The story appears all over the world. Fairies take humans into their world, leaving doppelgangers behind. Sometimes fairies leave their own child, or a grown fairy, or an elderly decrepit one - or just a piece of wood carved to look like the stolen person.
But explanations are harder to obtain. Scattered stories give a variety of causes for this odd fairy behavior. It seems there are quite a few uses that fairies have for humans. Here are thirteen possible explanations I've collected.
1. No reason given/malice/caprice
A majority of changeling tales give no reason. For instance, in "Rumpelstiltskin," the fairylike being is eager to obtain a human infant, but we never learn why.
Fairies just like to take people, along with anything, really. Westropp's Study of Folklore on the Coasts of Connacht, Ireland explains that fairies “carried off children and robbed milk and butter. The sprites could exercise malignant power on infants especially before baptism, stealing the handsome ones and replacing them by puny withered changelings . . . Women who die in childbirth are believed to have been carried off to fairyland."
In a story recorded by John Rhys in Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, a woman banishes a "crimbil" and regains her son - "But when she asked him where he had been so long, he had no account in the world to give but that he had been listening to pleasant music. He was very thin and worn in appearance when he was restored." This indicates that the fairies did not even care much for the human they had taken.
2. The human trespassed on fairy domain
A human who goes into fairy territory is always at risk. Don't step into fairy circles or eat their food! In the tales of Sir Orfeo and Thomas the Rhymer, a human attracts the attention of fairy royalty when they sleep in the shade of a particular tree. In "Child Rowland," Burd Ellen falls into the elf-king's power because she runs around the church widdershins.
Similarly, a human may be taken as revenge for a broken taboo or for spite. In a Swedish tale, a servant-girl takes home a cow belonging to the fairies. The angry trolls promise that they will have revenge, and on the girl's wedding day they snatch her away (Lindow p. 96).
3. Fairies want a beautiful child instead of their own ugly baby
"People fear that the misshapen dwarfs who live beneath the earth, and who would like nothing more than to have beautiful, well-formed human children, will steal newborns, leaving their own malformed children, called changelings, in their place." (J. D. H. Temme, Folk Legends from Altmark)
According to Thomas Keightley, fairies look for human infants with the intention of offloading any fairy children "which they foresee likely to be feeble in mind, in body, in beauty, or other gifts."
According to Icelandic Legends (page liii) "the finest children are the most sought for, and the most hideous oldling is put in their place." (So fairies get some cute babies and also find a cheap retirement home for Grandpa. Two birds, one stone!)
Fairies may have a special preference for blondes in particular. Katharine Briggs (An Encyclopedia of Fairies, p. 195) says that golden-haired children are the most in demand from fairies, citing the Welsh tale of Eilian of Garth Dorwen, where the abducted woman is explicitly mentioned as blonde.
Sir John Rhys, in Celtic Folklore Vol. 2 (pp. 667-668), mentioned twice that fairies like to steal blond babies above all others. Fairy babies, in contrast, are "swarthy," "sallow," and "aged-looking."
In addition to blond hair, fairies apparently had a preference for male children. Adult abductees were men or women, in fact possibly usually women, but the typical changeling story features a baby boy. According to some sources, the practice of dressing boys in girls’ frocks until age ten or eleven was intended to deceive fairies who might steal away a boy and replace him with a changeling (Irish Folk Ways).
Lady Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde in Ancient Legends, Mystic Charms, and Superstitions of Ireland gives an interesting variation. An old hag switches a human child for a hairy, ugly, grinning creature. However, as the human parents bewail their misfortune, a young woman in a red handkerchief enters and begins to laugh. She's the fairy parent of the changeling, and was just as upset by the switch! The other fairies, preferring the "fine child" of the humans, stole hers to replace it. But she proclaims, "I would rather have my own, ugly as he is, than any mortal child in the world" - and instructs the human parents on how to steal back their offspring.
Lady Wilde also cited an interesting idea that physical beauty might not last forever. She described a tradition that although fairies will kidnap human brides, "after seven years, when the girls grow old and ugly, they send them back to their kindred, giving them, however, as compensation, a knowledge of herbs and philters and secret spells, but which they can kill or cure."
4. Fairies want breeding stock or human lovers
Perhaps there is such emphasis on beautiful human children because the fairies want to ensure good genetics in their future generations.
