Northern European Birth Traditions
Updated: Apr 8, 2021
When preparing for my daughter's birth last year, I sought ancestral birthing traditions. I share them here in hopes that other pregnant folk may find magic and support in these ancient practices. At the end of the post are suggestions for how you may wish in incorporate these traditions into a modern pregnancy and birth.
The Bath House: In Finland, Nordic, and some Slavic cultures, women would birth in the sauna or bathhouse. The sauna was the cleanest place on the homestead, frequently sanitized with steam. Bathing day was traditionally Saturday, so if you saw smoke rising from your pregnant neighbor's sauna on a day other than Saturday, you would know a birth was underway. All the neighbors would rush to prepare a meal for the new family, as it was a great honor to be the first to bring the birthing family a meal.
The Three Fates: Across Germanic, Slavic, Celtic, and Southern European people, we find beliefs in the Three Wyrd Sisters who weave the fate of every person. In Norse they are called the Norns, in English the Wyrd Sisters, in Germanic lands the Matronae, and the Slavs called them the the Rozhanitsy. They watched over pregnant women, and gathered at each birth to set the fate of the child. They were given food offerings either during the birth or sometimes a few days after, depending on the culture. The Norse offered them porridge, called Nornagretur, while the Slovenes and Croats put candles, wine, bread and salt in a woman's room the day after birth. In the Sleeping Beauty tale, the "fairy godmothers" who come to bless the new baby at a feast are remnants of these ancient deities.
Runes: Certain runes were believed to aid in birth, as told in the Poetic Eddas: "Beech-runes are there, birth-runes are there." The texts do not tell us which runes are the birth runes, but many believe that Berkana and Pertho are two of the runes of birth. Runes were drawn on the hands of a birthing woman to ease her labor.
In Ireland, women would grasp hazel wands during birth, hazel being a magic tree. Another Irish tradition said that a child's soul was passed through the breastmilk, and the child could be enspirited by all the women who suckled him. On St. Brigid's Day, a cloth would be left outside the home to be blessed by the Saint/Old Goddess Brigid. These cloths would be used to ease the pains of birth, as well as other pains, such as headaches. Another Irish tradition was for women to walk between two bonfires or jump over a bonfire on Beltane. Walking between the fires conferred protection on humans and animals and would encourage pregnancy and make for an easier birth.
In many cultures, it was important to untie all knots, unbraid hair, and remove any ties from a woman during labor. It was believed that Mother Mary rushed to the aid of a woman laboring with loose hair. In Poland, any locks, such as in doors or chests, were opened to aid the woman in opening the birth portal. The mother would have gathered blessed herbs to have on hand when the labors came. If the labor was difficult, a woman might have her husband sit on her knee to ease birth--one of the few mentions I have seen of a man at the birth. Most sources say that men were not allowed at births. I like to imagine Polish couples trying out various positions and poses during labor, much like we modern folk do while laboring together in partnership. If the birth was especially difficult, a woman would go outside and sit on the earth, which would support her with all the fertile power of the land. Similarly, if someone was very ill and having a prolonged death, the person would be laid on the earth to ease the dying process. The earth was the great supporter of both the beginning and ending of life.
Throughout Europe, midwives attended births. In Poland these women were called "baba" or "babka" and in Norse "bjargrýgr"--"helping-woman." In Poland, the midwife would think of the children she had helped into the world as grandchildren, and the term baba originally had the connotation and weight of kinship ties. When the baby was given her first bath, the family would toss coins into the water so that the child would be wealthy. The babka would later take these coins as payment. After the first bath, the babka would pass the baby to the father, and when he took the child from her, he accepted the baby as his own.
Shortly after birth, Nordic people would place a newborn baby on the ground, even in winter. If the child died, it was thought that the child would not have been strong enough to survive long anyway. Many children died in infancy, and the names of these babies were often reused if the mother and midwife believed that the same spirit was coming through again. Babies were composites of the ancestors, and certain aspects of the family lines were believed to seek to be born. The sagas mention sprinkling a new baby with water. A baby who had been sprinkled with water, named, and suckled could no longer be rejected and left exposed to die. Before the naming and baptism, however, it was acceptable to reject infants. Similarly, in the Sacred Bee, Hilda Ransome writes: "The newborn child was regarded as a "soul" or "spirit" until it had received food; if a child's mouth had once been smeared with honey, it might not be killed. There was an old Friesian law which allowed the father to kill or expose his child, but if the babe had had milk and honey its life must be spared. The divine food, honey, thus secured life for the child, and in early Christian times it was used immediately after baptism." While exposing a newborn may seem cruel to modern folk, people living on the edge of survival were not always able to feed all the children who were conceived, and families had to look to the survival of the entire clan.
Other European cultures also had ritual baptisms of babies. The Polish used herbs collected on the Feast of the Divine Mother of Herbs (August 15) in the baby's first bath. The first bath was usually in a wooden dough bin in the hope that the child would grow like quickly rising bread. Boys were bathed with hazel leaves. Mugwort, thyme, and lovage were common for both genders. The Irish bathed babies in water or milk, if they could afford it. As Christianity came to Ireland, mothers would make a fiery circle around themselves and their infants before bringing them to be baptized in the church--presumably to invoke the protection of the old gods and goddesses.
European cultures often provided new mothers and babies with a postpartum time of seclusion and healing. During this time, the mother was not to leave the house, and focused on rest, bonding, and healing. The conventional view was that women were "unclean" during this period, but another, more supportive, interpretation is that women are in a sensitive liminal time and should not be expending their energy on everyday matters. The book The First Forty Days talks about the Chinese beliefs about the postpartum period and how a restful and nourishing regime can support a mother's health for the rest of her life. I like to reinterpret the European first forty days in this supportive context.
If you wish to incorporate some European traditions into your birth, you might consider:
--Light the virtual sauna smoke by letting your friends and family know when birth is underway and asking for gifts of meals from your community.
--Labor in your "bathhouse", i.e. shower or tub.
--Loosen your hair to invoke the goddess.
--Sit on the earth to draw in the support of the land.
--Set out an offering to the Norns/Fates before or after the birth.
--Draw birth runes on your hands or placing them on your altar.
--Set out a cloth for Brigid to bless. Use it in "rebozo" type birth techniques.
--Try different laboring positions with your partner, if you have one.
--Use a midwife and/or doula and consider them part of your family.
--Collect sacred herbs for your baby's first bath. (Don't use honey as it is unsafe for infants.) Make the first bath a sacred baptism and welcome the baby into the family.
--Have a special naming ritual or celebration to welcome the baby into the clan.
--Take at least forty days to rest and bond. Consider this a sacred spiritual time.
--While breastfeeding, feel spirit energy flow from you into your baby, enlivening her.
Polish Traditions, Customs, and Folklore by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab
The Serpent and the Goddess by Mary Condren
The Sacred Bee by Hilda Ransome
Classes by Kari Tauring
Families and Demographics in the Viking Age: http://www.hurstwic.org/history/articles/daily_living/text/Demographics.htm
Deities and fairies of fate in Slavic mythology: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deities_and_fairies_of_fate_in_Slavic_mythology