I’m sure we’ve probably all heard the famous rhyme, in which the day of your birth dictates your character. It’s a common form of birth folklore that many of us will find whimsical, at most.
Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go,
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child works hard for a living,
But the child that is both on the Sabbath day,
Is bonny, and blithe, and good, and gay!
But there is far more to the world of pregnancy and birth folklore than this simple rhyme! What many of these beliefs and practices have in common is a desire to protect the baby. Some of them go further, trying to predict the future life of the baby, and influence it for the better where possible.
So how did people try to protect pregnant mothers and babies in the past? Read on to find out more about pregnancy and birth folklore! Or hit ‘play’ to hear the audio version of this post.
In ancient Greece, childbirth fell under the protection of Artemis. It might seem a strange choice at first for a virgin goddess. Yet in being born first, she helped her mother Leto deliver her twin brother, Apollo. She’s a safe pair of hands in these matters! The ancient Greeks also had Eileithyia, goddess of childbirth and labour pains, and Hera, goddess of women and marriage.
The ancient Romans had Juno, goddess of marriage and childbirth, and Diana, goddess of childbirth and hunting. Sometimes both Diana and Juno are given Lucina as an epithet to denote their role as childbirth goddesses. The Romans believed a whole range of deities looked after birth and childhood, covering everything from opening the baby’s mouth for the first cry, to prompting their first words.
Taweret was the goddess of childbirth in ancient Egypt. She had the body of a hippopotamus, the legs of a cat, and the tail of a crocodile. She acted in a protective capacity to chase away demons. Evidence of her worship dates to 2600 BC.
Other cultures featured fertility goddesses that sometimes presided over childbirth too, but these are goddesses with a specific role in childbirth.
Birth Folklore: Protection for Mothers and Newborns
Childbirth is a scary time, even in the 21st century. Pregnancy leaves mothers vulnerable. The UK child mortality rate (deaths under five years old) was 329 deaths per thousand births in 1800. That works out as around 1 in 3. By 2015, the rate dropped to 5 deaths per thousand births (Statista 2019). So we can see why people would turn to protective measures wherever possible.
In Germany, parents drew three crosses on the door at the height of the newborn. The child was safe from hexes once they outgrew the marks (Lecouteux 2013). Elsewhere, impending parents tried to keep evil from the birthing room. They did so by standing an upside-down broom in front of the door, or sticking a knife into it (Lecouteux 2013).
There isn’t much specific birth folklore around the birth itself, perhaps because it wasn’t deemed important enough to record. That said, there is still evidence of protective rituals. Protestants confiscated two girdles, a red one for Our Lady and a white one for Mary Magdalene, from a Bristol convent. Pregnant women used the girdles to speed delivery and protect against evil (Simpson 2007: 58). One belief dictated that the husband could relieve his wife’s labour pains by wearing some of her clothes. Here, the pains would transfer through the garments (Newman 1939: 178).
And then there are eaglestones!
This concept came from Pliny the Elder, who discussed the phenomenon of the aetites. This was a stone found in an eagle’s nest. People placed them into skins taken from sacrificed animals and then attached them to pregnant women or cattle. This was believed to ensure that they carried their young to term. If the stones weren’t removed at the right time, birth couldn’t take place (Simpson 2007: 59).
The stones themselves were actually nodules of siderite or limonite. They were hollow, and often contained grains of sand or loose clay. This meant they rattled if they were shaken. People took this to mean the stone was ‘pregnant’, hence their use in maternity care. These bird stones lost popularity by the end of the Anglo-Saxon era, although they did have a resurgence during the renaissance.
Speaking of birds, Simpson and Roud suggest that the idea storks brought babies came from northern Europe. Apparently “storks nesting on roofs are regarded as a sign of good luck and family happiness”, which they suggest explains the belief (Simpson 2007: 234).
