In European folklore, a changeling is an imbecilic or deformed offspring of dwarves, elves, or faeries surreptitiously substituted by them for a human child. The belief in changelings seems to have arisen from the idea children are susceptible to demonic possession. Some believed faeries preyed only upon unbaptized infants.
A changeling can be one of three types: actual fairy children; senile fairies who are disguised as children or, inanimate objects, such as pieces of wood which take on the appearance of a child through fairy magic. This latter type is known as a stock.
How to identify changeling?
Babies are generally joyful and pleasant, but the fairy substitute is never happy, except when some calamity befalls the household. For the most part, it howls and screeches throughout the waking hours and the sound and frequency of its yells often transcend the bounds of mortal endurance.
One positive feature which this fairy may demonstrate is an aptitude for music. As it begins to grow, the changeling may take up an instrument, often the fiddle or the Irish pipes, and plays with such skill that all who hear it will be entranced.
Puckered and wizened features coupled with yellow, parchment-like skin are all generic changeling attributes. This fairy will also exhibit very dark eyes, which betray a wisdom far older than its apparent years.
Changelings display other characteristics, usually physical deformities, among which a crooked back or lame hand are common. About two weeks after their arrival in the human household, changelings will also exhibit a full set of teeth, legs as thin as chicken bones, and hands which are curved and crooked as birds’ talons and covered with a light, downy hair.
No luck will come to a family in which there is a changeling because the creature drains away all the good fortune which would normally attend the household. Thus, those who are cursed with it tend to be very poor and struggle desperately to maintain the ravenous monster in their midst.
How to get rid of a changeling?
The usual method of ridding a family of such a changeling is to surprise it in some manner so that it will betray its true character. Practically, it seems that the best results are obtained by doing something ridiculous to make him laugh.
Other methods are more questionable and include converting the changeling into the stock by saying a powerful rhyme over him, or by sticking him with a knife.
He could be driven away by running at him with a red-hot ploughshare; by getting between him and the bed and threatening him with a drawn sword; by leaving him out on the hillside, and paying no attention to his shrieking and screaming; by putting him sitting on a gridiron, or in a creel, with a fire below; by sprinkling him well out of the maistir tub; or by dropping him into the river.
Another recipe include laying the changeling on a hot fire and saying the formula, “Burn, burn, burn–if of the devil, burn; but if of God and the saints, be safe from harm” (given by Lady Wilde). Then, if it be a changeling it will rush up the chimney with a cry, for, according to Giraldus Cambrensis, “fire is the greatest of enemies to every sort of phantom, in so much that those who have seen apparitions fall into a swoon as soon as they are sensible of the brightness of fire.”
A Welsh changeling story tells of a woman whose three-year-old son was stolen by the fairies and she was given a threefold instruction by a “cunning man” (magician) on how to get him back. She removed the top from a raw egg and began stirring the contents, and as the changeling watched her do this certain comments he made established his otherworldly identity. She then went to a crossroads at midnight during the full moon and observed a fairy raid in order to confirm that her son was with them. Lastly she obtained a black hen and without plucking it she roasted it over a wood fire until every feather dropped off. The changeling then disappeared and her son was returned to her.
What happens to the stolen children?
Those who are carried away are happy, according to some accounts, having plenty of good living and music and mirth. Others say, however, that they are continually longing for their earthly friends.
A countrywoman as she was one day carrying her child on her arm met a Fée similarly engaged, who proposed an exchange. But she would not consent, even though, she said, the Fée’s babe were nine times finer than her own. A few days after, having left her child in the house when she went to work
in the fields, it appeared to her on her return that it had been changed. She immediately consulted a neighbour, who to put the matter to the proof, broke a dozen eggs and ranged the shells before the child, who instantly began to cry out, Oh! what a number of cream-pots! Oh! what a number of cream-pots! The matter was now beyond doubt, and the neighbour next advised to make it cry lustily in order to bring its real mother to it. This also succeeded; the Fee came imploring them to spare her child, and the real one should be restored.
A mother had her child taken from the cradle by elves. In its place they laid a changeling with a thick head and staring eyes who would do nothing but eat and drink. In distress she went to a neighbor and asked for advice. The neighbor told her to carry the changeling into the kitchen, set it on the hearth, make a fire, and boil water in two eggshells. That should make the changeling laugh, and if he laughs it will be all over with him. The woman did everything just as her neighbor said. When she placed the eggshells filled with water over the fire, the blockhead said:
Now I am as old
As the Wester Wood,
But have never seen anyone cooking in shells!
And he began laughing about it. When he laughed, a band of little elves suddenly appeared. They brought the rightful child, set it on the hearth, and took the changeling away.