An Essay by

D. L. Ashliman

Copyright 1997

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  1. The legends

  2. A living superstition

  3. The legend genre

  4. Martin Luther on changelings

  5. Shared responsibility

  6. Justifying infanticide

  7. Brewing in eggshells

  8. Other protective measures

  9. Working mothers

  10. Gender bias

  11. Organized religion

  12. The stolen child's perspective

  13. Selma Lagerlöf

  14. Conclusion

  15. Footnotes

  16. Additional notes and links

The legends

A mother had her child taken from the cradle by elves. In its place they laid a changeling with a thick head and staring eyes who would do nothing but eat and drink. In distress she went to a neighbor and asked for advice. The neighbor told her to carry the changeling into the kitchen, set it on the hearth, make a fire, and boil water in two eggshells. That should make the changeling laugh, and if he laughs it will be all over with him. The woman did everything just as her neighbor said. When she placed the eggshells filled with water over the fire, the blockhead said:

Now I am as old
As the Wester Wood,
But have never seen anyone cooking in shells!

And he began laughing about it. When he laughed, a band of little elves suddenly appeared. They brought the rightful child, set it on the hearth, and took the changeling away. {footnote 1}

* * * * *

The following true story took place in the year 1580. Near Breslau there lived a distinguished nobleman who had a large crop of hay every summer which his subjects were required harvest for him. One year there was a new mother among his harvest workers, a woman who had barely had a week to recover from the birth of her child. When she saw that she could not refuse the nobleman's decree, she took her child with her, placed it on a small clump of grass, and left it alone while she helped with the haymaking. After she had worked a good while, she returned to her child to nurse it. She looked at it, screamed aloud, hit her hands together above her head, and cried out in despair, that this was not her child: It sucked the milk from her so greedily and howled in such an inhuman manner that it was nothing like the child she knew.

As is usual in such cases, she kept the child for several days, but it was so ill-behaved that the good woman nearly collapsed. She told her story to the nobleman. He said to her: "Woman, if you think that this is not your child, then do this one thing. Take it out to the meadow where you left your previous child and beat it hard with a switch. Then you will witness a miracle."

The woman followed the nobleman's advice. She went out and beat the child with a switch until it screamed loudly. Then the Devil brought back her stolen child, saying: "There, you have it!" And with that he took his own child away.

This story is often told and is known by both the young and the old in and around Breslau. {footnote 2}

A living superstition

We all want explanations for happenings that fall outside of our control, especially those that have a direct bearing on our welfare. It is only natural that our forebears wanted to know why some children fail to develop normally, and what our responsibilities are toward these handicapped individuals. The two stories quoted above are part of a vast network of legends and superstitions that give primitive but satisfying answers to these questions. These accounts -- which, unlike most fantasy tales, were actually widely believed -- suggest that a physically or mentally abnormal child is very likely not the human parents' offspring at all, but rather a changeling -- a creature begotten by some supernatural being and then secretly exchanged for the rightful child. {footnote 3} From pre-Christian until recent times, many people have sincerely and actively believed that supernatural beings can and do exchange their own inferior offspring for human children, making such trades either in order to breed new strength and vitality into their own diminutive races or simply to plague humankind.

These beliefs continued to exert influence well into the nineteenth century, and in some areas even later. Writing in England in 1890, the pioneer folklorist Edwin Sidney Hartland could state: "In dealing with these stories [about changelings] we must always remember that not merely are we concerned with sagas of something long past, but with a yet living superstition." {footnote 4} In 1911 W. Y. Evans-Wentz, himself a true believer in the reality of fairy life, published an extensive study, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries, which contains numerous accounts of exchanged children. This book, with a new introduction praising the author for his courageous acceptance of "a greater reality beyond the everyday world," was reissued in 1966. As late as 1924 it was reported that in sections of rural Germany many people were still taking traditional precautions against the demonic exchange of infants. {footnote 5} Finally, writing in 1980, Hasan M. El-Shamy reports: "The belief that the jinn may steal a human infant and put their own infant in its place is widespread in numerous parts of Egypt." {footnote 6} Views held firmly for a thousand years do not die easily, especially when they appear to answer some of life's most troublesome questions.

