AskDefine | Define changeling

Dictionary Definition



1 a person of subnormal intelligence [syn: idiot, imbecile, cretin, moron, half-wit, retard]
2 a child secretly exchanged for another in infancy

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. In British and Irish mythology, an infant of a fairy or sprite that the fairy has secretly exchanged for a human infant.
  2. informal rare An infant secretly exchanged with another infant.
  3. An organism which can change shape to mimic others.


Extensive Definition

In West European folklore and folk belief, a changeling is the offspring of a fairy, troll, elf or other legendary creature that has been secretly left in the place of a human child. The apparent changeling could also be a stock, a glamorized piece of wood that would soon appear to grow sick and die. The motivation for this conduct stems from the desire to have a human servant, the love of a human child, or malice. Most often it was thought that faeries exchanged the children. Simple charms, such as an inverted coat, were thought to ward them off.

Identifying a changeling

Changelings would be identified by voracious appetite, malicious temper, difficulty in movement, and other unpleasant traits. Medieval chronicles record instances of this, which is one of the oldest known pieces of folklore about fairies.
According to some legends, it is possible to detect changelings, as they are much wiser than human children. When changelings are detected in time, their parents have to take them back. In one tale of the Brothers Grimm, there's an account of how a woman, who suspected that her child had been exchanged, started to brew beer in the hull of an acorn. The changeling uttered: "now I am as old as an oak in the woods but I have never seen beer being brewed in an acorn", then disappeared.
In Scottish folklore, the children might be replacements for fairy children in the tithe to Hell; this is best known from the ballad of Tam Lin.
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.

Changelings in medieval folklore


Since most beings from Scandinavian folklore are said to be afraid of steel, Scandinavian parents often placed a steel 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.
In one Swedish changeling tale, the troll child grows up at a farm while the human child grows up among the trolls. Everyone advises the human mother to brutalize the changeling so that the trolls would change children once more. However, the woman refuses to treat the innocent but maladapted troll child cruelly and persists in treating it as if it were her own. Eventually, the husband decides to leave his wife, as he can no longer support living with the troll child. His distraught wife allows him to leave her, because she can not abandon an innocent child, although it is a troll. When the husband has walked a distance into the forest, he meets his own son who tells him that he is free from the trolls. Every time someone tried to be cruel to the troll, his troll mother was about to treat the human child in the same manner, but when his mother sacrificed what was dearest to her, her husband, the trolls realized that they had no power over her and had to release the human child.
In another Swedish fairy tale (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 and both become beautiful young females, but they 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. By coincidence, they both go astray in the forest, upset with the conditions of their lives, and happen to pass 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 Wales the changeling child (plentyn newid) 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.


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. 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.
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.
In parts of Ireland, left handed people are sometimes thought to be changeling fae.


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.. This is also referenced in the Simple Minds song Changeling.


The Men-an-Tol stones in kernow / Cornwall are supposed to have a fairy or pixy 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.


In Asturias (North Spain) there is a legend about the Xana, a sort of nymphs used to live near the rivers, fountains and lakes and sometimes to help the travelers in their pathway. The Xanas were conceived as little female fairies with supernatural beauty. They could deliver babies called "xaninos" that sometimes changed for human babies in order to get them 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!".

"Changelings" in the historical record

Real children were sometimes taken to be changelings by the superstitious, and therefore abused or murdered.
Two Victorian 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. In the 1890s, 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..

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-proscribed 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.
Many scholars now believe that ogbanje stories were attempting to explain children with sickle-cell disease, 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 disease.
The similarity between the European changeling and the Igbo obanje is striking enough that Igbos themselves often translate the word into English as "changeling."

Changelings in the modern world

Neurological differences

The reality behind many changeling legends was often the birth of deformed or retarded children. Among the diseases with symptoms that match the description of changelings in various legends are spina bifida, cystic fibrosis, PKU, progeria, homocystinuria, Williams syndrome, Hurler syndrome, Hunter syndrome, and cerebral palsy. The greater proneness of boys to birth defect correlates to the belief that boy babies were more likely to be taken.
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 high-functioning 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 don’t belong and of practically not being the same species as the "normal" people around them. In the book The Stolen Child, Keith Donohue talks about the life of a changeling from the point of view of two boys.

Failure to thrive

Infants diagnosed with Failure to thrive that have no history of neglect also fit the description of changelings. This can be a devastating diagnosis, and it is easy to see how people would have taken comfort in placing the cause outside their influence. The stories of kindness and care being rewarded with the return of the child also fit the nursing needed to restore an infant's health.

