Monday, February 18, 2008


Ettina at Abnormaldiversity recently posted a link to an archive of changeling stories, including British, German and Scandinavian folk stories. The accompanying essay, by retired academic D.L. Ashliman, makes it clear that the changeling legends derive directly from the reality of disabled children:

We all want explanations for happenings that fall outside of our control, especially those that have a direct bearing on our welfare. It is only natural that our forebears wanted to know why some children fail to develop normally, and what our responsibilities are toward these handicapped individuals. The two stories quoted above are part of a vast network of legends and superstitions that give primitive but satisfying answers to these questions. These accounts -- which, unlike most fantasy tales, were actually widely believed -- suggest that a physically or mentally abnormal child is very likely not the human parents' offspring at all, but rather a changeling -- a creature begotten by some supernatural being and then secretly exchanged for the rightful child.

I've been interested in these and similar legends for a long time, partly because of my general interest in the weird, obscure or unexplained, and partly because of the disability connection; I think the first place I encountered the concept of "changelings" was in Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", which I studied at school when I was about 14. The original form of the changeling legend seems to be that of fairies, trolls or similar supernatural beings abducting a human child and replacing it with an "impostor" (which might be a fairy/troll child, a child-sized adult fairy, or an inanimate object enchanted to look like a child); these are obviously pre-Christian legends. In more strongly Christianised countries, particularly Germany, the fairies/trolls were often replaced by Satan or demons, and the alternative story of a woman being impregnated by a demon often introduced (which links the mythos to the sort of witch-persecution stuff discussed by Thomas Szasz in The Manufacture of Madness... posts on this book will be forthcoming, at some point). In some of the Celtic stories there is an attempt to reconcile the Christian and non-Christian aspects with the idea of Faerie owing a debt to Hell, which it had to pay with human sacrifices.

It's really obvious from quite a lot of the texts in the archive that the changeling legends originate from disabled children, to the extent that from some of them it's even possible to make a reasonable guess at the impairment, for example:

I [Scott's source] was prevailed upon myself to go and see a child, who, they told me, was one of these changelings, and, indeed, must own, was not a little surprised, as well as shocked, at the sight. Nothing under heaven could have a more beautiful face; but, though between five and six years old, and seemingly healthy, he was so far from being able to walk or stand, that he could not so much as move any one joint; his limbs were vastly long for his age, but smaller than any infant's of six months; his complexion was perfectly delicate, and he had the finest hair in the world. He never spoke nor cried, ate scarce anything, and was very seldom seen to smile; but if anyone called him a fairy-elf, he would frown, and fix his eyes so earnestly on those who said it, as if he would look them through.

This definitely sounds like a child with a congenital physical impairment - in fact, it reminds me of far too many news or "human interest" stories I've read of physically impaired kids, presumed to have no communication and therefore no understanding, being talked about right in front of them as "better off dead" and similar. If I was that kid, I'd have frowned too...

In the year 1565 in the village of Cüstrinichen in the New Mark Brandenburg, the wife of a peasant named of Andreas Prawitz gave birth to a child who was baptized with the name Matthias. The child originally appeared to be perfectly normal, but by the time it had reached the age of twenty it still lacked all reason, and had developed a repulsive appearance. And even though it reached the legal age of majority and had a beard upon its chin, it never learned to stand or to walk or even to speak. When it was hungry it just whimpered or bellowed. It could not move from one place to the next, and did nothing but eat and drink. Many people thought that it must be a killcrop or a changeling, of the kind that Luther discusses in his works.

This story contains no supernatural elements whatsoever, but quite clearly describes a person with a quite mundane impairment, perhaps either cerebral palsy or a "generalised" mental impairment.