The legend genre

In keeping with their higher level of popular credibility, changeling accounts are much more often classified as legends than as fairy tales by folktale scholars. The Grimms themselves delineate between these two principal folktale genres in terms that twentieth-century folklorists still find meaningful: "The fairy tale is more poetic, the legend is more historical.... While it is the children alone who believe in the reality of fairy tales, the folk have not yet stopped believing in their legends." {footnote 7} Legends, they conclude, are less fantastic and more firmly rooted in reality than fairy tales. Storytellers use a variety of literary devices to emphasize the familiarity and credibility of their changeling accounts. In contrast to fairy tales, which nearly always take place at an indefinite "once upon a time" and in an unnamed place, changeling legends frequently are set in a precisely identified time and location. The opening of "Beating the Changeling with Switches" is typical in this regard: "The following true story took place in 1580. Near Breslau there lived a well-known nobleman." Another changeling tale begins with the sentence: "A reliable citizen of Leipzig told the following story." {footnote 8}

Martin Luther on changelings

The Grimms do not identify their "reliable citizen of Leipzig," but they do identify another of their sources, a man whose name certainly carried a great amount of authority and respect throughout Protestant Germany: Martin Luther. The influential church reformer was not only an avid storyteller, but -- as his own writings demonstrate -- he was also a true believer in changelings. Luther was very much a product of his own times with respect to superstitious beliefs and practices. He sincerely believed that Satan was responsible for the malformed children known as changelings, and that such satanic child exchanges occurred frequently. {footnote 9} In Luther's theological view, a changeling was a child of the devil without a human soul, "only a piece of flesh." This view made it easy to justify almost any abuse of an unfortunate child thought to be a changeling, including the ultimate mistreatment: infanticide. Luther himself had no reservations about putting such children to death. {footnote 10}

Shared responsibility

In spite of the general credibility given to changeling accounts, and the support that they received from respected church leaders (Catholics as well as Protestants), there is evidence that many people were uneasy about the cruel treatment that the legends seemed to advocate. This evidence comes from the stories themselves. Parents who suspect that their child has been replaced with a changeling almost never decide on a course of action without first receiving advice and moral support from a third party. This fact is stated or implied in virtually all changeling tales, although it is usually communicated in an offhand manner. For example: "In distress she [the mother] went to her neighbor and asked her for advice." {footnote 11} The parents of seriously handicapped children obviously wanted others to share the moral responsibility for whatever decisions were reached.

Folklore suggests that parents sought and received advice and approval from all segments of society before taking any drastic measures with their suspected changelings. The Grimms' accounts offer excellent examples of this broadly based community support: In three of their tales, the advice comes from ordinary people: a neighbor, a stranger on the street, and an unidentified person. In two other instances, the mothers -- peasant women -- are advised by their feudal landlords, and in one tale, "The Changeling in the Thuringian Forest," {footnote 12} the mother receives information from her pastor that enables her to discover her changeling's true identity and to drive him away. Several levels of community support are suggested by the sources of advice in these changeling stories. Peer approval is indicated by the participation of ordinary people in the parents' decisions, and the voice of civil and ecclesiastical authority is added by the pronouncements of the landlords and the clergy.

Justifying infanticide

The cruelty to which suspected changelings are subjected in folktales makes it clear why the perpetrators of this harsh treatment sought the symbolic approval of their community. In the Grimms' accounts alone, we learn of changelings being thrown into water, beaten severely with a switch, left unfed and crying in an open field, or placed on a hot stove. This list of ordeals can easily be expanded by consulting other changeling tales from throughout northern Europe. There is ample evidence that these legendary accounts do not misrepresent or exaggerate the actual abuse of suspected changelings. Court records between about 1850 and 1900 in Germany, Scandinavia, Great Britain, and Ireland reveal numerous proceedings against defendants accused of torturing and murdering suspected changelings. {footnote 13} Similar incidents were undoubtedly even more common in earlier centuries, but prior to the mid nineteenth century, public opinion, religious attitudes, and legal indifference made it unlikely that such cases would be prosecuted. The court records of Gotland, Sweden, for 1690 document one of the rare exceptions. A man and woman were placed on trial for having left a ten-year-old "changeling" -- a sickly child who was not growing properly -- on a manure pile overnight on Christmas Eve, hoping that the elves who had made the exchange some years earlier would now return their rightful son. The child died of exposure. {footnote 14} Without doubt many similar cases went unprosecuted and unrecorded. Folklore sources suggest that such fatal abuse of malformed children was not unusual.

The mistreatment of changelings in folklore accounts often (although not always) leads to a happy outcome for the human parents and their rightful child. To halt the abuse of their offspring, the otherworldly parents frequently rescue the changeling and return the stolen mortal child. Stories with these fantasy endings provided hope, wish fulfillment, and escape to an era that was plagued with birth defects and debilitating infant diseases.

