Define Me: The Role of Changelings in Folklore

by Mercedes M. Yardley

It’s human nature to take the inexplicable things in life and try to make sense out of it.  What are those eerie lights that dance around in the swamp at night?  They must be Will-o’-the Wisps, and will lead you astray if you chase after them.  What is the light that tears across the sky at during storms?  It is Zeus, throwing his lightning bolts in anger.

But sometimes the stories are darker and hit closer to home.  Here’s a common retelling of a familiar story.  Perhaps you know it.

Once upon a time there was a poor man and his wife who lived in the middle of the woods.  They had a beautiful little boy with blonde hair and strikingly blue eyes.  He was the light of their lives… and then something changed.

The boy wouldn’t coo. He wouldn’t look at his parents or at the pretty toys they dangled in front of him.  He shrank away from their touch as if it physically hurt him, couldn’t gag down his food, and began to scream.

Oh, how he screamed.

The old crone in the village came by to see the boy.  Her eyes narrowed.

“He’s a changeling,” she told the overwrought parents.  “He’s your child no more. Some other entity, be it gnome or troll or faerie, has spirited your child away and left one of their own in its place.”

While the mother wept, the father cursed the wicked changeling.  Then he asked, “We don’t want this monstrous thing. We want our own sweet son back. What should we do?”

The answer was simple.  Throw the changeling in the fire or in the oven.  Drown it in water.  Beat the devil out of it, burn it with hot metal, pour boiling liquid down its throat.  Let it know that it isn’t wanted.  Chase it away and hope the precious human child will be returned.

Sometimes, they said in the tales, you can chase the devil out.  But what if it isn’t the devil that you’re up against?

Nowadays, the changeling’s actions fit a different profile. Discomfort with touch, refusal to make eye contact.  These are typical behaviors often seen in individuals who have Autism Spectrum Disorder.  They may also be children who simply don’t develop normally, or have malformations, or a genetic syndrome.  My son has Williams Syndrome.  Besides heart problems, developmental delays, and unusual behaviors, children with Williams Syndrome tend to have highly stylized facial features, including tiny little noses, puffy cheeks, and sometimes pointed ears.  People who have WS are also known for their extremely cheery, gregarious nature, when they are feeling well.  When they are ill or anxious, which is often the case, they can fight and scream like a banshee.  Curiously enough, people with Williams Syndrome used to be called “Pixie People,” and there is a belief that they not only were considered some of the original “changelings,” but there are also studies done that suggest that people with WS added to the spritely look and personalities attributed to the common garden faerie.

It’s a neurological condition. Or perhaps a genetic condition. These things are brought about by vaccines, or flukes of nature, or two people whose DNA is incompatible.  Or maybe it’s too much noise, or a scare during pregnancy. Environmental factors? Pollution? Inhaling toxins and plastics?  Perhaps faeries switching out our fat, happy babies for sickly ones isn’t as far from our consciousness as we thought. Although the details change to better fit the times, we still tell ourselves stories as we try to tease out what is really happening.

After all, if it’s only a bedtime story, then it can’t be quite so horrible, can it?


Mercedes M. Yardley works for Shock Totem Magazine. She has been published in numerous anthologies and periodicals.  She is represented by Jason Yarn of Paradigm, and her first collection of short stories, Beautiful Sorrows, comes out in October of 2012.  For more information, stop by her website.