German Changeling Legends

translated and edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 1998-2005


Table of Contents

  1. How to Protect Your Child, Jacob Grimm, German Mythology

  2. The Elves, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Children's and Household Tales

  3. The Nixie Changelings from the Saal River, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

  4. The Changeling, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

  5. Changelings in the Water, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

  6. A Changeling Is Beaten with a Switch, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

  7. Keeping Watch over Children, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

  8. The Rye-Mother, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

  9. The Two Underground Women, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

  10. The Nickert, A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz, North German Legends, Tales, and Customs

  11. Changeling Beliefs in Altmark, J. D. H. Temme, Folk Legends from Altmark

  12. The Changeling, Karl Haupt, The Legend Book of Lausitz

  13. The Dwarf's Confession, August Ey, Legends and Tales from the Upper Harz

  14. The Changeling of Plau, Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

  15. The Underground People Try to Steal a Child, Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

  16. The Changeling of Spornitz, Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

  17. The Underground People of Lüth Farm, Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

  18. Mecklenburg Changelings, Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

  19. The Underground People Steal a Child, Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

  20. The Changeling, Johann August Ernst Köhler, Legend Book of Erzgebirge

  21. Table Talks on Changelings, Martin Luther

  22. The Changeling of Cüstrinichen, J. G. Th. Grässe, Legend Book of the Prussian State

  23. The Underground People of Amrum, J. G. Th. Grässe, Legend Book of the Prussian State

  24. The Underground People at Lüttensee, J. G. Th. Grässe, Legend Book of the Prussian State

  25. Phantom Swedes, Karl Lyncker, German Legends and Customs in the Hessian Districts

  26. The Changeling, Anton Altrichter, Legends from the Iglau Language Island

  27. Satan Attempts to Steal a Child Johann Adolf Heyl, Folk Legends, Customs, and Beliefs from Tyrol


How to Protect Your Child

Jacob Grimm, German Mythology

  1. Placing a key next to an infant will prevent him from being exchanged.

  2. Women may never be left alone during the first six weeks following childbirth, for the devil then has more power over them.

  3. During the first six weeks following childbirth, mothers may not go to sleep until someone has come to watch the child. If mothers are overcome by sleep, changelings are often laid in the cradle. To prevent this one should lay a pair of men's pants over the cradle.

  4. Whenever the mother leaves the infant's room she should lay an article of the father's clothing on the child, so that it cannot be exchanged.

Source: Jacob Grimm, Deutsche Mythologie, 4th ed. (1877), v. 3, pp. 450-460 (items 484, 509, 510, 744).


The Elves

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, Children's and Household Tales

A mother had her child taken from the cradle by elves. In its place they laid a changeling with a thick head and staring eyes who would do nothing but eat and drink. In distress she went to a neighbor and asked for advice. The neighbor told her to carry the changeling into the kitchen, set it on the hearth, make a fire, and boil water in two eggshells. That should make the changeling laugh, and if he laughs it will be all over with him. The woman did everything just as her neighbor said. When she placed the eggshells filled with water over the fire, the blockhead said:

Now I am as old
As the Wester Wood,
But have never seen anyone cooking in shells!

And he began laughing about it. When he laughed, a band of little elves suddenly appeared. They brought the rightful child, set it on the hearth, and took the changeling away.


Source: Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Die Wichtelmänner: Drittes Märchen, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, no. 39/III.


The Nixie Changelings from the Saal River

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

From time to time nixies would emerge from the Saal River and go into the city of Saalfeld where they would buy fish at the market. They could be recognized by their large, dreadful eyes and by the hems of their skirts that were always dripping wet. It is said that they were mortals who, as children, had been taken away by nixies, who had then left changelings in their place.
Source: Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Die Elbjungfer und das Saalweiblein, Deutsche Sagen, no. 60. The passage above is an extract from a longer depiction of nixies and related water spirits in the Elbe and Saal Rivers.


The Changeling

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

At Hessloch near Odernheim in the Gau the servant and the cook of a clergyman were living together as man and wife, although they had not been able to have their relationship publicly consecrated. They had a child together, but it failed to grow and gain weight. It cried day and night, always demanding to be fed.

