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Changeling is a creature found in folklore and folk religion. It is typically described as being the offspring of a fairy, troll, elf or other legendary creature that has been secretly left in the place of a human child.


It is typically described as being the offspring of a fairy, troll, elf or other legendary creature that has been secretly left in the place of a human child. Sometimes the term is also used to refer to the child who was taken. The apparent changeling could also be a stock or fetch, an enchanted piece of wood that would soon appear to grow sick and die. The theme of the swapped child is common among medieval literature and reflects concern over infants thought to be afflicted with unexplained diseases, disorders, or developmental disabilities.

A human child might be taken due to many factors: to act as a servant, the love of a human child, or malice.[1] Most often it was thought that fairies exchanged the children. Some Norwegian tales tell that the change was made to prevent inbreeding: to give trolls and humans new blood, humans were given children with enormous strength as a reward. In some rare cases, the very elderly of the Fairy people would be exchanged in the place of a human baby, and then the old fairy could live in comfort, being coddled by its human parents.[2] Simple charms, such as an inverted coat or open iron scissors left where the child sleeps, were thought to ward them off; other measures included a constant watch over the child.[3]

Purpose of a Changeling

Some people believed that trolls would take unbaptized children. Once children had been baptized and therefore become part of the Church, the trolls could not take them. One belief is that trolls thought that being raised by humans was something very classy, and that they therefore wanted to give their own children a human upbringing.

Beauty in human children and young women, particularly blond hair, attracted the fairies.[4]

In Scottish folklore, the children might be replacements for fairy children in the tithe to Hell;[5] this is best known from the ballad of Tam Lin.[6] Also, according to common Scottish myths, a child born with a caul (head helmet) across their face is a changeling, and of fey birth.

Some folklorists believe that fairies were memories of inhabitants of various regions in Europe who had been driven into hiding by invaders. They held that changelings had actually occurred; the hiding people would exchange their own sickly children for the healthy children of the invaders.[7]

Other folklore,[2] say that human milk is necessary for fairy children to survive. In these cases either the newborn human child would be switched with a fairy babe to be suckled by the human mother, or the human mother would be taken back to the fairy world to breastfeed the fairy babies. It is also thought that human midwives were necessary to bring fairy babes into the world.

Some changelings might forget they are not human and proceed to live a human life. Changelings which do not forget, however, may later return to their fairy family, possibly leaving the human family without warning. As for the human child that was taken, he or she may often stay with the fairy family forever.

Changelings in Medieval Folklore


The Mên-an-Tol stones in Cornwall are supposed to have a fairy or pixie guardian who can make miraculous cures. In one case a changeling baby was put through the stone in order for the mother to get the real child back. Evil pixies had changed her child and the ancient stones were able to reverse their evil spell.[8]


In Ireland, looking at a baby with envy – "over looking the baby" – was dangerous, as it endangered the baby, who was then in the fairies' power.[9] So too was admiring or envying a woman or man dangerous, unless the person added a blessing; the able-bodied and beautiful were in particular danger. Women were especially in danger in liminal states: being a new bride, or a new mother.[10]

Putting a changeling in a fire would cause it to jump up the chimney and return the human child, but at least one tale recounts a mother with a changeling finding that a fairy woman came to her home with the human child, saying the other fairies had done the exchange, and she wanted her own baby.[9] The tale of surprising a changeling into speech – by brewing eggshells – is also told in Ireland, as in Wales.[11]

Belief in changelings endured in parts of Ireland until as late as 1895, when Bridget Cleary was killed by her husband who believed her to be a changeling.

Changelings, in some instances, were regarded not as substituted fairy children but instead old fairies brought to the human world to die.

