“The Father of Eighteen Elves” is a Scandinavian, “changeling” folktale from Iceland. The story began on a farm. Everyone in the household was outside working except for the farmer’s wife and her young son. The boy was very precocious and they were quite proud of all his accomplishments. The mother had household chores to do, so she left the boy in the doorway and went to the brook. When she returned, the boy would no longer speak to her, but instead began to cry hysterically. Even his mother was unable to soothe him. Because she didn’t know what to do, she went to see the wise old woman and ask for her advice.
The wise woman asked her many questions until finally she queried. “Do you think this child might now be a changeling? It seems to have been left on your doorway and your own son taken away.” Sadly, the mother didn’t know. But because she wanted an answer, the wise old woman told her just what to do. “Place before the child something he has never seen and then hide away so he thinks he is alone. If he then begins to speak you will know for certain that he is a changeling. Now, beat him without mercy.”
And that is exactly what the mother did. She fashioned a new porridge spoon out of some reeds that reached up the chimney. She then placed the spoon in the cauldron with the fire burning. Once everything was ready, she left the room but continued to peak through the doorway. The boy began to pace throughout the room and finally said, “I may be old enough to father 18 elves, but I’ve never seen such a long spoon in such a small pot.” Quickly the mother came into the room and began flogging the child.
Suddenly a strange woman came through the front door carrying the missing boy. “Do you see how different we are?” she said. “I treated your son with love and you beat and abuse my husband.” She returned the boy to his true mother and took the changeling by the hand. Together they disappeared through the front door.
In this story, the old woman shares her experience and wisdom with the young mother. It is an expected role, embracing the archetype of the elder or sage. An interesting element to this story is the “changeling”- a being that can change shapes and moves from a child to an old elf and back again. Most often it was thought that fairies and elves exchanged their children for human ones. In rare cases, the very elderly of the fairy people would be exchanged in the place of a human baby, so that the old fairy could live in comfort, being coddled by human parents.
The old woman is the only one who can identify the changeling as a being that is both duplicitous and troublesome. Posing to be a child, makes it one of the most dangerous of beings, for people are least guarded around children. Although the young mother thinks something is wrong, she is unable to identify the cause. That is an ability requiring both education and experience. These are qualities that the wise old woman has in spades.
Finally, the old woman doesn’t seek the young mother out, but simply waits and lives her life until she is needed. Forcing wisdom on youth reminds one of the Biblical admonitions not to “throw pearls before swine.” The young mother proved worthy for she followed the advice without question.
D.L. Ashliman, Folktexts: a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.
Jón Arnason, Icelandic Legends, translated by George E. J. Powell and Eiríkur Magnússon (London: R. Bentley, 1864). "Head of Old Woman" by Joseph Highmore.