Finally the woman sought advice, and was told that the baby would improve if she would take it to Neuhausen on the Cyriak Meadow, have it weighed there, and give it water from the Cyriak Spring. At that time it was believed that in such cases a child thus would be restored to health or would die within nine days. [Note 1]

As the woman approached the millrace near Westhofen, the child, whom she was carrying on her back, became so heavy that she began to pant, and the sweat began running from her face. At that moment a traveling student approached her, saying: "Woman, what sort of wild creature are you carrying? It will be a miracle if it doesn't break your neck!"

She answered that it was her own dear child that would neither grow nor gain weight, and that she was therefore taking it to Neuhausen to have it weighed.

He replied: "That is not your child! It is the devil! [Note 2] Throw him into the brook!"

She did not want to do this, insisting that it was her child while kissing it.

He continued: "Your child is at home in a new cradle behind the chest in the side room. Throw this monster into the brook!"

Crying and sobbing she did has she had been told. Immediately there issued a great cry and commotion from beneath the bridge she was standing on, like the howling of wolves and bears. And when the mother arrived home, she found her baby, hearty and healthy, laughing in its new cradle.


Note 1: A changeling generally does not live longer that seven years; according to others, they live eighteen or nineteen years. [Footnote in the original]

Note 2: For the devil removes the rightful children from their cradles, takes them away, and replaces them with his own. Hence the name "changeling." [Footnote in the original]

Source: Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Der Wechselbalg, Deutsche Sagen, no. 82.



Changelings in the Water

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

Near Halberstadt a peasant had a killcrop that sucked its mother and five wet nurses dry, all the while eating voraciously (for they eat more than ten other children). It behaved in such a manner that they became tired of it. The peasant was advised that he should take the child on a pilgrimage in praise of the Virgin Mary to Heckelstadt and have him weighed at that place.

The good peasant followed this advice. He put the child in a pack basket and set forth carrying it on his back. He was about to cross over a stream on a bridge when he heard a shout from the water beneath him: "Killcrop! Killcrop!"

The child in the basket, who had until now never spoken a word, answered: "Ho! Ho!" The peasant did not expect this, and it startled him.

Then the devil in the water asked further: "Where are you going?"

The killcrop above answered "I am going to Heckelstadt to our Dear Lady, and have myself weighed, that I might thrive."

When the peasant heard that the changeling could talk perfectly well, he became angry and threw him, together with the basket, into the water. Then the two devils came together, cried out "Ho! Ho! Ha!" and frolicked and jousted with one another, and then disappeared.


Source: Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Die Wechselbälge im Wasser, Deutsche Sagen, no. 83.


A Changeling Is Beaten with a Switch

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

The following true story took place in the year 1580. Near Breslau there lived a distinguished nobleman who had a large crop of hay every summer which his subjects were required harvest for him. One year there was a new mother among his harvest workers, a woman who had barely had a week to recover from the birth of her child. When she saw that she could not refuse the nobleman's decree, she took her child with her, placed it on a small clump of grass, and left it alone while she helped with the haymaking. After she had worked a good while, she returned to her child to nurse it. She looked at it, screamed aloud, hit her hands together above her head, and cried out in despair, that this was not her child: It sucked the milk from her so greedily and howled in such an inhuman manner that it was nothing like the child she knew.

As is usual in such cases, she kept the child for several days, but it was so ill-behaved that the good woman nearly collapsed. She told her story to the nobleman. He said to her: "Woman, if you think that this is not your child, then do this one thing. Take it out to the meadow where you left your previous child and beat it hard with a switch. Then you will witness a miracle."

The woman followed the nobleman's advice. She went out and beat the child with a switch until it screamed loudly. Then the Devil brought back her stolen child, saying: "There, you have it!" And with that he took his own child away.

This story is often told and is known by both the young and the old in and around Breslau.


Source: Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Wechselkind mit Ruten gestrichen, Deutsche Sagen, no. 88. This legend is also recounted in J. G. Th. Grässe, Sagenbuch des Preußischen Staats, vol. 1 (Glogau: Verlag von Carl Flemming, 1871), no. 171, p. 183.


Keeping Watch over Children

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

A reliable citizen of Leipzig told the following story: When his first child was a few weeks old they found it on three different nights lying crossways and uncovered in its cradle, even though the cradle stood immediately next to the mother's bed. The father therefore resolved to stay awake during the third night and to pay close attention to his child. He persisted a long while, staying awake until after midnight. Nothing happened to the child, because he had been keeping a watchful eye on it. But then his eyes began to close a little. Shortly afterward the mother woke up and saw that the child was again lying crossways, and that the cover had been taken from the cradle and thrown across the middle of her bed. In keeping with common custom, she normally folded the cover back at the foot of the cradle. Everything had happened so fast that everyone was amazed. However, the demon did not seem to have had any further power over the child.
Source: Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Das Schauen auf die Kinder, Deutsche Sagen, no. 89.


