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What is a Changeling?

Niki Acker
By
Updated Feb 02, 2024
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A changeling is the child of a supernatural being that is switched for a human baby. The changeling appears in the folklore of many European countries, and references to the changeling may be found from time to time in modern popular culture. According to legend, fairies, trolls, and other creatures desire human babies either to raise as their own or to use as servants, and they secretly steal babies and replace them with their own offspring or a bewitched inanimate object. Human parents are said to be able to recognize the changeling by its ugliness or its odd or wicked behavior.

In medieval legend, tales of changelings are frequent. Some children were said to be particularly vulnerable: those not yet baptized, and those who were especially beautiful - often the blond-haired and blue-eyed. Male children were also said to be targeted more often.

There are a number of legendary precautions against changelings. Scandinavian lore suggests placing a steel item above the cradle of an unbaptised infant, while other traditions favor such practices as turning the infant's clothes inside-out or using amulets. In many cultures, the changeling is believed to be much wiser than a human baby, so it can be driven away by surprising it into talking and thereby blowing its cover. Methods for effecting this include cooking a meal in an eggshell or brewing beer in an acorn.

There are also a number of more disturbing methods for getting rid of a changeling that involve abusing the infant in various ways. Beating, drowning, and burning in a stove or in the fireplace have all been recommended as ways to deal with a changeling. A Swedish folktale tells of a woman who refuses to maltreat a changeling and eventually is reunited with her own child; the human child is healthy, and the woman learns that the troll mother who had her child had similarly refused entreaties to abuse the baby and that kindness had broken the spell.

Folklorists have two main theories about the possible origins of changeling myths. One possibility is that changeling stories are supernatural reinterpretations of an actual occurrence; populations forced into hiding by invaders may have exchanged their own children for the healthier ones of the invaders.

The other theory holds that infants with birth defects were the origin for changeling lore. This is consistent with the legend that male babies were more often replaced with changelings, as males have a higher incidence of birth defects. The infants in some changeling stories have characteristics similar to those that result from birth defects such as autism, progeria, or a number of physical deformities. Some supposed changeling cases may also have been instances of failure to thrive, a condition in which an infant does not grow or gain weight as expected and requires extra care.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker , Writer
"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

Discussion Comments

By anon336161 — On May 26, 2013

I personally believe that I am a changeling. I have long brown hair, pale skin and hazel eyes that change constantly. The reason I think I am a changeling is because I don't fit in with my family. All of my family is pale haired, blue/dark eyes and tan skin. They all love math and hate reading while I am obsessed with reading/literature and hate math, though I am good at it. Strangers always tell me I am gorgeous and my friends think I am "perfect". And, of course, my parents lost track of me for a while after I was born.

I am the only person in my family who wins everything, and I am scary thin compared to their full figures. My friends also say that I look like a faerie. Acquaintances come up to me and say "We have decided that Fiona was a faerie in a past life." I am not certain that I am a changeling though. Am I?

By anon243916 — On Jan 30, 2012

My daughter had a very bad experience last night. She claims there is a "bad daddy" that comes around at night and yells in her ear and tries to take her. She is almost three. There was no one in the room when she started screaming and I got there to find her at the foot of the bed. She was scared, but definitely herself.

I comforted her and went to discover the source of the issue while mommy stayed with her. Rapid footsteps like those of an animal but definitely bipedal, like a very small child, sounded running away from me as I searched the room and then the home. Not really sure what to make of this and a little freaked out. Please, I am very concerned. Anyone have any thoughts?

By anon167051 — On Apr 11, 2011

There is an episode of a show called Supernatural that was based on this changeling thing. The episode is from 2007 and it is called "The Kids are Alright" it was pretty good if anyone is interested in watching it, and it talks about a bit about the whole changeling lore. --Yahdiel

By anon139545 — On Jan 05, 2011

i think it may be true because in my culture there are some tales of some weird stuff and this is nothing compared to those.

By christym — On Oct 23, 2010

@googie98: Yes, there was a movie called "Changeling". It was produced by Clint Eastwood and starred Angelina Jolie. It was based on a true story about a young boy that went missing.

He wasn't the child of a fairy or troll but the movie was really good.

By googie98 — On Oct 23, 2010

Isn't there a changeling dvd or movie or something? If so, is it about the same thing?

By BoatHugger — On Oct 23, 2010

In a tale from the Brothers Grimm, there was a story of a woman that suspected her child had been exchanged for a changeling. She began to brew beer in the hull of an acorn. The changeling uttered: “now I am as old as an oak in the woods but I have never seen beer being brewed in an acorn”, and then disappeared.

Niki Acker

Niki Acker

Writer

"In addition to her role as a WiseGeek editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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