For centuries, changelings were said to be the descendants of faeries left behind in lieu of kidnapped children. But the truth is that many children believed to be these creatures simply had unknown illnesses.
European folklore is filled with a host of weird and wonderful creatures, but perhaps none is more prevalent than fairies.
Of course, the faeries of the past were quite different from their modern counterparts, more often feared as dangerous and powerful beings than revered as useful companions. In many tales, fairies were not benign but evil, and perhaps none better represents this evil than changeling tales.
These creatures were impostors left in place of the children the faeries had kidnapped, and while the changeling may at first appear to be the child itself, there were several identifying traits that revealed the changelings’ true identities. Some stories even say that the changeling must be tortured to reveal himself, which has led to many very real cases of child abuse.
Many modern folklorists and scholars believe that the myth of changelings may have arisen from a lack of understanding of certain disabilities and conditions, such as autism or physical illness. And this modern perspective only makes shifting stories all the more disturbing.
The changing legend told by the Grimm brothers
In 1580, in a field near Breslau, Germany, there was a nobleman who, each summer, required his subjects to harvest his large crop of hay. No one was exempt from this manual labor, not even a new mother who had given birth to her first child just a week before. With no other choice, the young mother took her newborn with her to the nobleman’s field and went to work, laying her son down on a small patch of grass.
When she later nursed the child again, he began to howl in an inhuman manner and bit her breast so hard and greedily that the woman screamed in pain. She was nothing like the boy she knew, but she returned home and stayed with the boy for several days, as she tolerated his bad behavior until she couldn’t take it anymore.
She turned to the nobleman for help, and he said to her: “Woman, if you think this is not your son, then do this. Take him to the meadow where you left your previous son and hit him hard with a switch. Then you will witness a miracle.”
The woman did as she was told and beat the boy with a stick until he screamed. It was then that the Devil appeared to her, holding his stolen child. The Devil said, “There you have it!” And he took his own son.
This is just one version of a moody tale told by the Brothers Grimm and translated into an essay by DL Ashlimanand although this version incorporates the Devil instead of fairies, it is representative of most of the changing legends.
Versions of the changing myth across Europe
Notably, the Brothers Grimm classified their changing story as a legend, rather than a fairy tale.
In his own words, “The fairy tale is more poetic, the legend is more historical… Although children are the only ones who believe in the reality of fairy tales, people still have not stopped believing in their legends” .
The difference between a fairy tale and a legend, then, was that adults still believed in legends. In fact, it was precisely because of this belief that, like the irish mail He explained, in 1895, an Irish woman named Bridget Cleary was murdered by her husband, who believed she was a changeling.
Some versions of the legends claimed that the changelings were old fairies who wanted to live out the rest of their days in the care of humans. Other versions claimed that the changelings were children of fairies.
The reason for kidnapping the human child also varies: to strengthen the lineage of the fairies, for love of its beauty, or to repay the Devil. Often the most beautiful children were taken away, and the mutant left in their place was usually somehow misshapen or ill-tempered, often depicted as having a voracious appetite.
According to myths, the best way to get rid of this fiendish creature was to harm it in some way, perhaps by beating it or even putting it in an oven.
The unfortunate reality of this, however, was that there were no changelings, and the children in these stories had not been stolen or replaced. The truth is that in pre-industrial Europe, peasant families needed strong children who could work in the fields, and it was much easier to justify infanticide if your “unfit” child was in fact a mutant.
Infanticide Justification: The Tragic Truth About Changelings
In Fairy Dictionary: hobgoblins, brownies, bogies and other supernatural creatures, Katharine Mary Briggs identified the underlying circumstances at the root of many changing stories:
“When the changeling… is supposed to be a faerie child, it is often tormented or exposed to induce the fae parents to change it back… This method has been responsible for a terrible amount of child suffering, particularly in Ireland… Infant paralysis or any other unknown maladies among the various plagues and diseases that suddenly appeared would be explained away by supposing that the child had been changed, and, as a rule, the parents would be advised to beat it up, expose it on a fairy hill, or throw it to bed. the fire. Only occasionally were they advised to treat the child kindly so that their own children could be treated kindly in return.”
Ashliman came to a similar conclusion in his essay, noting that peasant families in pre-industrial Europe depended on each family member being productive. Therefore, children who were physically disabled, sick, or otherwise in need of extra care were tragically seen as a burden.
“The fact that the changeling’s voracious appetite is mentioned so often indicates that the parents of these unfortunate children saw in their continued existence a threat to the livelihood of the entire family,” Ashliman wrote. “The shifting tales support other historical evidence by suggesting that infanticide was not infrequently the selected solution.”
Only rarely were parents also held responsible for this abuse. One such case took place in 1690, on Gotland, Sweden. A couple has been put on trial after leaving their 10-year-old son in a dung heap overnight on Christmas Eve. The boy had been sick and was not growing properly; the couple believed that this child was a changeling.
They hoped that by leaving their son like that, the elves who had supposedly stolen their original son would change them back. Instead, the child died from exposure.
The changing myth and children with disabilities
In some stories, such as the Icelandic tale, “The Changeling Who Stretched,” which tells of a boy who rapidly grew to adult size, the changelings were not faerie children at all, but adult fairies who took the form of a child, which could lead parents who believed their child was a changeling to fear that child.
Ashliman argued that this fear likely led some parents to view their children with disabilities as monsters, a belief that really only began to diminish as science advanced during the 18th and 19th centuries.
For example, in one disturbing case, in 1826, an elderly Irish woman named Ann Roche was caring for her four-year-old grandson, Michael Leahy, who was unable to walk or sleep, when she drowned him in a river, allegedly believing the child was ” enchanted fairies,” according to Thomas Crofton Croker’s Fairy Legends and Lore from Southern Ireland.
At the trial for his murder, Roche said that he had drowned the child “to draw out the fairy”, believing that it would cure him. Roche was found not guilty.
“The very word ‘change,’ its synonym ‘deadly crop,’ and its equivalents in other languages have now become historical curiosities,” Ashliman wrote, adding that these terms were “survivors of beliefs and practices that helped our ancestors from Northern Europe, forever. or for worse: face the problems of life and death when faced with mentally or physically defective children”.
Today, thankfully, we no longer view children with disabilities as “monsters” or magical replacements for the children that have been stolen from us. Like other folk legends, changelings represent the beliefs and values of a specific place and time.
Unlike other legends, however, changelings are not a concept firmly rooted in ancient history, and the recency of some of these real-life incidents is a marker of how far humanity has come in recent centuries.
For more European folklore, Explore Fairy Glen, the Scottish valley so magical, legend has it that fairies created it. Or, read about the legend of the bansheethe weeping woman of Ireland who can predict death.