Lots of the stories talk about a child suddenly losing the ability to speak, or crying incessantly, or eating huge amounts of food and never putting on weight, all of which point very plausibly to real-life impairments. The idea of children suddenly becoming "old" in appearance suggests conditions like progeria (although, IIRC, that's pretty rare, but theoretically it only takes one case to start a legend). Withered limbs suggest muscular dystrophy or one of many similar impairments. Failure to grow could indicate various hormonal conditions. Continual hunger and eating of non-food items suggests hyperphagia, typical of impairments such as Prader-Willi syndrome. Several of the German stories describe "changeling" children as having large, swollen heads, which suggests hydrocephalus. (The idea of a whole race of dwarf-like beings with huge heads reminds me of the modern US urban legend of the Melon Heads.)

The belief that a changeling would only live for a certain number (variously 7, 9, 18 or 20) years also suggests progressive impairments. The fact that many of the myths imply or outright state that being replaced by a changeling is something that only happens to boys (to the extent that dressing boys under a certain age in girls' clothing to "fool the fairies" was recommended as a preventative measure) is also interesting due to the number of impairments which only, or much more commonly, affect boys due to being X-chromosome linked (one of the best known being Duchenne muscular dystrophy - as an aside, X-linked disorders, including those fatal before birth, are the main reason for females usually making up slightly more and males slightly less than 50% of the population) - although, as Ashliman notes, patriarchal bias resulting in the idea that only male children would be "desirable" to a supernatural being could also play a role.

The heavy emphasis in several of the German stories in particular on the changeling eating huge amounts of food, and by doing so economically destroying the family and community, is particularly chilling considering the Nazi rhetoric of disabled people being "useless eaters". Martin Luther's account puts this link in particularly stark focus:

Eight years ago [in the year 1532] at Dessau, I, Dr. Martin Luther, saw and touched a changeling. It was twelve years old, and from its eyes and the fact that it had all of its senses, one could have thought that it was a real child. It did nothing but eat; in fact, it ate enough for any four peasants or threshers. It ate, shit, and pissed, and whenever someone touched it, it cried. When bad things happened in the house, it laughed and was happy; but when things went well, it cried. It had these two virtues. I said to the Princes of Anhalt: "If I were the prince or the ruler here, I would throw this child into the water--into the Molda that flows by Dessau. I would dare commit homicidium on him!" But the Elector of Saxony, who was with me at Dessau, and the Princes of Anhalt did not want to follow my advice. Therefore, I said: "Then you should have all Christians repeat the Lord's Prayer in church that God may exorcise the devil." They did this daily at Dessau, and the changeling child died in the following year.... Such a changeling child is only a piece of flesh, a massa carnis, because it has no soul.

400 years later the same thinking led directly to Action T4, the extermination of disabled people that was the prototype for the Holocaust - an uncomfortable fact for those who portray the Nazi regime as a unique, singular horror rather than as part of a long tradition of European (and very often Christian) bigotry and dehumanisation of all those considered "Other", which is still alive and well today. Luther's massa carnis is the direct ancestor of the Nazis' Ballastexistenz (which, of course is the origin of the name of Amanda's blog) and leeren Menschenhülsen (empty human-shaped shells/husks).

This poem, from 1904, is also particularly disturbing to me in its depiction of a child supposedly replaced by a changeling as "dead", with her "replacement" as something entirely inhuman and impossible for a parent to love (without any reason given in the poem for this, except that "it" "smiles as she never smiled") - see Jim Sinclair's article "Don't Mourn For Us".

When "changeling" children aren't physically abnormal, the difference from the child they "replaced" is mental - a child who previously was intelligent, outgoing and talkative (in many versions, more so than average, to the point of being regarded with particular pride for it) stops talking altogether, "forgets" learnt skills, or becomes emotionally "disturbed", for example stopping smiling or starting to cry constantly. This is irresistibly reminiscent of the so-called "regression" supposedly experienced by autistic children, in which skills can appear to be "lost", children who were "verbal" become "non-verbal", etc (there are several good deconstructions of the concept of "regression" by autistic people online, although i can't find any of them right now... edit: here's one). (Luther's mention that "whenever someone touched it, it cried" is particularly strongly reminiscent of the sensory defensiveness and overload of many autistic people, including myself as a child).

