The always hungry changeling. Source: public domain.
The changeling is a non-human child that appears in the folklore of western Europe. In essence the changeling is believed to be a replacement, an exchange, for an infant that has been stolen away. The roots of the superstition are to be found connected to an ancient belief that infants are prone to abduction or attack by demons and evil spirits. Many places blame a demonic entity or witch for these “…unattractive, little beings…’stocks’, inanimate, wooden doll-like beings which soon lost all semblance of life.” (Eberly, 1988).
The changeling is therefore considered to be the child of a fairy, an elf, dwarf or troll, that has been secretly replaced by one of these creatures. Such beliefs are common in the folklore of the British Isles, France, and Italy, and called plentyn-newid in Wales. In ancient Ireland the People of the Side, known as the Tuatha de Danaan, traditionally left the changeling behind in the cradle. Amongst the early Irish congenitally disabled ‘changelings’ were referred to as Amadan or ‘God’s Fool’. Also the description of fairy origin included ‘moon-touched’ or ‘moon’calf’ (Eberly, 1988). The infant is always swapped when it is unprotected by adults or is the victim of fairy trickery. In Scandinavian, German and Slavic folklore the child is believed stolen by the denizens of the ‘under-earth’ folk or elves and dwarves.
The numinous and nature spirits blamed for the exchange are water-sprites, word-folk, wild women, nixes, and Nereids (Greece), from German, central and eastern Europe. Some beliefs claim the infant, which has to be unbaptized, has been abducted by a troll. Other folklore tales claim that the changeling is a fetch or stock. In other words a piece of wood under a spell that appears to grow sick and die.
The Changeling (1913). By John Bauer. Source: public domain.
The changeling, or feral child, in folklore is known by many names such as wechselbalg in Germany; ivoti in Finland; the Swedish bytinger; and the Polish odmenik. Scottish folklore contains the belief that a child born with a caul is of fairy provenance and thus a changeling. In Ireland it was once believed that a changeling was in the power of the fairies if it had been ‘overlooked’ in envy. Hybridity has been cited as a cause of changelings implying a union with supernatural gods, devils, incubi, succubi, and fairies (Eberly, 1988), or the result of pairing with animals.
There are many reasons why a child is believed exchanged by the fairies, and a number of factors are involved in the changeling belief (Briggs, 1976). In many instances blame is attached to fairies and witches who obtain access to the infant metamorphosed into birds or insects unless iron is secreted under the child’s pillow (MacCulloch, 1918). The superstition concerning the supernatural origin of congenital birth defects continued through the middle ages (Eberly, 1988), affected children regarded as ‘demonically touched’, or a ‘change-child’.
In medieval literature the theme of the changeling is quite common and in Latin are referred to as cambiones during the 15th century. Elves were believed intent on enhancing their breed by stealing human infants, and swapped one of their own in the process. In some tales the eating of human infants was blamed on the fairies (Rhys, 1901).
Infants with congenital and serious physical defects have “…evoked a religious response since at least as early as 2000 BC…” (Eberly, 1988), as exampled by the ancient Assyrians of Nineveh. Precautions, which are Christian in nature, are taken because fairies were believed to be pagans. Christian oriented methods included baptism, prayer, use of religious objects and emblems, and rituals to avoid attacks by fairies (MacCulloch, 1910). Moreover, many rituals in Europe included magical precautions such as amulets, talismans, symbols and incantations to ward off the malignant sprites. In addition constant watching and the use of charms was regarded as protective against diabolic exchange.
The Devil steals a baby and leaves a changeling. Martino di Bartolomeo (early 15th century). Public domain.
Children were not the only ones vulnerable to being stolen by fairies, witches, and devils. In folktale there also occur stories of adult changelings. Numerous beliefs attest to both men and women being abducted by otherworld supernatural beings such as dwarfs, fairies and giants. Common references in both Oriental and European mythology aver their detention and forcible marriage within the netherworld. The stealing of maidens and mothers by fairies is that they would function as nurses and midwives. Survivors with congenital conditions include tales of the Brownie, the Scottish Gille Dubh and Grogach (Grogan in Ireland). the Scottish Urisk and Meg Moulach.
In the modern and contemporary world the folklore of the changeling represents previous superstitions concerning infants affected by unknown and misunderstood diseases and disorders. The changeling legends and beliefs represent the birth of developmentally disabled, deformed and retarded infants.
The often inherited congenital conditions displaying visible signs and symptoms have “…produced feelings of fear and awe since earliest times.” (Eberly, 1988). Changelings or ‘elf-children’ were often described as small, wizened with a wrinkled skin, having unusual ears, eyes and hands. They often exhibited mental retardation and a failure to thrive, being unable to walk or run. The prevalence of boys amongst the ‘change children’ led to the belief that boys were more often substituted (Briggs, 1976).
A number of identified diseases have been associated with the so-called changelings. These include spina bifida; cystic fibrosis; phenylketonuria; progeria; Down Syndrome; homocystinuria; cerebral palsy; regressive autism; Williams Syndrome; Prader-Willi Syndrome; Hunter’s Syndrome; various achondroplasias or dwarfish syndromes; Sanfilippo Syndrome; all of which suggest a strong general relationship between changeling lore and children born with congenital disorders (Eberly, 1988).
However, in more detail, there are other congenital conditions that explain the ‘changeling’ in terms of the “…ancient withered fairy…wawling and crying for food and attention…in an apparent state of paralysis.” (Briggs, 1976). An example is Cat’s Cry Syndrome or Cri-du-Chat with its mewing infants with their asymmetrical features and severe brain damage. Cri du Chat (Lejeune’s Syndrome) is a chromosome 5 deletion showing also microcephaly and hypertelorism. In more detail there is Donohue’s Syndrome and Hurler’s Syndrome.
Donohue Syndrome or leprachaunism is a rare genetic disorder due to an impaired insulin receptor (Donohue, 1948; Evans, 1955). The condition presents with elfin or gnome-like features, small body with protuberant low set ears, flaring nostrils, thick lips and stunted growth. Early death is the norm before four months.
An example of Donohue Syndrome (Leprachaunism). Public domain.
Hurler Syndrome or gargoylism is a genetic disorder known as mucopolysaccharidosis type 1. It is characterised by progressive deterioration, hepatosplenomegaly, dwarfism, unique facial features, mental deterioration, developmental cessation between 2 and 4 with death by 10 years.
The hypothesis implies that the legends of changelings arose as an explanation of peculiarities in infants and children, therefore “…congenital disorders lie at the root of many of the changeling tales that have come down to us.” (Eberly, 1988).
References Cited and Sources Consulted
Briggs, K. (1976). Encyclopaedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins… Pantheon Books, London.
Briggs, K. (1978). The Vanishing People. New York.
Donohue, W. & Edwards, H. E. (1948). Dysendocrinism. J. of Paediatrics. 32 (6).
Eberly, S. S. (1988). Fairies and the Folklore of Disability. Folklore. 99 (1).
Grimm, J. (1882). Teutonic Mythology. London.
Hartland, E. S. (1891). Science of Fairy Tales. London.
Hastings, J. ed. (1910-). Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics. Clark, T & T, Edinburgh.
Keightley, T. (1891). The Fairy Mythology. Bohn Library, USA.
Lejeune, J. et al (1963). Hebd. Sciences Acad. 257.
MacCulloch, J. A. The Changeling. In: Hastings (1910 -).
Persaud, T. V. N. (1977). Problems of Birth Defects. Baltimore. USA.
Rhys, J. (1901). Celtic Folklore. Oxford.
Wentz, (1911). The Fairy Faith in the Celtic Countries. Colin Smythe.