22-Feb-2007 Filed in: Folklore
Changelings (Danish skifting, Swedish byting/bortbyting)
The oldest known picture of a changeling is the following church painting from the 14th century in Skamstrup church, Northwestern Zealand, Denmark, where the mother in the lower left corner finds a changeling in the cradle while the troll sits in the tree with her baby:
A more well-known version of the same situation is the following illustration by Th. Kittelsen:
The changeling myth is found in all cultures and was probably used for explaining various diseases. See this blog for more information.
It was not always easy to recognise a troll child as trolls didn't look very different (in original folklore), but they usually ate and drank more than human children and some never learnt to speak and stayed in bed all the time. One way of getting rid of a changeling was by cooking less food for him than he required, eg. porridge in an eggshell. Another way was by treating the changeling very badly (eg. by throwing him on the dunghill, beating him or putting him in the oven as if to bake him - like in Selma Lagerlõf's story The Changeling wheretroll mother returns just in the nick of time to save its child and reminds the humans that it never treated the human baby this badly, thus having a moral advantage over humans.
To avoid having your child stolen/swapped by the trolls you could put lit candles at the cradle. Another way was to put an object of iron or steel above the door that led into the child's room. The best way, however, was to baptise the child - and the sooner the better. Though the church rejected any belief in trolls and other supernaturals, the Changeling myth also functioned to remind people of the strength of the church. In ordinary people's minds there may not have been a contradiction between being a Christian and believing in trolls.
Why did trolls steal human babies? There are two reasons for this. One was, that the stolen children developed an invisible shield, so they could return to the humans' houses and steal food and tools for the trolls without being discovered. This reason is often found in Denmark and Southern Sweden. Another reason is that the trolls are simply attracted to humans and want to be closer to us. According to Icelandic stories, by mixing with us they hope to gain a soul.
Several writers have dealt with changelings, the most famous being Selma Lagerlöf. Recently, Danish writer Charlotte Weitze wrote a short story ("Skiftingen", 2003) about a young Danish woman who realises she is really a changeling, but that now her troll grandparents don't want her in their world either. She has become too much of a human!