But not all changeling accounts have happy endings. Often the child thought to be a changeling is driven away or killed, but there is no indication that the healthy original child is returned. The tales that omit the safe recovery of the rightful child authentically illustrate a painful aspect of family survival in pre-industrial Europe. A peasant family's very subsistence frequently depended upon the productive labor of each member, and it was enormously difficult to provide for a person who was a permanent drain on the family's scarce resources. The fact that the changelings' ravenous appetite is so frequently mentioned indicates that the parents of these unfortunate children saw in their continuing existence a threat to the sustenance of the entire family. Changeling tales support other historical evidence in suggesting that infanticide was not infrequently the solution selected.

Brewing in eggshells

Cruel abuse is not the only way to force demonic parents into reclaiming their misshapen children in changeling legends, although this is the most frequently described method. A more humane approach was to force the changeling to laugh or to make him utter an expression of surprise, which -- according to popular belief -- would expose his true identity and force his supernatural parents to take him away. A common trick was to make preparations in the presence of the changeling to brew beer or to cook stew in eggshells. This approach is described in some detail in Jacob Grimm's German Mythology {footnote 15} and is used in numerous folktales throughout Europe. Typically the changeling responds with surprise, claiming that he is as old as a nearby forest, but has never before witnessed such a sight.

The belief that a changeling was actually much older than the child he was impersonating could lead to a fear of the child, as illustrated in the Icelandic tale "The Changeling who Stretched." {footnote 16} This legend tells of a woman who is left alone in the house with a boy of confirmation age who is suspected of being a changeling. She watches in horror as the lad, who apparently thinks that he is alone, yawns and stretches until he reaches the rafters. Terrified at being alone with this monster, the woman screams, and the boy collapses as if he had been shot, resumes his former size, and returns to his bed. It is easy to see how this tale could have grown out of a woman's fears of being left alone with a mentally retarded but sexually maturing male.

A changeling's ostensibly great age plays an important role in yet another folktale motif: the child who neither matures nor dies, remaining helplessly dependent and insatiably hungry for an interminable amount of time. The opening paragraph of the Norwegian tale "The Changeling Betrays His Age" {footnote 17} exemplifies the problem: "On Lindheim Farm, in Nesherad, there was supposed to have been a changeling. No one could remember when he was born or when he had come to the farm. No one had ever heard him speak, but all the same they were afraid to do anything to him or make him angry. He ate so much that the people at Lindheim had been living from hand to mouth, generation after generation, on his account."

Although other sources suggest that changelings seldom lived longer than seven years, or -- at the longest -- eighteen or nineteen years, {footnote 18} the fear could easily evolve that a changeling might survive several normal lifetimes, bringing poverty and suffering to a family for many generations. To some the burden of caring for a retarded child must have appeared to be interminable. If one believed that such problems may not resolve themselves during an entire human lifetime, then drastic measures would be all the more justified.

Other protective measures

Changeling folklore not only explained why some children fail to grow and develop normally and helped to justify the extreme actions that may have been taken (whether in fact or only in fantasy) to free the parents or society from the burden of caring for handicapped children, it also provided protective measures against demonic exchange.

The most frequently mentioned preventative practice, and one that undoubtedly evolved because of its positive consequences, was the insistence that the newborn infant be watched very carefully until certain danger periods had passed. "Women who have recently been delivered may not go to sleep until someone is watching over the child. Mothers who are overcome by sleep often have changelings laid in their cradles," recorded Jacob Grimm in his German Mythology. {footnote 19} In the legend appropriately entitled "Watching Out for the Children," we are given to believe that a child would have been stolen by a supernatural being, had not the parents been so watchful during the night. According to most beliefs, a newborn was to be watched continuously for the first three days of its life; a somewhat reduced, but still high level of watchfulness was called for during the first six weeks. The fact that the mother (or her substitute) was expected to keep the baby close at hand for at least six weeks helped to protect it from environmental dangers, aided the child's psychological development, and contributed significantly to family cohesiveness.

Working mothers

An added benefit of the six weeks of close watching was the relief thus granted to the mother from some of her most strenuous duties, thus aiding her recovery from pregnancy and delivery. In "The Changeling in the Thuringian Forest," the exchange of infants takes place when the mother leaves her baby alone in the house while she fetches wood, a common but strenuous household task. In other legends, {footnote 20} babies are exchanged when landlords force peasant mothers to do difficult harvest labor before their six-week recovery periods are past. These accounts thus impart the lesson that women recovering from confinement should not do work that takes them away from their newborn babies. The last line of one such story states the lesson succinctly: "And from that time forth he [the nobleman] resolved to never again force a woman who had recently given birth to work." {footnote 21} Interestingly, this prohibition is not described as being for the sake of the women, but rather for the protection of their children. But however stated, the mothers themselves shared in the benefits of this belief.

