On Changelings and Stolen Children

I just discovered Untangling Tales a new (to me) blog about storytelling, fables, and fairytales via a comment lift by the blogger in a recent thread at Words, words.

She links to an interesting essay about changelings in European folklore, especially the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm. I’m familiar, of course, with the changeling child as a motif in literature, especially as it appears in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Yeats’ poem, “The Stolen Child” and in other Irish fairy tales; but I hadn’t thought of the belief in changelings from a sociological perspective before.

The article has some fascinating insights into the way a belief in changelings and the stories about changelings act as a coping mechanism for parents who had disabled, disfigured, or retarded children. The superstition allowed parents to do the unthinkable, killing their own children, by telling themselves that the child they killed was not their own, was not even human but the child of fairies or demons. (Of course we have an analogous myth today, that the unborn child is not human but a lump of tissue, a clump of cells. That unscientific superstition lets mothers off the hook when they do the unthinkable and kill their own unborn children.)

I can certainly see how in a subsistence economy when a family may just be scraping by during hard years and everyone, even young children, must work or there will not be enough food for the family, having a severely handicapped child who is unable to work would be an especial hardship that could endanger everyone’s survival. That harsh reality makes the changeling stories an understandable, if unfortunate, safety valve. An interesting historical note was that many Catholic clergy supported the belief that killing such children was morally acceptable.

The article also highlights another aspect of the changeling folklore, though, that I wasn’t previously aware of: that the stories also provided some protection for mothers and newborn children. Evidently children were thought to be most at risk during the first six weeks of life and the stories warned that the child must be constantly with it’s mother indoors so that it would be safe from the spirits. The benefit of this legend was that it forestalled any expectation of the mother doing hard work outside of the home during the crucial bonding period when the mother is recovering from labor and mother and child are bonding and establishing nursing.

She also linked to a couple of interesting poems about changeling children. I especially liked this one by Whittier about a mother who thinks her daughter is a changeling and is ready to lay her in the hearth and then her husband prays and she’s cured of her insanity. A nice twist to the traditional legend and a rare happy ending.

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