Have you ever seen a parent look at their child with amazement? Not because they are in awe that they created another human being, but because they are sure that the child in the crib is not their child? Perhaps you awkwardly laughed and inquired what else it could be, only to be told that it was a changeling
You are unlikely to experience this situation with any of your friends today. However, throughout the Middle Ages until the mid-19th century, stories of changelings were quite common. Many readily believed that an unusual baby might actually be such a creature.
What is a changeling?
A changeling is most often referring to a fairy who is swapped in to replace a human baby. The mortal child is taken back to the realm of the fairies to be raised and put to work, while the creature left behind usually sickens and dies. Though some may live into adulthood, they are always thought to be strange by the locals.
What do changeling children look like?
Most stories about changelings describe them as looking like ugly, little old men. Obviously, this can make distinguishing them from your average baby difficult. I’m sure you love your own kid, but let’s be honest. Most babies are horrifyingly strange looking when they are born. Now imagine if they fail to gain weight because of poverty or a condition the parents aren’t aware of. Other descriptions include babies with abnormally sized body parts or facial features. Basically, any defect could be a sign that a fairy took your baby.
Though in other cases, a changeling baby does resemble a human child, but only slightly off. Maybe their eyes contain the wisdom of millennia. Or they seem quieter than they were when firstborn. But if they are alive and getting into mischief, it is still better than the alternative. Sometimes the changeling is said to be a pile of sticks magically made to appear as the mirror-image of the stolen child. The mirage sickens before quickly dying. The parents unknowingly bury the sticks, never knowing their true child was missing.
How do you defeat a changeling?
There are a few prescribed methods to get the changeling to leave their home while retrieving their own baby. First, the parents could try to beat the false baby. Apparently, its cries of suffering would summon the fairies back to rescue their family and return the human child. Other forms of violence were also prescribed, like drowning them or leaving them alone in the woods to be taken by their family or eaten wolves.
Parents who decided not to beat their child (thank God) might try to spook the fairy away. Threatening to scald it with a hot poker or boil it in a soup pot were two classic examples of good ways to coax the changeling to leave. While also mentally scarring their own child for life if they were wrong. Likewise, using objects or symbols hated by fairies (like iron or crosses) was another way to kick them out of one’s home.
The least aggressive of the methods to get the changeling out of there was to make it reveal its name or age. Usually, this involved shocking it by doing something confusing or unexpected. A mother might crack eggs and throw the insides away while putting the shells in the soup pot. The point was to get the kid to say, “Well I, (insert fairy name) haven’t seen such a sight in all my (insert absurdly long-not-baby-years).” Then the changeling would be whisked away and the true child returned.
The actual history of why changeling myths existed is horrific
Imagine having a baby with any kind of deviation from what was expected. Even today that subject is sensitive. Accepting a child with special needs is difficult for some parents. Back when medical knowledge was rudimentary or nonexistent, these abnormalities would be seen as a sign of dark doings. Even as justification to commit infanticide if it meant getting a healthy child returned.
One reason one might kill a child before the 1900s had to do with economics. A child who could not work because of disability was a drain on the family’s meager resources. Especially if they lived into adulthood. In some ways killing a child was seen as necessary so the rest of the family could survive. That practice goes back as far as ancient Greece and Rome. It is easy to see how the practice could have spread and lived on well after the fall of the empire.
These tales must have alleviated some of the guilt felt by the family and the community who would turn a blind eye. For you see, the couple did not produce a bad baby. A fairy stole theirs and replaced it with one of their cursed own. Of course, the parents should do whatever they could to get their own child back. If the changeling died, that was unfortunate. But truly, only the fairies were at fault here.
The excuse was accepted for many years. This led to wild abuse of children who had learning disabilities and deformities. In fact, violence and suspicion weren’t just reserved for children. While tales of changeling children are more popular, we do know that adults could be swapped with a fairy. This often resulted in their being “off” or a not-quite-right version of themselves. This would have been an easy way to explain the behavior of a loved one suddenly encountering mental health issues, like depression.
Even a sudden independent streak could cause alarm, as was the case with Bridget Cleary. Her husband killed her because he claimed she was a changeling. While this didn’t save him in 1895, 100 years prior it might have.
Changelings are an interesting part of human history. A way for people to explain away children and adults who acted outside the norm. A justification for killing. While we don’t believe in them now, thank goodness, they are proof of how monsters were created to help people cope with what they didn’t understand.
Originally Posted Here