A changeling is a supernatural creature left behind in place of an abducted human infant. The most common perpetrators of this offence are thought to be the fair folk (or, in Scandinavia, trolls) … although medieval Europeans also tended to blame The Devil, hags or witches as well.
Sometimes the changeling was nothing more than a fetch - a simacularum made of twigs and leaves that would sicken and die after a few months and turn back to its original constituents not long after burial. In some ways, this might have been thought the kindest form of changing, considering some of the alternatives.
The alternatives included faeries passing off senile or deformed members of their own people on humans, or impersonating the child simply for the pleasure of tormenting mortals - these changelings either died, failed to grow up or grew up as deformed monsters. Of course ugly equals evil was occasionally subverted and the changeling might yet grow up to become a contributing member of society. Generally they didn't, and the more malevolent sorts of changeling were likely to flee when detected - or at least when challenged with cold iron or equivalent remedies. On occasion they could be held hostage for the return of the abducted baby, but this was not gauranteed to work. Less malevolent (and ugly) changelings might simply pass for human as long as they could - sometimes even into adulthood - but were often detected and forced to flee due to their inability to keep in character as a human, even when raised as one.
Motives for changing a child also seem to vary - sometimes a senior faerie is unable to have a child of their own and steals a human one, passing off an adult fae as a replacement, or the faeries have some other positive desire for a human child (for example to counteract inbreeding in their own population, or overcome the traditional lack of genuine emotions or creativity attributed to their kind). In other cases, the fae are more interested in dumping their own social problems on the humans (this could overlap with the "needs new blood" - they swap a deformed, inbred faerie child for a healthy human one), or, worse yet, desire the human child as a slave, sacrifice (some medieval legends suggested that the fae paid a tithe of souls to Hell) or foodstuff. Witches and demons would also desire the soul of an unbaptised child, and could still use a baptised child for various forms of magic. Less malevolent fae might also simply want to steal the child's identity to experience life as a human - although as noted above this often didn't end well. The seelie/unseelie distinction may become very important here.
Protecting a child from being changed could be achieved in a number of ways - iron, naturally, was considered effective by many cultures, but bread in the swaddling clothes was also said to work, as do other wards against faeries. Europeans traditionally held with infant baptism as a protective measure, and other cultures had other methods, including giving children deceptive names (or no names at all) until they were too old to interest the fae.
Child changing seems to occur in many cultures worldwide and in most continents … almost as if there was something going on to trigger such a shared belief. Prosaically, this is likely to be a combination of various forms of infant mortality (mostly the fetches, who die quickly and vanish when buried1) and various congential illnesses (the deformed, strange and generally "not normal" ones).
Game and Story Use
- Child changing can be a useful part of a character's background:
- A hatred of the fair folk, who stole a child or sibling.
- Being a former abducted child, raised for a time by the fae - either as a beloved child, honoured guest, treasured pet or abused slave.
- Being an actual changeling, abandoned by your fae parents for whatever reason or deliberately passing as a human for your own motives.
- Being the half-human offspring of a changeling that passed for human into adulthood.
- Fae blood may be used to explain magical powers in a setting where these need some kind of unusual background to justify them.
- Great in a modern setting, where social services are far too smart to believe a mother who claims that her child isn't her child anymore.
- PCs could be hired to retrieve an abducted child.
- Time passes at a different rate in faerieland - last night's baby might well be a full grown adult tomorrow.
- This may be a good way of turning a baby (say, the child of a dead PC) into a playable character.