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Religion column — The changelings

By Fr. Jonathan Filkins

Many of us have enjoyed the mythical tales which have served as fonts of enjoyment from our early years on up. Stories about fairies, sprites, nymphs, pixies, gnomes and other similar creatures have been read to us, or by us to others, transporting the participants to another day, or realm. These mythic creatures, in another guise, may also bring us dread; the trolls under the bridge, ogres chasing us through the forest, or strange beasts challenging our greatest fears.

Tales of human “exchanges” are long rooted in the misty fakelore of centuries past. The wolf, taking the place of Red Riding Hood, serves as a familiar example. On the European continent, Great Britain, Scotland, Ireland, and Scandinavia, tales persist of some creatures placing their own, in the stead of the human newborn. Referred to as “changelings,” the purpose was to ensure a better upbringing than the mythical creatures could provide. Once the replacement was suckled, the various tales diverge. Some say the human child was returned, others kept, and still others left to the woods.

Wales is well-known for the hearthside tales of the mists of the past. Here, the child initially appears to be a cherubic human, but soon deteriorates to becoming something less than human. Irritable, scowling and argumentative, the visage conveys the important question, “Where did you come from?” Most parents, of today, will note a curiously common thread.

Various tests and rituals were developed to determine the answer; many of them falling into the arena of cruelty. In Ireland, if you suspected the child was not human, you placed it into the fire and, if a changeling, it would jump up the chimney; leaving the true child in its stead. Not much is said about any damage. One of the Swedish answers was to beat the child, so that the Troll mother would return to save her child. Many of the myths center around eggs, and using them to determine a child’s origins. Thank God these efforts did not including maiming, or other harms.

These mythological tales are ongoing and, seemingly, no amount of logic surmounts our deep-seated natures. The parents of a newborn “colicky” child may, through sleep deprived, foggy brains inquire of the true parentage of their “alleged” offspring; perhaps considering the potential of there having been an error in the hospital’s neo-natal center. Further on, these same parents, now resigned to their fates, question the very planet their teenager was born upon. Hopefully, we pray, they do not resort to the determining methods of the myths.

Then there are ourselves. We have become adults, or nearly so. We know who we are, or we believe we do. We are serious about life and have no time for these silly sort of changes, which myth and legend convey.

Denial seems to be a basic part of our makeup. In reality, we are changing all of the time. For the Christian, the Church acknowledges our “change-ability.” From baptism, to marriage to “last rites,” we change a great deal. Ready or not, no longer hidden from the world, we burst upon the scene and stand in the glare of “life,” and we adapt to it; in some form or another. We change a bit each day; for that is “life.” It is an inevitability which we may not discern, but it is an essential part of our humanity.

“Changelings,” is a moniker which applies to us too and is well-known to our unchangeable God. In our variableness, in our inconstancies, we should not believe in myths and folklore, but rely upon a greater power than all of our superstitions and fictions.

We need not toil over our infirmities but, as Jesus Christ told us, “Come unto me, all you who are heavy laden, and I shall give you rest.” And, on that day when we stand face to face with Him, will be the most marvelous change of them all.

All we have to do is change our ways, now.