A belief from ancient Greece was that a baby boy would lie to the right of the womb, affecting that side of her body. Even in 1724, midwives were taught to look out for swellings on the right to predict a boy (Simpson 2007: 284). Mothers were also recommended to hang their wedding ring or a key from either a thread of one of their hairs. They were to hang this over the bump to see which way it spun. Respondents didn’t agree whether anti-clockwise meant a boy or a girl (Simpson 2007: 284).
Similar beliefs surround the bump and how the baby kicks. One belief records that a bump carried entirely at the front indicated a boy, where daughters caused bumps to the sides too. Others thought boys kicked harder than girls, but also that they kicked less often (Simpson 2007: 284). The quality of sleep an expectant mother gets dictates whether her child is a light or sound sleeper (Rose 1923: 156).
Parents also believed they could predict much about their child’s future life from their birth. Midwives claimed a breech birth indicated a difficult child, since ‘awkward born, awkward all their lives’ (Simpson 2007: 13). Meanwhile, a baby born with its hands open indicated a generous temperament (Simpson 2007: 13).
Births and the Supernatural
Those born at midnight on a Friday or during chime hours could apparently see ghosts (Simpson 2007: 13). We’ve talked before about the witching hour, but chime hours vary. In Suffolk, they were 8 pm, 12 am, and 4 am, but they were 3, 6, 9 and 12 in Sussex (Simpson 2007: 60). The time of day that the birth happened also dictated the length of the child’s life. Their lifespan apparently shortened the later they were born in the day (Rose 1923: 156).
Babies might be born ‘in the caul’. People believed that keeping the caul made them immune from drowning. Indeed, there was a roaring trade in selling cauls, which transferred protection onto their new owner. In 1799, one caul changed hands for 30 guineas (Simpson 2007: 50). If a person lost their caul, they’d become a restless wanderer (Simpson 2007: 51). Surprisingly, owning a caul was also believed to pass on eloquence, making them popular in political circles (Newman 1939: 184).
Blame It On the Mother?
Birthmarks were explained as the mother’s fault. She was said to have looked too hard at something or been frightened by it. Such a feeling was believed to have then imprinted on the growing baby (Simpson 2007: 284). A nurse in Hendon reported that a child apparently had an aeroplane-shaped mole on its side. The child’s grandmother insisted it was because air-raids had frightened the mother during pregnancy (Bonham-Carter 1940: 117).
Other ailments were explained by particular animals crossing the mother’s path during pregnancy (Simpson 2007: 284). The mother also needed to take care not to let her baby look into a mirror before the baby reached a year old. If the baby did so, they would grow up conceited (Simpson 2007: 13).
Some women were not allowed to touch scissors or knives while pregnant, due to the taboo of touching iron (Paddon 1921: 211). I find this a surprising one, given the role of iron in guarding against fairies. Meanwhile, pregnant women were discouraged from taking certain actions in case it affected their baby. M. C. Paddon relates a case in which a woman was told not to turn the handle of her sewing machine. If she did, the turning handle would cause the cord to twist around the baby’s neck, which seems rather macabre to tell a pregnant woman (1921: 211).
Getting a Good Start
Midwives needed to ‘raise’ the baby so their first move after birth was upwards. This would mean they would ‘go up in the world’. The midwife would either carry the baby upstairs, or even just climb onto a stool (Simpson 2007: 13).
After this, the next important phase was dealing with the placenta. According to Simpson and Roud, the official rule in 20th-century midwifery was to burn the placenta. This was done either on the fire for a home birth or in a hospital incinerator. “Some said one could tell how many more children the woman would have by counting the pops it made while burning” (2007: 280).
As a side issue, a belief in 19th-century Cheshire was that a man could gain the affections of any woman by burying a placenta at her home’s threshold. One man is on record as having tried this, after paying two guineas for a placenta, though the charm thankfully failed (Simpson 2007: 280).
But back to babies!
