Scandinavian Changeling Legends

edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1997-2020


Contents

  1. The Changelings (Sweden).

  2. The Midwife at Rørhus (Norway).

  3. Changelings (Norway).

  4. They Said She Was a Changeling (Norway).

  5. Two Changeling Tales (Denmark).

  6. The Changeling and the Sausage (Denmark).

  7. The Changeling and the Eggshells (Denmark).

  8. The Huldu-Folk in the faroes (Faroe Islands).

  9. The Father of Eighteen in Elvenhome (Iceland).

  10. Elf-Women Steal Human Children (Iceland).

  11. The Baby Cradle at Minni-Thverá (Iceland).

  12. Links to related sites.

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

The Changelings

Sweden

Every intelligent grandmother knows that the fire must not be allowed to go out in a room where there is a child not yet christened; that the water in which the newborn child is washed should not be thrown out; also, that a needle, or some other article of steel must be attached to its bandages [diapers]. If attention is not paid to these precautions it may happen that the child will be exchanged by the trolls, as once occurred in Bettna many years ago.

A young peasant's wife had given birth to her first child. Her mother, who lived some distance away, was on hand to officiate in the first duties attending its coming, but the evening before the day on which the child should be christened she was obliged to go home for a short time to attend to the wants of her own family, and during her absence the fire was allowed to go out.

No one would have noticed anything unusual, perhaps, if the child had not, during the baptism, cried like a fiend. After some weeks, however, the parents began to observe a change. It became ugly, cried continuously, and was so greedy that it devoured everything that came in its way. The people being poor, they were in great danger of being eaten out of house and home. There could no longer be any doubt that the child was a changeling. Whereupon the husband sought a wise old woman, who, it was said, could instruct the parents what to do to get back their own child.

The mother was directed to build a fire in the bake oven three Thursday evenings in succession, lay the young one upon the bake shovel, then pretend that she was about to throw it into the fire.

The advice was followed, and when the woman, the third evening, was in the act of throwing the changeling into the fire, it seemed, a little deformed, evil-eyed woman rushed up with the natural child, threw it in the crib, and requested the return of her child. "For," said she, "I have never treated your child so badly and I have never thought to do it such harm as you now propose doing mine," whereupon she took the unnatural child and vanished through the door.


Another changeling story, but with less unfortunate consequences, is told in Södermanland:

A resident of Vingåkir, who made frequent trips to Nyköping with loads of flour, was in the habit of halting for the night at the house of a farmer in Verna. One summer night he arrived later than usual, and, as the people were already in bed and asleep, the weather being pleasant, he did not wish to wake anyone, so unhitched his horse from the wagon, hitched him to a haystack, and laid himself under the wagon to sleep.

He had been some time under the wagon, yet awake, when, from under a stone nearby, an ugly, deformed woman, carrying a babe, made her appearance. Looking about her carefully, she laid the child on the stone and went into the house. In a short time she returned, bearing another child; laid it upon the stone, and taking up the first one, returned to the house.

The man observed her actions, and divining their purpose, crept cautiously from his resting place as soon as the woman had disappeared into the house, took the sleeping child and hid it in his coat under the wagon. When the troll returned and found the child gone, she went a third time to the house, for which she returned with the child she had just carried in, whereupon she disappeared under the stone.

The traveler, anxious for the welfare of his little charge, which had in such an extraordinary manner fallen into his hands, could not close his eyes for the rest of the night.

As soon as it dawned he went with his precious burden to the house, where he found the occupants in great consternation over the disappearance of the child, which, as may be presumed, was received with great rejoicing.




The Midwife at Rørhus

Norway

Sigrid, a midwife at Rørhus in Sundelven parish, was once taken by a huldre-man to his wife who was having difficulty giving birth.

Sigrid succeeded at her craft, and after the baby was born, the huldre-man took it and went away with it to Sigrid's neighbor woman at Rørhus, and exchanged it for her new-born child, since she too had recently given birth. He stated aloud that the exchange would last as long as their cowshed was standing.

Sigrid was taken back home, and the underground-man gave her a wooden box and a basket packed with sweets and food for her help with the huldre-woman.

Concerning the changeling given to Sigrid's neighbor woman: When he grew up he remained a true huldre-fellow who often had dealings with his companions -- saw them in broad daylight, conversed with them, and saw their cattle grazing near Rørhus. He saw how milking was done by the Huldre-people, how they prepared curdled milk, and so forth.

When the woman saw that he was completely preoccupied with the undergound people, she realized that he was a changeling, and she wanted to get her real son back from the underground people. She recalled the words that the Huldre-fellow had said when the exchange had taken place: that it would last as long as their cowshed was standing. Thus she had the cowshed burned down. The scurvy troll disappeared, and the Rørhus woman got her right child back.




