Changelings: Terrifying Creatures That Impersonate Your Children

Do you know about Changelings? They were terrifying creatures from medieval times who often impersonated children and replaced them in their parent’s homes. This blog post will explore the origins of changelings and what you can do if you think a changeling has replaced your child.

Changeling by Henry Fuseli
Der Wechselbalg by Henry Fuseli, 1781

What Are Changelings?

In medieval times, parents were constantly afraid of Changelings. Sources also call them an oaf or an auf. A changeling was a creature who would take the place of a human child, often leaving the actual child to die. These creatures were said to be able to transform themselves into any form they wanted, but they would only superficially resemble their victims.

According to legends, children were always at risk. To hide their theft of the child, they would replace them with their own. Often the child would prove unruly after that. The idea was that faeries did this to strengthen their power and would do anything to ruin families. Children were also taken to act as servants to the faeries.  

Parents would have to torture the changeling and make it laugh to get the child back. Afterward, their child would be returned to them safe and sound. Now that you have an idea of what these fabled creatures are let’s look at some ways to spot a changeling in disguise.

What It Meant for Families Suspected of Having A Changeling

If a family suspected a changeling had replaced their child, ill omens would befall them. For example, the family’s milk would go sour, their butter wouldn’t churn, and their food tasted strange. The family would also have a lot of bad luck and know nothing but suffering and hardship.

How To Spot a Changeling

The most common ways to spot a changeling were their behavior and appearance. For example, if your child was previously well-behaved and suddenly became unruly, that was a sign. On the other hand, changelings were only unhappy, unfriendly, and mean. Also, if your child’s appearance changed, that was another warning sign. 

There are more deciding factors that Irish legends mentioned. For example, parents assumed that a fairy child would look sickly and not grow up to average size. Other identifying characteristics would include unnaturally long teeth and scraggly hair. This may have led to the belief that young faeries weren’t the only ones used as changelings. Often, young human children were switched out with elderly faeries to live the rest of their days in comfort.

Changelings were also known to consume more than a human child. Their appetite was massive, and they would be insatiable. Parents would notice that changelings possessed an intelligence far above a young child. They would be easily identified when alone and dance, jump and play strange instruments. Changelings were a huge concern for parents, so they endeavored to find ways to prevent their children from being stolen.

How To Ward Off Changelings

There were many ways people tried to prevent changelings from taking their children. For example, people thought that iron was something that the Fae feared the most, and so they would place items made of iron near the child’s cradle or even the adult’s bed to deter them.

Parents also used blessed holy crucifixes or water. Supposedly, changelings were so terrified of these things that they would run away. Even laying an article of the father’s clothing across the child as they slept worked as a deterrent.

The devil steals a baby, leaving a concealed changeling.
The devil steals a baby, leaving a concealed changeling.  Martino di Bartolomeo

If the physical elements didn’t work to keep the Fae away, there were social aspects to be aware of that were related to more frequent sightings of changelings. For instance, parents were advised to be wary of anyone with “baby envy” as drawing such attention to the child would endanger them. The Faeries would be curious about what was so interesting about the child. It was also unwise to admire or envy someone extremely beautiful or handsome as it would draw attention from the Faeries.

Reasons for Abducting Adults

It’s important to note that adults were also at risk of being stolen away by the Fae. The most common reasons for adults being taken were their beauty, talent, or knowledge. For example, a blacksmith who was highly skilled at his craft or a woman known for her incomparable beauty would be more likely to be taken.

The Fae were also said to take adults to gain revenge. Folklorists believed Faeries were interested in adults for inter-species breeding, especially if they were beautiful. Sometimes, Faeries would steal people for the idea of “new blood,” meaning that the Fae consumed the abducted, thinking that their blood and flesh were sweeter.”

How Changeling Myths Tie into Real Life Ailments

In Pre-Industrial Europe and rural areas, families would often rely on each family member to help support the household when they came of age. Unfortunately, Changelings could only be burdens, devouring everything and destroying happiness wherever they went. Often this resulted in real and terrible consequences for children.

If a family had a child born with deformities, it was likely that they would be accused of being a changeling. These children were a bad omen, and families abandoned or even killed them. Even if the child didn’t have any physical deformities, if they were mentally disabled in any way, autistic, or even just considered to be “slow,” they would also be suspected of being a changeling.

Unfortunately, adults were also at risk of being accused of being changelings. Women were often considered to be suspect if they didn’t fit into the idealized version of what a woman should be. For example, if a woman were too independent, strong-willed, or even just not attractive enough, she would be a changeling. In many cases, women who suffered from depression or anxiety were also changelings. These changeling myths tie into real-life ailments because, at the time, there was no way to explain why some people were different from others.

A Modern Changeling Story with Unfortunate Consequences

Although the changeling myths are centuries old, one story happened that caused a lot of uproars. One of the most famous Changeling tales to date was the tragic case of Bridget Cleary or “the last witch burned in Ireland.”

Bridget Cleary was a young woman living in Tipperary, Ireland, who, in 1895, disappeared from her home. Days before, she had fallen ill, and no one could cure her ailments, and her condition worsened. A few days after she was reported missing, her husband Michael claimed that she had been taken by the fairies and replaced with a changeling, so he burned her alive after torturing her as was custom to forcing the Fae to return the real Bridget. The community searched for her and found her charred remains in a shallow grave. Michael Cleary was arrested, charged, and sentenced to 15 years. 

Bridget Cleary who was killed by her husband who thought she was a changeling
Bridget Cleary who was killed by her husband who thought she was a changeling

When People didn’t understand mental illness and were afraid of things they didn’t understand, these changeling myths explained away the things that scared them. It was common to assume supernatural forces were at work. Humans have been doing it for centuries. The story of Bridget Cleary shows that there can be devastating consequences.

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