Strange Customs and Superstitions Surrounding Childbirth
Mother and baby superstitions
Where did you come from, baby dear?
Out of the everywhere into the here.
Where did you get those eyes so blue?
Out of the sky as I came through.
What makes the light in them sparkle and spin?
Some of the starry spikes left in.
George Macdonald (1824–1905)
In the past the high rate of death during childbirth of the mother and baby meant people would do anything to keep both safe. It's therefore not surprising that so many strange customs and superstitions came into being.
The dangers were often believed to be in the form of bad spirits, demons or even the 'little people' waiting to steal a new-born child. In addition, so common was childbirth death that when preparing for her baby's arrival, the mother would also make arrangements for their funeral.
Even before the birth of the baby there were weird beliefs and practices performed. For example in England, when a queen entered the room where she would give birth, it would be cleared of all tapestries that depicted images of animals or mythological creatures. These were thought to affect the mind of the mother-to-be in an evil way. It was believed that the woman's mind would be so affected that it would harm and/or change the baby into the forms depicted on the tapestry.
In medieval times many women gave birth in the sitting position in order to speed up the birth. If the baby was not born within about 20 contractions, then all manner of customs were employed to try to get the baby moving. This must have a been a very noisy and stressful time for the mum-to-be as strategies employed would be used to try and symbolically open the womb such as:
- opening drawers and cupboards
- opening the lids of chests
- untying knots
- it was even known for arrows to be shot into the air.
When the baby was born - in wealthy homes at least - it wasn't uncommon for the baby to be bathed in wine or milk rather than water. However, a 12th century female physician always recommended hot water on the baby's tongue just after birth to ensure the infant would speak well.
These are just a few of the strange beliefs and superstions in relation to childbirth. Let's have a look at some more.
Sleep, baby, sleep
Your father tends the sheep
Your mother shakes the dreamland tree
And from it fall sweet dreams for thee
Sleep, baby, sleep
Sleep, baby, sleep
(verse one of a Lullaby)
It's interesting that superstitions relating to pregnancy and childbirth from around the world, tend to have similar themes - warding off evil or harm to the baby and mother. Even in modern times there are people who will follow certain traditions to try an ensure everything goes smoothly. Here are some examples of old customs used to avoid bad luck or bring good luck:
- When a pram was bought for the baby, many would not have it delivered until after the baby was born. To have it delivered before the birth is believed by some to bring bad luck.
- There is an old tradition of placing a silver coin in a baby's hand when you see it for the first time. Silver is traditionally a metal that wards of evil and gives protection. It's also a symbol of future prosperity. In addition the baby's hand that received the coin should not be washed as this would remove the good luck.
- Another ritual involving silver was to show the silver coin to the moon for good luck, this was then sometimes given to the baby or mother.
Curing common ailments
This led to hundreds of superstitions and odd 'cures' such as:
- To protect a baby against colic it should be carried around the house three times.
- If a baby was in pain with teething the mother should rub it's gums with her gold wedding ring.
- There are quite a few beliefs that feel it's unlucky to weigh a newborn baby.
- For the mother during labour, a knife was placed under the bed as this was believed to ease her pains.
- Pins have many superstitions surrounding them especially in relation to good luck and bad luck. One belief relating to a woman's newborn child states that - "If a woman sticks pins or needles into curtains during the first six weeks after childbirth, her child will have bad teeth."
Ensuring a good life for the baby
This could only be achieved if a number of rituals were performed:
- In order that a new born baby would have a successful life it had to be carried upstairs before being carried downstairs. If the baby had been born in an upstairs room, the problem was solved by taking the baby in your arms and standing on a chair.
- Babies would never be allowed to see their reflection in a mirror until they were at least 12 months old. This was in order to prevent them turning into thieves.
- If a boy and a girl were to be baptised on the same day it was better for the boy to go through the ritual first. It was believed that if the girl was baptised first she would grow a beard.
- Women who were pregnant would avoid stepping over a grave as this could be an omen of the death of her unborn child.
- Great care was taken when eating bread with a pregnant woman - "one may not pierce the bread of a pregnant woman with a knife or fork, or else the child's eyes will be poked out."
- In ancient Greece when the mother was ready to give birth the midwives would be called. The first thing they would do was to ensure that there were no knots of any kind in the room. It was believed that knots had strange powers to delay the birth or cause other harm to the mother or baby. This is interesting as knots are believed to have powerful magical properties in some beliefs.
