Trolls and witches

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During this boring summer devoid of festivals and destination vacations, who doesn’t love a good story? In this edition we bring you the perfect creepy little tale, which also doubles as an insight into the ancient grieving process. While we now have many rational ways to look at and understand death and disease, it is an arguably far more interesting topic seen from the eyes of those who do not have our modern knowledge. 


A 16th century German book on grieving (Jacob Rueff, Hembammebuch) includes a unique story about a changeling child. The child is given to a man in Sassen, who is advised to bring it to an old lady after the child's evil nature is discovered. The child soils itself, cries, and has exhausted five women who came to feed it. Afraid of this home invader, the man carries it in a basket to the old lady. When he crosses a bridge, however, the Devil calls out from the water and the child replies. Even more terrified now, the man casts the child and basket into the river. There, the changeling dances on the water with the devil. 

A changeling is a child that is exchanged for a human one by faeries, trolls, demons, witches, white ladies or any other malicious old-timey creature. The changeling itself could be any sort of unpleasant being, from straight-up devil to trickster troll. It is an ugly being, screaming and crying at its new parents, and dislikes usual baby food. 

Various reasons are given as to why the child is exchanged. My personal favourite is the following; because trolls are ugly creatures, bound to the damp holes in which they live, they become jealous of the baby human. It is so beautiful to them that they steal it and abandon one of their own in its place. 


In the image above, a late 15th century detail of a miniature, a devil is exchanging a holy human baby for its evil counterpart. The creepy flying thing goes completely unnoticed by the bystanders. Although the changeling story is much older than this piece, it shows how the legend endured well into Christian medieval times, even adapting to include, instead of trolls and faeries, more religiously appropriate evils.

Even today the story endures in language, influencing words to describe crying babies, such as (in Dutch) bullebak, or the more modern huilebalk.

The human child is kept until the changeling either dies or leaves the home. It is then replaced, or in case of death of the changeling, kept to live with the witches. 

Although not understanding most natural phenomenons or diseases, people from the past were not idiots. They noticed when a child wasn’t how they were supposed to be, and needed just as many answers as we do now when their child unexpectedly passes away. While we nowadays would examine a child that cries or soils itself for infections and the like, a 15th century mother had no way to come to such conclusions. It’s easy to imagine the confusion of parents when a sick child starts behaving strangely. A young child cannot express their pain or discomfort in words, so understanding that illness is at the root of the problem and not supernatural causes, might have been more difficult.

Changelings may have been a convenient explanation for infant disease, deformity and death.  In a world where every hill could hide a witch, who wouldn’t believe their child was living with trolls rather than accept that it died from influenza or malnourishment?

Another theory for the existence of the changeling story is dependent on its own medical misunderstanding. Having no knowledge of genes or congenital deformities, the birth of a deformed child was often blamed on the mother. To avoid blame, the child could be labelled as a changeling. Later interpretations involving devils and Christianity take the changeling as an explanation of miscarriage, changing the child to a much more easily accepted evil dead version even before birth. Many such stories exist to explain disease, ease grief or help the dying to accept death.