A birth of a child is considered a gift from another world in many ancient and contemporary cultures. Slavs do not differ in this regard and their popular notion still holds that the goodwill of the ancestors is responsible for such a precious gift as the newborn. If a nursing mother takes good care of a baby, the ancestors will protect her and facilitate further multiplication of her kin. But if she is careless and shows unworthy of their gift, protection is drawn back and negative forces freely roam, aiming to steal the child in the moment of neglect. The devil, witches, fairies, and demons of all kinds might kill the child, or exchange the human child for a demon child. Serbian expert in the field of Slavic mythology, Ljubinko Radenkovic, wrote extensively about exchanged children, or “changelings”, and his findings will be concisely presented here. In most of the legends he researched, the exchange of children is temporary, and the stories have a happy ending of bringing back the rightful child to its mother.
Legends have it that the biggest danger of a changeling occurs during the 40 days after childbirth, while the rightful baby is still not baptized. Mothers leaving their newborns alone while working in the field, fetching the water, gathering fruit or doing other domestic work, are the most probable victims of child exchange, but it can also happen to mothers who curse their child by invoking the mythological creatures (eg. “May the fairies take you!”). Not making the sign of a cross over the child, or in the corners of a bath which mother uses, also makes the baby vulnerable to the attack. Numerous precautions are made to save mother and a child from mythological creatures. Some of the common measures are keeping a sharp object near the nursing mother, leaving the candle to burn all night long, leaving the bowl of water under the icon. Russian custom is to put the broom in the corner, or under the cradle, to act as a “guardian”. Poles confide in medallions of the saints, which they hang in the doorways and in the windows, and the red hats out on the baby’s head were also popular. Serbian custom is to tie a red bracelet to a baby’s ankle, popular in other countries as well.
If protection measures failed and the changeling is successfully foisted upon the ignorant parents, it behaves voraciously, aggressively, grows slowly, begins to walk and talk later than the other children. It cries a lot, sleeps badly, looks disproportional, laughs weirdly and according to some legends, even grows horns. In spite of these obvious signs, parents are slow to figure out, because we are all subjective towards our children. However, there are some ways in which demonic child can reveal its true nature. One of them, frequently described in legends, is a dialogue of a changeling with another demon. It can occur anywhere, but most often the other demon speaks to a child from the body of water, such as a river or a lake. He calls the changeling with its true name, and it readily responds in a friendly manner. Another way of recognizing the changeling is hiding by night and observing its behavior. Usually, the changeling would get up and eat insatiably, or even do something which harms the family, such as poisoning their food. It is also helpful to put the changeling in the unusual situation and hide somewhere, after which the child will express its wonder by talking as an adult.
For the parents who made sure they are raising a changeling, there are ways to force its real mother to come out. Sprinkling the demonic child with the holy water, bringing it close to the oven, whipping it or even throwing it to the water, invokes the creature who planted it. In such cases, the demonic mother brings back the real child in order to save the life of a changeling. She usually scolds the human mother, saying “I treated your child so nicely, and look what you do to mine! Here is your precious child back!”, after which it disappears. However, there are some parents who prefer to keep the changeling, when they learn it has supernatural abilities. Polish legends say that some changelings, after being exposed, offered to bring money to the house for the exchange of daily care. All the greedy parents who consented were tricked, because money earned that way disappeared or turned into plain paper after the changeling decides to leave.
There is no consensus about the faith of the rightful children, stolen by the mythological creatures. Some Russian tales claim that the devil puts them into narrow dungeons, where they cry and curse the careless mother for not guarding them better. Other Russian legends claim that the stolen children are raised by mythological creatures such as rusalkas, and grow up to become like them. There is also a belief that the stolen child lives with forest spirits and learns the craft of magic. If it is restored to the original parents, it can be of use to the whole community as a healer. However, it can also become wild, forget how to speak and behave in sociable manner, or even lose shape and disappear.
A belief in changelings embodies primeval human fear of discontinuity in procreation which would eventually lead to extermination of the whole mankind. On a more subtle level, it reflects the challenge of a difficult task such as parenting. Legends of this kind are not peculiar to Slavic people and some of them are closely linked to similar stories of German origin.