Lowland Scotland and Northern England

In the Anglo-Scottish border region it was believed that elves (or fairies) lived in "Elf Hills" (or "Fairy Hills"). Along with this belief in supernatural beings was the view that they could spirit away children, and even adults, and take them back to their own world.[12][13] Often, it was thought, a baby would be snatched and replaced with a simulation of the baby, usually a male adult elf, to be suckled by the mother.[12] The real baby would be treated well by the elves and would grow up to be one of them, whereas the changeling baby would be discontented and wearisome.[13] Many herbs, salves and seeds could be used for discovering the fairy-folk and ward off their designs.[13] In one tale a mother suspected that her baby had been taken and replaced with a changeling, a view that was proven to be correct one day when a neighbour ran into the house shouting "Come here and ye'll se a sight! Yonder's the Fairy Hill a' alowe." To which the elf got up saying "Waes me! What'll come o' me wife and bairns?" and made his way out of the chimney.[12] At Byerholm near Newcastleton in Liddesdale sometime during the early 19th century, a dwarf called Robert Elliot or Little Hobbie o' The Castleton as he was known, was reputed to be a changeling. When taunted by other boys he would not hesitate to draw his gully (a large knife) and dispatch them, however being that he was woefully short in the legs they usually out-ran him and escaped. He was courageous however and when he heard that his neighbour, the six-foot three-inch William Scott of Kirndean, a sturdy and strong borderer, had slandered his name, he invited the man to his house, took him up the stairs and challenged him to a duel. Scott beat a hasty retreat.[13]

Child ballad 40, The Queen of Elfan's Nourice, depicts the abduction of a new mother, drawing on the folklore of the changelings. Although it is fragmentary, it contains the mother's grief and the Queen of Elfland's promise to return her to her own child if she will nurse the queen's child until it can walk.[14]


Since most beings from Scandinavian folklore are said to be afraid of iron, Scandinavian parents often placed an iron item such as a pair of scissors or a knife on top of an unbaptized infant's cradle. It was believed that if a human child was taken in spite of such measures, the parents could force the return of the child by treating the changeling cruelly, using methods such as whipping or even inserting it in a heated oven. In at least one case, a woman was taken to court for having killed her child in an oven.[15]

In one Swedish changeling tale,[16] the human mother is advised to brutalize the changeling so that the trolls will return her son, but she refuses, unable to mistreat an innocent child despite knowing its nature. When her husband demands she abandon the changeling, she refuses, and he leaves her – whereupon he meets their son in the forest, wandering free. The son explains that since his mother had never been cruel to the changeling, so the troll mother had never been cruel to him, and when she sacrificed what was dearest to her, her husband, they had realized they had no power over her and released him.

The tale is notably retold by Helena Nyblom as Bortbytingarna[17] in the 1913 book Bland tomtar och troll.[18] (which is depicted by the image), a princess is kidnapped by trolls and replaced with their own offspring against the wishes of the troll mother. The changelings grow up with their new parents, but both find it hard to adapt: the human girl is disgusted by her future bridegroom, a troll prince, whereas the troll girl is bored by her life and by her dull human future groom. Upset with the conditions of their lives, they both go astray in the forest, passing each other without noticing it. The princess comes to the castle whereupon the queen immediately recognizes her, and the troll girl finds a troll woman who is cursing loudly as she works. The troll girl bursts out that the troll woman is much more fun than any other person she has ever seen, and her mother happily sees that her true daughter has returned. Both the human girl and the troll girl marry happily the very same day.


In Asturias (North Spain) there is a legend about the Xana, a sort of nymph who used to live near rivers, fountains and lakes, sometimes helping travellers on their journeys. The Xanas were conceived as little female fairies with supernatural beauty. They could deliver babies, "xaninos," that were sometimes swapped with human babies in order to be baptized. The legend says that in order to distinguish a "xanino" from a human baby, some pots and egg shells should be put close to the fireplace; a xanino would say: "I was born one hundred years ago, and since then I have not seen so many egg shells near the fire!".


In Wales the changeling child (plentyn cael (sing.), plant cael (pl.)) initially resembles the human it substitutes, but gradually grows uglier in appearance and behaviour: ill-featured, malformed, ill-tempered, given to screaming and biting. It may be of less than usual intelligence, but again is identified by its more than childlike wisdom and cunning.

