The changeling legend- in which a healthy human is exchanged for a malformed fairy- has played a vital role in shaping Norse culture and relations. In this write-up, we will focus on who the changelings were, and how they manifested in different countries, such as England, Ireland, Scandinavia, and Germany.
Changelings are described as fairies that had been left in place of a human child or a baby who had been stolen by the fairies. When we talk about a fairy in Norse culture, the first thing we would think of is a beautiful human-like creature that is often helpful to humans. But this isn’t the case for changelings if anything; they were depicted as evil creatures.
Changelings are typically identifiable via a number of traits. More often than not, a fairy child appears sickly and doesn’t grow in size like every other normal child. Additionally, they tend to have distinctive characteristics such as long teeth or a beard, which wasn’t present in normal children. Aside from that, a changeling often possessed uncanny insight or seemed more intelligent than children within its age bracket. When left alone, they exhibited what was described as unusual behavior – dancing or playing different instruments, or jumping about recklessly.
Why did Changelings taken child?
Changelings took the child for 3 reasons: for malice/revenge, to act as their servant, or for the fairies to receive the love of a human child. Let us expound further.
More often than not, fairies performed the exchange. However, there were instances when an elderly fairy was directly swapped in place of a human baby so that it could either die or live out its life in the comfort of human parental care. The human parents would then place simple charms, such as open iron scissors or an inverted coat where their child sleeps to ward off the fairies.
Usually, the fairies craved beauty and glamor, so they would only take the fairest and most beautiful children. If a baby had any deformities, illnesses, or unexplained conditions, the local people immediately assumed that they were replaced by changelings. For this reason, the parents would either abandon or kill them, which is often described as infanticide.
Additionally, changelings would take adult humans, particularly new mothers and newly married. The new mothers were taken to nurse fairy babies while the newly married adults were taken to marry fairies. When the fairies were ready to take an adult human, the woman would be ill for several days before they disappear, then the fairies would leave behind a log to be buried by the human family.
Changelings in Norse Folklore
Although there are different interpretations of changelings across different countries, the common theme is fairies giving their children to humans to raise.
- Changelings in Irish Mythology
A long time ago in Ireland, the local people believed that children were sometimes taken by fairies and replaced by a sickly fairy child referred to as a ‘changeling’. To identify a changeling, they would put it on fire. The changeling would then jump up the chimney and return the human child to its parents. This belief explained that if a sickly child got better, then it meant that the fairies had taken away the changeling and brought back their real child.
Also, the Irish people held the belief that children with autism, ADD, or any other mental issues were changelings. To add to that, if any child died during birth, the Irish would claim that the children were abducted by the fairies. Supposedly, the boy child was more desirable to the fairies so the local people would dress the ones that survived in dresses to confuse the fairies.
Additionally, the Irish believed that looking at a baby with envy was dangerous, so was admiring a woman or man. Two types of women were often in danger in Ireland – the newlyweds and the new mothers because they were often exchanged to appease the fairies.
- Changelings in German Mythology
The Germans referred to changelings as ‘Wechselbalg/Wechselkind’. They believed that if a child wasn’t thriving or didn’t seem normal, they should take him/her to a place known as Cyriac’s Mead, which was close to Neuhausen, and leave the child lying there and given drink from Cyriac’s well. At the end of 9 days, the child should have recovered. But, if they did not, then it was a changeling.
Germanic folk tales identify 4 possible parents for changelings: a water spirit, the devil, a female dwarf, or a demonic woman living in the cornfields and stealing human children (Roggenmuhme). To identify a changeling and to return the replaced the real child, the Germans would either hit or whip the changeling or heat the changeling in an oven. Also, they would confuse the changeling by cooking or brewing in eggshells, so that it can reveal its real age and position in the world.
- Changelings in England Mythology
According to European folklore, an imbecilic or deformed offspring of a fairy was often substituted for a human child. The abducted human child was then used to strengthen fairy stock or given to the devil. The return of the real child was to be effected by either torturing the changeling or making it laugh consistently.
Additionally, the English believed that infants are vulnerable to demonic possession and the fairies always preyed upon unbaptized children. To ward off fairies or to discover fairy folk, the English would use salves, herbs, and seeds.
- Changelings in Scandinavian Mythology
The Scandinavians believed that the trolls or beings from the subterranean realms changed children/babies. Considering that most supernatural beings in Scandinavia are afraid of iron, the locals would place an iron tool, such as a knife or a pair of scissors where their unbaptized infant slept to prevent their abduction by the trolls.
Additionally, they believed that if a human child was still taken after they had taken such measures, they would be returned if they treated the changeling cruelly, by heating it or whipping it. They also believed that they shouldn’t pour out the water used to wash an unchristen child and they needed to keep a fire lit in their child’s room until he/she was baptized.