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Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Changeling

My husband Karl, was born in Finnskogen, by the Swedish border. His grandmother was Finnish. 
One time, she found something to be strange with one of her children. All he did was to cry, day in an day out. And he didn’t cry as other children. He bellowed, like a changeling. The weeks went by, and she got more and certain that her own child had been swopped, and a troll mother must had done it. To make the hag to reverse the swop, she followed an old advice that came to mind; she took a soft whip, and whipped the child, three Thurday nights in a row. When she had finished this procedure on the third night, a hag came to her doorstep with a baby under her arm. Enraged, she threw the child across the floor, and grabbed to her the other one. Then she said:  
”You may have abused our child, but we have treated yours kindly, you cow.”  
And on that note, she finally got back her child!
As told by Ragndi Moen

The mother was a vital caregiver for the child in the crib, especially when the child was still to be baptized. At any unguarded moment, invisible forces would grab the chance to damage or interchang it. In this drawing by Theodor Kittelsen from 1887, the woman by the spinning wheel has fallen asleep.

The folk belief regarding the interchanging of children by the subterraneans is prevalent and old – in Norse times, the changeling was called vixlingr and skiptingr – and was most likely founded on the physical fact that a seemingly healthy and normal child could change drastically over a short period of time, and develop abnormal features. The portrayals often include the child having a big head, yellow and sallow complexion, "old man's face", bulging eyes, long hands and short feet and pointy teeth. Being "hungry as a watchdog," crying day and night, the changeling was described as a obstinate and imbecile being, and a slow learner, whether it came to walking, reading or talking.

Contemporary medicine would most likely recognize symptoms of jaundice, rickets, atrophy (muscle wasting) and other defects caused by heredity and malnutrition. But for people without this medical knowledge, the "healing" simply consisted in getting rid of the changeling as soon as possible, in order to get the “rightful” child in return. The treatment performed to attain such, was nothing less than horrible; among the many tricks in the book were to pretend to throw the child in the oven, pinch his nose with red-hot irons, and whipping him naked on a pile of garbage three Thursday evenings in a row. The idea was of course to frighten and abuse the poor creature to such a degree that the child’s “real” mother would feel sorry for him and reverse the switch.

The legends recounting stories about elderly changelings prove however that this procedure was far from effective. At worst, they could be hundreds of years old, it was said. But it was never too late to get them out of the house. Did you could just lure them to talk and reluctantly divulge their age, they were exposed and made ready to die. The more outrageous the attempts were, the greater was the chance to fool them.

A legend from Southern Norway, tells the story of an elderly changeling; the household put forward for him a huge pot of just a tiny bit of porridge in it, yet as many spoons as they could muster.

Then he said: "I'm older than the mountains, and as gray as a scythe, but never have I seen so great a barrel and so little food and so many spoons before!" Then they knew that he was a changeling.

On a farm in Eastern Norway they pretended to they brew ale in an eggshell. But when the old man awoke and saw this, he burst out laughing:

"No, now I have been around for so long, that I've seen the old forest burn down and grow up again to seven times, but never have I seen anyone brew beer in an eggshell."

Then, someone asked. "Are you finished?"

"Yes, "replied the old man. At the blink of an eye he was gone, and there were only a crumbling bone remaining. "

In a contemporary perspective, the tales about the changeling are by far some of the most brutish and heartbreaking ever told. To discard and even torment a child for being different, is for most people (fortunately) impossible to understand. Reading tales such as these therefore makes it important to comprehend the way of thinking which existed in the old rural community. It is reasonable to assume that the changeling in many ways may be a personified reincarnation of something painful and unsuccessful in the family, a longstanding curse that people sought to protect themselves against, literary by all means.

When she woke up again she was lying on the moss in the forest.
"The Changeling", watercolor painting by John Bauer (1913).
Norwegian poet Haldis Moren Vesaas (1907-1995) wrote a poem about the changeling that might be easier to relate to than the old legends. For many a parent, it might sometime be difficult to remain loving and caring towards a screaming, defiant child (let’s be honest here). This poem however, speaks of loving your child no matter how tired you are. For the changeling and the sweet, gentle child is the same, but sometimes it feels as if your little angel has been replaced with a nasty, vicious troll that nobody likes. Besides you of course - for a parents' love is, in the end, unconditional.
Rockabye rockabye big, ugly child,
troll is your surname, no doubt.
The hugest boiler is in use as we speak,
no less, to silence your trout

The cradle you lie in will soon be too small,
this hardship sure takes its toll
You are heavy, so heavy, and the night is so long,
for she who must cradle a troll

All that see you, give me advice,
that I should torment you, kick and toss.
Then they will come for you, and I can get back
the long lost child I’ve lost

Rockabye changeling, big and foul
Please, keep the fear at bay
I will not hit you, trust me on that,
and no one shall take you away

The other, the cutie, can stay where she is
While you, who is hated so deep,
needs me to love and care for you
And look! Now you’ve fallen asleep


  • Ørnulf Hodne, Norsk Folketro, Cappelen 1999
  • Norsk Folkeminnesamling. ml5085 - Byttingen. Id: SIN373 Sted: Nord-Aurdal, Oppland. Informant: Ragndi Moen. Samler: Knut Hermundstad

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