Although the welfare of the family (and of society at large) dictated that women recovering from childbirth be spared many of the strenuous tasks that normally were expected of them, the patriarchal bias of German society did not provide for a woman's workload to be lightened for her own benefit. The only acceptable justification for this temporary relief from strenuous duties was the belief that the woman's child was thus being protected from supernatural harm. Numerous other superstitions regulating a woman's post-confinement activities confirm this view, for example, the belief that "if a woman spins wool, hemp, or flax within six weeks of her confinement, her child will someday be hanged." {footnote 22} Consistent with changeling beliefs, this superstitious practice spared the recently delivered woman the hardest of the spinning tasks, not for her own sake, but for the protection of her child.

Gender bias

Other aspects of changeling folklore illustrate this same anti-female stance. Most changeling accounts deal with male babies, implying that the fairies, elves, trolls, and devils have but little use for a female human child. In fact, in some areas boys were dressed in girls' clothing until they were ten or eleven years old in order to deceive supernatural kidnappers in search of young boys. {footnote 23} Further, a number of the protective measures prescribed by tradition have a strong patriarchal bias. For example, the popular belief that "whenever the mother leaves the infant's room she should lay an article of the father's clothing on the child, so that it cannot be exchanged." {footnote 24}

Organized religion

Numerous religion-oriented protective measures also evolved, which further strengthened the connection between changeling beliefs and organized churches. {footnote 25} As one would expect, Catholics sought to shield infants with holy water, crucifixes, and representations of various saints, whereas Protestants relied on the Bible for protection, often placing the book itself (or perhaps a single page) in the cradle as a talisman. In both faiths the unbaptized child was deemed to be especially vulnerable, although baptism did not offer complete protection against demonic exchange. Interestingly, the Grimm brothers omit most references to Christianity in their writings on changelings, probably in order to emphasize their view that the changeling legends and practices still extant in nineteenth-century Germany were basically survivals from pre-Christian Europe.

The stolen child's perspective

Nearly all changeling tales are told from the concerned parents' point of view. In the same manner as the parents, we the audience learn that something is wrong with an infant, discover the cause, and are told how to effect a resolution. The perspective of another involved party -- the changeling, the elf-parents, or the abducted child -- is seldom represented. Shakespeare's A Midsummer-Nights's Dream builds an exception to this general rule. An important subplot of this play is built around Oberon's and Titania's (king and queen of the fairies) fight over the guardianship of a changeling boy.

Another exception is found in the Finnish tale "The Kantele Player," {footnote 26} in which we first learn that a child exchange has taken place when the abducted person -- now a beautiful and mature woman -- appears to a lonely young man who is playing a kantele (a Finnish harp) and reveals her story to him.

The couple seeks out the woman's father, a count, and convince him that his supposed daughter, who is twenty-one years old and "will neither grow nor die," is in truth a changeling, a witch's daughter. "But what should we do with this child who has been with us for twenty-one years?" asks the count. Acting upon the advice of the returning daughter, who knows the ways of witches, they build a roaring fire, and the legitimate daughter herself throws the imposter into the flames. A cry is heard from the witches who have been watching through the window: "Don't burn our child!" The changeling's skin bursts from its body, and only an alder stump is left in the fireplace.

This story has a genuine fairy-tale ending (for everyone save the changeling). The kantele player, in spite of his poverty, marries the count's daughter, and -- we are told -- they still live in the stone house built for them by her grateful father.

Selma Lagerlöf

An even happier conclusion (this time for all parties concerned) is given to us by Selma Lagerlöf, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1909, in her children's book "The Changeling." {footnote 27} This artful fairy tale weaves the primitive motifs of troll-lore into a humane and satisfying fantasy story.

True to tradition, the author describes the kidnapping of a mortal child by an old troll woman, who leaves her own misshapen baby in its place. Following the pattern of countless folk legends, the parents are told to beat the changeling child with a heavy cane if they want to recover their own baby. The father is only too willing to abuse the ugly troll child, but the mother's maternal instincts cause her to intercede on the changeling's behalf. Several episodes are described in which the father attempts to follow the community's expectations by cruelly punishing or even killing the unwanted child, but each time the mother selflessly protects the troll baby.

Her kindness and perseverance are rewarded in the end, and the two children are restored to their original parents. Only then do we learn that during his absence the human child had lived in an unseen parallel world to that of his parents. Every act of cruelty or of kindness visited upon the troll child by his human guardians had been duplicated upon him by his troll stepmother. It was a mother's kindness and humanity rather than the expected abuse and neglect that rescued her child. Lagerlöf thus cloaks an ancient and cruel superstition in a modern and humane dress.


