Changelings, the distorted fairy offspring of European folklore

Changelings, the distorted fairy offspring of European folklore

For centuries, changelings have been said to be descendants of fairies left in place of kidnapped children. But the truth is that many children believed to be these creatures simply had unknown illnesses.

Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images‘The Changeling’, by Henry Fuseli (1780).

European folklore is full of weird and wonderful creatures, but perhaps none are more widespread than fairies.

Of course, fairies of the past were quite different from their modern counterparts, more often feared as dangerous and powerful beings than revered as helpful companions. In many tales fairies were not benign but wicked – and perhaps none represent that wickedness better than changeling tales.

These creatures were impostors left in place of the children the fairies had kidnapped, and although at first the changeling might appear to be its own child, there were several identifying traits that revealed the true identity of the changelings. Some stories even say that the changeling must be tortured to reveal themselves, which has led to many very real cases of child abuse.

Many modern folklorists and scholars believe that the changeling myth 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 the stories of changelings all the more disturbing.

The Legend of the Changeling as told by the Brothers Grimm

In 1580, in a field near Breslau, Germany, there was a nobleman who every summer asked his subjects to harvest his great crop of hay. None were exempt from this manual labor, not even a new mother who had given birth to her first child a week earlier. Having no choice, the young mother took her newborn baby with her to the nobleman’s field and set to work, laying her child in a small patch of grass.

When she returned later to breastfeed the child, it began to scream inhumanely and bit her breast with such force and greed that the woman cried out in pain. It was nothing like the child she knew, but she went home and kept the child for several days, while tolerating his filthy 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 child, then do this thing. Take him to the meadow where you left your previous child and beat him hard with a switch. Then you will witness a miracle.

The woman did as he said and beat the child with a switch until he cried. It was then that the Devil appeared to him, holding his stolen child. The Devil said to him: “Here you have it!” And took her own child.

The devil steals a baby

Wikimedia CommonsA scene from “The Legend of Saint Stephen” by Martino di Bartolomeo, in which the devil steals a baby and leaves a changeling in its place.

It is only one version of a changeling tale told by the Brothers Grimm and translated in an essay by DL Ashliman, and although this version incorporates the devil in place of fairies, it is representative of the majority of changeling legends .

Versions of the changeling myth across Europe

Notably, the Brothers Grimm classified their changeling story as a legend rather than a fairy tale.

In their own words, “The fairy tale is more poetic, the legend is more historical… While only children believe in the reality of fairy tales, people have not yet stopped believing in their legends. “

So the difference between a fairy tale and a legend was that adults still believed in legends. In fact, it is precisely because of this belief that, like the Irish Post 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 changelings were old fairies who wanted to live out the rest of their days being cared for by humans. Other versions claimed that changelings were children of faeries.

The reason for the abduction of the human child also varies: to bolster the stock of fairies, for love of their beauty, or to pay off the Devil. They often took the prettiest children, and the changeling left in their place was usually deformed or bad-tempered, and often described as having voracious appetites.

According to the myths, the best way to get rid of this evil creature was to harm it in some way, perhaps by beating it or even putting it in the oven.

The sad reality, however, was that there were no changelings, and the children in those stories had not been stolen and replaced. The truth is that in pre-industrial Europe, peasant families needed strong children who could work the fields, and it was much easier to justify infanticide if your “unfit” child was actually a changeling.

Justifying Infanticide – The Tragic Truth About Changelings

In A dictionary of fairies: hobgoblins, brownies, bogies and other supernatural creatures, Katharine Mary Briggs identified the underlying circumstances giving rise to many changeling tales:

“When the changeling is supposed…to be a faerie child, he is often tormented or exposed to induce the faerie parents to change him again…This method has been responsible for a terrible amount of childish suffering, especially in Ireland…. Infantile paralysis or any other unknown illness among the various plagues and diseases that came on suddenly would be explained on the assumption that the child had been changed, and as a rule the parents would be advised to beat him, expose him on a fairy hill or throw it on the fire.Only occasionally have they been advised to treat the child kindly so that their own children may be treated kindly in return.

Ashliman came to a similar conclusion in his essay, noting that peasant families in pre-industrial Europe depended on the productivity of each family member. Consequently, children who were physically handicapped, sick or otherwise in need of special attention were tragically seen as burdens.

changing baby

Wiki Myths and FolkloreSome legends say that a changeling would reveal themselves if they could be made to laugh, though the methods were often far more violent.

“The fact that the changeling’s voracious appetite is so frequently mentioned indicates that the parents of these unfortunate children saw their continued existence as a threat to the livelihood of the entire family,” Ashliman wrote. “The Changeling tales support other historical evidence by suggesting that infanticide was not rarely the chosen course.”

Only on rare occasions have parents also been held responsible for this abuse. One such case took place in 1690, in Gotland, Sweden. A couple have been put on trial after leaving their 10-year-old child on a dunghill overnight on Christmas Eve. The child had been sickly and was not growing properly; the couple believed that this child was a changeling.

They hoped that by leaving their child in such a place, the elves who supposedly stole their original child would change them again. Instead, the child died of exposure.

The Changeling Myth and Children with Disabilities

In some stories, such as the Icelandic tale “The Changeling Who Stretched”, which tells of a boy who quickly grew to adult size, the changelings weren’t fairy children at all, but rather adult fairies who took the form of a child – which could cause parents who believed their child to be 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 only really began to diminish as science advanced during the 18th and 19th centuries.

For example, in a disturbing case in 1826, an elderly Irishwoman 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 “fairy stricken”, according to Thomas Crofton Croker Fairy Tales and Traditions of Southern Ireland.

At the trial for her murder, Roche said she drowned the child “to get the fairy out of it”, believing it would cure him. Roche was found not guilty.

“The very word ‘changeling’, its synonym ‘killcrop’, and their equivalents in other languages ​​have now become historical curiosities,” Ashliman wrote, adding that these terms were “survivals of beliefs and practices that have helped our northern European ancestors – for good or for bad – deal with life and death issues when faced with mentally or physically challenged children.

changing child

FacebookIdentify changeling traits aligned with many signs of physical or mental disabilities.

Today, fortunately, we no longer regard children with disabilities as “monsters” or magical substitutes for children who have been stolen from us. Like other folk legends, changelings represent the beliefs and values ​​of a specific place and time.

Unlike some other legends, however, changelings aren’t 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 the Fairy Glen, the Scottish valley so magical that legend says fairies created it. Or read the legend of the banshee, the weeping Irish woman who can predict death.


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