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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, or mental retardation.

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.

Identifying a changeling

Changelings are first identified in folktales as infants who fail to thrive. They are considered to have voracious appetites, malicious tempers, difficulty in movement, and other unpleasant traits that cause concern to the human parents in the tale. Changelings may have an unusual greenish tint to their skin, or are very pale. They are told to make piteous cries and possess a vast vocabulary (betraying their intelligence). In Scotlandmarker 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. Usually this causes 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 flees up a chimney or out the nearest window. In Irish folktales, tea brewed with foxglove, a toxic plant, will send the changeling back to its real parents. This is also common in folklore of the English Isles.

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 of a ten-year-old girl left on a manure pile overnight was recorded. She died of exposure and her parents were brought to trial.

Purpose of a changeling

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 fairies.

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 forever.

Changelings in medieval folklore


The Men-an-Tolmarker 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. The tale 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.


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'smarker 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 oven.

In one Swedishmarker 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 released him.

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.


Child 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..


In Asturiasmarker (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.

"Changelings" in the historical record

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 Fleskmarker; 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 Irelandmarker, 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..

Changelings in other countries

The ogbanje (pronounced similar to "oh-BWAN-jeh") is a term meaning "child who comes and goes" among the Igbo people of eastern Nigeriamarker. 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 sickle-cell anemia.

The similarity between the European changeling and the Igbo ogbanje is striking enough that Igbos themselves often translate the word into English as "changeling".

Aswangs, a kind of ghoul from Filipinomarker 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 die.

Changelings in the modern world

Neurological differences

The reality behind many changeling legends was often the birth of deformed or developmentally disabled children. Among the diseases with symptoms that match the description of changelings in various legends are spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, PKU, progeria, Down syndrome, homocystinuria, Williams syndrome, Hurler syndrome, Hunter syndrome, regressive autism, Prader-Willi Syndrome, and cerebral palsy. The greater proneness of boys to birth defect correlates to the belief that boy babies were more likely to be taken.

As noted, it has been hypothesized that the changeling legend may have developed, or at least been used, to explain the peculiarities of children who did not develop normally, probably including all sorts of developmental delays and abnormalities. In particular, it has been suggested that children with autism would be likely to be labeled as changelings or elf-children due to their strange, sometimes inexplicable behavior. This has found a place in autistic culture. Some autistic adults have come to identify with changelings (or other replacements, such as aliens) for this reason and their own feeling of being in a world where they do not belong and of practically not being the same species as the "normal" people around them. In the book The Stolen Child, Keith Donohue talks about the life of a changeling from the point of view of two boys, one of whom was evidently autistic.

Changelings in popular culture

In Episode 12, Season 3 of So Weird, titled "Changeling", Annie and the boys are stuck babysitting a changeling.

In Episode 2, Season 3 of Supernatural, titled "The Kids Are Alright", Sam and Dean discover that many of the neighborhood children are actually changelings, following several mysterious deaths in the neighborhood. In this episode the changelings are controlled by a mother changeling who feeds on the kidnapped children. Her children in turn feed on the mothers of the kids they replace, until Sam kills the mother by torching her, thereby killing her offspring.

A changeling known as Gruagach appeared in Mike Mignola's comic book short story Hellboy: The Corpse. Since then, the changeling has sworn revenge against Hellboy and become a recurring antagonist, determined to kill Hellboy by any means necessary and, through doing so, save his race from fading out of existence.

A changeling appeared in the first Courtney Crumrin comic book mini-series.

Changeling: The Dreaming is a roleplaying game published by White Wolf, Inc. in 1995. It centers around the lives and conflicts of faeries who have bonded with human souls in order to survive in an increasingly uncreative and banal world.

Changeling: the Lost is a roleplaying game published by White Wolf, Inc. in 2007. It centers around humans who have been stolen by malicious or inscrutable faerie lords, transformed into fae creatures, and then escaped back to our world.

Changeling is a race of creatures and a game mechanic in Magic: The Gathering, introduced in the heavily european folklore-flavored expansion block, Lorwyn. One of the cards created for it was called "Crib Swap" which depicted the replacement of a baby with a small changeling.

The Silver Bough (2008) was an abstract musical directed by Kath Burlinson (in association with Youth Music Theatre: UK) which explored Scotland's long association with Pagan mythology and festivals. One of the scenes was about how three mothers had their children exchanged with Changelings as they turned their backs to hang up laundry.