The common means employed to identify a changeling is to cook a family meal in an eggshell. The child will exclaim, "I have seen the acorn before the oak, but I never saw the likes of this," and vanish, only to be replaced by the original human child. Alternatively, or following this identification, it is supposedly necessary to mistreat the child by placing it in a hot oven, by holding it in a shovel over a hot fire, or by bathing it in a solution of foxglove.[19]

"Changelings" in the Historical Record

Children were thought taken to be changelings by the superstitious, and therefore abused or murdered.

Two 19th century cases reflected the belief in changelings. In 1826, Anne Roche bathed Michael Leahy, a four-year-old boy unable to speak or stand, three times in the Flesk; he drowned the third time. She swore that she was merely attempting to drive the fairy out of him, and the jury acquitted her of murder.[20]

In the 1890s in Ireland, Bridget Cleary was killed by several people, including her husband and cousins, after a short bout of illness (probably pneumonia). Local storyteller Jack Dunne accused Bridget of being a fairy changeling. It is debatable whether her husband, Michael, actually believed her to be a fairy – many believe he concocted a "fairy defence" after he murdered his wife in a fit of rage. The killers were convicted of manslaughter rather than murder, as even after the death they claimed that they were convinced they had killed a changeling, not Bridget Cleary.[21]

Changelings in Other Countries

The ogbanje (pronounced similar to "oh-BWAN-jeh") is a term meaning "child who comes and goes" among the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria. When a woman would have numerous children either stillborn or die early in infancy, the traditional belief was that it was a malicious spirit that was being reincarnated over and over again to torment the afflicted mother. One of the most commonly prescribed methods for ridding one's self of an ogbanje was to find its iyi-uwa, a buried object that ties the evil spirit to the mortal world, and destroy it. An "abiku" was a rough analogue to the ogbanje among the related Yoruba peoples to the west of Igboland.

Many scholars now believe that ogbanje stories were attempting to explain children with sickle-cell anemia, which is endemic to West Africa and afflicts around one-quarter of the population. Even today, and especially in areas of Africa lacking medical resources, infant death is common for children born with severe sickle-cell anemia.

The similarity between the European changeling and the Igbo ogbanje is striking enough that Igbos themselves often translate the word into English as "changeling".

Aswangs, a kind of ghoul from Filipino folklore, are also sometimes said to leave behind duplicates of their victims made of plant matter. Like the stocks of European fairy folklore, the Aswang's plant duplicates soon appear to sicken and die.

Changelings in the Modern World

Neurological Differences

The reality behind many changeling legends was often the birth of deformed or developmentally disabled children. Among the diseases with symptoms that match the description of changelings in various legends are spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, Phenylketonuria, progeria, Down syndrome, homocystinuria, Williams syndrome, Hurler syndrome, Hunter syndrome, regressive autism, Prader-Willi Syndrome, and cerebral palsy. The greater proneness of boys with birth defect correlates to the belief that male infants were more likely to be taken.[22]

As noted, it has been hypothesized that the changeling legend may have developed, or at least been used, to explain the peculiarities of children who did not develop normally, probably including all sorts of developmental delays and abnormalities. In particular, it has been suggested that children with autism would be likely to be labeled as changelings or elf-children due to their strange, sometimes inexplicable behavior. This has found a place in autistic culture. Some autistic adults have come to identify with changelings (or other replacements, such as aliens) for this reason and their own feeling of being in a world where they do not belong and of practically not being the same species as the other people around them.[23]

In Nature

Parasitic cuckoo birds regularly practice brood parasitism, or non-reciprocal offspring-swapping. Rather than raising their young on their own, they will lay their egg in another's nest, leaving the burden on the unsuspecting parents which are of another species altogether. More often than not, the cuckoo chick hatches sooner than its "stepsiblings" and grows faster, eventually hogging most nourishment brought in and may actually "evict" the young of the host species by pushing them off their own nest.