The Rye-Mother

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

The rural people of Mark Brandenburg tell the legend of the Rye-Mother who hides in grain fields. For this reason children do not dare to walk into a grain field.

In Altmark children a kept silent with the words: "Hold your mouth or the Rye-Mother, with her long black tits, will come and take you away!"

In the vicinity of Braunschweig and Lüneburg she is called the Grain-Wife. Children seeking cornflowers tell one another stories about how she steals little children; and hence they do not dare go too far into the green fields.

In the year 1662 a woman from Saalfeld told Prätorius the following story: A nobleman from there forced one of his subjects, a woman who had given birth less than six weeks earlier, to help bind sheaves during the harvest. The woman, who was still nursing her baby, took it with her to the field. In order better to perform her work, she laid the child on the ground. Some time later, the nobleman, who was present there, saw an Earth-Woman with a child come and exchange it for the peasant woman's child. The false child began to cry. The peasant woman hurried to it in order to nurse it, but the nobleman held her back, saying that he would tell her the reason in good time. The woman thought that he was doing this in order to make her work harder, which caused her great concern. Meanwhile, the child cried incessantly, until finally the Rye-Mother returned, picked up the crying child, and layed the stolen child back in its place.

After seeing all of this transpire, the nobleman summoned the peasant woman and told her to return home. And from that time forth he resolved to never again force a woman who had recently given birth to work.


Source: Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Die Roggenmuhme, Deutsche Sagen, no. 90.


The Two Underground Women

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, German Legends

The following story was told to Prätorius by a student, whose mother claimed that it happened in Dessau.

A woman gave birth to a child and laid it next to herself. She fell into a deep sleep. The child had not yet been baptized. At midnight two underground women came in and made a fire on the hearth. They placed a kettle of water over the fire. Then they bathed the child they had brought with them in the water, and carried it into the woman's room where they exchanged it for her sleeping child.

They took the child away, but upon arriving at the first hill, they began fighting over it, throwing it back and forth at each other like a ball. The child began to cry, which woke up the housemaid. She looked at the underground women's child and realized that an exchange had taken place. She ran to the front of the house, where she found the women arguing about the stolen child. She stepped into the fray and caught the child as they were throwing it back and forth. With the child in her arms she ran home. She placed the changeling outside the door, and the hill-women came and took it back.


Source: Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Die zwei unterirdischen Weiber, Deutsche Sagen, no. 91.


The Nickert

A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz, North German Legends, Tales, and Customs

The Nickert is a small gray person that lives in the water and has a great desire for human children. If they have not yet been baptized, he will steal them, leaving his own children in their place. They are very small, but have large, broad heads.

Once a woman on a journey gave birth to a child at Scharfenbrück. As soon as she had recovered and was crossing the Ruthe Bridge on her way home, the Nickert came upon her without being seen and stole her newborn child, leaving in its place his malformed brat with its thick head. It lived for eight years, and then died. If the woman had not crossed over running water with her newborn, the Nickert would not have been able to do anything to her.

The changelings that the Nickert substitutes for human children are very strong, often having more strength than three strong men together.

Once in Zühlichendorf there was a large Nickert child that was completely wild. He dirtied himself, and was almost like an animal. One day a worker came home with a heavily loaded wagon full of grain and ran into the gatepost so hard that he could not get loose. The Nickert child, who was sitting inside next to the window, saw what had happened and asked, "Should I help you?"

The bad-tempered worker replied, "You stupid quack, it's too heavy for you!" Then the Nickert child came outside and with one powerful shove pushed the wagon free. Three days later the Nickert child disappeared.


Source: A. Kuhn and W. Schwartz, Norddeutsche Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche (Leipzig: F. A. Brockhaus, 1848), pp. 92-93.


Changeling Beliefs in Altmark

J. D. H. Temme, Folk Legends from Altmark

  1. To prevent the "thickheads" (underground spirits) from exchanging a newborn child, it must be continuously watched until it is baptized. For this reason the baptism takes place as soon as possible.

