The idea of people being abducted and replaced with an imposter underlies many tales. In science fiction it is the aliens that are usually to blame but until the 1900's in Northern Europe, these 'changelings' were thought to be related to the magical people that lived in the woods, hills or water.
Particularly at risk of abduction were un-baptised infants, especially boys, under a year old. The child left in its place was thought to be either a sickly fairy child or an old fairy looking for a place to relax and be pampered.
The stories are all remarkably similar. In Sweden, Denmark and Iceland it is the trolls that are responsible for swapping the children. In Ireland, Scotland and England it was the fairies and in Cornwall the Piskies (Pixies). In Wales the Tylwyth Teg would steel lovely children they admired leaving a plentyn-newid (change-child) in its place. In Germany the 'Nickert' small gray people that live in water stole un-baptised children leaving their own behind and in Lapland the Uldas.
The reasons why they did this are varied. It could be because they throught the children beautiful or wanted a child to train as a servant. Sometimes it was to replace a sickly child of their own or just from malice. The best prevention was to ensure the child was baptised at the earliest possible time. In Ireland, they would also say 'bless you' when looking over a child, so it was not placed in the fairies power.
However, the origin of these beliefs predates Christianity. Therefore many non-Christian methods were also used to protect childen before baptism. In Scandinavian folklore the trolls feared steel, so Sweedish parents often placed a pair of scissors or a knife on top of the infant's cradle.
Danish women guarded their children by placing garlic, salt, bread, and steel in the cradle or over the door.* In Ireland and Wales pins were used and often a fire was kept burning in the child's room.
In Germany, items such as snapdragons, blue marjoram, black cumin and a right shirt sleeve would stop the "Nickert" harming the child. In Scotland leaving an item of the father's clothing near the child was meant to protect it. And in Lapland children were given amulets of silver, brass, or copper.
How did the Idea come about?
The fairies steal a child
It is thought the changeling legend may have originated to explain why certain children did not develop normally. The children may have had a range of medical conditions that prevented them growing or communicating. They would have seemed different, as would children with some special ability.
In a superstitious age, when medical knowledge was limited, people looked for other explanations. Changeling children were usually described as being either withered, small and ugly; or very beautiful, with fine delicate features. Usually the child was unable to stand or communicate.
The child would fail to grow and cry non-stop despite having a healthy appetite. Although not able to speak the infant was thought to have a level of cunning or an ability not usually seen in a child of that age. Sometimes this was the ability to play a musical instrument, as in this story, or to cause mischief. In parts of Europe even left handed people were sometimes thought to be changelings.
It was a time when life was harsh and children were usually expected to earn their keep, a child needing a high level of care was seen as a burden and parents would have taken comfort in blaming an external cause.
Why were they treated so badly?
Discovering a changeling
The tests suggested to identify a changeling child were as cruel as the ones for witches. Similar practices were used throughout Europe.
They were meant to prove the child had an uncanny (strange) quality, or to compel the fairies or trolls to restore the missing infant. In Scandinavia, Wales and Ireland, one test was to cook a family meal in an eggshell. The child would exclaim, "I have seen the acorn before the oak, but I never saw the like of this." However much harsher treatment was recommended to get the child swapped back.
The poor infant could be whipped or thrown into water, exposed to the elements or even held on a shovel over the fire. In Danish stories the mother would heat the oven, and place the changeling on the edge pretending to put it in. In parts of Scotland and Ireland it was believed that putting a changeling on a fire would cause it to jump up the chimney and the true child be returned, although thankfully there are no cases of this actually being carried out. The suspected changeling was usually placed in front of the fire as near as possible without being scorched.
In a few stories kindness or care shown to a changeling child is rewarded with the return of the original child. In one Scandinavian tale a woman refuses to be cruel to the child. When the spell is broken it appears that the fairy mother always treated the boy exactly the way her own child was treated.
Did people ever carry out such dreadful acts?
Carrying off a baby
This is a group of myths connected with tragedy, for such beliefs resulted in the ill-treatment or neglect of children that often needed the most care.
In Scandinavia at least one woman was taken to court for having killed her child in an oven and there are several cases of people leaving their babies exposed outside over night in the hope they would be 'changed back'.
Martin Luther, the famous religious reformer, claimed that he had seen a twelve year old changeling child that did nothing but eat. The child would laugh and be joyful when any evil happened in the house. He recommended that it be drowned. When this advice was refused he recommended repeating the Lord's Prayer and asking God to take the Devil away. The child died about a year later, possibly from neglect.
Two cases as late as the 19th century illustrate just how tragic such beliefs could be. In 1826, Anne Roche took four year old Michael Leahy, who was unable to speak or stand, and bathed him three times in the Flesk. The child drowned. She was aquitted of murder as she swore that she only wanted to drive the fairy out of him. In the 1890's, Bridget Cleary was killed by several people, including her parents after she had apparently developed a mental illness. They grew convinced that she had been changed by the fairies. Even after her death they were convinced that they had killed a changeling, not Bridget. For this reason they were convicted of manslaughter rather than murder.