In a German tale, a "maniken" informs the stolen child's mother that "her son would someday become the king of the underground people. From time to time they had to exchange one of their king's children for a human child so that earthly beauty would not entirely die out among them." (Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg, 1879, p. 46)
Lady Wilde also said that "handsome children" are taken by the Sidhe and "wedded to fairy mates when they grow up."
The fairies definitely seemed to look at some humans as potential mates and lovers. In many Rumpelstiltskin-type tales, instead of trying to steal a baby, the fairylike helper wants the woman to become his wife and live with him underground, in Fairyland or Hell. Examples are "Mistress Beautiful," "Doubleturk," "Zirkzirk," "Purzinigele," and "Duffy and the Devil," as well as many others.
In medieval ballads, this is the most common reason for humans to go away with the fairies - see Thomas the Rhymer, Sir Lanval, or Sir Guingamuer. In another family of tales, a woman is stolen away by a fairy and bears him children. There's "Agnete and the Merman," "Little Kerstin and the Mountain King," "Jomfruen og Dværgekongen," and "Hind Etin." In stories like that of Eilian, a human midwife visits the fairies only to recognize the mother in childbed as a long-lost member of her own village.
5. Fairies raise human children out of love
In some tales, the fairies are kind foster families to the humans they adopt. For instance, in "A Midsummer Night’s Dream," Titania has a changeling boy as a squire, and Oberon wants him as one of his knights. Titania lavishes affection on the child (“crowns him with flowers, and makes him all her joy”), and claims she is raising him out of love for his mother, a dear friend of hers who died in childbirth. This is, of course, Shakespeare's spin on tradition.
Diane Purkiss, in Troublesome Things: A history of Fairies and Fairy Stories, draws a connection to Greek nymphs. The exposure of newborns - leaving unwanted children in the wilderness to die - was not uncommon in Ancient Greece. Good news though - myths said that nymphs would raise these children. Nymphs could be motherly figures, taking care of the infant god Zeus, for instance. In the Homeric hymn to Aphrodite, a woman plans to abandon her illegitimate baby, comforting herself with the idea that mountain nymphs will take care of him. However, Purkiss says, modern Greek nymphs have developed in the popular mind to become malicious baby-stealers.
In the Cornish tale of Betty Stogs, recorded by Robert Hunt, a lazy and slovenly woman neglects her baby and it vanishes with the fairies. On this occasion, however, the pixies simply wash it, care for it, and lovingly return it wrapped in soft moss and flowers. In this case there is no changeling; the baby's absence is brief, and serves only to knock some sense into the neglectful parents.
In many tales, mistreating the fairy child is the best way to get the human back. In Norwegian variants, though, it’s common for the angry fairy parent to rebuke the human, implying that they have been kind and loving foster parents in contrast.
Selma Lagerlof wrote a story called "The Changeling" where the troll parents treat the stolen child exactly as the human parents treat the changeling. The human mother goes against tradition by refusing to mistreat the changeling, which ends up saving her own child's life.
If stolen and recovered humans did not waste away after their return, they often came back with wondrous knowledge and gifts from the fairies. Thomas the Rhymer retained prophetic powers. In the Scottish tale of "The Smith and the Fairies," a stolen boy returns with an uncanny gift for sword-forging.
6. Fairies want to make humans like themselves.
Sometimes the stolen child becomes one of the fairies, transformed either in whole or in part.
In John Fletcher's play The Faithful Shepherdess (c. 1608), we hear of:
A virtuous well, about whose flowery banks
The nimble-footed Fairies dance their rounds,
By the pale moon-shine, dipping oftentimes
Their stolen children, so to make them free
From dying flesh, and dull mortality.
According to The Borderer's Table Book (1846), changelings were treated quite well: "the elves were... so liberal as to tend it with great kindness, and, by degrees, they brought it to partake almost of their own qualities . . . . it lived and was treated as one of themselves."
Similarly, in Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm's Deutsche Sagen, it's mentioned that some of the "nixies" of the Saal River were once human - "mortals who, as children, had been taken away by nixies."
Ralph of Coggeshall recorded the tale of a strange spirit called Malekin which haunted a certain house around the late 12th century. Malekin was invisible, but sounded like a toddler and once appeared as a small child in a white tunic. He (or she?) claimed to have once been a mortal child, born in Lavenham. When his mother left him in a field while she worked harvesting, he was taken away. Malekin had existed in spirit form for seven years, and in another seven years would be restored to a human state.