  2. Dwarfs in the region between Salzwedel and Disdorf are not called "thickheads," but rather "the underground people." Here the belief that a child can be exchanged is especially strong. People fear that the misshapen dwarfs who live beneath the earth, and who would like nothing more than to have beautiful, well-formed human children, will steal newborns, leaving their own malformed children, called changelings, in their place. Therefore there is always a great rush to have the child baptized, and until this happens the mother and child will not be left alone for even an instant. Furthermore, until then there must always be a burning light near them, even in broad daylight, because the underground people are afraid of light.

  3. A child must carefully and continuously be protected against exchange by the underground people until it is baptized. Therefore the so-called "word of God," a leaf from the Bible from a hymnbook, is either wrapped up with the child in its blanket or laid in its cradle.

Source: J. D. H. Temme, Die Volkssagen der Altmark (Berlin: In der Nicolaischen Buchhandlung, 1839), pp. 74, 82, 86.


The Changeling

Karl Haupt, The Legend Book of Lausitz

A child must always have someone nearby until it is six weeks old. Otherwise, an old woman from the woods or the mountains could come and exchange a physically and mentally retarded, malformed changeling for the infant. At the very least, one must place a hymnbook near the child's head before leaving the room. However, if--through negligence--the misfortune does occur, you should take prompt notice of it. Then you need only make a switch from the branches of a weeping birch tree and beat the changeling severely with it. The old woman will respond to his cries by bringing back the exchanged child and taking the beastly child away. You must allow her to depart unhindered, neither scolding nor cursing her, otherwise you will be left with the changeling hanging on your neck.
Source: Karl Haupt, Sagenbuch der Lausitz. Erster Theil: Das Geisterreich (Leipzig, Verlag von Wilhelm Engelmann, 1862), p. 69. Haupt's source is Leopold Haupt and J. E. Schmaler, Volkslieder der Wenden in der Ober- und Niederlausitz (Grimma, 1841), vol. 2, p. 267.


The Dwarf's Confession

August Ey, Legends and Tales from the Upper Harz

A mother had her child exchanged by the dwarfs, and in its place they laid a changeling. The mother was concerned, because the child looked so very old. She shared her grief with a laborer. He told her that it wasn't her child, but rather a dwarf. She could prove this by boiling some oil while holding the child and then asking him how old he was. The woman did this. With the child on her arm, she put the oil on the fire. It asked her what she was doing, and the mother said that she wanted to brew some beer. With that she set some empty walnut shells around the fire, so she could later pour the beer into them. Then the dwarf said, innocently and without thinking:

Now I am as old
As the Harz Wood,
And I've never seen anything like this,
My entire life long.
Brewing beer in walnut shells!

Now the mother knew that it was an old dwarf. Thus she set him down and threatened to kill him if he didn't bring her child back. The dwarf told just to go outside for a short while. When she came back in, her child was there and the dwarf was gone. Later the child became large, strong, wealthy, and very happy.


Source: August Ey, Harzmärchenbuch; oder, Sagen und Märchen aus dem Oberharze (Stade: Verlag von Fr. Steudel, 1862), pp. 106-107.


The Changeling of Plau

Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

A married couple in Plau had a child that after two years was still only as long as a shoe. It had an enormously large head and could not learn to talk. They shared their concern with an old man, who said: "For sure the underground people have exchanged your child. If you want to be certain about this, then take an empty eggshell and in the presence of the child pour fresh beer into it, then add yeast to make it ferment. If the child then starts to talk, then my suspicion is right." They followed this advice. The beer had scarcely begun to ferment when the child called out from its cradle:

Now I am as old
As Bohemian gold,
But this is the first I've ever heard tell,
Of beer being brewed in an eggshell.

The parents determined that the very next night they would throw the child into the Elbe River. They arose after midnight and went to the cradle, where they discovered a strong and healthy child. The underground people had taken back their own child.


Source: Karl Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg (Vienna, Wilhelm Braumüller, 1879), vol. 1, p. 42. Mecklenburg is in northeast Germany, bordering the Baltic Sea.

The dwarf's actual words, in the original Low German:

Ik bün so olt
as Böhmer Gold,
doch dat seih ik taum irsten Mal,
dat man Bier brugt in Eierschal.