Changelings in popular culture

The Star Trek episode "The Changeling" involved a malevolent space probe called Nomad being intercepted by the crew of the Enterprise. Nomad had been an exploratory Earth probe which was damaged in the past and subsequently merged with an alien probe. The device then assumed the identity of the original, though its new construction and purpose were significantly altered.
In Episode 12, Season 3 of So Weird, titled "Changeling", Annie and the boys are stuck babysitting a changeling.
In Episode 2, Season 3 of Supernatural, titled "The Kids Are Alright", 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.
In the Doctor Who serial 'Attack Of The Graske' the Graske use transmats to teleport themselves and use handheld devices to zap people and leave the changeling forms of them, showing with the glowing eyes.
The trading card game Magic: The Gathering has a block named Lorwyn which is heavily based on European folklore. Changelings are a large part of it. Their cards become any creature type (obviously a nod to their shapeshifting abilities). There's even a card called mtgcard Crib Swap, which refers to how they are switched with children.
In Star Trek Deep Space Nine the character Odo is a shapeshifter described as a changeling. Odo soon discovers that he was from a race called the Founders, who lead the Dominion.
Multiple roleplaying games are also set in an environment with Changelings, such as White Wolf's popular Changeling: The Dreaming and the recent Changeling: The Lost. Changelings are also featured in the Dungeons & Dragons campaign setting of Eberron, as the true-breeding offspring of Dopplegangers and humans.
A changeling appeared in the Hellboy story, "The Corpse." A changeling also appeared in the first Courtney Crumrin mini-series.
"The Doors" lead singer Jim Morrison was fascinated, not surpringsly, with the idea that humans could tranform themselves wholly by sheer will. "The Changeling" [1970] recalls a broke teenager who rolls into LA with all the usual ambitions, then seeks to escape the excess and falsity of showbiz.
In the 2007 film, Pan's Labyrinth, the young heroine of the story is alluded to be a Changeling. Whether she is indeed magical or simply a child with an overactive imagination is left open-ended for the interpretation of the viewer, but many "real world" elements of the story are only explainable through magic.

Literary uses

The changeling theme has frequently appeared in literature, especially in the genres of fairy tale and fantasy. Notable 20th and 21st century appearances of changelings in literature include the following:
  • The Stolen Child a poem by William Butler Yeats, is about a boy replaced by a changeling. The poem was the inspiration for the 2006 novel of the same name by Keith Donohue.
  • The Changeling (1916), poem by Charlotte Mew (1869-1928). Written from the point of view of a changeling.
  • "Pickman's Model" (1927), by H.P. Lovecraft is about subterranean creatures who switch their young with human children.
  • The Broken Sword (1954) by Poul Anderson A mortal child is exchanged for a changeling. Although near identical in appearance to the original, the changeling is a moody loner prone to fits of the berserkergang.
  • Changeling (1981) by Roger Zelazny. Novel describing the adventures of both changelings, maladapted in their respective new worlds.
  • 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 central protagonist of this Newbery Honor-winning novel is an inept fae 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 glamoured 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 werewolf-like creatures called the ghul or the Hounds of Cain.
  • The War of the Flowers (2003) by Tad Williams. Theo is revealed to be a changeling.
  • The Stolen Child (2006) by Keith Donohue. Alternates viewpoints between a changeling in his new life, and the stolen boy Henry Day's new life as a changeling.
  • Stones Unturned (2006), third book in The Menagerie series by Christopher Golden and Thomas E. Sniegoski. Principal character Danny Ferrick is a changeling.
  • Faery Baby (2006) by Lin Spicer. The main character Faery Baby is swapped with a human child as she experiences 'failure to thrive'. Her name is later turned to Fae. Her parents were Titania and Oberon who reluctantly switched her.
  • In The Witch's Boy by Michael Gruber, an ugly baby boy by the name of Lump was left at a witch's doorstep calling it "the devil's boy." the witch raised the boy as her own and it was almost the reverse process of the changeling.
  • Poison (2006) by Chris Wooding. Main character Poison sets out on a journey after her little sister, Azalea, is stollen by 'The Scarecrow'.


In William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Titania and Oberon are fighting over the possession of a changeling boy, and because of their argument, nature is in upheaval, and all the subsequent action of the plot ensues.
changeling in Danish: Skifting
changeling in German: Wechselbalg
changeling in Spanish: Niño cambiado
changeling in French: Changeling (folklore)
changeling in Irish: Síofra
changeling in Dutch: Wisselkind
changeling in Japanese: 取り替え子
changeling in Norwegian: Bytting
changeling in Portuguese: Criança trocada
changeling in Simple English: Changeling
changeling in Finnish: Vaihdokas
changeling in Swedish: Bortbyting

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

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