- Again in Greece, once the baby was born a magical symbol of protection was made on the baby's forehead. This ensured that anyone with an evil eye would not be able to curse the baby.
- If you didn't want another baby too soon, then you must never rock an empty cradle. If you do, then it will soon be filled with another baby.
- Animals that come into contact with a pregnant woman were thought to have an influence on the baby. One such belief stated that - "If a ferret, stoat or weasel jumps over the tummy of a pregnant woman then the child will be born with a birthmark."
- Another animal that a pregnant woman would be wary of was a rat. It was thought that if a rat ran around her feet this was sign of bad luck.
Predicting the sex of the baby.
The most popular tradition is of course the ring and string method. Using a ring on a string the device is held over the baby bump. If the ring moves in a circular motion this signifies a boy if it goes from side to side it's meant to be a girl. However, there were other methods used to determine the sex of the baby:
- In ancient Greece there was a curious superstition that if you made love with your husband while a north wind was blowing then the sex of the next child would be a boy. A southern wind was a girl. It doesn't go onto to identify what happens if no wind is blowing?
- The baby kicking was supposed to tell you the sex of the child depending on which side the kick is felt. Left side for a boy, right side for a girl.
- If you refuse to eat the heel of loaf of bread this signifies your baby is a girl.
- If you have a craving for meat and cheese, it's a boy.
Lastly we'll look at the customs and superstitions that surrounded the baby to protect them from fairies and other supernatural dangers.
Do you have any superstitions or rituals that you practice to bring good luck or ward off bad luck?
The fairy-folk, witches, the devil and changelings
'Let the superstitious wife
Near the child's heart lay a knife.
Point be up, and haft be down,
While she gossips in the town.
This amongst other mystic charms
Keeps the sleeping child from harms.'
In the past the most frightening aspect of having a baby was ensuring the infant was kept from harm. Especially from supernatural beings - some of the fairy folk in particular were feared. It was widely believed that the fairies loved nothing better than having a new born baby to bring up as their own. On stealing the human baby, they would place a fairy baby - known as a changeling - in the crib. In most cases the stories from centuries ago about changelings are not pleasant tales and the fairies responsible were believed to be evil. In addition, the belief in changelings went on into relatively modern times. For example, Bridget Cleary an Irish wife was murdered by her husband in 1895 as he was convinced she was a changeling.
So how could the family prevent their new born baby being taken or harmed by the supernatural? Some of the precautions used are described below:
- Needless to say in times gone by women were regarded as being so weak that the devil could easily over power them. This was thought to be particularly true just after childbirth when the mother and baby were watched constantly during the first six weeks after the baby's birth. This was to ensure that neither fairy folk, witches or demons could enter while they slept and do harm.
- In addition, mothers could not go to sleep unless someone else was there to stand guard and watch the baby. It was widely believed that when a mother slept her baby would be substituted for a changeling. One remedy for this, should she be so tried and unable to stay awake, was to place a pair of men's pants over the cradle as this was thought to stop the fairies getting access to the baby.
- It was known that iron or objects made from iron would keep the fairies away. So the family would take great care to ensure that iron in the form of nails and so on were placed around the house and near to the mother and baby. An open pair of scissors was often placed above the cradle to give protection. Once of the best known iron protectors is of course a horseshoe above the door.
- Fire was also used as protection against all kinds of evil - bad fairies, witches and demons. When a woman was ready to give birth, a fire was carried around her in the shape of a circle to ensure any evil entities would be chased away.
- If fairies were seen entering the house, embers were thrown at them to chase them off.
- Various plants were also used around the home to give protection against evil spirits. Plants such as St.John's Wort and red verbena were used. In addition, a simple daisy chain placed around the baby's neck prevented them being kidnapped by evil fairies. Outside the home, Rowan trees would be planted as further protection against malevolent beings.
- A baby's clothes would have pins inserted into them in the shape of a cross to give protection.
- Once a baby had been baptised all danger was removed.
I hope you've enjoyed this curious journey into the land of superstition, fairies and magic. It will be interesting to note if in 500 years time some of our practices today will seem as quaint as we regard those from our past.
Lastly, if you can add to any of the beliefs and customs that are presented in the hub then let us know about them in the comments.