Changelings: Face-Saving Explanation Following Mental Illness

She was healthy only yesterday, This is so unlike him, and But she kicked so strongly in the womb… but in the space of a day becoming listless, fevered, or worse. Today any parent would be at the pediatrician, but hundreds of years ago the commonly-held belief was that a child who was suddenly not behaving as expected had been swapped out, actually changed. And the only creature both sneaky and powerful enough to do so is a fairy.

What may seem like superstition today must be understood as a fully respectable belief in a pre-scientific world. That the world is flat is perfectly logical to assume when all one knows is the same horizon. Apollo drives the sun in a chariot is exactly what the east to west majestic movement feels like, and suddenly sickly children in a world without understanding of virus, allergy, or tetnus can only be explained by bereft parents as having been changed.

FairyRoom has been collecting changelings to share here, but we’d like to start with the anomaly: the changeling adult. Mental illness still confounds many of us outside the medical profession (and in it, for that matter), but in a pre-psychology world, one where for instance, the tears of a virgin held medicinal value and blood was measured in humours, medical prognosis simply cannot be judged by today’s standards. Being labeled as a changeling in pre-modern society could help maintain dignity as one might attempt to return to normal living after what must have been an inexplicable display while the patient suffered a nervous breakdown, PTSD, or intermittent dementia — diagnoses neither known nor considered even one hundred years ago. That one might be sick-in-the-head is hard to come back from, but if the situation could be blamed on fairies…? Well, that could happen to anyone.

Above: A Fairy Flew Off with the Changeling by Arthur Rackham. Order the print from ArtsyCraftsy.