The Changeling 

In Christian countries, it was firmly believed in the past that those unfortunates who died unbaptised were claimed by the devil in the afterlife unless they were babies, in which case, they were fated to wait in limbo until the Last Judgment. Another tradition held that if a child died before baptism, his or her spirit was doomed to wander restlessly about in deserted, ruined places. In northern European countries, these children were thought to turn into will-o’-the-wisps, the tiny lights seen to hover over marshy, swampy countryside. Now, these small flickering lights are scientifically explained as emanating marsh gasses. 

In the past, it was thought that many dangers threatened the unbaptised child and the superstitious, therefore, recommended many safeguards to mothers before the actual baptism took place. Traditionally, unbaptised babies were kept at home and given protection from all evil influences by various amulets. Often, infants were protected with a knife wrapped in its swaddling – any object made of iron, was regarded as suitable. Alternately, some salt or a communion wafer tucked into the crib offered protection. In Ireland and other parts of Europe, it was considered dangerous to pick up an unbaptised child without first making the sign of the cross over it. The earliest possible baptism of a newborn child, therefore, was considered essential, not only to save it from limbo should it die in an unholy state before baptism, but also to ensure the baby’s future health and to prevent it from being carried off by fairies that would leave a so-called changeling in its place.

In Europe, belief in the changeling was firmly established in the past. Legends describe the changeling as a wizened, misshapen, hairy baby with a monstrous head, left in the cradle as a substitute for a human child, who had been snatched by fairies or underground elves. The changeling was thought to cry continuously and to eat ravenously but never grow – or if it did grow, to be horribly deformed. 

At a time, when medical diagnoses could provide no answers, poor nutrition inevitably stunted the growth of impoverished children, and society was suffused with superstitions, the concept of the changeling provided a convenient explanation for backward, spastic or deformed children. When their offspring suddenly stopped growing or acted and looked strange, parents were bewildered, bereft of any explanations, save that such a misfit could not possibly be their child. It had to be a changeling! Often, such children had high-domed foreheads and were undersize, only to confirm the already held conviction that fairy children were believed to look like freaks. 

For the child deemed to be a changeling, life was difficult. Numerous methods were employed for unmasking the changeling and forcing the perceived abhorrence to reveal its true age and identity. In the Scottish Highlands, a presumed changeling infant was placed as close as possible to a fire piled high with peat. If the child were truly a fairy child, it would inevitably escape up the chimney, or as the Scottish would say, ‘up the lum’. The deception of raising a changeling could also be discovered by making it reveal its true age, for they were always thought to be very old. Often the whipping method was used to make the changeling known, or alternatively, the child was made to sleep outdoors. All these methods of unmasking a changeling, in modern times, would be irrevocably labelled child abuse. However, in the past, this belief was so ingrained that, as late as 1843, the West Briton newspaper reported an incident from Cornwall about a child being mistreated by his parents. The child had been severely beaten from 15 months onwards, but the case was dismissed out of court when the parents explained, in all seriousness, that this was not their own child, but a changeling.129 


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