baby. This frequently involves throwing them on fires, exposing them on hillsides or drowning. Sometimes the threat of these sanctions is enough to get the desired result, but there is usually some viciousness in the stories, at the expense of the changeling. And this brings us back to the actual belief in faerie changelings.
Whatever the merits of the hypotheses of folklore acting as an articulator of social and cultural pressures, it was certainly the case that until the 19th century any distinction between allegory and reality was blurred in the minds of the (mostly) rural populations who told and listened to the stories. And this meant that if a faerie changeling was suspected, then there was a possibility that it might be treated in the same way recommended in the stories. The court records of Gotland, Sweden, for 1690, document one of the rare cases brought to court. A man and woman were placed on trial for having left a ten-year-old changeling — a sickly child who was not growing properly — on a manure pile overnight on Christmas Eve, hoping that the faeries who had made the exchange some years earlier would now return their rightful son. The child died of exposure. This might be seen as the parents being punished for the infanticide of an infirm child, or the trial of an innocent couple who believed fully in the efficacy of what they were doing, based on a wealth of folktales that were told in their communities every day. There are enough further similar cases of parents making real the recommendations of the changeling stories to account for and deal with infirm children, for us to recognise that the consensus reality of rural populations in pre-industrial societies was heavily influenced by the folk tales they told and heard throughout their lives. And allowing the faeries to play the metaphysical villains in changeling stories as well as in real life, offered explanations for child illness and practical options for what could be done about it.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the changeling motif was mostly relegated to the folklore of what happened in the past, but which doesn’t happen anymore. Improved hygiene and greater access to medicine, raised life-expectancy in rural populations and lowered child infirmity. At the same time the development of universal education ensured the new scientific view of child infirmity and disease replaced many of the folk beliefs that had previously attempted to explain why children became ill, and what could be done about it. But the deeper meaning of changeling folklore remains. At its roots it offered psychological therapy through storytelling to people who were in difficult situations due to a child’s infirmity. The faeries acted as the supernatural agency to explain traumatic experiences that were otherwise unexplainable. It is this supernatural quality to the changeling stories that allowed their long existence in folklore, and which gives us a vivid insight into the consensus reality of the past.
In many ways, the changeling phenomenon differs from the main body of faerie folklore and anecdotal evidence. As investigated in many posts on this site, the faeries are often encountered as metaphysical entities, frequently when the human interaction is facilitated through some type of altered state of consciousness. Such interactions appear to suggest that the faeries are non-physical, and that immersion into their world involves the human participants operating beyond material reality to interface with them. But faerie changelings are required to be fully embedded into consensus reality. This confluence seems easier to explain via a transpersonal, psychological interpretation, where the concept of the faeries interfering in the material world is used to resolve traumatic circumstances that appear to defy rational explanation. And unlike many manifestations of the faeries, which continue in great number to the present day, the changeling phenomenon has been consigned to the folkloric past. However, like all faerie folklore, the changeling stories do give us an invaluable insight into the modus operandi of these metaphysical beings, who seem to comport themselves at the periphery of consciousness, where their Otherworld can imbricate ours when certain conditions are met.
Aarne, Antti and Stith Thompson, Motif-index of folk-literature: a classification of narrative elements in folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends, 6 volumes (1955-1958).
Ashliman, DL, ‘Changelings’ (1997).
Briggs, Katherine, An Encyclopaedia of Fairies (1976).
Campbell, JF, Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1862).
Evans-Wentz, WY, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (1911).
Green, Richard Firth, Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church (2016).
Lindow, John, ‘Changeling, Changing, Re-exchanges: Thoughts on the Relationship between Folk Belief and Legend,’ Legends and Landscapes: Plenary Papers from the 5th Celtic-Nordic-Baltic Folklore Symposium, ed. Terry Gunnell (2008), 215-34.
McNamara-Wilson, ‘Irish Faerie Folk of Yore and Yesterday: The Changeling’ (2012).
Sugg, Richard, ‘Fairy Scapegoats: A History of the Persecution of Changeling Children‘ (2018)
The Wikipedia page on changelings also gives some useful information and links, including the idea that autistic children may have been seen as faerie changelings in pre-industrial societies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Changeling
One of the most recent, and unusual, changeling episodes is the case of Bridget Cleary from Ireland during the last years of the 19th century. Ali Isaac describes the circumstances of this disturbing event in some detail here.
A version of this article appeared originally on the Ancient Origins Premium website.
The cover image is ‘A Changeling Baby’ by PJ Lynch.