In Victor LaValle’s book The Changeling, a new father is plunged into a hidden world of horror when his wife begins to suspect that there is something very wrong with their child. The Changeling is fiction — very good fiction, in fact — but it is based in part on a disturbing bit of folklore once prevalent in certain parts of Western Europe.
The fairy lore of the British Isles held that the elves prized human infants and stole them when they could, leaving impostors known as changelings in their place. These impostors were identical to the children they replaced in most ways, except that they might be sickly, ill-tempered, or disabled in some fashion.
Like a lot of fairy tales, this one has a dark side. Rural, pre-industrial life could be brutal, and children were expected to help their parents keep food on the table — something a sick or disabled child wouldn’t necessarily be able to grow up to do. The changeling myth more or less gave struggling parents the justification — intentionally or not — to commit infanticide.
The old folk tales recommended several methods for compelling a changeling to reveal its true identity and effect the return of the real child, and the majority of them are extremely cruel. It is hard to believe that parents would do any of the following, but they were performed under the assumption that the suspected changeling was not human, and in fact, was barring them from reuniting with their actual child.
Among the most horrific of these recommendation was one directing parents to place their infant on the blade of a hot shovel which was then placed in a lit fire. Supposedly, the changeling would assume its true form and flee. Another suggestion was to whip the suspected changeling until it reveals itself, toss it off of a cliff, or literally throw it in the garbage.
Parents were also advised to abandon their child to the elements, perhaps, but not always, at a site deemed sacred to the fairy folk. Eighteenth century Welsh author Thomas Pennant recorded the tale of a couple who, when their child had become “uncommonly peevish”, left it in a cradle beneath an oak tree thought to be precious to the elves. Thankfully, the child was still there when they returned the next morning. As the child was quiet, they assumed that the fairies had come and returned their own child.
There were other, kinder methods, but they were not as often recommended. One folk remedy suggested that the changeling would be forced to assume its true form if it was compelled to cross a river. Another, more bizarre recommendation was that parents boil water in two-dozen egg shells. According to the folklorist Katharine Briggs, the changeling would depart, but not before saying something to the effect of, “I have seen the acorn before the first oak tree, but never have I seen a brewery in an egg shell!”
For reasons that should be obvious, there aren’t too many stories about people who got their children back from the elves — or prevented their kidnapping altogether. Those who succeeded seemed to have done so by threatening the fairies with the power of fire, iron, and faith.
An old Scottish changeling story tells of a woman who repelled a troupe of fairy kidnappers from her home with a candle and Bible. In another account, a set of parents wake up in time to see a trio of fairies steal their child and replace it with a hideous changeling. To their surprise, a young fairy woman soon arrives at their home and claims the creature as her own child. Before leaving, she tells the grieving mother and father to take torches to a nearby fairy mound and threaten to set it aflame unless their child is returned. They follow her advice and reclaim their child.
Given the cruelty of the methods for expelling a changeling, and the difficulty involved in rescuing a child from its elven kidnappers, the best advice would be to prevent a child from being taken altogether.
While any child could be taken, unchristened infants were especially vulnerable, and the time between birth and christening was considered particularly dangerous. Among the protections suggested in the folklore include covering the crib with the father’s trousers, fastening the child’s clothing with pins arranged like crosses, and fastening a pair of opened scissors to the wall above the crib. For extra security, an iron horseshoe can be affixed above the doorway to the home.
The worst thing about the changeling myth is that despite all of these precautions, older children, teenagers, and even adults could be accused of being fairy impostors and subjected to torture and murder. It was still happening as late as 1895, when an Irish housewife named Bridge Cleary was killed by her family while recovering from an illness. (You can read about that here.)
Thankfully, we’ve moved past these kinds of real-life horror stories, and now the only changelings you’re likely to meet are in the pages of books like LaValle’s. Look for it on June 13, 2017.