The Underground People Try to Steal a Child

Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

In Lanken near Parchim a peasant woman was lying in bed one night with her small child that had not yet been baptized. Because the moon was shining, she blew out the light. Then she suddenly noticed that a little woman was standing at the door next to the bell. She came to the bed and took hold of the boy and wanted to take him away. The peasant woman held as fast as she could, but the small person was pulling almost stronger than she was. Then the peasant woman called for her husband, and when he struck a light, the little woman disappeared.
Source: Karl Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg (Vienna, Wilhelm Braumüller, 1879), vol. 1, p. 46. Bartsch's source for this legend is a secondary school student named Behm from Parchim.


The Changeling of Spornitz

Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

A young peasant woman in Spornitz had her child stolen by an underground person or a Mönk, and a changeling put in its place in the cradle. The mother saw it happen, but she could neither move nor call out. The maniken told her that her son would someday become the king of the underground people. From time to time they had to exchange one of their king's children for a human child so that earthly beauty would not entirely die out among them. She was told to take good care of the little dwarf prince, and her house would be blessed with good fortune. With that the Mönk laid the changeling on her breast and disappeared with her child. She took care of the child, and the prosperity of her household increased visibly. However, the changeling remained small and ugly, and died in his twentieth year.
Source: Karl Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg (Vienna, Wilhelm Braumüller, 1879), vol. 1, p. 46. Bartsch gives his source for this legend as "Niederhöffer 4, 154 ff."


The Underground People of Lüth Farm

Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

It is said that the farmyard of Peasant Lüth in Spornitz was formerly frequented by the underground people. Once when the peasant had gone to town they exchanged his child for one of their own, one who had an enormously large head and who did not grow properly, but who otherwise was mentally all right. In order to get their own child back, acting on the advice of a neighbor woman, the peasant's wife brewed beer in an eggshell.

As she was doing it, the child asked: "What are you doing there?"

She answered: "I'm brewing."

Then the child said:

I am as old
As Bohemian gold,
And in all my days I've never seen such brewing.

Then the woman said: "I'll throw you in." Then the child began to cry. The underground people heard it and brought her child back.


Source: Karl Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg (Vienna, Wilhelm Braumüller, 1879), vol. 1, pp. 46-47. Bartsch's source for this legend is a secondary school student named Thoms from Parchim.

The verse in Low German:

Ik bün so olt
as Böhmegold
¤wer so'n Brugen heww 'k min Dag nich seihn.


Mecklenburg Changelings

Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

In Rövershagen the underground people once exchanged a woman's unbaptized child for one of their own. Following the advice of a wise man, she laid the underground people's child on the chopping block as though she were going to kill it with an ax. The dwarf's child immediately disappeared, and her own child was returned.
Source: Karl Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg (Vienna, Wilhelm Braumüller, 1879), vol. 1, p. 62. Bartsch's source for this legend is Pastor Dolberg from Hinrichshagen.


The Underground People Steal a Child

Karl Bartsch, Legends, Tales, and Customs from Mecklenburg

According to an old woman from Witzin, in her village and in the entire district of Sternberg, it was formerly the practice to keep a light burning all night in the vicinity of a newborn child until it was baptized. A certain woman who failed to do this had her child stolen by the underground people, and they laid one of their own in its place.

The woman noticed the exchange the next day and asked her neighbor for advice. She told her that she should "brew through an egg." The mother followed this advice, and the changeling, who until now had not uttered a sound, cried out:

I am as old
As Bohemian gold,
But I have never seen such brewing.

At this the woman cried out: "To the devil with you! You are not my child!" Then there was a great commotion, and the changeling disappeared, and the mother got back her own child.


Source: Karl Bartsch, Sagen, Märchen und Gebräuche aus Meklenburg (Vienna, Wilhelm Braumüller, 1879), vol. 1, pp. 64-65. Bartsch's source is a seminary student from Zarrentin identified by the initials "G. P."

Bartsch explains the phrase "brew through an egg" with the following note: "This is done by opening an egg at both ends, but the one hole must be larger than the other. One then pours water into the larger hole and lets it drip out through the smaller one."

The verse in Low German:

Ik bün so olt
as Böhmer Gold,
doch sonn Brug'n heww ik noch nie seihn.


