How to Identify a Changeling


This week I finished reading The Hidden People by Alison Littlewood. It’s one of my favorite books; I loved its rich, creepy setting. I also appreciated that the ending allowed us to wonder if there might have been magic involved after all.

Because Changelings are the subject of this fantastic book, I decided to do a little digging into the topic myself. They have long fascinated me; I even tried to write about a Changeling. The character did not provide much aside from comic relief in the long run, but I remain fond of that story, the first one I took seriously.

If you’ve never heard about Changelings, you’re missing out on a great deal of fun! In many books they cause chaos and tragedy. One thing is for sure: They always bring magic with them.

Here are some characteristics that were once attributed to Changelings.

Is It My Kid?

A Changeling is a fairy child that was put in place of a human infant. Most legends say that it was done because fairies were unable to nourish their own children into strong adults. To compensate, they would give their offspring to unsuspecting humans. In turn, the human babies would be used by Changelings as servants.

Some attributes might give away the identity of a Changeling. The child left in place by the fairies may have red eyes and voracious appetites, losing their tempers if neglected for a moment. Disruptive children were sometimes called Changelings and kept in isolation.

Spirit of the Night, John Atkinson Grimshaw

An Aversion To Iron

Superstitious people believed iron could ward off fairies. You might find a pair of scissors hanging at a window to keep out dark spirits. Parents did this hoping that the iron would keep their children safe.

If a family member showed Changeling traits—a strange appetite or delight for destruction—the suspicious parent would crick them into grabbing some iron scissors. Iron would burn a Changeling, revealing their identity at once.

Scissors could also be placed over the door to a house. If the suspected Changeling felt apprehension going through the door, they would have to be removed.

How, though?

Study for The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, Joseph Noel Paton

Leave Eggshells About

Many stories claim these odious creatures have a strange reaction to eggshells. One could dispose of a suspected Changeling by leaving eggshells by the hearth. The Changelings found these eggshells hilarious. They would reveal themselves; your intruder will show himself by means of madness and laughter.

GotIreland.com tells this story about eggshells:

The old man told him that most likely the boy had been taken by the “Daoine Sith,” and they had left a “Sibhreach” in his place. Distraught, the father wondered if he’d ever see his son again. The old man instructed him to take several broken eggshells and fill them with water, then place them carefully around the hearth in the boy’s room. He did so, and within no time, the boy was jumping from his bed in a fit of laughter shouting, “I’ve been alive 800 years and have never seen the likes of this!” Hearing that, the father pushed the Changeling into the fire, and it shot up the chimney. The real boy was spit out from the Faerie mound nearby at that very moment, and the father and son were soon after reunited (taken from: J. F. Campbell, Popular Tales of the West Highlands, 1901).


Folklore shows how our ancestors explained strange phenomena and the bizarre ways in which they solved problems. Changelings make for good stories; The Hidden People was a fantastic novel and did the legend great justice!

While we now have more dignified explanations for strange behavior (and we don’t leave eggshells on the floor), it’s fulfilling to know the beliefs of those who came before us.

What is your favorite creature from mythology? I would love to know!