The Real-Life Damage of Changeling Lore

A lot of Changeling lore focuses on the perspective of the parent: the frightening, unspeakable thought that the child they’re caring for may not be their own, and the strange, complicated lengths that they go through to get their “real” child back. But if we shift attention to study the perspective of the “changeling” child, a different terror emerges.

Even if we concede that these thoughts were the paranoid superstition born out of the ignorance of a pre-scientific age, it does not alter the fact that the belief in changeling lore was very dangerous territory, as the children suspected of being changelings were seen as being “otherworldy” and therefore “not quite human.” This opened the door to inhumane treatment. In the words of Martin Luther, “such a changeling child is only a piece of flesh, a massa carnis, because it has no soul.”

One changeling tale from the Shetland Islands sums up the abuse: “Nothing will induce parents to show any attention to a child that they suspect of being a changeling.” What could be more  damaging to a child than parental neglect? In fact, these initial rejections from parents and other loved ones may have a part in the child developing antisocial and other “abnormal” behaviors.

When we look at the descriptions of changeling children found in folklore, they are surprisingly run-of-the-mill behaviors, such as frequent crying, speaking very little, laughing to themselves, and being interested in unusual objects. There is evidence that many of these cases were of children with autism, a mental disorder unknown to people in this time period. But surely not all suspected changelings were autistic. In Angela Bourke‘s book Reading In A Woman’s Death: Colonial Text And Oral Tradition In Nineteenth-Century Ireland, she writes, “It is not difficult to imagine the variety of physical and mental illnesses, from anorexia to tuberculosis to postnatal and other depression, for which the discourse of fairy abduction might be found appropriate.”

Parents who believed that their children were changelings often tried to perform one or more special rituals found in folklore that were supposed to determine whether or not the child was a changeling, or cause the fairies who made the exchange in the first place to return the original child. Some of these rituals were dangerous and even torturous to the “changeling” child, and could result in death. Leaving the child in a dangerous place was not rare. But most were designed simply to trick the changeling child into revealing itself for the non-human it was suspected to be. One such trick that shows up in many changeling tales has the parent brew a special concoction, usually in an untraditional cooking pot such as egg shells, which would then cause the changeling to remark something like, “In the many years I’ve been alive, I’ve never seen such a thing as cooking a brew inside of egg shells.”

In their lengthy paper on Social Exclusion Roy F. Baumeister and C. Nathan DeWall lay out a number of studies that have been done which suggest that rejected children are more likely to behave aggressively, display antisocial behavior, refuse to coopaerate, and “exhibit a number of cognitive deficits such as impaired logical reasoning,” as well as reducing self-regulatory behavior. In turn, “children with poor self-control are less accepted and less popular with peers… and has been implicated as a central cause of criminality.”

Read more about Changelings here.