Changelings in Oopular Culture

Literary Uses

The changeling theme has frequently appeared in literature, especially in the genres of fairy tale and fantasy. Notable appearances of changelings in literature include the following:

  • Scarlett, the sequel to Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind. Cat, Scarlett O'Hara's illegitimate daughter by Rhett, is thought to be a changeling.
  • The Stolen Child (1889) a poem by William Butler Yeats, is about a boy replaced by a changeling.
  • Bortbytingen (The Changeling) (1915) by Selma Lagerlöf. Modern translation by Sylvia Söderlind.
  • The Changeling (1916), poem by Charlotte Mew (1869–1928), written from the point of view of a changeling.
  • Pickman's Model (1927), short story by H.P. Lovecraft. The story alludes to Pickman being the descendant of a changeling from a subterranean race.
  • The Broken Sword (1954), novel by Poul Anderson. A mortal child, Skafloc, is captured by the elves and exchanged for a changeling named Valgard. Although near-identical in appearance to the original, the changeling is a moody loner prone to fits of rage.
  • The Changeling (1970) by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Shy Martha befriends Ivy, a classmate from a no-account, criminal family. Ostracized at school and abused at home, Ivy distances herself from reality by convincing herself and Martha that she is a changeling.
  • The Omen (1976). After a child apparently dies at birth, their father Robert Thorn is convinced to substitute them with a child whose mother has just died, without telling his wife Katharine. The child, Damien, is later revealed to be the Antichrist.
  • The Changeling (1978) by Joy Williams
  • Changeling (1981) by Roger Zelazny. The novel describing the adventures of both changelings, maladapted in their respective new worlds.
  • Little, Big (1981) Little, Big: or, The Fairies' Parliament, by John Crowley A family who lives just on the edge of this world and the magic world discovers their baby has been stolen and replaced with a changeling.
  • Outside Over There (1981) a children's story by Maurice Sendak, in which goblins replace Ida's baby sister with a changeling made of ice, which melts.
  • Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist (1988) The discovery of a fairie mound in upstate New York leads to dangerous contact between the human and fairie worlds, including a changeling exchange
  • The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993) by Michael Swanwick. Jane, the heroine, is a changeling who was stolen by the fairies to work in a factory.
  • The Moorchild (1997) by Eloise McGraw. The protagonist of this Newbery Honor-winning novel is a fairy-born child who is forced to become a changeling.
  • Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (1999) by Gregory Maguire. Clara is believed to be a changeling.
  • Tithe: A Modern Faerie Tale (2002) by Holly Black. The protagonist, Kaye, discovers that she is a changeling who has been magically made to look like a human.
  • Low Red Moon (2003), "So Runs the World Away", "The Dead and the Moonstruck" (both in To Charles Fort, With Love, 2005), and Daughter of Hounds (2007) by Caitlín R. Kiernan. Changelings are referred to as the Children of the Cuckoo and are raised to serve a subterranean race of ghouls called the ghul or the Hounds of Cain.
  • The War of the Flowers (2003) by Tad Williams. Theo is revealed to be a changeling.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke. The man with the thistle down hair, a fairy, switches Arabella Woodhope Strange with an enchanted moss-oak log made into a copy of her. The changeling copy dies three days later.
  • Stones Unturned (2006), third book in The Menagerie series by Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski. Principal character Danny Ferrick is a changeling.
  • Poison (2003) by Chris Wooding. The main character, Poison, sets out on a journey to find her little sister Azalea, who is swapped for a changeling.
  • Changeling (2006) by Delia Sherman Neef is a human changeling.
  • The Stolen Child (2006) by Keith Donohue. The main character, Henry, is taken by changelings and replaced by one. The novel bounces between Henry's and the changeling's stories every other chapter and is based on Yeats' poem by the same name.
  • In a field guide telling all of the creatures in the Spiderwick Chronicles universe, a changeling is mentioned as a fairy child disguised as the real child. Some distinguishing features are the massive appitite, odd way of speaking, and may even lure his "family" to his real family.
  • In the Trylle Trilogy (2010), written by Amanda Hocking, the main character Wendy Everly finds out she was switched at birth, discovering a modern troll community in Minnesota.
  • In Julian May's Saga of the Pliocene Exile, aliens that landed on earth 6 million years ago (and interbred with humans from time to time) were responsible for all the human changeling and fairy-kind myths around the world.
  • Four grown changelings appear in Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files, especially the book Summer Knight. These are in essence half-and-half, part fairy and part human, nearing the age where they must choose to be either fully human or fully fae for the rest of their lives. By the end of Summer Knight two have chosen fairy and two human.
  • Patricia A. McKillip's The Changeling Sea is partly the tale of the changeling sons of an island king.
  • Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, the debut novel by American author Ransom Riggs.
  • Betwixt, a novel by Tara Bray Smith, about three teens who find out they are "changelings" who have the ability to protect the world from evil.