7. Fairies punish neglectful parents
Fairies are known to pinch and abuse slovenly humans and aid those who are hard-working; it seems they take an interest in our proper conduct. Betty Stogs and her husband are careless parents who don't spend time caring for their baby or keeping it clean. In more widespread stories, the baby is taken while the mother goes to fetch wood, bind sheaves, or other household tasks. This is shown in the tale of Malekin.
n a tale collected by the Grimms, a nobleman forces one of his tenants to help bind sheaves even though she has a six-week-old baby still nursing. She lays the child on the ground while she works, but to his shock the nobleman observes an "Earth-woman" steal and replace the baby. They get the baby back, but in the moral, the nobleman "resolved to never again force a woman who had recently given birth to work."
This is a cautionary tale about leaving young infants unattended. Neglectful parents are shown the need to change their ways, but also – as D. L. Ashliman points out – such superstitions served some benefits. They insisted that women must have a rest period after childbirth. New mothers should be recovering and caring for their newborns, not forced back into strenuous physical labor.
Parents were warned by changeling superstitions to keep a close watch on their children. Mother and newborn had to be closely guarded. Talismans, such as a piece of the father’s clothing kept nearby, or scissors hung over the cradle, were used to protect the child. If these rituals were neglected, fairies might strike at any moment. The parents are responsible for keeping their offspring out of the fairies’ hands. In this case, a changeling swap implied neglect. Walter Scott mentioned a story where the mother, recovering and alone, is unable to stop her child’s abduction on her own. Here the blame is placed on the nurse, a lower-class woman, who had been drinking and fell asleep rather than guarding her charges.
In another widespread class of tales, the parent carelessly wishes for the child to be taken away. For instance, in the 13th-century tale of "The Daughter of Peter de Cabinam," a man angrily wishes that his crying daughter would be taken away by demons. His unthinking words come true, and she's taken to the demons' realm beneath a lake to toil as a servant. The father manages to regain her seven years later, but she is sickly and mute. Although they're called demons, her captors' behavior and home is very fairylike.
In “Polednice,” a poem by Karel Jaromir Erben based on the Slavic folklore, a woman threatens her noisy child that she will give him to the polednice (a spirit personifying sunstroke) if he doesn't obey. To her horror, the spirit actually arrives at her summons and the story ends tragically.
8. Fairies require human servants
This is what happened to Peter de Cabinam's daughter. Lady Wilde in Ancient Legends of Ireland mentions that young men are taken by the fairies to become "bond-slaves."
In "The Fairy Dwelling on Selena Moor" (Bottrell 1873), the fairies who capture a woman "wanted a tidy girl who knew how to bake and brew, one that would keep their habitation decent, nurse the changed-children, that wern’t so strongly made as they used to be, for want of more beef and good malt liquor, so they said."
In a Swedish tale, a girl taken by trolls is forced not only to labor for them but to don a cap of invisibility and steal food from human farms for them. (Lindow no. 32)
9. Fairies require human protection for their own children
This may be more of a literary invention. However, Robert Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England gives the story of "The Piskies' Changeling," in which a fairy child is found abandoned, and we hear that piskies sometimes to this with "infants of their race for whom they sought human protection; and it would have been an awful circumstance if such a one were not received by the individual so visited." Here is an entirely different dynamic!
Anna Eliza Bray, in The borders of the Tamar and the Tavy, mentions that a woman who was kind to her changeling "so pleased the pixy mother that some time after she returned the stolen child, who was ever after very lucky."
10. Fairies just really like milk
The days after birth were a dangerous time. Either women or newborns might be swept away, and a common theme was that fairies wanted humans to serve as wet nurses. According to Thomas Keightley, "Lying-in-women and 'unchristened bairns' they regard as lawful prize. The former they employ as wet-nurses, the latter they of course rear up as their own."
In the ballad "The Queen of Elfland's Nourice," a mortal woman is taken from her own newborn to nurse the Queen of Elfland's child, and told she will be allowed to go home afterwards.
In a Hessian legend, a dwarf-woman brings back the real baby, but refuses to hand it over until the human mother has nursed the changeling with "ennobling human milk." (Grimm, Deutsch Mythology, via Keightley)
In Asturian folklore, xanas may sneak their babies into human families in order to get them milk. (Del folklore asturiano, pp. 36-38). Although some stories have it that xana mothers did not have enough milk, others state that xanas don't even have breasts (Baragaño, Mitología y brujería en Asturias p. 22).
