Friday, March 11, 2016

The Changeling: Rambling Recollections of my School & School Days – Part A

Article IV written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 14 October 1880 – Part A

The Scottish Fairy Book
By Elizabeth W. Grierson (1918)

Belief in Fairies

The belief in fairies was not confined to Badbea, or to the county of Caithness. It was a common belief in England and Ireland, as well as on the continent of Europe. 

Martin Luther and the Changeling

That great man Luther, who threw off the superstitions of the Romish Church, was a strong believer in fairies. He was convinced he had seen such a creature at Dessau, and was so satisfied that the unfortunate little boy (who appears to have been a cross child, with an unusually large appetite) was nothing human, that he urged upon the Elector of the Saxony to have the changeling thrown into the Moldau. The elector refused to agree to this proposal, but consented to have prayers offered in the churches for the removal of the demon. At the end of a year the poor child died.

Background "The legend of St. Stephen" by Martino di Bartolomeo.
The devil steals a baby and leaves a changeling behind. 
Early 15th century.

Scotch Fairies

Shakespeare had embodied the popular idea of fairies of his day in the “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” In Ireland the belief in the existence of fairies is still devoutly held, and the peasants hasten the baptism of their infants from a dread that they may be changed previous to that ceremony. The Scotch fairies were sometimes industrious. Many a Scotch farm-house boasted a traditional “brownie” who did the whole work of several servants, in return for a bowl of cream while the family were asleep. For my part I never saw a fairy, or anyone who ever saw one. They seem to be much like the great sea-serpent, often spoken about but rarely seen.

My Comments:

This sequence of articles of A Native of Badbea is missing some items. Unfortunately I do not have Article II in this series.

Martin Luther

The reference to Martin Luther by Alexander Gunn is interesting in that the story of Luther and the changeling was said to have occurred in 1532, as follows:

Table Talks on Changelings. Martin Luther. The Story of the Changeling at Dessau
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....

When Luther was asked why he had made such a recommendation, he replied that he was firmly of the opinion that such a changeling child is merely a piece of flesh, a massa carnis, because it has no soul. For it is the Devil's power that he corrupts people who have reason and souls when he possesses them. The Devil sits in such changelings where their soul should have been!"
Source: Martin Luther, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe: Tischreden (Weimar: Böhlau, 1912-1921), v. 5, p. 9.

More about Changelings

"A changeling is a creature found in folklore and folk religion. A changeling child was believed to be a fairy child that had been left in place of a human child stolen by the fairies. The theme of the swapped child is common in medieval literature and reflects concern over infants thought to be afflicted with unexplained diseases, disorders, or developmental disabilities."
"It is typically described as being the offspring of a fairy, elf or other legendary creature that has been secretly left in the place of a human child. Sometimes the term is also used to refer to the child who was taken. The apparent changeling could also be a stock or fetch, an enchanted piece of wood that would soon appear to grow sick and die. The theme of the swapped child is common among medieval literature and reflects concern over infants thought to be afflicted with unexplained diseases, disorders, or developmental disabilities."


My favourite story of a Scottish Brownie is in Sir Gibbie the novel by George MacDonald (1824 – 1905). While in Sir Gibbie the Brownie is a real boy, the myths and superstitions around Brownies are woven cleverly into the story. I recommend the 1963 version edited by Elizabeth Yates . The original work of Sir Gibbie is available free on

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