  • A Midsummer Night's Dream (1596?), play by William Shakespeare. Titania and Oberon, the fairy queen and king, fight over the possession of a human boy, the child of Titania's favorite handmaiden, creating the basis for the dramatic conflict of the play.
  • The Winter's Tale (1611?), another play by William Shakespeare. A shepherd is told that he should be rich by the fairies, and tells his son to hurry up and open the bearing cloth of a baby he finds, assuming that the baby was "changeling" and there would be money in the bearing cloth.
  • The Silver Bough (2008), musical directed by Kath Burlinson in association with National Youth Music Theatre, inspired by Scottish traditions. Three mothers have their children exchanged for changelings as they turn their backs to hang up laundry in one scene.
  • "Changeling", episode 12 of the 3rd season of the TV series So Weird. Annie and the boys are stuck babysitting a changeling.
  • The Kids Are Alright, episode 2 of the 3rd season of the US TV series Supernatural. Sam and Dean discover that many of the neighborhood children are actually changelings, following several mysterious deaths in the neighborhood. In this episode the changelings are controlled by a mother changeling who feeds on the kidnapped children. Her children in turn feed on the mothers of the kids they replace, until Sam kills the mother by torching her, thereby killing her offspring.
  • In the Star Trek episode The Changeling, (season 2, episode 3) Captain Kirk mentions the legend when he learns of the origin of the Nomad probe, hence the episode's title.
  • In the UK TV series Merlin episode "Changeling", Arthur almost marries a princess who turns out to be a changeling, however, in this case, the changeling is the actual princess who has been possessed at birth by a fairy, not replaced by one. Merlin frees her by using a potion that forces the fairy from her, returning her to normal.
  • In Caryl Churchill's play The Skriker, main character Josie kills her baby because she was convinced it was a changeling – given that the title character is a fairy, this may in fact be true.
  • Changeling Shadowrun (1992), by Chris Kubasik, main character goblinizes into a troll.
  • The Daisy Chain. About a young girl named daisy who is believed to have autism. Is also believed that she is a fairy changeling by the village community. It is also believed that she drowned her little brother, Jack. And killed her parents in a fire. These are signs of changeling children.

Comics and Games

  • Hellboy: The Corpse, comic book short story by Mike Mignola. A changeling known as Gruagach swears revenge against Hellboy and becomes a recurring antagonist, determined to kill Hellboy by any means necessary and, through doing so, save his race from fading out of existence.
  • Courtney Crumrin, comic, first mini-series. A changeling appears.
  • Changeling: the Lost (2007), role-playing game by White Wolf. Humans are stolen by malicious or inscrutable faerie lords, transformed into fae creatures, and then escaped back to our world. An earlier White Wolf game, Changeling: The Dreaming (1995), used a different definition of "changeling".
  • Magic: The Gathering, collectible card game. Changelings are childlike creatures that impulsively mimic creatures around them. They were introduced in the Lorwyn expansion block, which was notably inspired by European folklore. One of the cards is "Crib Swap" which depicts the replacement of a baby with a small changeling.
  • StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (2010), PC Real-time strategy game. Changelings are temporary Zerg units which mimic opposing units, often used by players to scout against their opponent's strategies and army composition.
  • Tomb Raider Chronicles (2000), PC Action-Adventure game. Changelings are enemies in the Ireland levels.
  • SpaceStation13, a 8-bit RPG PC game. 'Changelings' are shapeshifting enemies to the station, and are often tasked with assassinating specific personnel or stealing high-value equipment. They appear to be more related to the alien from John Carpenter's The Thing than changelings of myth.
  • Changelings also appear in Warhammer miniature games.

