Fae Abduction or Family Secret: What Is a Changeling?

Changelings are fairy tricksters predominantly found in Celtic folklore. Their reported encounters with humans have been the subject of superstition for centuries.

May 23, 2024By Lauren Jones, MA Creative Writing, BA English


Changelings have been described in myth and historical writings for centuries. They have usually been portrayed as evil, cunning or mischievous. The typical tales describe the impact on human families when their child is stolen and swapped for a fairy one: a changeling. What is intriguing is that the changeling myth has roots in a wide range of historical, religious, and cultural contexts. Furthermore, there are some shocking cases of ‘changelings’ being the cause of real crimes.


Fairies Swapped with Human Babies

richard dadd puck fairy painting
Puck by Richard Dadd, 1841. Source: artuk.org


The word ‘changeling’ first appears in the 1550s as ‘one given to change.’ A decade later the definition expanded to ‘a person or thing left in place of one secretly taken. Finally, ‘specific reference to an infant or young child (usually stupid or ugly) supposedly left by the faeries in place of one they took, appears in the 1580s. It is this habit of stealing a human child and replacing it with a fairy one that has become the most well-known characteristic of changelings in literature, art, and folklore. 


Changelings Are Mostly Found in Celtic Folklore

richard dadd contradiction oberon titania fairy painting
Contradiction: Oberon and Titania by Richard Dadd, 1854-58. Source: Victorian Web


Fairies, fey or elves have a long tradition in Celtic history. This is evident by the common explanation for stone circles and hill forts being ‘fairy rings’. A recurring tale in such folklore is that of fairies leaving changelings in place of the desired human child. So, who was at risk? Particularly beautiful and able-bodied babies were most likely to be stolen. New mothers were warned about ‘over looking’ (in other words being over protective or jealous) as this would put the baby in danger of being kidnapped by fairies. 


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For the humans left with the changeling child, there were a few strategies they could deploy to win their human child back. These varied from shocking the changeling into speech by boiling eggshells, to the more frightening prospect of putting the changeling child on the fire. In some tales, the changeling child would be an elderly fairy brought into the human world to die. Traces of this prevalent folklore can still be found today, for example the modern Irish girls’ name Siofra means changeling child. 


They Have Links to Christian Beliefs

martin luther 95 theses
Luther hammers his 95 theses to the door by Ferdinand Pauwels, 1872. Source: Wikimedia Commons


As a powerful figure of the Reformation, Martin Luther expressed his fear of changeling children as ‘children of Satan’. The terrifying consequence being that parents who were unhappy with their child (possibly due to deformity or behavioral problems) were church sanctioned to abuse or even kill their offspring if they suspected it of being a changeling, because the baby was ‘only a piece of flesh.’  Luther’s thoughts on changelings may have served as church propaganda since unbaptized children were believed to be more vulnerable. This damaging belief may have been responsible for many child murders during the Reformation and beyond.


Myths May Have Medical and Historical Causes

daniel mytens charles i oliver cromwell
Charles I, King of England, by Daniel Mytens. Source: The Royal Collections Trust


The recurring theme of ‘perfect’ human children being replace with ‘ugly’, sick or disabled changeling children perhaps hints that the changeling myth was created as a way of explaining how parents could rid themselves of ‘less desirable’ children. In other words, the changeling myth sometimes gave an excuse for infanticide. This theory is further supported by common descriptions of changeling children having ravenous appetites, with their (often poor) families fretting over the survival of the whole family. 

An alternative explanation may be that those who suspected a loved one had been replaced with a fairy could have been suffering from Capgras Syndrome. This is the delusional belief that an identical imposter has replaced a loved one. 

Some notable examples of historical figures suspected of being changelings include King Charles I due to his “peevish nature” as a child. A suspected changeling plot could even be said to be a catalyst for the Glorious Revolution. 


Infamous Cases of ‘Changelings’

bedpan baby glorious revolution
Prince of Great Britain, artist unknown. Source: National Library of Scotland


There have been two infamous cases from 19th century Ireland that demonstrate the devastating real-world consequences of belief in changelings. The first is the sad account of 4-year-old Michael Leahy, a child from Tralee, County Kerry in 1826. Due to him being unable to stand or speak, the community began to suspect he’d been swapped with a changeling. Therefore, a local ‘wise woman’ oversaw his drowning in the supposed belief that the real child would return. 


Later, in 1895, another Irish victim, this time a 26-year-old woman named Bridget Cleary, became the victim of local suspicion. Bridget had been ill at the time of her death. Her husband, Michael Cleary, became convinced that his wife had been taken by fairies and that the ill Bridget was a changeling. He, along with several members of her family, were charged with murder after Bridget’s burned body was found in a shallow grave. Michael Cleary’s defense throughout his trial was that he truly believed he was driving the changeling away with fire to bring his real wife home.

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By Lauren JonesMA Creative Writing, BA EnglishLauren is a qualified teacher and writer with an academic background in theatre (Shakespeare), folklore and creative writing. She is also a travel writer and guide. Together with her husband she curates the travel website https://twohumansandadog.com. Lauren writes, explores and teaches full time always looking for the next adventure.