A to Z Challenge Folklore

Unsettling Changelings #folklore #AtoZChallenge

C is for Changeling

Learn more about the challenge here.

I’m doing folklore and book review posts to reach and please a larger audience. Previous years have shown select interest in both and to minimise blogging throughout the year, I’m focusing my efforts on April.

If you’d rather check out my book review for today, go here.

Learn more about the A to Z Challenge here.

The fear surrounding babies and young children being stolen — or worse, swapped — isn’t something new. For far longer than the written word, the fae have been blamed for missing or changed children.

Changeling baby watched over by faery birds. Image credit.


The Fairy Mythology by Thomas Keightley [1850]

A couple of Strathspey lads who dealt in whiskey that never paid duty, which they used to purchase in Glenlivat, and sell at Badenoch and Fort William, were one night laying in stock at Glenlivat when they heard the child in the cradle give a piercing cry, just as if it had been shot. The mother, of course, blessed it, and the Strathspey lads took no further notice, and soon after set out with their goods.

They had not gone far when they found a fine healthy child lying all alone on the road-side, which they soon recognized as that of their friend. They saw at once how the thing was. The fairies had taken away the real child and left a stock, but, owing to the pious ejaculation of the mother, they had been forced to drop it.

As the urgency of their business did not permit them to return, they took the child with them, and kept it till the next time they had occasion to visit Glenlivat. On their arrival they said nothing about the child, which they kept concealed. In the course of conversation, the mother took occasion to remark that the disease which had attacked the child the last time they were there had never left it, and she had not little hopes of its recovery. As if to confirm her statement, it continued uttering most piteous cries.

To end the matter at once, the lads produced the real child healthy and hearty, and told how they had found it. An exchange was at once effected, and they forthwith proceeded to dispose of their new charge. For this purpose they got an old creel to put him in and some straw to light under it. Seeing the serious turn matters were likely to take, he resolved not to await the trial, but flew up the smoke-hole, and when at the top he cried out that things would have gone very differently with them had it not been for the arrival of their guests.

Child following faery woman away from her home. Image credit.

On the Fairies of Popular Superstition by Sir Walter Scott [1833]

The most formidable attribute of the elves, was the practice of carrying away and exchanging children, and that of stealing human souls from their bodies. “A persuasion prevails among the ignorant,” says the author of a MS. history of Moray, that “in a consumptive disease, the fairies steal away the soul, and put the soul of a fairy in the room of it.”

According to the earlier doctrine, concerning the original corruption of human nature, the power of demons over infants had been long reckoned considerable, in the period intervening between birth and baptism. During this period, therefore, children were believed to be particularly liable to abstraction by the fairies, and mothers chiefly dreaded the substitution of changelings in the place of their own offspring. Various monstrous charms existed in Scotland, for procuring the restoration of a child which had been thus stolen; but the most efficacious of them was supposed to be, the roasting of the supposititious child upon the live embers, when it was believed it would vanish, and the true child appear in the place, whence it had been originally abstracted. [Note 1]

It may be questioned if this experiment could now be made without the animadversion of the law. Even that which is prescribed in the following legend is rather too hazardous for modern use.

A certain woman having put out her child to nurse in the country, found, when she came to take it home, that its form was so much altered that she scarce knew it; nevertheless, not knowing what time might do, took it home for her own. But when, after some years, it could neither speak nor go, the poor woman was fain to carry it, with much trouble, in her arms; and one day, a poor man coming to the door, “God bless you, mistress,” said he, “and your poor child; be pleased to bestow something on a poor man.”

“Ah! this child,” replied she, “is the cause of all my sorrow,” and related what had happened, adding, moreover, that she thought it changed, and none of her child. The old man, whom years had rendered more prudent in such matters, told her, to find out the truth, she should make a clear fire, sweep the hearth very clean, and place the child fast in his chair, that he might not fall, before it, and break a dozen eggs, and place the four-and-twenty half-shells before it; then go out, and listen at the door: for, if the child spoke, it was certainly a changeling; and then she should carry it out, and leave it on the dunghill to cry, and not to pity it, till she heard its voice no more.

The woman, having done all things according to these words, heard the child say, “Seven years old was I before I came to the nurse, and four years have I lived since, and never saw so many milk pans before.” So the woman took it up, and left it upon the dunghill to cry, and not to be pitied, till at last she thought the voice went up into the air; and coming, found there her own natural and well-favored child.–Grose’s Provincial Glossary, quoted from “A Pleasant Treatise on Witchcraft..”

Changeling child hiding in plants. Image credit.

Changeling, and Other Stories by Donn Byrne [1923]

…a charm against evil spirits; against great bulks in the darkness that make little children scream; against strange gray women who take small humans from the warm beds mothers put them in and whisk them to deep, underground burrows where trolls and misshapen demons are, replacing them with wizened, ill-natured changelings…

Changeling child with lap full of stars. Image credit.