The Changeling

Johann August Ernst Köhler, Legend Book of Erzgebirge

A child less than six weeks old should not be carried "on the change," (that is, alternating between the right arm and the left arm), for consequently it might be stolen by a changeling.
Source: Johann August Ernst Köhler, Sagenbuch des Erzgebirges (Schneeberg and Schwarzenberg: Verlag und Druck von Carl Moritz Gärtner, 1886), no. 198, p. 154.

Note by Köhler: Here the changeling is the demon who exchanges children. However, in the legends of Lausitz [See Karl Haupt Sagenbuch der Lausitz (Leipzig: Verlag von Wilhelm Engelmann, 1862), vol. 1, no. 71], a changeling is a mentally retarded, malformed child that an old woman from the mountains or the woods has exchanged for an unattended and unbaptized well formed child less than six weeks old. Similarly, according to a Schlesian legend a water-nymph exchanged her child for a human child that had been left alone in a field. The child from the water-nymph remained retarded and was also called a changeling.



Table Talks on Changelings

Martin Luther

The Story of a 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.... Such a changeling child is only a piece of flesh, a massa carnis, because it has no soul.
Source: Martin Luther, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe: Tischreden (Weimar: Böhlau, 1912-1921), v. 5, p. 9.


Changelings from the Devil

Changelings and killcrops are laid in the place of legitimate children by Satan in order to plague mankind. He often pulls certain girls into the water, impregnates them, and keeps them with him until they deliver their children; afterward he places these children in cradles, taking the legitimate children away. But such changelings, it is said, do not live more than eighteen or nineteen years.
Source: Martin Luther, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe: Tischreden (Weimar: Böhlau, 1912-1921), v. 4, p. 357.


The Killcrop of Halberstadt

A man who lived near Halberstadt in Saxony had a killcrop who had sucked his mother and five additional wet nurses dry. Further, he was eating a great deal and behaving very strangely. The man was told that he should take the child on a pilgrimage to Hockelstadt to praise the Virgin Mary and to have him weighed there. The peasant followed this advice and set forth, carrying the child in a basket. But when he came to a bridge over some water, a devil in the water beneath the bridge called out: "Killcrop! Killcrop!" The child in the basket, who had never yet spoken a word, answered: "Ho! Ho!" This startled the peasant. The devil in the water then asked: "Where are you going?" The killcrop said: "I'm on my way to Hockelstadt to Our Dear Lady, to have myself weighed there so that I may grow." When the peasant heard the changeling speak, the first time this had ever happened, he became angry and threw the child into the water, basket and all. Then the two devils came together, shouted "Ho, ho, ha!," played with each other, rolled around with each other, and disappeared.

Satan plagues mankind with such changelings and killcrops by substituting them for real children. Satan has the power to exchange children, placing a devil in the cradle in the place of a child. This devil will suck and eat like an animal, but it will not grow. Thus it is said that changelings and killcrops do not live longer than eighteen or nineteen years.

It happens often, that babies are exchanged during their first six weeks, and that devils lay themselves in their place, making themselves detestable by shitting, eating, and crying more than any ten other children. The parents get no rest from such filthy beasts. The mothers are sucked dry and are no longer able to nurse.... However, changeling children should be baptized, because they cannot always be recognized as such during their first year.


Source: Martin Luther, Werke, kritische Gesamtausgabe: Tischreden (Weimar: Böhlau, 1912-1921), v. 4, pp. 357-358. This story is included in the Deutsche Sagen (1816, no. 83) of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.


The Changeling of Cüstrinichen

J. G. Th. Grässe, Legend Book of the Prussian State

In the year 1565 in the village of Cüstrinichen in the New Mark Brandenburg, the wife of a peasant named of Andreas Prawitz gave birth to a child who was baptized with the name Matthias. The child originally appeared to be perfectly normal, but by the time it had reached the age of twenty it still lacked all reason, and had developed a repulsive appearance. And even though it reached the legal age of majority and had a beard upon its chin, it never learned to stand or to walk or even to speak. When it was hungry it just whimpered or bellowed. It could not move from one place to the next, and did nothing but eat and drink. Many people thought that it must be a killcrop or a changeling, of the kind that Luther discusses in his works.
Source: J. G. Th. Grässe, Sagenbuch des Preußischen Staats, vol. 1 (Glogau: Verlag von Carl Flemming, 1871), no. 59, p. 75.