The advance of science during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries slowly but surely eroded the popular belief that malformed and retarded children likely were not human at all, but rather the offspring of some demonic being, offspring that could be neglected, abused, and even put to death with no moral compunctions. As these theological explanations for retardation gave way to medical explanations, community values and personal attitudes changed to such an extent that the very word "changeling," its synonym "killcrop," and their equivalents in other languages now have become historical curiosities, survivals of beliefs and practices that helped our northern European forebears -- for good or for bad -- face the problems of life and death when confronted with mentally or physically defective children.


  1. "The Elves," Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Children's and Household Tales (1812), no. 39/III; migratory legend type 5085. Translated by D. L. Ashliman.

  2. "A Changeling is Beaten with a Switch," Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends (1816), no. 88; migratory legend type 5085. Translated by D. L. Ashliman. Other descriptions of changelings in the Grimms' German Legends are found in nos. 60, 82, 83, 89, 90, 91, 153.

  3. Studies of changeling beliefs and practices include:

  4. Edwin Sidney Hartland, The Science of Fairy Tales: An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology. (London: Walter Scott, 1891), p. 118.

  5. Friedrich Ranke, Die deutschen Volkssagen (München: C. H. Becksche Verlagsbuchhandlung Oskar Beck, 1924), p. 138.

    See also Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Wander, Sprichwörter-Lexikon: Ein Hausschatz für das deutsche Volk (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1867-1880), v. 4, col. 1840.

  6. Hasan M. El-Shamy, Folktales of Egypt (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 179.

  7. Foreword to Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, The German Legends of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Donald Ward (Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1981), v. 1, pp. 1-2.

  8. "Watching Out for the Children," Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends (1816), no. 89.

  9. Martin Luther, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe: Tischreden (Weimar: Böhlau, 1912-1921), v. 4, pp. 357-358.

  10. Martin Luther, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe: Tischreden (Weimar: Böhlau, 1912-1921), v. 5, p. 9.

  11. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Children's and Household Tales (1812), no. 39/III.

  12. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Märchen aus dem Nachlaß, edited by Heinz Rölleke (Bonn: Bouvier Verlag Herbert Grundmann, 1979), p. 91.

  13. Edwin Sidney Hartland, The Science of Fairy Tales: An Inquiry into Fairy Mythology (London: Walter Scott, 1891), pp. 121-122. Gisela Piaschewski, Der Wechselbalg: Ein Beitrag zum Aberglauben der nordeuropäischen Völker (Breslau I.: Maruschke & Berendt Verlag, 1935), pp. 141-146.

  14. For an account of this case see Ilmar Arens and Bengt af Klintberg, "Bortbytingssägner i en gotländsk dombok fran 1690," Rig, v. 62, no. 3 (1979), pp. 89-97.

  15. Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1981 [reprint of 4th edition of 1876]), v. I, pp. 387-389.

  16. Jacqueline Simpson, Icelandic Folktales and Legends (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), pp. 25-26.

  17. Reidar Christiansen, Folktales of Norway, translated by Pat Shaw Iversen (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964), no. 40.

  18. The Grimm brothers supply this information in a footnote to their German Legends (1816), no. 82.

  19. Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1981 [reprint of 4th edition of 1876]), v. 3, p. 451, par. 510.

  20. For example: Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends (1816), nos. 88, 90.

  21. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends (1816), , no. 90.

  22. Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1981 [reprint of 4th edition of 1876]), v. 3, p. 442. In the same work similar post-confinement beliefs are described in the following entries, v. 3, pp. 434-477, nos. 1, 35, 36, 240, 308, 451, 458, 509, 510, 538, 654, 672, 733, 765, 782, 844, 845, 885, 900, 1049, 1064, 1084.

  23. E. Estyn Evans, Irish Folkways (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1957), p. 289.

  24. Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie (Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein, 1981 [reprint of 4th edition of 1876]), v. 3, p. 460.

  25. Gisela Piaschewski, Der Wechselbalg: Ein Beitrag zum Aberglauben der nordeuropäischen Völker (Breslau I.: Maruschke & Berendt Verlag, 1935), pp. 86-91, 110-113.

  26. August von Löwis of Menar, Finnische und estnische Märchen (Düsseldorf: Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1962), no. 19.

  27. Swedish title: Bortbytingen. English translation: The Changeling (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992).

Additional notes and links

Revised September 3, 1997.