A Changeling is a creature that 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.
In honor of my upcoming trip to Scotland, I thought I would try to find some folklore specific to that country, which is what led me to the Changelings. But, as I’ve been discovering with most of the creatures that I’ve been looking into, there are many diverse countries that have their own version of a Changeling, including Spain, Poland, Ireland and Scandinavia, to name just a few.
The theme of the swapped child reflects concern over infants thought to be afflicted with unexplained diseases, disorders, or developmental disabilities, and can be found in literature as far back as Medieval times. A human child might be taken due to many factors: to act as a servant, for the love of a human child, or malice. Most often it was thought that fairies exchanged the children.
According to common Scottish myths, a child born with a caul (part of the amniotic membrane) across his or her face is a changeling, and will soon die (is “of fey birth”).
They also believed that the fairies could spirit away children, and even adults, and take them back to their own world. Often, it was thought that a baby would be snatched and replaced with a male adult elf, to be suckled by the human mother. The real baby would be treated well by the elves and would grow up to be one of them, whereas the Changeling baby would be discontented and wearisome.
I loved this little story and had to share it with you. ‘A mother suspected that her baby had been taken and replaced with a changeling, a view that was proven to be correct one day when a neighbor ran into the house shouting “Come here and ye’ll se a sight! Yonder’s the Fairy Hill a’ alowe.” To which the elf got up saying “Waes me! What’ll come o’ me wife and bairns?” and made his way out of the chimney.’
But the sad reality behind many changeling legends was often the birth of deformed or developmentally disabled children. Among the diseases or disabilities with symptoms that match the description of Changelings in various legends are spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, Down Syndrome, regressive autism and cerebral palsy.
It has also 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. Interestingly enough, it has been suggested that autistic children were likely to be labeled as Changelings or elf-children due to their strange, sometimes inexplicable behavior. It might, for example, explain why fairies are often described as having an obsessive impulse to count things like handfuls of spilled seeds.
Changelings are creatures known all over the world and are often very mischievous growing up. As they get older they tend to calm down and are more helpful. But, due to their mischievous behavior, they are often depicted as evil creatures, sent by the devil to take the place of a human infant. Many people feared Changelings and often would take great measures to make sure that a Changeling never took the place of their child.
Some of the stories were quite brutal but, in some cases, the Changelings grew up being very loyal and caring to friends and family despite what they were. It was often believed that a Changeling was put in place of a very sick or dying baby so that the mother would never know the heartache of losing her child. The Changeling’s parents would then take the sick or dying human infant in place and keep it safe. The Changeling’s true parents were said to watch them as they grew, helping them along the way.
In Scottish folklore, the fairies were often called elves. Their fairyland was known as Elfame and they were believed to live deep within the heather of Fairy Glen on the northern edge of the Isle of Skye.
Unfortunately, I’m not going to get a chance to visit the Isle of Skye or experience the magical Fairy Glen on this trip to Scotland, but, hopefully, I will at some point in the future.
I will be taking a cruise on Loch Ness this time, so I may have something completely different to talk about next month. Hope you’re ready for that.
Thanks for joining me.