Changelings in World Mythology

I’m wrapping up Fae-tastic Fridays on my blog. Though I may occasionally share something more Fae-related here it won’t be on a regular basis… after one last series of awesome blog posts, that is. Some of the contributors to Fae have come together and written an awesome series of blog posts about changelings. Even better, they’ve given me permission to share them here, on my blog.

The first such post is this one, Changelings in World Mythology by Kristina Wojtaszek. As the title suggests, Kristina seeks to educate us about the various ways changelings have been represented around the world. Enjoy!

Changelings in World Mythology

by Kristina Wojtaszek

Europe is well known as the hub of fairy mythology, and the changeling myth is one popular native. But just as various animal species can adapt similar forms, myth often undergoes its own convergent evolution across cultures. It makes one wonder whether the changeling myth might have sprung up elsewhere. After all, fairies share many malicious kin around the globe. There are the Islamic djinn, the aziza of Africa, the mogwai of China and Native American jogah to name just a few. But while many types of specters are well versed in deceiving mortals, not all of them have specialized in the cruel art of kidnapping. And kidnapping is the very soul of the changeling myth, though it isn’t the only defining factor.

The shape-shifting kitsune from Japan, for example, may trick, possess, drown, interbreed with, and even kidnap humans. Similarly, Brazillian encantados may shift from the shape of a river dolphin to human form (often with a hat to cover their blowhole and/or bulbous forehead) to seduce and potentially kidnap men, women or children. Stories about them are vaguely reminiscent of selkies. However, while a selkie or kitsume may kidnap their human-born children and return with them to homes in another realm, and while an encantado may drag an unsuspecting victim into the depths of its inhuman, underwater world, they aren’t well known for sacrificing one of their own to take the place of the kidnapee. Even rarer is the example of these spirits leaving an object behind as a human replacement. This, it seems, is an important factor in the changeling myth; the changing of places and/or the presence of a “stock.”

A stock, or fetch, is an enchanted object (often little more than a piece of wood) left in place of the person kidnapped. As with all fairy enchantments, the glamour only lasts so long, and the supposed living person will soon reveal itself to be little more than a mundane object, or will grow ill and die (because it was never really alive). In the case of changing places, the replacement left is a living fairy. An old or sick fairy may be left, accounting for the sudden aging and illness of the changeling, or a perfectly healthy citizen of fairydom may be sacrificed, as we sometimes see with fairy infants taking the place of human babes. Regardless, after someone is taken, it always follows that someone or something is left. This is a theme that fits in well with the kind of fairy justice found in European folklore; there are rules for everything, but that doesn’t mean those rules are entirely fair, especially in regards to humans.

Now that we’ve narrowed the definition, we suddenly find that the cross cultural relations of changelings have drastically dwindled. Still, there are a few out there, and they are striking in resemblance to their European cousins. The aswangs are one such species. In Filipino folklore the aswangs are shape shifters that can take the form of an animal by night, but by day live as everyday villagers. While in animal form, they travel to other villages where they hunt fetuses, babies and small children, as well as corpses to eat. They can become thin enough to hide behind a single stalk of bamboo, and some say they have an insect-like proboscis for reaching children from a distance, or stripping the unborn from a mother’s womb. When they are finished with this gruesome task, they often leave behind plant matter or a tree trunk as a duplicate of the victim (or victim’s body in the case of cadavers). According to belief, if your neighbor is quite shy and reserved and often has blood shot eyes from being up all night, he or she could well be a blood thirsty aswang. Occasionally these suspected killers are even hunted down and put to death. While European fairy thieves don’t usually spend their lives in human form and are less likely to have the same nasty appetites, the similarity between plant matter or tree trunks and stocks of wood are too obvious to deny.

Another species held responsible for the death of young infants and the unborn haunts the Igbo people of eastern Nigeria. The ogbanje, or sometimes called abiku, are actually the spirits of children that have died (the term abiku can also refer to the spirit that caused the child’s death). Comparatively, it is not unusual in European fairy lore for fairies to be no more than ghosts, and some are even recognized as friends or relatives by humans who have been taken to (or have stumbled upon) the fairy realm. The African ogbanje are blamed for multiple stillbirths and a high rate of infant loss for a mother because they are believed to reincarnate themselves again and again. The only way to be released from the spirit’s hold is to destroy an object thought to tie it to the mortal world. This object, called an iyi-uwa, might be a rock or doll the child played with, a tooth or lock of hair, or even a scrap of the deceased child’s clothing. In some cases, a family offering serves for an iyi-uwa, which is given to the shaman responsible for releasing the spirit. While these spirits don’t leave a replacement for the life taken, the bodies of lost and stillborn infants can be viewed as stocks in that they are predestined to die, just as most of the sickly changelings of European myth are meant only to last a little while.

Another ghostly example of a changeling relative is the Chinese shui gui, which translates to “water ghost.” As the unhappy spirit of a person who drowned, these ghosts linger around waterways waiting for their next victim. But unlike kelpies and their kin, the shui gui doesn’t stop at murder, but goes on to possess their victim’s body. This, of course, creates a changeling; a human who looks the same as ever, but whose soul has been replaced by another’s. Meanwhile, the victim’s soul is now a shui gui trapped in the same watery location, ready to begin the cycle again. The idea of possession and “drifting souls” is quite common in Asian folklore, and occasionally bears striking similarities to European changelings.

In India we have an interesting example of human abduction in the form of nagas.   Believed to be more advanced than humans, nagas seemed to see us as less intelligent animals which they often stole away into their underground cities either for eating, torturing, or sometimes, interbreeding with. There were other such races of highly intelligent humanoids living below ground in both Indian and Chinese legend, and they are highly comparable with the ancient Egyptian gala. Gala were servants of Osiris, god of the underworld, sent forth to do his bidding. Part of this bidding was to abduct humans and bring them down into the land of the dead. Again we see a parallel between these and the European fairies who inhabit underground mounds and share many other traits with the dead. What is most interesting about the gala is that small depictions of these mythical creatures have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs with inscriptions on them instructing them to serve the person much as a slave would. It seems that in this case, humans turned the tables on the changeling myth, capturing beings from another realm to serve our own needs in the human afterlife.

Whether we define changelings by their deeds, their motives, or the counterparts they’ve left behind, it is clear that changelings have inhabited a much broader range than Europe alone. As is the motive behind much of mythology, it seems that our very human fears (namely of kidnapping, illness, altered personalities and death) have laid the groundwork for changeling mythology across the globe.


Kristina Wojtaszek grew up as a woodland sprite and mermaid, playing around the shores of Lake Michigan. At any given time she could be found with live snakes tangled in her hair and worn out shoes filled with sand. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management as an excuse to spend her days lost in the woods with a book in hand. She currently resides in the high desert country of Wyoming with her husband and two small children. She is fascinated by fairy tales and fantasy and her favorite haunts are libraries and cemeteries.


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