Changelings: Alterity beyond difference

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Drawing on historical and ethnographic data from Gaelic Scotland and Ireland, as well as data from contemporary Chile, this talk explores the phenomenon of changelings. Changelings are cuckoo-like imposters, left in the place of humans abducted by fairy captors, and identical in almost all aspects to the humans they have displaced. Yet small indices of difference – voracious appetite, rapid ageing, and fear of fire and iron – lead kin to suspect that the people in their midst might not be whom they seem. What intrigues me, however, is that not just difference, but similarity too, comes to index alterity in surprising ways. The question then becomes not just an epistemological one of how we can know others, but an ontological one of what kinds of others do we think we know. This shifting configuration of similarity and difference within the changeling encounter reveal a micropolitics of alterity that I suggest resonates beyond the historical and folkloric record to find parallels in contemporary debates about kinship. In particular, the perpetual presence of alterity within the kinship relation might lead to a reconsideration of Marshall Sahlins’ recent insistence upon ‘mutuality of being’ as the essence of ‘what kinship is.’
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12-21
Number of pages10
JournalFolk Life
Issue number1
Early online date29 Jun 2017
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • changelings
  • alterity
  • difference
  • fairies
  • similarity
  • kinship
  • Ireland
  • Scotland


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