Literary uses

The changeling theme has frequently appeared in literature, especially in the genres of fairy tale and fantasy. Notable 20th and 21st century appearances of changelings in literature include the following:
  • Outside Over There a children's story by Maurice Sendak, in which goblins replace Ida's baby sister with a changeling made of ice, which melts.
  • The Stolen Child a poem by William Butler Yeats, is about a boy replaced by a changeling. The poem was the inspiration for the 2006 novel of the same name by Keith Donohue.
  • Bortbytingen (The Changeling) (1915) by Selma Lagerlöf. Modern translation by Sylvia Söderlind.
  • The Changeling (1916), poem by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928). Written from the point of view of a changeling.
  • Pickman's Model (1927), short story by H.P. Lovecraft. The story alludes to Pickman being the descendant of a changeling from a subterranean race.
  • The Broken Sword (1954) by Poul Anderson A mortal child is exchanged for a changeling. Although near identical in appearance to the original, the changeling is a moody loner prone to fits of the berserkergang.
  • Changeling (1981) by Roger Zelazny. Novel describing the adventures of both changelings, maladapted in their respective new worlds.
  • Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist (1988) The discovery of a fairie mound in upstate New York leads to dangerous contact between the human and fairie worlds, including a changeling exchange.
  • The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993) by Michael Swanwick. Jane, the heroine, is a changeling who was stolen by the fairies to work in a factory.
  • The Moorchild (1997) by Eloise McGraw. The central protagonist of this Newbery Honor-winning novel is an fairy born child who is forced to become a changeling.
  • Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999) by Gregory Maguire. Clara is believed to be a changeling.
  • Tithe : A Modern Faerie Tale (2002) by Holly Black. The protagonist, Kaye, discovers that she is a changeling glamored to look like a human.
  • Summerland (2002) by Michael Chabon.
  • Low Red Moon (2003), "So Runs the World Away", "The Dead and the Moonstruck" (both in To Charles Fort, With Love, 2005), and Daughter of Hounds (2007) by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Changelings are referred to as the Children of the Cuckoo and are raised to serve a subterranean race of ghouls called the ghul or the Hounds of Cain.
  • The War of the Flowers (2003) by Tad Williams. Theo is revealed to be a changeling.
  • The Stolen Child (2006) by Keith Donohue. Alternates viewpoints between a changeling in his new life, and the stolen boy Henry Day's new life as a changeling.
  • Stones Unturned (2006), third book in The Menagerie series by Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski. Principal character Danny Ferrick is a changeling.
  • Faery Baby (2006) by Lin Spicer. The main character Faery Baby is swapped with a human child as she experiences 'failure to thrive'. Her name is later turned to Fae. Her parents were Titania and Oberon who reluctantly switched her.
  • Poison (2006) by Chris Wooding. The main character, Poison, sets out on a journey to find her little sister Azalea, who is swapped for a changeling.


In William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Titania and Oberon fight over the possession of a changeling boy. Because of their argument, nature is in upheaval and all subsequent action of the plot ensues.

See also


  1. Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures "Changelings" (Pantheon Books, 1976) p. 71. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  2. Briggs (1979)
  4. Carole B. Silver, Strange and Secret Peoples: Fairies and Victorian Consciousness (1999), p 47 ISBN 0-19-512199-6
  5. Briggs (1976) "Changelings", p. 69
  9. Ilmar Arens and Bengt af Klintberg, "Bortbytingssägner i en gotländsk dombok fran 1690," Rig, v. 62, no. 3 (1979), pp. 89-97
  10. Briggs (1976) "Golden Hair", p. 194
  11. Silver (1999) p. 74
  12. Francis James Child, ballad 39a "Tam Lin", The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
  13. Silver (1999) p. 73
  14. Wentz, W. Y. Evans (1911). The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Reprinted 1981. Pub. Colin Smythe. ISBN 0-901072-51-8 P. 179.
  15. W. B. Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, in A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, and Folklore (1986), p. 47, New York : Gramercy Books, ISBN 0-517-48904-X
  16. Silver (1999) p. 167
  17. Yeats (1986) p. 48-50
  18. Tarcisio Zarb, Folklore of an Island: Maltese Threshold Customs, PEG Ltd (1998)
  19. T. Zammit, 'Tas-Sliema u San Giljan' in 'Stejjer u Kitba Ohra' Malta (1961)
  20. Tarcisio Zarb, Folklore of an Island: Maltese Threshold Customs, PEG Ltd (1998), ISBN 99909-0-087-3
  21. Klintberg, Bengt af; Svenska Folksägner (1939) ISBN 91-7297-581-4
  22. The tale is notably retold by Selma Lagerlöf as Bortbytingen in her 1915 book Troll och människor.
  23. The tale is notably retold by Helena Nyblom as Bortbytingarna in the 1913 book Bland tomtar och troll [1].
  24. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 358-9, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  25. Wirt Sikes. British Goblins: The Realm of Faerie. Felinfach: Llanerch, 1991.
  26. Silver (1999) p. 62
  27. Silver (1999) p. 64-65
  28. Silver (1999) p. 75
  29. Kim Duff, The Role of Changeling Lore in Autistic Culture, presentation at the 1999 Autreat conference of Autism Network International

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