Changelings: The Myth of the Faerie Children

Eloise Madigan

Hello my amazing readers,

As I was reading Outlander for the millionth time, I realized that from the many folk tales presented in the book , the one that struck with me the most was the myth of the Changelings! 

How could a parent leave their child all alone to die, in the middle of a terrifying forest? The truth is, they felt this was for the best, for their child…Quite awful, don’t you think?

Let’s learn some more about the myth of the Changeling, the faerie child left in the place of the human one!

Faeries at a cradle. Image source.

Fairies were dangerous. Not to believe in them was dangerous. Not to respect them or take them seriously was dangerous — hence all the carefully euphemistic or indirect names one used when speaking about them, from “the Gentry” to “the Good People,” “Themselves,” “the fair folk” and “the people of peace” through to the charming Welsh phrase bendith û mamme, or “such as have deserved their mother’s blessing.” 

Fairies stole your children. They made you or your animals sick, sometimes unto death. They could draw the life, or essence, out of anything, from milk or butter to people. Their powers, as we have seen, were almost limitless, not only demonic but even godlike in scale and scope.

Historically, the Changeling is also known as auf or oaf. It is known throughout Europe, but its origins is said to be in Ireland and Scotland. It is believed to be a fairy child, left in place of a human child by the Fae (as they are called in Scotland). This is usually thought to explain how a seemingly healthy baby would become sick and deathly in a very short amount of time! 

Not the fact that diseases roamed free across all these places during the Middle Ages, due to the lack of proper hygiene… 😛  

Changeling children as illustrated by Alan Lee. Image source.

For the common people with superstitions, it sounded more plausible that a Faerie would come and swap the healthy child for a sick fae infant, and whisk them away to their lands. It explained unknown diseases, disorders, or developmental disabilities. 

To realize that the child was not their own, people saw various identifiable traits. First of all, the child would not grow normally, or it would grow sickly. It may have notable physical characteristics, like a beard or long teeth. They may also have notable intelligence, far beyond their years! (Some miniature Einsteins, no? :P) Especially, in Scottish and Irish legends of the Changelings, the swapped child would be displaying unusual behavior when alone, such as dancing, jumping around, and most of all, playing an instrument…

Who knew that being musically gifted was considered such a crime in the Middle Ages, eh? 😛 

Paton, Joseph Noel; The Fairy Raid: Carrying Off a Changeling, Midsummer Eve; Glasgow Museums;

The Fairy Raid: Carrying Off a Changeling, Midsummer Eve

Joseph Noel Paton (1821–1901). Image source.

But of course, Changeling Children had plausible answers, with modern day beliefs and medicine explaining everything! For example, children looking like “old men” would be them suffering from progeria. Or children with large heads, suffering from hydrocephalus in modern terms, would be considered abnormal. However, the pretty, blue-eyed, “elfin”-nosed ones would also be considered abnormal; when they were but simply afflicted by what we now know as Williams syndrome. 

Isn’t it sad to think that these children could grow up to be healthy and intelligent adults, but no one thought to give them a chance? :/ 

Let me know what you think about the Changelings in the comments!

Until next time…

Written by Eloise Madigan

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