You’ll probably have heard the phrase, ‘wetting the baby’s head’. This was done to bring the baby good luck in life. In Cumberland, people washed the baby’s head in rum. They used gin in Suffolk (Simpson 2007: 13).
People in northern England followed 18th-century birth folklore to bring the baby luck and wealth in life. If the baby was taken to visit relatives or neighbours, the latter would give the baby bread, an egg, and salt (Simpson 2007: 13). Nowadays, people still give a silver coin to a baby they meet for the first time (Simpson 2007: 13).
Babies often drop things, and to find a shoe dropped by a baby was particularly lucky (Rose 1923: 156). Having a baby poo on you was also considered lucky (Rose 1923: 156). If you dressed your baby and put their clothes on inside out by mistake, then the baby would receive a present within seven days (Rose 1923: 156).
A good-tempered person should kiss the baby first so their influence rubbed off on the baby throughout their life (Taylor 1929: 123). Wrapping the baby in an old shirt of its father would pass on strength, but mothers shouldn’t wash the baby too often or they’d wash away its health (Taylor 1929: 123).
Some birth folklore in Europe involved planting a tree when the child arrived. Virgil’s parents were said to have planted a poplar. As the tree grew, so their son’s greatness was supposed to grow (The Journal of American Folklore 1895: 323). In Switzerland, Germany, France, Italy, Russia and England, the practice involved planting a fruit tree. Tending this tree was believed to influence how well the child’s life would turn out.
It was important to use a name for the new baby that hadn’t been used in advance. Once the baby was born, they shouldn’t leave the house until they were christened. The mother couldn’t even attend the christening if she hadn’t been churched yet (Simpson 2007: 16).
It was important that the baby cried when sprinkled with holy water during the christening. This showed the Devil had been driven out (Simpson 2007: 16). If lots of babies were baptised at once, the boys should go first.
As for churching, this was an archaic practice that assumed childbirth ‘polluted’ a woman. She needed to be blessed by a priest after birth so she could rejoin society. Medieval women wore veils to church, where they were blessed with holy water. People believed it was bad luck to meet a woman who left her house before being churched. Elsewhere, ‘churching’ referred to a woman’s first Sunday service after giving birth (Simpson 2007: 68).
Indeed, in East Anglia, people believed the neighbour would become pregnant within a year if a mother visited before being churched (Newman 1939: 185). Others believed that an outsider who helped with the washing after a baby was born would also become pregnant. so only those not of childbearing age would help out with household washing around a birth (Newman 1939: 185). The belief doesn’t specify at what point others could come in to assist, so I’m assuming it stopped being an issue when the mother could return to her own washing.
Birth Folklore is Really About Protection
We may look at these practices or superstitions and sneer. They often stand at odds with what we know from better medical care and improved assistance during birth. But people clung to this birth folklore as a way to protect pregnant mothers and babies at a time when they were most vulnerable.
And indeed, is carrying a newborn upstairs to ensure they go ‘up in the world’ any different from the lengths parents go to when putting their children down for their chosen schools? This birth folklore takes us to the end of the first few weeks of the baby’s life. Next week, we’ll explore the folklore of childhood! Why not sign up below to be notified when the post goes live? You’ll also get my free guide to home protection—the folklore way!
Journal of American Folklore, (1895), ‘Tree-Planting at Childbirth’, The Journal of American Folklore, 8:31, pp. 323-4.
Lecouteux, Claude (2013), Tradition Of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices, Toronto: Inner Traditions.
Paddon, M. C. (1921), ‘the Taboo of Iron in Childbirth’, Folklore, 32:3, p. 211.
Rose, H. J. (1923), ‘Folklore Scraps’, Folklore, 34:2, pp. 154-8.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Statista (2019), ‘Child mortality in the United Kingdom 1800-2020’, Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/1041714/united-kingdom-all-time-child-mortality-rate/.
Taylor, Mark R. (1929), ‘Norfolk Folklore’, Folklore, 40:2, pp. 113-133.
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