What is a Changeling?
A Quick Video on the Changeling
A Changeling's Appearance
The ultimate goal of a changeling is to successfully switch places with a human. Their fairy abilities allow them to create a likeness, but the sheer number of stories about them suggests their abilities fall far short. The most telling is how thin they tend to be. Apparently it is difficult for a fairy to appear chubby and it is a tell-tale sign a switch has been made. They may eat and eat, but never gain any weight. Their temperament also sours and their faces are mostly squeezed into displeasure and emit cries of distress ceaselessly.
The size of the eyes and mouth may also change in appearance, becoming too large for the face. It might also be noticed the eyes looking back have a deeper sense of the world, a cunning and understanding that wasn’t there before. The hands may also tell as the fingers become too long and agile. Some stories report changelings unable to grow or walk, while others grew up and remained in a human family well into adulthood.
The Fairy Motivation
In many cases it is not the changeling who chooses this fate, but rather their kin. In some ways, it's possible a changeling can be as much a victim as the babe and their family. Placed in a crib and expected to replace a human child. But why? We can only ever speculate at the mind of a fairy, but you can be sure many have cooked up innumerable reasons as to why one of our own would be spirited away.
Perhaps most common of all reasons is the fairy’s attraction to beautiful things. Whether it be a lovely young lad or lady or, more commonly, a sweet little baby, the more attractive they are the more likely to be stolen away. Some thought this was to improve the attributes of their descendants. Others believed this to be a way of ridding themselves of ugly fairy children and replacing them with a beautiful human baby.
The Fae are often known to experience emotions in extremes. Anger, jealousy, grief, joy and love in such quantities there is room for little to nothing else. Therefore, if a fairy has fallen in love with a wee infant, there’s very little in this world to stop them from taking the babe home with them to live out the rest of its days in their company.
It was also widely known that fairies tend to be quite lazy and are always in need of help handling menial labor. It’s likely many a stolen human found themselves waiting upon the fairy folk.
A Better Life:
In the case of a troll, it was thought they preferred their children to be raised by humans. Such trolls wished a better life for their own child and would then swap babies out of love.
A darker explanation lay in a bet made with the Devil himself. The fairy lost this bet and in return must pay the Devil a tribute or a sacrifice. Obviously they don’t want to give up one of their own and so instead will take the most pleasing humans they can find and offer them up to the Devil in their stead.
Old and Crotchety:
Those of the Fae who grow old and worn may tire of their life and desire an easier time of things. What fun and ease can be had as a human babe. Cuddles, games, plenty of warm milk and a comfortable bed; what more could a fairy desire? So, they choose a lovely child to join their kin, attempt to adopt the look of the babe and slip underneath the covers. Every desire is met with a whine and a cry and the changeling may enjoy this until they pass from the world, leaving the baby’s parents to believe their own child has died when in fact it was the old fairy who’d stolen its place.
The belief in and fear of changelings was deep and far-reaching. Throughout Europe, people told stories and took action upon the belief in fairy doubles. To think your child could be taken from you in such a way with barely a moment’s notice lead to desperate attempts at warding away the fairies.
What many would come to believe in as the best form of fairy proofing their children was baptism. For a tidy little fee, a family could have their child baptised and named, both giving the infant protection from most would-be fairy-nappers. Baptism was a very real priority in much of Catholic Europe and would be attempted within three days of a baby’s birth. These early days of a baby’s life were very fragile and parents would do what they could to improve their child’s chance of survival. While waiting for the baptism, and sometimes even after, parents would rely on many superstitions.
Action could be taken the moment a child was born. Placing them in their parents clothing as soon as possible, or clothing that had been passed through the smoke of a fire were quick methods to begin with. Placing items made of iron in the cradle, a pin in the baby’s clothing, an open pair of iron scissors over the cradle,, a bible, holy water, a ring of fire, a pair of pants laid over the cradle, and a watchful parental eye are only some of the best known ways to ward against abduction. It was also believed that if anyone were to speak too kindly of a baby’s looks or temperament it could garner the attention of the “good people” and that was something to be avoided at all costs.
Getting them Back
I must warn you, what follows in this section is not for the tender hearted and may cause distress. Continue reading only if you are prepared for heavy-hearted information. Fairy belief can be light hearted and full of wonder, but it is also weighed down with the harsh realities of life and things difficult to comprehend. In regard to the Changeling beliefs, many children came to harm. If you'd like to skip ahead, it's safe to read beyond the eggshells.
Once taken, there was little hope for a return. The fairies often do as they please. Convincing them to return someone stolen was a daunting feat. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of tales and advice on how to have a changeling returned. Unfortunately, most attempts include wicked acts of violence against the suspected changeling such as brutal beatings, burning, boiling and exposure to the elements. A popular approach in many tales includes burning the changeling. Fire is often a strong deterrent against the fae. It was expected that the hot flames would drive the fairy out of the house, and, quite often, spurred right up the chimney in its desperate escape. These methods did not guarantee the return of the child, but it was an effective means to rid the family of the unwanted fairy. Sadly, many children would suffer at the hands of perhaps well-intentioned but fatal attempts to "bring them back".
A fairly well-known case in 1895 of the murder of Bridget Cleary is an example of the lengths people were willing to go and the depth of the belief in Changelings. In this case, the husband believed his wife to be a changeling and convinced other family members and friends. She would ultimately be tortured and burned to death by her husband as others stood by. There is a lot of information about this case and if you find yourself in disbelief and more curious, you will not be disappointed in the depths and strangeness of this unfortunate woman's story.
The most common non-violent method would most certainly be to trick a changeling into revealing its age by surprising it. This could be accomplished through unique ways to prepare eggshells. Brewing or baking eggshells was considered so strange and unexpected that a changeling couldn’t resist the novelty of it and would almost certainly be tricked into revealing itself with surprise and wonderment. They could also be exposed through their own blunders due to sheer boredom, giving into the call of the pipes and playing a merry tune or suddenly walking and or talking when they hadn’t yet learned to crawl.
A Long-Held Belief
Changelings are a dark, but fascinating part of fairy lore and history. The belief in them goes back perhaps before the 1200s and, it could be argued, still persists today. Trying to understand our world and some of the more painful parts of it has no doubt fuelled these tales and caused them to resonate for centuries.