The Irish Fairy Book by Alfred Perceval Graves and George Denham [1909]

“The good-folk came in the night, and they
Have stolen my bonny wean away;
Have put in his place a changeling,
A weashy, weakly, wizen thing!

Changeling child with skeleton. Image credit.

Element Encyclopedia of Fairies by Lucy Cooper


In fairy lore throughout Europe and other parts of the world one of the fairies’ favourite tricks was to steal a human child, or sometimes a nursing mother, and take them away to fairyland. They replaced the human child either with one of their own kind, known as a changeling, or with a stock or fetch, a “doll” representing the stolen child or woman, which by means of fairy glamour was given the semblance of life.

Fairy changelings were sometimes sick or weak fairy children whom the fairies placed in the care of a human family so that they might have a better chance of survival. At other times they were elderly fairies who were being given the opportunity to live out their old age in comfort, cosseted and doted on by their new “parents”.

Typically, changelings were described as sickly, wizened, or otherwise abnormal in appearance, either never gaining the power of speech or displaying unsettlingly advanced language skills. In many tales, they had insatiable appetites and cried constantly. Occasionally, there were tales of parents who treated the changeling kindly in the hope that their own child would likewise be cared for. More often, suspected changelings were subjected to cruel tests and ordeals in an attempt to drive away the fairy and secure the return of the healthy human child.


A piece of wood, or bundle of grass and sticks, fashioned in the likeness of a human who has been kidnapped by fairies.

*More can be read in the book.

Monstrous changeling. Image credit.

Encyclopedia of Beasts and Monsters in Myth, Legend and Folklore by Theresa Bane

Corpan Side

Variations: Siodbrad, Siod Brad

In Irish folklore the corpan side is a species of CHANGELING that, when it is between one and two thousand years old, is left in the place of a newborn infant.


In Moroccan folklore a mebeddel is a species of CHANGELING, a creature left behind by one of the djinn (a race of demons) when it kidnaps a human child shortly after its birth. This creature, no matter how well it is cared for, will become thin and grow wizened and ugly. The human infant may be returned to its natural mother if the parent notices the switch quickly enough. To regain her child she must take the mebeddel to a graveyard and place it in an open tomb with offerings to the djinn. The mother must then walk away and remain unseen until she hears the baby cry; then she must quickly take up the child and lay claim to it, returning home to bathe it in holy water.

*More can be read in the book.

Changeling with butterfly wings. Image credit.

The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures by John & Caitlín Matthews

Because of the human propensity to act in a superior way – and also because fairies seldom breed – they often take thriving human children and leave a changeling in their place.

*More can be read in the book.

Changeling returning home. Image credit.

Further Reading:

Changeling using magic. Image credit.

Folklore in a Nutshell by Ronel

According to most folklore, changelings are abnormal in appearance and frail. This is usually because the changeling is an ill faery infant or an elderly fae left in the care of humans, as the fae don’t have the patience to deal with anything too serious. Some tales tell of the mortal parents treating the changeling well, in the hopes that their own child would be treated well in return. In other tales, the mortal parents subject the changelings to cruel tests to make the fae return the human child and take the changeling away. Some of these tests included burning the child with a hot poker…

So the human parents suspected that a child wasn’t theirs, but a fae changeling, because of one of several reasons: the child didn’t have any language skills, the child had advanced language skills, the child was sickly, the child had an abnormal appearance such as pointed teeth or oddly coloured or textured skin, the child suddenly showed bad behaviour, the child ate more than a child that size and age should be able to, the child becomes thin and ugly despite being taken well care of. There are other reasons, but these are the ones that pop up most often. With modern science, we know that there are reasons beyond a faery kidnapping as to why some children don’t speak at all and why others have language skills beyond their years, why illness comes suddenly, why skin would discolour, why a child would suddenly act out. And we don’t have to torture the child to make it change – unless we’re in an uncivilized country, of course.

In some tales, it is possible to get the child back safely: do something odd that would make the changeling reveal itself, like cooking eggshells instead of eggs and the changeling will remark on it when it shouldn’t be able to speak yet, and the fae won’t have a choice but to return the human child and take the changeling away. Another way is to confront the changeling with the real child – which would require travelling to Faerie to retrieve the child yourself.

I like the idea, though, that the fae simply take children away from humans who tend to act in a superior way simply because they love children and seldom have any of their own. Leaving a stock in the place of the stolen child and then having it die in its crib would mimic SIDS, sudden infant death syndrome…

Dog returning stolen child from Faerie. Image credit.

Changelings in Modern Culture

Peter Pan (2003) Film

Peter Pan taking the Darling children from their beds to Neverland is technically a fairy abduction, even if he doesn’t leave Stock or Changelings in their place…

BBC’s Merlin TV series

Changeling. Image credit

I think Elena may be a changeling. Inhabited by a fairy at birth.”— Gaius to Merlin[src]

Changelings are humans inhabited by a Sidhe. They are often unaware of their condition until the Sidhe emerges and possesses them entirely.