Changelings

Norway

Exchanges and abductions are among the most common subjects of local legends.

There are supernatural beings who would like to exchange small children; these are usually called the underground people. They will come and take back their changeling child if one beats it severely, for they live close by and belong to the hidden people.

One should put some steel or a hymn book in a baby's cradle, especially before they are baptized. Otherwise the underground people can take the human child, replacing it with one of their own.

Such a changeling will reveal its origin by its old-man's face and its large head. If you have such a changeling lying in your cradle you must beat it with a birch switch three Thursday nights in succession, and that will bring forth the trolls. The underground mother will be moved by her child's screams and will bring the human child back to the cradle.


One day a woman's baby boy was taken from the cradle and a changeling put there in his place. It had the face of an old man, drank like a wolf, and could never be satisfied.

A neighbor woman advised that she should try to get him to talk, and if he did so, she should beat him with seven new brooms until no twig was left on them.

The woman sat down to weave at a loom in which there was no yarn. The changling lay still for a long time and staring at it. Finally he sat up in the cradle and asked what the mother was doing.

"Oh, I'm weaving a shirt out of nothing," said the woman.

"Now I have lived in seven woods (the time from when a tree sprouts until it dies of old age), but I have never seen anyone weave something from nothing," said the changeling.

Then the wife began to beat him with a broom until the twigs flew. She had worn two brooms naked and taken hold of the third. The changeling was screaming.

Then the trolls rushed in and threw her boy to her, saying, "There you have your ugly boy, let's take our poor fellow back again."


It is feared that the underground people also abduct adults. There are many reports that they lure away someone they are in love with and want to marry. If successful, the boy or girl will disappear, and they may be gone for a long time. Often the missing person does come back, but then he or she is usually quite strange or weird.

Thus on a farm in Skjerstad there was a half-grown boy named Lars, and he disappeared. But one day, when the people were doing field work, Lars was seen sitting near them with his back against a large rock. In his hand he was holding a flat stone slab and staring at it.

They took the stone slab and threw it away. Then the boy stopped crying. They had destroyed the catechism he had from the underground.

The priest was probably told where the boy had been, but he was too wise to tell what the boy had experienced with the underground people. The boy was now half-witted, as it often happens to the someone who has been taken away.




They Said She Was a Changeling

Norway

About the year 1720, Søren married Jesper Bekhus's daughter Asloug. With her he got the farm, and they were quite well off. However, Asloug was uglier than anyone, beyond measure ugly.

It was said that she was a changeling, and there was reason to believe this legend. As a child her mother had whipped her and on many a Thursday night had left her out on the manure pile. The child had screamed and carried on like a wild dog, but she had not been re-exchanged. Finally they thought that they might as well keep her as she was.

It was as the proverb states: "You cannot will beauty anymore than you can shit a lily."

Nevertheless, Søren and Asloug lived quite well together and had many children, most of whom died as infants.




Two Changeling Tales

Denmark

There lived once, near Tis Lake, two lonely people, who were sadly plagued with a changeling, given them by the underground people instead of their own child, which had not been baptized in time.

This changeling behaved in a very strange and uncommon manner, for when there was no one in the place, he was in great spirits, ran up the walls like a cat, sat under the roof, and shouted and bawled away lustily; but sat dozing at the end of the table when anyone was in the room with him.

He was able to eat as much as any four, and never cared what it was that was set before him; but though he regarded not the quality of his food, in quantity he was never satisfied, and gave excessive annoyance to everyone in the house.

When they had tried for a long time in vain how they could best get rid of him since there was no living in the house with him, a smart girl pledged herself that she would banish him from the house. She accordingly, while he was out in the fields, took a pig and killed it, and put it, hide, hair, and all, into a black pudding, and set it before him when he came home.

He began, as was his custom, to gobble it up, but when he had eaten for some time, he began to relax a little in his efforts, and at last he sat quite still, with his knife in his hand, looking at the pudding. At length, after sitting for some time in this manner, he began: "A pudding with hide! And a pudding with legs in it! Well, three times have I seen a young wood by Tis Lake, but never yet did I see such a pudding! The devil himself may stay here now for me!"

So saying, he ran off with himself, and never more came back again.


Another changeling was got rid of in the following manner:

The mother, suspecting it to be such from its refusing food, and being so ill-thriven, heated the oven as hot as possible. The maid, as instructed, asked her why she did it.

"To burn my child in it to death," was the reply.

When the question had been put and answered three times, she placed the child on the peel, and was shoving it into the oven, when the troll-woman came in a great fright with the real child, and took away her own, saying, "There's your child for you. I have treated it better than you treated mine," and in truth it was fat and hearty.