This apparent sudden change in abilities and behaviour in many autistics at a particular age is the source of more modern equivalents to the changeling myth, such as the (totally unverified, and unlikely to ever be verified) claims that autism is "caused" by vaccines, metal poisoning, bad diet, etc. MMR and mercury have become the modern "fairies" or "demons" to blame for "taking away" a child in this updated, but depressingly similar, form of age-old quackery.

Autism Demonized (which seemingly hasn't been updated in almost a year, hence its non-inclusion in my blogroll) has quite a bit of stuff about this subject, and Amanda Baggs has posted about the falseness of the idea of "regression" and its similarity to changeling stereotypes here.

The methods advocated in the legends for "restoring" the "original" child also bear a remarkable, and scary, resemblance to the kinds of methods advocated by various present-day quacks to parents of autistic children to "cure autism" (and doubtless similar for other impairments); they fall into the categories either of threatened or actual violence towards the child, or of tricking the child into revealing its "true nature" by demonstrating physical and/or cognitive abilities which it has been supposedly hiding from its parents. The method of actual return is usually left rather vague and unconvincing, often seemingly taking the form of an instantaneous re-appearance of the "normal" child. As the tales often take the form of "how-to" instructions, there's a strong resemblance to the unproven claims made by various practitioners of supposedly "cured" children, which are about as far from reality as fairy stories.

Even in a modern retelling of the myth by Selma Lagerlöf (also linked to by Ettina), in which it is the mother's kindness which results in the restoration of the human child, there are disturbing implications - the mother's conflicted feelings including a desire to kill the child are validated, and the "troll" changes from a demonic antagonist to an outcast, "inferior" creature who "naturally", on seeing a human child, regards it as much more beautiful and desirable than her own - and, of course, the restoration of the "original" child is the reward, the happy ending. Although this version seems to be less consciously disability-related than the original myths, it still has parallels with disablist narratives such as the "refrigerator mother" theory of autism.

This depiction of "trolls" as a flesh-and-blood race living alongside humans reminds me of one piece of anthropological speculation about fairy, brownie, pixie etc legends that particularly intrigues me - the idea that legends of nonhuman but roughly humanoid sentient races could originate from different-looking groups of humans or closely related hominids encountering each other in the past. In particular, Celtic legends of the "Fair Folk" are often argued to be derived from memories of a pre-Celtic indigenous ethnic group (which would presumably have been either exterminated or assimilated at some point) - but a "fringe" theory is that stories of "brownies", "pixies" etc come from actual survivals of small, relict populations of such people into mediaeval or even early modern times (the word "pixie" is possibly derived from the Picts, a pre-Celtic British ethnic group).

This has been used plenty of times in fiction, one particularly gripping horror version being John Buchan's "No Man's Land", in which the "Picts" have become a troglodyte race who abduct women to breed with, depicted as a classic horror "Other". If something like this was true (which is baseless speculation, of course), then one possible origin for changeling "myths" could be such a relict group having a high incidence of congenital impairments due to inbreeding, and actually swapping their disabled children for "healthy" children from the mainstream culture... well, it's unlikely, but when i came up with the idea in a drunken late-night conversation one friend actually thought it was plausible...

(I could write a post much longer than this one on "Diversity as Horror"... but not right now. I've also written about the similarities between the ways disabled people and indigenous peoples seen as "primitive" have been treated here... and probably will return to that subject fairly soon...)

I'm sure there was other stuff i was going to work into this post when i started it 4 hours ago, but as it's somehow already got well over 2000 words, I'll stop. I'd love to know if there's any more research about this sort of stuff out there, tho...


lastcrazyhorn said...

Methinks that your post is going into my file of best posts I've ever read . . .

shiva said...

Hey, thanks :)

I was feeling a bit despondent actually after writing a 2000 word post and getting no replies, especially as there were at least 3 people who i thought would be almost certain to reply to it... so you made me feel quite a bit happier this morning :)

lastcrazyhorn said...