People inhabited by a Sidhe have been shown to quite clumsy and inelegant. Elena, for example, was constantly tripping over her own feet, had few social graces, and suffered from an excess of flatulence. She also developed a taste for living creatures, such as frogs and toads.

Grunhilda often used pixie dust to control the fairy inside Elena. She usually sprinkled Elena with the dust while she slept, soothing and strengthening the Sidhe while they waited for the right time for it to emerge and possess her entirely.

Learn more here.

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black (My Review)

They weren’t twins, though. Jack was a changeling – Carter’s changeling, left behind when Carter got stolen away by the faeries… It took a single night for her to realise that her baby had been stolen. And she’d known just what to do… heated a poker in the fireplace… pressed the very tip of the poker against the changeling’s shoulder… Burning a changeling summons its mother. She arrived on the threshold moments later, a swaddled bundle in her arms.

“Take him,” she said… reached out her arms for her own wailing child…

“You can’t have him,” said Carter’s mother, passing her own baby to her sister and picking up iron filings and red berries and salt, protection against the faerie woman’s magic. “If you were willing to trade him away, even for an hour, then you don’t deserve him. I’ll keep them both to raise as my own and let that be our judgement on you for breaking oath with us.”

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black

The Iron King by Julie Kagawa (My Review)

“Ch-changeling?” I finally stammered, looking at him like he was insane. “Isn’t that some kind of… of…”

“Faery,” Robbie finished for me. “A changeling is a faery offspring that has been switched with a human child. Usually, a troll’s or goblin’s, though the sidhe – the faery nobility – have been known to make the switch, as well. Your brother has been replaced. That thing is not Ethan, any more than I am.”

…Ethan turned on me with a hiss, eyes burning yellow, and lunged at my arm. I jerked it back as his teeth, jaggedly pointed like a shark’s, snapped together with a horrid clicking sound. Ethan snarled, his skin the ghastly blue of a drowned infant’s, bared teeth shining in the darkness. I shrieked, scrabbling back…

The Iron King by Julie Kagawa

Changelings in My Writing

Origin of the Fae: Changelings

For the most part, changelings are only left when the faery child is too ill to survive. Because the faery parents don’t want to deal with the loss, they use and enchantment on the mortal child they’ve stolen away to look like their own so they won’t feel the loss too much. Only the humans will truly suffer. To get the human child back, the parents need to make the changeling reveal itself or have another faery help them retrieve their child.
There are times when changelings are left for the child’s own protection – usually the court fae and their life-threatening politics being at play. The changeling is left to be raised as a human, not knowing who or what they truly are. The human parents are usually oblivious to the swap as the changeling doesn’t act any differently than the mortal child had.
The only time a stock is left, an animated doll that will soon lose its glamour seemingly being a dead infant, is when a halfling is returned to Faerie without the consent of the human parent. This is usually done to protect the secrets of Faerie, as the child is too magically powerful to be kept among mortals.

Changeling translated to Afrikaans: Wisselaar.

See this fae in action in my writing:

Water Fae (Origin of the Fae #4)

A woman turned around and paled when she saw the glaistig holding her child.

‘I come in peace,’ Elena said. She set the little boy down. ‘Go to your mother, little one,’ she said and freed her hair from his grip.

‘Why?’ a man asked.

‘The one who took your child has been dealt with. He should have known better than to bother those next to my river.’

‘Thank you, Green Lady,’ the boy’s mother said. ‘What should we do with the changeling?’

‘Show me.’

They led her around the cottage to where a misshapen shape dressed in the boy’s clothes lay on the grass. Elena knelt and turned over the quivering mass. With a stroke of her hand the glamour dissipated and a deformed trow infant appeared. It wasn’t long for this world.

‘I’ll take it with me.’

She picked it up and took it with her. Once at the river and out of sight of the mortals, she devoured the trow whole, using the blood to replenish her glamour.

The Green Lady, Water Fae by Ronel Janse van Vuuren

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image credit https://pixabay.com/illustrations/ai-generated-fairy-wings-magic-8121013/

No-one writes about the fae like Ronel Janse van Vuuren.

13 thoughts on “Unsettling Changelings #folklore #AtoZChallenge”

  1. Wow, you really know your stuff! Fascinating stories about changelings. I wonder if it all comes from people trading their sick baby for the neighbor’s healthy one, nobody realizes it and all these stories arise to explain how strange this creature is compared to the rest of the family. When really it all comes down to kidnapping and DNA.

  2. sometimes I have read that what we now term autism was attributed to a swap with a changeling and so I associate the term with a disappointment that a child is less than perfect and an attempt to account for how that imperfection came about – not the child I gave birth to …

  3. It would be nice if the faeries took good care of the stolen babies, but half the time they get bored of them and neglect them, or even eventually use them as the tithe to hell. So you definitely want to rescue them! All kinds of interesting stories to be told here. I have a WIP with a changeling, but we’ll see whether I ever get back to work on it.

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