The legend of the changeling is one of the less pleasant sides of fairy lore. Although some say that changelings are the result of good intent, the fact remains that the process involves the theft of a human child from its parents.

The concept of changeling is sometimes used in a wider metaphorical sense to describe someone who doesn't seem to fit with their family or cultural roots.

What Is A Changeling?

A changeling is the result of a human child - usually a baby - being stolen by the fairy folk and replaced with a substitute. The name can refer either to the original child or, more commonly, the substitute. Although changelings are most usually associated with fairies the practice has also been said to be carried out by other supernatural creatures and fey folk including elves and trolls.

The theft of the baby would usually take place at night when everyone was asleep. The fairies always left something in place of a child. Sometimes this was just a lump of wood, at others it was one of their own fairy children. In the latter case the fairy child would be brought up by the human parents who - presumably thanks to a little fairy glamour - often failed even to suspect the switch.

There would however often be telling signs that a child was "different". Some changelings had physical deformities, others were unusually intelligent, temperamental or withdrawn.

Some people believed that if a changeling was forced to reveal itself in time then the fairies would have to return the original child.


Why would the fairies do such a dreadful thing? Opinions vary.

Some people attribute positive motives to the fey folk. There are stories of human babies having been taken away from parents who were careless or even abusive. These poor children would then be given a far better life in the fairy kingdom - though I for one still don't think this justifies their removal.

More frequently the motives are negative or at best selfish. Some fairy mythology says that they have trouble bearing healthy children of their own and hence take human children. Or it may just be that a fairy takes a liking to a particular human child and with the thoughtlessness for which the faerie race is famous just says "I want it so I'll take it".

The worst stories involve human children being taken into the world of the fairy to be used as servants or even slaves. "Lucky" victims might become favoured "pets" at the fairy court.

Modern Interpretations

Many suggestions have been put forward to explain the prevalence of the changeling mythology. Some have suggested that it was used as an excuse when a child was harmed - accidentally or deliberately.

There are also many medical conditions that might have created the impression of a child that was somehow "different". These include physical conditions such as spina bifida and mental conditions such as Aspergers Syndrome and other autistic spectrum disorders.