Yay! Not only that, but I told everyone to go visit you in my post today. :)

Anonymous said...

Try M.L. von Franz. She's a Jungian who was into folk tales and legends, and what they have to impart about the "other." We project onto such things the characteristics that we suppress or reject in ourselves - the shadow of our own personality.

It's an interesting (and chilling) addition to your interesting analysis. Basically, normals are horrified by the "changeling" because he/she represents things that are the rejected part of themselves. A living, breathing representation of what we are ashamed to be.

Nice post!

Ettina said...

Excellent post. I'm not so sure about the 'other hominids' theory though. Seems kind of far-fetched. On a tangent, there's a theory that many of the tales of wolves eating people came from experiences with the now-long-extinct 'dire wolves', who were big enough that it's quite likely they did eat people.

shiva said...

It's known that modern humans coexisted with Homo neanderthalensis in Europe and with Homo floresiensis in Indonesia. The former was (IIRC) about 50,000 to 30,000 years ago and the latter as recently as 12,000 years ago.

Also, it doesn't necessarily have to be different species - present day European, African and East Asian people all look different enough from each other that if someone had grown up not knowing anyone outside their own ethnic group even existed (as presumably was the case in many periods of (pre)history), then one day met someone from a different ethnic group who was significantly shorter or taller, had totally different hair type, skin colour and facial features from anyone they had ever seen, they could quite possibly see them as either another species or a supernatural being...

Not sure about the wolves bit, as dire wolves (Canis dirus) only lived in North America, and most of those folk tales about wolves originated from Europe. Could well have influenced Native American legends (of which i'm fairly ignorant), i guess...

Oh yeah, after writing that part of the post i read some more stories hosted at strangeark.com with the same theme - the 3 by Arthur Machen, of which "The Novel of the Black Seal" (actually a longish short story, not a novel) actually mentions the changeling legend, and features a hybrid human/"fairy" boy with epilepsy and a mental impairment...

the cat in the hat said...

most excellent post, lots of intriguing ideas. Thanks for sticking through all 2000+ words, each one was worth it!
I strongly identify with the Neanderthal hypothesis. it gives me a chill of recognition. more research needed, and old "folktales" are a great place to look!

Elizabeth McClung said...

Very interesting: I agree that many of the changling or even "wildling" or feral children stories are really creating and "other" to seperate those with disabilities from the general population. I am sort of slap-up-side the head I had not made the connection before. There is another catagory, which are the feral or "viscious" chidren which were probably ASD with extreme sensitivity (babies who would strike or bite at 1 or two when picked up - hence, demon or switched children) - also SMA, the second most common hereditary birth defect (1 in 10,000-25,000), is X carried.

I do believe that women were labeled but usually more regarding the mind, and usually later - there are accounts of females who were "addled" or "Simple" but were often described as angels or heaven sent as they spend the day picking flowers - (VOMIT!). However, once you hit puberty, then there is a whole host of ailments special to women usually to do with the imbalance of the mind (like the imbalance of hormones which makes them hysterical, or go MAD!) - but that is another subject for another day.

The British fiction of the pulp period has a LOT of that kind of "Evil Other" - look at the Black Gang title where our villian is a "hunchback Jew communist albino" - now that is a combo - I did enjoy this peice a lot, especially the connnect the dots aspect.

I do feel the need to point out that Action T4 was inspired by American and Canadian programs though taken a step further - one of the more successful and well known (At the time) was the Alberta Eugenics Board, which was created by feminists including my relation (by marriage) the sufferagette, Nellie McClung. Also, because the staff would get depressed after killing children they changed the T4 program so there was a party after each 50th child killed. More of a staff incentive then. Ironically, the T4 program created much of the motivation models that are used in many home care and caregiving organizations today. Just thought it a nice tie in.

Ettina said...

I get what you mean now, like the way Scandanavian 'trolls' look suspiciously like caricatures of Finnish people.

Brigid Keely said...

This is an old post, but I came upon it and really liked it.