It is the stuff of horror films everywhere: A changeling switched by evil fairies to wreak havoc in the human world. A woman gone mad, possessed by an evil spirit and the ritual of exorcism used to rid her body of it. But these common Hollywood themes have deep historical origins. They are rooted in folklore and legends from cultures all over the world.

In 1580 in Germany, a woman who had recently given birth, was sent back to work the fields of her lord. Her baby was too young to leave at home so she had to take it with her. She left it upon a mound and went about her work but when she returned to feed it, it sucked so greedily that she knew it was not her child. It began making the most ungodly sounds and couldn’t be a human baby. After several days, she went to the nobleman and told him what had happened. He instructed her to take it back to the mound and beat the baby. She did this and it screamed so loud that suddenly the devil appeared and said, “There have it!” and with that, he replaced the creature with the real child and took his own away.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The general idea of Changelings was that the offspring of a fairy or another mythological creature would be swapped with the offspring of a human, but the reasons for the change as well as the methods for reversing it differed from culture to culture.

Sometimes it was thought that the elderly of the fairies would be replaced with the babies, so that they could live a life of comfort with their human parents. In Norway, children were taken by trolls to prevent inbreeding and to give humans and trolls some fresh blood. In Scotland, children were taken by fairies as an offering for the devil, a tax for hell. Other cultures believed that the offspring of fairies required human milk to grow, thus the purpose for the change.

There were differing methods for both preventing the switch and reversing it. Many believed that small spells would prevent it such as leaving a pair of iron scissors next to the baby. For reversing the switch, one idea was to put the baby in the fire; the changeling would then shoot up the chimney and return the human child. In Ireland, another idea was to trick the changeling into speech. The mother would boil egg shells over a fire and the ridiculousness of this act would cause the changeling to laugh and speak.

The idea of possession is one of the oldest supernatural legends and inscribed in hundreds of different cultures. The earliest references to it date back to the Sumerian culture who believed that sickness was caused by demons and even had priests who performed early version of exorcisms.  Two main types of possession were identified: Demonic and spiritual.

Demonic possession occurs when a demon inhabits a human body and most cultures attributed sickness and disease to this. This possession formed a key part of Christianity, especially during the Middle Ages, the belief being that the devil or one of his demons would rise to earth to cause chaos through possession. Under the Catholic Church, there were four characteristics that identified possession: superhuman strength, speaking in tongues or Latin, presence of knowledge that the possessed could not typically know, and a hatred of holy objects.

The best way to rid a human of a spirit was through an exorcism. This was used widely in the Catholic Church for hundreds of years and the methods were set down in the Rituale Romanum, the guidelines for all the rituals a priest can perform. The process was complex: the victim would be restrained and the priest would begin reciting incantations as set down in the Rituale Romanum. The most important part was that once an exorcism had begun, it couldn’t stop as it was believed that the demon would chase the priest down. These exorcisms were still occurring in the 20th century, a notable case being when a young boy identified only as Roland Doe was exorcised by Jesuit priests in the US in the 1940s.

Countless films have dealt with exorcisms and, although all those horrific tales might be left behind on the cinema screen for you, they form an integral part of cultures the world over. So next time you’re watching one of them, you can decide for yourself what to believe!