A non-human child that has been left in the place of a stolen human child. The old superstition was that young children could be abducted by fairies before they were baptized, and in those days children were watched carefully until that ceremony was over.
It was believed that the fairies exchanged their own frail children for the healthy children of human women. The children left behind, the changelings, were always malformed, stunted, or mentally ill but sometimes they were wise beyond their years and spoke of things beyond the understanding of children.
A mother who suspected her child of being a changeling could trick him by performing a remarkable task such as pretending to prepare an entire meal in an empty eggshell. This would cause the changeling to give himself away by uttering something similar to the following words:
Acorns before the oak I knew;
An egg before a hen;
Never one hen's egg-shell stew
Enough for harvest men!
There are many such sayings from many places, another version goes:
Long have I lived and much have I seen.
I have see the Rold Forest burned down,
and seven times grow up again,
but never have I seen anyone brew in egg-shells.
Then the mother would threaten to punish him for knowing too much, and as a result the fairies would return her own child to her.
If a fairy is caught in the act of stealing a child, the mother can halt the abduction by calling on the help of God. To prevent an abduction she could lay a Bible beneath the child's crib. Strangely, hanging the father's pants on the wall has the same preventive effect, but the best preventative remains baptism.
Occasionally older children and even adults are led away to fairyland and never seen again.
Also known as plentyn-newid or change-child.
See Also: Creatures by Type » Fairies, Shapeshifters
Beach, Frederick Converse, & Rines, George Edwin (ed.). The Encyclopedia Americana. The Americana company, 1903.
Craigie, William Alexander. Scandinavian Folk-lore. London: Alexander Gardner, 1896.
Sikes, Wirt. British goblins: Welsh folk-lore, fairy mythology, legends and traditions. London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle & Rivington, 1880.
Image: Fussli, Johann Heinrich (1741 - 1825). Der Wechselbalg, (The Changeling), 1780.