changelings


changelings
   In societies where the belief in *fairies was strong, it was held that they could steal human babies and substitute one of their own race; the latter would never thrive, remaining small, wizened, mentally abnormal, and ill-tempered. A baby whose defects were not obvious at birth but appeared in the first year or two could thus be explained as not truly human. In 16th- and 17th-century England, such an infant was called either a 'changeling' or an 'auf' or 'oaf' - a variant of 'elf, defined by the OED as 'a goblin child ... left by the elves or fairies; hence a misbegotten, deformed or idiot child'.
   They were often ill-treated, as this supposedly drives changelings away. In Cornwall, for instance, one should 'put the small body upon the ashes pile and beat it well with a broom, then lay it naked under a church-way stile . . . till the turn of night; and, nine times out of ten, the thing will be took off and the stolen cheeld put in his place'; alternatively, lay it on the hearth beside a thickly smoking fire (Bottrell, 1873: 202). In 1843 a Penzance man was charged with letting one of his children be cruelly treated by a servant; the child had been put up a tree and left there for over two hours on a cold winter night (The West Briton (14 July 1843)).
   By the 19th century, accounts of alleged changelings are rare. From Kington (Herefordshire) comes the sole English example of a tale well known in Scotland, Ireland, and abroad, telling how a changeling was detected and expelled; it was told by a woman who said she had heard it from another woman, 'who knew that it was true'. It begins realistically:
   A woman had a baby that never grew; it was always hungry, and never satisfied, but it lay in its cradle year after year, never walking, and nothing seemed to do it good. Its face was hairy and strange-looking. One day the woman's elder son, a soldier, came home from the war, and was surprised to see his brother still in the cradle . . .
   The soldier then begins brewing beer in an eggshell, which startles the changeling into saying: 'I'm old, old, ever so old, but I never saw that before!' The soldier takes a whip and drives it out, and at once the stolen human reappears, now grown to a fine young man (Leather, 1912: 46-7).
   ■ Briggs, 1976: 69-72; Susan S. Eberly, Folklore 99 (1988), 58-77.

A Dictionary of English folklore. . 2014.

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