Ancient Childbirth Beliefs and Rituals Thought to Protect Mother and Child
For much of human history, pregnancy and childbirth was an extremely dangerous period in a woman’s life. It was often believed that the expectant mother and her baby were vulnerable to malevolent supernatural forces. Therefore, many ancient civilizations developed childbirth rituals which were believed to protect both the mother and her baby from harm.
Aztec Deity - Chalchiuhtlicue is associated with fertility and is the patroness of childbirth. (Curator Minneapolis Institute of Arts / Public Domain)
Who Were the Deities Responsible for Protection of Childbirth?
As it was believed that evil spirits would attack a woman while she was giving birth, many ancient societies had a deity / several deities in their pantheon who would be given the task of protecting women in labor. The ancient Egyptians, for example, had two deities in charge of childbirth. One of them was Bes, the ferocious-looking dwarf god. The other Tawaret, who is portrayed as a bipedal female hippopotamus with feline attributes, pendulous breasts, and the back of a crocodile. Both deities were responsible for protecting women who were giving birth. The Greeks too had a special goddess for childbirth, Eileithyia, though it was also usual for them to pray to Hecate and Hera for protection. Although Christianity is not a polytheistic religion, there is a patron saint for childbirth, midwives, and pregnant women – St. Raymond Nonnatus.
Bes together with his feminine counterpart Beset, is an Ancient Egyptian deity worshipped as a protector of households, in particular, mothers, children, and childbirth. (Rama / CC BY-SA 3.0)
What Rituals Were Needed to Insure Protection?
Praying to the gods / saints for protection during childbirth was not enough. Many ancient societies had rituals which were performed to ensure that the birthing process went as smoothly as possible. In ancient Greece, for example, it was believed that knots in the delivery room were magical obstacles to a baby’s birth and therefore any knots in the area had to be undone as quickly as possible. The ancient Anglo-Saxons believed that an easy birth could be achieved by performing a ritual dance involving a dead man and a living one (normally her husband). The expectant mother would first step over the grave of a dead man while reciting a charm and then over a live man lying on the ground while reciting another charm.
Saint Raymond Nonnatus is the patron saint of childbirth, midwives, children, and pregnant women. Saint Raymond Nonnatus being fed by Angels by Eugenio Caxés, 1630. (Follower Of Eugenio Cajes / Public Domain)
What Rituals Were Performed After the Birth?
There were further rituals to be performed once the child was born. One of the most important ones involves the baby’s placenta. The Aztecs, for instance, would bury the placenta of a baby girl in the corner of the home. On the other hand, the placenta of a baby boy would be given to a warrior to be buried in enemy territory. This was supposed to ensure that the child would grow up to become a strong and courageous warrior. Around the same time in Europe the placenta would be placed over the head of the new-born baby so as to prevent sore eyes.
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Ancient Roman relief carving of a midwife attending a woman giving birth. (Wellcome Collection Gallery / CC BY-SA 4.0)
Special Gifts to the Child to Ensure Protection
Other rituals performed after the birth of a child involved gifts. In ancient Rome babies were given a special locket, known as a bulla, to be worn around their neck when the child was given his/her first name. For boys, this occurred nine days after birth, while for girls eight days. The bulla contained an amulet that was believed to protect the child from all evil. Boys wore their bulla until they became citizens, girls would wear theirs until the eve of their wedding. Therefore, the setting aside of the bulla symbolized the transition from childhood to adulthood. Nevertheless, a man could wear his bulla again if he won special honors, for instance a triumph, to protect him from the evil jealousy of others. In England a would-be father was expected to provide a groaning cheese while his wife was in labor. After the child was born, the cheese would be cut from the middle and given to those in the room and the baby’s first visitors. When all the cheese had been served, only the rind, which formed a hollow ring would remain. On the day of the child’s baptism the child would be passed through the ring to ensure good luck for his/her future.
Bulla, an amulet worn like a locket was given to children in Ancient Rome nine days after birth. (Agnete / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Top image: Ancient Khmer carving of childbirth. Source: (BasPhoto / Adobe)
By Wu Mingren
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