The Underground People of Amrum

J. G. Th. Grässe, Legend Book of the Prussian State

On the Island of Amrum there were many underground people, little manikins or dwarfs no taller than a table. They wore red caps on their heads. It was feared that if one did not keep watch over a newborn child until it was baptized, it might be exchanged by the underground people.
Source: J. G. Th. Grässe, Sagenbuch des Preußischen Staats, vol. 1 (Glogau: Verlag von Carl Flemming, 1871), p. 1091. This account (no. 1350, pp. 1091-1092) contains additional beliefs about the underground people on the Island of Amrum in the North Sea.


The Underground People at Lüttensee

J. G. Th. Grässe, Legend Book of the Prussian State

In the previous century in the vicinity of Lüttensee in Holstein there were two girls with enormously large heads who were descendants of the underground people who had exchanged them from the cradle for other children. Previously, parents always kept a light burning near their children and kept constant watch to prevent the underground people from taking them away. It is said that the girls lived in a house that was owned by a certain Eggert Möller, but no one knows what became of them.
Source: J. G. Th. Grässe, Sagenbuch des Preußischen Staats, vol. 1 (Glogau: Verlag von Carl Flemming, 1871), no. 1243, p. 1010.


Phantom Swedes

Karl Lyncker, German Legends and Customs in the Hessian Districts

Since the Thirty Years' War, the Swedes have lived in dreadful memory along the Kinzig River. "Swede," like "Croat," is a bad curse word, and there are stories of male and female phantom Swedes as harmful beings and evil sorcerers.

In Steinau, a woman, carrying her year and a half old boy on her arm, came upon the Phantom Swedish Woman while walking across the street in broad daylight. The latter grabbed the child and made it disappear. She told the grieving mother to go back home, where she would find her child in his bed. Seized by a deathly fear, the woman hurried home. In the bed she saw a howling, ugly changeling, a boy with an extremely thick head. With time the boy grew up, but he remained mentally retarded.


Source: Karl Lyncker, Deutsche Sagen und Sitten in hessischen Gauen (Cassel: Verlag von Oswald Bertram, 1854), p. 110. Lyncker's source: Dr. Bernstein from Schlüchtern.


The Changeling

Anton Altrichter, Legends from the Iglau Language Island [in Moravia]

An old midwife related this, so it must be true. Until a child is baptized, mysterious beings attempt to steal it and put a changeling in its place. Such a changeling has a large head with coal-black hair and a small body with thin legs, which do not learn to walk. When this misfortune occurs, one must beat the changeling without mercy until the thief returns the right child.

A woman had laid her as yet unbaptized baby in a canopied bed. The cherries had just ripened, and the red, tempting fruit was beckoning through the window from the garden. The new mother could not resist, and went outside to pick a few cherries. She had scarcely crossed the threshold when she was overcome by anxiety for her slumbering child, and she quickly returned. There was, in fact, a being standing next to the bed. The woman cried out and the being disappeared. The imprint of its horrible paw, where it had grabbed for the child, could still be seen on the canopied bed.


Source: Anton Altrichter, Sagen aus der Iglauer Sprachinsel (Iglau: Druck von J. Rippel und Sohn, 1920), p. 100.


Satan Attempts to Steal a Child

Johann Adolf Heyl, Folk Legends, Customs, and Beliefs from Tyrol

In the Sarn Valley there lived a farmer's wife who did not take Christianity all too seriously. She failed to bless her children morning and night. Nor was she good to people in other regards. She quarreled with the servants, and no one did well enough to please her.

One evening she scolded the entire household and sent the children the bed without giving them a blessing or having them say their prayers. Suddenly the devil stood in the middle of the room, ripped the youngest child from its bed and was about to carry it away. He was already at the hole in the wall though which he had entered when the farmer's wife saw him. She was terrified, but fortunately it occurred to her to make the sign of the cross above the child. Seeing this, the devil dropped the child to the floor and fled screaming back out through the hole.

That was a good lesson for the woman. She changed her ways and became pious and patient, and she also had her children say their prayers. Never again did she allow one of them to get up or go to bed without receiving her blessing. However, no one was ever able to plaster shut the hole that the devil had made in the wall in order to enter the house.


Source: Joh. Adolf Heyl, Volkssagen, Bräuche und Meinungen aus Tirol (Brixen: Verlag der Buchhandlung des Kath.-polit. Pressvereins, 1897), pp. 277-278.


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Revised December 17, 2005.