The Changeling and the Sausage

Denmark

In Rold Forest, near Hobro, there lived a married couple who had only one child, a boy of eight or nine years old, but he was no bigger than a child of three. He had a large head and thick speech, and was as ugly as sin, but neither the man nor the wife could see this, for of course everyone thinks well of their own children.

One harvest the man had a litter of little pigs, and as these were so cheap that year that it would not pay to sell them, they roasted them and ate them themselves. They wrapped them up in a piece of canvas, plastered this over with clay, and laid them in the glowing ashes, and when they were sufficiently roasted, they could flay canvas, clay and hair off them, and then take out the inside. This then made a beautiful roast, which they ate with great satisfaction.

One day they had laid one of the little pigs in the ashes to be cooked in this way, and had gone out to the harvest, leaving it to be ready when they came home again.

The child was left poking about at home, and in raking among the ashes he found the pig. At first he was greatly puzzled as to what this could be, but finally made up his mind that it was a sausage.

At this he was greatly delighted, leapt and sprang round the room, crying out, "Sausage, have you ears? Sausage, have you eyes? Sausage, have you a tail? I have lived so long that I have seen Rold Forest cut down twice and grow up thrice, but never have I seen such a sausage!"

He kept on shouting this and leaping about, till finally he crawled up on a rafter, and was sitting there repeating the same words, when the man and his wife came home.

The woman heard him and said, "Now I know why the child is never growing any bigger. He is a changeling, but I'll soon get rid of him."

She entered the house, and called to the little fellow to come down, as she wanted to talk to him. He did so, and she took him and gave him a good thrashing, and threw him out of doors. There he lay and howled at the top of his voice.

After a while there came an ugly little woman with a child on her arm, which she threw to the woman, saying, "There you have your youngster; I have been better to him than you have been to mine."

When she had said this she disappeared with the changeling, but the woman's own child was quite ruined by the troll-folk, and died soon after.




The Changeling and the Eggshells

Denmark

A woman's child was once changed by the troll-folk, and instead of a beautiful fair-haired child, she got a little dumpy creature, with a big head, and little eyes as black as coal.

The poor mother had recourse to a "wise woman," who gave her the following advice. She should first try whether the child was really a changeling, and if was so, she should threaten to throw it into the heated baking-oven, and then its real mother would come and take it away.

The woman therefore set the changeling down on the hearth, while she went about saying to herself that now she would start to brew. She then took seven eggshells filled with water, and set them on the fire beside the child, after which she hid herself near at hand, to see how the changeling would behave at this.

It looked long at the eggshells in which the water was boiling, and then exclaimed in amazement: "Long have I lived and much have I seen. I have seen Rold Forest seven times burned down, and seven times grow up again, but never have I seen anyone brew in eggshells."

The woman then came out of her hiding-place and said: "Then you are old enough now, you little troll! Into the oven you shall go."

But immediately there appeared a little grey female with the woman's child on her arm, which she gave her, while at the same time she seized the changeling and said, "I have never treated your child as you have treated mine!"




The Huldu-Folk in the Faroes

Faroe Islands

These are tall of stature; their clothes are all gray, and their hair black; they live in mounds and are also called "elves."

There is an "elf-howe" in northern Streymoy, south from Haldarsvik.

They live like other folk, go out to fish, and have sheep and cattle, which go in the pastures among other cattle. They can make themselves and their property invisible to mortal men, and hence it is often said, when one is searching for anything, that a "hulda has hid it."

They are eager to get children, who have not been baptised, taken out of the cradle, and to leave their own instead, but the latter remain mere idiots.

Little children, who go out alone, often disappear, carried off by the huldu-folk. Sometimes they are afterwards found far away from any habitation, and have then told that a big man brought them food while they were away.

Huldu-girls often fall in love with Christian men, and try then to tempt them, and draw them to themselves; if the men are out on the pastures, thirsty and tired, then the mound opens and the girl comes out to offer them ale or milk to drink. Unless they blow off the froth (for in that lies the charm), they forget everything as soon as they drink, the fairy gets power over them, and carries them off with her into her elf-howe.




The Father of Eighteen in Elvenhome

Iceland

At a certain farm, long ago, it happened that all the household were out one day, making hay, except the farmer's wife and her only child, a boy of four years.

He was a strong, handsome, lusty little fellow, who could already speak almost as well as his elders, and was looked upon by his parents with great pride and hope.

As his mother had plenty of other work to do besides watching him, she was obliged to leave him alone for a short time, while she went down to the brook to wash the milk pails. So she left him playing in the door of the cottage, and came back again as soon as she had placed the milk pails to dry.

As soon as she spoke to the child, it began to cry in a strange and unnatural way, which amazed her not a little, as it had always been so quiet and sweet tempered. When she tried to make the child speak to her, as it normally did, it only yelled the more, and so it went on for a long time, always crying and never would be soothed, till the mother was in despair at so remarkable a change in her boy, who now seemed to have lost his senses.

