Search This Blog

Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Fairy Facts: Changelings

 For our next installment of fairy facts I thought we'd tackle one of the most widely misunderstood subjects: changelings. To be fair a changeling isn't a type of fairy, per se,; we have stories of a wide array of specific types of beings that leave changelings from the aos sidhe to trolls. They are called changelings instead of by a specific term because they are something that has been changed for a stolen human; so perhaps we could understand it more as a kind of job description. 

Changelings are a huge topic - they take an entire chapter in my book Aos Sidhe and that's looking only at the Irish folklore - so this isn't going to be a comprehensive discussion here only an overview. At some point soon I will offer a full article on this subject and specifically dig into some of the most controversial or confusing aspects, but hopefully this today will at least help people get a better idea of what changelings are to start.

Name: Changelings

Description: A changeling is something left in place of a stolen human. There are three options with changelings: 1 an inanimate object that has been magically changed to look like the stolen person, 2 an elderly fairy that wants to be pampered and cared for, 3 a sick and dying fairy baby.
  The physical description of a changeling is often dependent on the specific story; if an inanimate object it will look exactly like the stolen human. If its a fairy it will often be described as an 'ugly' version of the stolen human.

Found in folklore across western Europe, from Iceland to Scandinavia, from Ireland to Germany.

Folklore: Across folklore we find stories of humans stolen by the fairies who are babies, toddlers, children, and adults; each is taken for different reasons but it usually boils down to filling a need the fairies have. Usually the stolen human is either left alone at a critical time during which the swap happens or wanders alone too close to fairy property. To cover these thefts a changeling is left in the stolen human's place and the changeling either "dies" and is buried or eventually leaves through various means. There are a very small number of stories where the changeling, if a fairy baby, survives and is raised by humans but always with community knowledge that they are (assumed to be) a changeling; more often the fairy is reclaimed by their fairy family while still a child. Most often the changeling is either driven out, forcing the stolen human's return, or the human is rescued forcing the changeling to leave; in some stories the changeling is killed or driven off but the human doesn't return (see anecdote section below).
   There is a wide diversity of folklore around changelings but it can be roughly divided into 6 types:
   1 Insatiable - baby or child who mindlessly consumes food and drink
   2 Inconsolable - baby or child that cannot be satisfied or appeased and is constantly crying
   3 Personality Changes - a child or adult who suddenly begins acting unlike themselves
   4 Eerily Knowledgeable - a baby or child who demonstrates impossible knowledge or skill, such as playing an instrument or dancing, or who otherwise reveals itself to be an elderly fairy
   5 Failure to Thrive - a baby or child who doesn't age or grow across years
   6 Dies - the changeling dies within a short time of being swapped for the human (particularly common in stories of women stolen after giving birth)
   In folklore of changelings we find various methods to force a changeling to leave or reveal itself, most of which are cruel and deadly. In a small number of stories the person is urged to provide excellent care for the changeling so that the fairies will care equally well for the stolen human, but usually the changeling is tortured in an attempt to force the fairies to take it back, which in the stories of course works. In another small sample of stories the stolen human is rescued directly from the fairies and the changeling disappears. 

Anecdotes: Changeling folklore exists both in story types, as mentioned above and in anecdotes which represent stories of people's personal experiences. Technically these are not separate things but for our purposes here I am dividing them for clarity, because there is a sharp contrast between the story types and alleged changeling encounters/experiences people have. While the above story types represent motifs and tropes that are found across various cultural tales and provide the stereotypical understanding of changelings, the anecdotes often represent very different approaches to this belief. For one thing anecdotes don't focus as strongly on infants but tend to feature children and adults more often, and the tell tale signs of a changeling rarely fit the story types. For example a story told on was about an 8 year old boy who was out picking nuts and disappeared; when found he was in a catatonic state and remained so until his parents followed the advice of a local fairy expert and - they believed - the changeling left and their 'real' son returned, although with no memory of the events since he'd disappeared. 
Anecdotal accounts sometimes involve court cases or stories wherein the person is murdered because of the belief they are a changeling. In these stories it is usually reasonably clear the child or adult was suffering from an illness, birth trauma, or other medical issue which caused them to be assumed a changeling. 

Where It Gets Muddy: popular modern fiction has largely reversed the concept of a changeling, taking it from an old or sickly fairy - or stick - swapped for a living human and turning it into a trope about a magical child raised by humans who later discovers they are a fairy. This is entirely foreign to the older or culturally based stories but has become the dominant view across popculture in the last decade or so as the trope has become well known in fiction. This has caused many people who get their understanding of folk beliefs directly from modern fiction to accept this view as definitive. 

What They Aren't: despite the proliferations of memes and social media assertions, changeling wasn't the older term for autistic children or how autism was previously understood. The association with autism only dates back to the 1990s and is based strictly on one or two story types associated with changeling folklore (ignoring the others and all anecdotal accounts). It is a term that some modern autistic people self-identify with but should be understood in that context. Prior to the 1990s, specifically in the Victorian period, folklorists and other academics had explained changelings as a misguided belief by ignorant people around children born with clinical retardation or Down Syndrome. Martin Luther in the 16th century explained changelings as children born without souls who only existed as a physical body. It is possible that some autistic children in the past would have been labelled as changelings but it is far from a 1 = 1 equivalency. 

There is a strong link between changeling folklore and people, particularly children, suffering from physical disabilities or congenital issues. I highly recommend dr Rose Sawyer's book 'The Medieval Changeling' to better understand the intersection of changeling belief and disability. 

1 comment:

  1. This was really good. I am Autistic and have an interest in learning more about Celtic and Fairie mythology.

    I do identify with the changeling trope but I would not have been labeled a changeling most likely. However, I know based on what you wrote, other Autistic people would have been labeled as changelings (savants and regressive attributes)

    Ivar Lovaas the person who fathered ABA and conversion therapy said that Autistic people weren't people, but shells of people and you had to make or build the person.