In a more sinister turn, in "The Red-Haired Tailor of Rannoch and the Fairy," a rapacious adult fairy poses as a screaming human baby solely to get milk. (James MacDougall, Folk Tales and Fairy Lore in Gaelic and English)
11. Fairies want baptism for their own kids
Usually baptism is supposed to ward off changelings, and this is why an unbaptized child is in especial danger. Once the baby's baptized, the fairies cannot touch them. However, in Robert Buchanan’s poem “The Changeling,” a mother asrai explicitly wants her child to have a human soul and a chance at Heaven. And a few rare folktales make it seem like there's a basis for this.
In an Asturian tale, a woman notices that her child has been switched. She runs to the cave where the "Injana" (similar to anjana or xana) lives, and demands her baby back.
The Injana responds,
— Tráelo acá, mala mujer:
no te lo di para que me lo criaras,
dítelo para que me lo bautizaras.
“Bring it here, evil woman:
I didn't give it to you to raise it for me,
I gave it to you to baptize it for me.”
In one Swedish tale, a troll changeling is about to be baptized. You might expect him to be displeased, but it seems the trolls had planned for exactly this; he cries out gleefully that he is "off to the church to become a Christian" (Lindow pg. 92). Lindow notes that the changeling is "delighted" at the possibility of being baptized. In other stories, Christian salvation is normally a gift denied to fairykind - see my blog post The Salvation of Mermaids.
(Other versions of this tale don't always include baptism. The English "Changeling of Brea Vean" is being carried to a healing well, and in a story from the Grimms, the changeling is being taken on a pilgrimage at the end of which he will be weighed. Both are religious rituals meant to encourage a sickly child to thrive.)
12. Fairies need human midwives
Much like wet-nurses, fairies like to use humans as midwives. However, these midwives are typically allowed to go straight home once their task is completed.
Even for this brief time, some may be replaced with a changeling; Biddy Mannion returns home from aiding a fairy birth, only to cross paths with the doppelganger who has been keeping her place. "What a gomal your husband is that didn't know the difference between you and me," the fake Biddy comments.
13. Fairies need replacement tithes to hell?
The story goes that every seven years or so, fairies must offer a living sacrifice to Hell. Not wanting to give up fairy babies, they grab up human babies instead to offer those as a kind of draft dodging. The hell-tithe has been given as a fact of fairylore by Katharine Briggs, Lady Wilde, and many other prominent folklorists running through possible reasons for changelings. However, this story isn't reflected by tradition.
For exaxmple, Walter Gregor, in Notes on the Folk-Lore of the North-East of Scotland, gives the hell-tithe as an explanation for changelings . . . but also directly quotes Tam Lin (pp. 60-62). This leaves it unclear whether he has actually heard folktales which feature a fairy hell-tithe, or whether he is tying in the story of Tam Lin on his own.
Tam Lin is one of only three tales which mention a fairy tithe to hell, making this a rare concept. These tales do indicate that humans visiting Fairyland are in danger of being selected as a living sacrifice. However, they are not in danger because they’re human – it seems to just be a danger of proximity, or the fact that they are “fat and full of flesh” or healthy specimens. In addition, none of these tales feature any exchange of changelings.
I would dismiss this explanation as a later theory based on unconnected tale types.
The changeling as symbolism for death/illness/disability
There's a lot of overlap between fairies and the dead. Remember one of the first books quoted in this post: "Women who die in childbirth are believed to have been carried off to fairyland." All of these changeling myths are associated with a vulnerable time in the lives of mothers and infants.
There are two types of changeling tales. In one, a sickly or disabled child is actually a demon which must be caught in the act. The mentally or physically handicapped child is an impostor; the parents' real, healthy and attractive child was stolen. This myth dehumanized handicapped or sick people and was a way to excuse infanticide - not just in stories, but in real life - see Young, 2013.
In the other, a deceased or missing loved one (typically a wife) turns out to actually be alive. Their "corpse" was a false image. They may yet be rescued if their families just manage to complete the right ritual.
Both types of changeling tales speak of grief and denial. This was people searching for a reason why something bad had happened - or perhaps a scapegoat.
Sometimes they came up with a reason why otherworldly forces did what they did. However, more often there was no point. In the Malleus Maleficarum, (1487), fairy activity is attributed to demons. It calls the supposed cases of changelings - simply and brutally - "another terrible thing which God permits to happen to men."
A search for a "reason" belongs more to later scholarly efforts. For people who believed in changelings, questioning it bore no purpose; questions might even attract the wrath of otherworldly forces. The issue was not "Why did this happen?" but "What do we do now?"
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.