Filled with grief, she went to ask the advice of a learned and skillful woman in the neighborhood, and confided to her all her trouble.

Her neighbor asked her all sorts of questions: How long ago this change in the child's manner had happened? What his mother thought to be the cause of it? and so forth. To all of which the wretched woman gave the best answers she could.

At last the wise woman said: "Do you not think, my friend, that the child you now have is a changeling? Without doubt it was put at your cottage door in the place of your son, while you were washing the milk pails.

"I know not," replied the other, "but advise me how to find it out."

So the wise woman said: "I will tell you. Place the child where he may see something he has never seen before, and let him fancy himself alone. As soon as he believes no one to be near him, he will speak. But you must listen attentively, and if the child says something that declares him to be a changeling, then beat him without mercy."

That was the wise woman's advice, and her neighbor, with many thanks for it, went home.

When she got to her house, she set a cauldron in the middle of the hearth, and taking a number of rods, bound them end to end, and at the bottom of them fastened a porridge spoon. This she stuck into the cauldron in such a way that the new handle she had made for it reached right up the chimney.

As soon as she had prepared everything, she fetched the child, and placing him on the floor of the kitchen left him and went out, taking care, however, to leave the door ajar, so that she could hear and see all that went on.

When she had left the room, the child began to walk round and round the cauldron, and eye it carefully, and after a while he said: "Well! I am old enough, as anybody may guess from by beard, and the father of eighteen elves, but never in all my life, have I seen so long a spoon to so small a pot."

On hearing this the farmer's wife waited not a moment, but rushed into the room and snatching up a bundle of firewood flogged the changeling with it, till he kicked and screamed again.

In the midst of all this, the door opened, and a strange woman, bearing in her arms a beautiful boy, entered and said, "See how we differ! I cherish and love your son, while you beat and abuse my husband."

With these words, she gave back to the farmer's wife her own son, and taking the changeling by the hand, disappeared with him.

But the little boy grew up to manhood, and fulfilled all the hope and promise of his youth.




Elf-Women Steal Human Children

Iceland

One strange weakness in the character of the elf-women is their propensity to steal or change human children. They go to the cradles of young babies, and take with them their husbands, eighty years old, whom they knock, and kick, and squeeze until they are small enough to get into the cradle, whereupon the change takes place.

It is, therefore, a very dangerous thing to leave a child alone in the cradle, save one put the mark of the cross at least over or upon him; but the best plan is to place it both over and under the infant. Another plan, likewise, is to leave with the child a Bible, or a book of hymns, or some other religious work, which will effectually prevent any evil being or changeling from approaching the cradle.

As the cradle-child they leave behind is, in reality, nothing but an old man, toothless and hairless, the changeling will never cut teeth, nor will his hair grow. The finest children are the most sought for, and the most hideous oldling is put in their place. The temper of the changeling is unchangeable; he is always ill-humoured and naughty, and can be satisfied by no possible means.

The only way to get rid of such an one is to flog him so thoroughly that his cries may reach to the ears of his elfin consort or relative, who then will be sure to return the stolen child and rescue her own oldling from his torments .

Elves try in another way also to change children, namely, by charms. When human children happen to be left alone, in or out of doors in a farm, elf-women will often, putting on both form and dress of their mother, or someone whom they love, approach them in order to lure them away from home.

The faster the false mother runs, the faster the poor child will follow her, stretching forth its hands towards her, crying: "Take me, take me!"

These charmed children run always at a preternatural speed after the elfin-enticer; and when they are missed before they have yet got out of sight, it requires an almost more than human power to overtake them, and not the less so to bring them back to reason. Some have been lost completely, and have passed for good into the invisible world of the elves.




The Baby Cradle at Minni-Thverá

Iceland

Kristin, who was at Minni-Thverá between about 1830 and 1840 related the following:

Her mother was clairvoyant. In her youth she one day found herself in a meadow with Kristin's grandmother. She saw two women come out of some cliffs. Between them they were leading a man who was carrying something. As they approached they took what the man was carrying, and Kristin's mother saw that it was a cradle covered with something red.

Then the women took hold of the man and pressed against him until he shrank to the size of a small boy. Then they him up again and kneaded him until he was the size of a baby. Next they laid him in the cradle, covered him with the red cloth, and walked in the direction of the farmhouse.

The girl told her mother what she had seen. The mother hurriedly ran home, arriving there ahead of the elf-women. She had left her own child in front of the house. When the elf-women saw her there they picked up their child and pulled at him from all sides until he became as large as he had been before. Then they took the man back to the cliffs, where all three disappeared.




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Revised May 23, 2020.