Film and Television

  • The Changeling (1980), features the ghost of a boy who was killed so another boy could inherit his father's estate.
  • Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002), introduces the Clawdite species, which can change their form at will, and one of their race is described by Anakin thus: "I think he is a she, and I think she is a changeling."
  • Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993–99), featured a race of shapeshifters.
  • Supernatural (2007), In season 3 episode 2 "The Kids Are Alright", Dean and Sam encounter changelings, who took the place of children they abducted.[24]
  • My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic's second season finale "A Canterlot Wedding" features changelings depicted as equine flying insects that display proficient shapeshifting abilities, along with powerful magic and a fearsome appearance, and voiced by Frank Welker.[25]
  • Changeling (2008), a film directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Angelina Jolie, features a removal of the protagonist's child and subsequent replacing with a different child by the government.
  • The Daisy Chain (2008). Based in Ireland, this film features the tale of an autistic child, thought to be a changeling by the local community, who was taken in by a couple.[26]
  • Merlin series 3 episode 6 'The Changeling'. Arthur is forced into an arranged marriage to a princess from a neighboring kingdom who is in fact a changeling and Merlin has to try and stop him.
  • In R.L. Stine's The Haunting Hour episode "The Intruders," the episode featured a Changeling.


  • The Doors, an American rock band, recorded a song called "The Changeling".
  • DJ Shadow, an American music producer and DJ, has a song called "Changeling" on his debut album, Endtroducing......
  • Heather Dale, a Canadian Celtic singer, has a song called "Changeling Child" on her album, "The Gabriel Hounds".


  1. Katharine Briggs, An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Boogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures "Changelings" (Pantheon Books, 1976) p. 71. ISBN 0-394-73467-X
  2. 2.0 2.1 Briggs (1979)
  3. "Protective". pitt.edu. http://www.pitt.edu/~dash/changeling.html#protective. 
  4. Briggs (1976) "Golden Hair", p. 194
  5. Silver (1999) p. 74
  6. Francis James Child, ballad 39a "Tam Lin", The English and Scottish Popular Ballads
  7. Silver (1999) p. 73
  8. Wentz, W. Y. Evans (1911). The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries. Reprinted 1981. Pub. Colin Smythe. ISBN 0-901072-51-6 P. 179.
  9. 9.0 9.1 W. B. Yeats, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry, in A Treasury of Irish Myth, Legend, and Folklore (1986), p. 47, New York : Gramercy Books, ISBN 0-517-48904-X
  10. Silver (1999) p. 167
  11. Yeats (1986) p. 48-50
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Folklore of Northumbria by Fran and Geoff Doel, The History Press, 2009, ISBN 978-0-7524-4890-9. Pages. 17–27.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 The Borderer's Table Book: Or, Gatherings of the Local History and Romance of the English and Scottish Border by Moses Aaron Richardson, Printed for the author, 1846. Page.133-134.
  14. Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 358-9, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  15. Klintberg, Bengt af; Svenska Folksägner (1939) ISBN 91-7297-581-4
  16. The tale is notably retold by Selma Lagerlöf as Bortbytingen in her 1915 book Troll och människor.
  17. http://hem.passagen.se/kurtglim/del1i/
  18. http://www.johnbauersmuseum.nu/visa_saga.php?saga=5
  19. Wirt Sikes. British Goblins: The Realm of Faerie. Felinfach: Llanerch, 1991.
  20. Silver (1999) p. 62
  21. Silver (1999) p. 64-65
  22. Silver (1999) p. 75
  23. Duff, Kim. "The Role of Changeling Lore in Autistic Culture". Presentation at the 1999 Autreat conference of Autism Network International. 
  24. "supernatural 3.02 The Kids Are Alright". http://www.supernaturalwiki.com/index.php?title=3.02_The_Kids_Are_Alright. 
  25. VanDerWerff, Todd (21 April 2012). "My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic - "Royal Wedding"". The A.V. Club. http://www.avclub.com/articles/my-little-pony-friendship-is-magic-royal-wedding,72535/. Retrieved 22 April 2012. 
  26. "The Daisy Chain (2008)". IMDB. http://uk.imdb.com/title/tt1129415/. Retrieved 12 December 2012. 

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