Before I get into pregnancy and childbirth lore from old Ireland and Scotland, please note that I don’t necessarily embrace or endorse these beliefs. As a modern Druid, I seek to know how my ancestors – Pagan and Christian – lived before things became very industrialized and modern. While some folk practices are seemingly out-of-touch or misinformed, they are, at the very least, helpful in understanding our ancestors’ way of thinking which can help us to understand other practices. At the same time, some folk practices remain very valid – if not medically, then at least spiritually. Just as many other Neo-Druids and Celtic Reconstructionists, I only revive what I feel makes the most sense to my modern brain, or to inform possible experimentation with new practices and interventions like the medicine of today. Family or friends who are not practicing animists and/or polytheists may find the information in this post alarming, but rest assured that, while I live a magical life, I do so as a modern woman who thinks and acts as she feels best, and who doesn’t simply adopt a practice just because it’s old and esoteric.
Awhile ago, I shared a link to Woden’s Wandering Witch in which the author examines some Irish lore relating to pregnancy. It is definitely a good read, but it left me wanting more. Surely there must be more! Oh, but it’s difficult to dig up anything on this subject! Part of the difficulty is that much of what we do know relates to fosterage, the common practice in Ireland where children are placed in the care of others to form familiar and/or political bonds, and good birth mothers were able to arrange this whereas bad mothers were not (Bitel, 88). Because the law texts were more interested in this, as well as defining the various types of marriage, we have little information about the birthmother and the childbirth process. Therefore, we must make inferences based on the lore and rely on modern ethnographic research that took place when Christianity was in place. Most historical books I own on the ancient Celts deal with other themes. Some have a chapter about women, but spend most of it examining those famous examples we know from history and mythology – Queen Medb, Boudica, Brighid the Goddess, St. Brigit, Macha… It’s difficult to find a lot of information on the every day woman or what her life was like. The aforementioned exceptional examples of womanhood are all very well and good. As a woman who aspires to be knowledgeable, courageous, and spiritual, of course I admire them! Of the bunch, researching Brighid or her saintly counterpart is the most helpful in understanding the ancient Irish and Scottish concepts of pregnancy, birth, and motherhood given that she has been prayed to by women seeking help in labor (Freeman, 50) or infertility (Ó Duinn, 157). She is often considered a mother, or foster mother, to Ireland (Bitel, 100). There are also stories about the saint acting as a midwife or wet nurse to Jesus Christ (Hutton, 135). And let’s not forget her association with milk – although this remains a contentious subject among Celtic linguists, her festival’s name, “Imbolc” may to refer to the lactation of sheep and thus new mothers in the animal world (Hutton, 134). There is evidence that Brighid, Goddess or Saint (a matter of perspective, often blurred seeming) was prayed to by laboring mothers, and midwives often invited Brighid to enter a home once a woman went into labor (Freeman, 55). Prayers in Alexander Carmichael’s Carmina Gadelica capture some examples from Scotland, such as “Bride the aid-woman:”
There came to me assistance,
Mary fair and Bride;
As Anna bore Mary,
As Mary bore Christ,
As Eile bore John the Baptist
Without flaw in him,
Aid thou me in mine unbearing,
Aid me, O Bride!
As Christ was conceived of Mary
Full perfect on every hand,
Assist thou me, foster-mother,
The conception to bring from the bone;
And as thou didst aid the Virgin of joy,
Without gold, without corn, without kine,
Aid thou me, great is my sickness,
Aid me, O Bride! (71)
Carmina Gadelica actually contains a whole section on “Birth and Baptism.” It is full of rituals, many Christainized, but the original meaning is still there. Most are to protect the new baby from aggressive fairies. The author observes, “When a child was born it was handed to and fro across the fire three times, some words being addressed in an almost inaudible murmur to the fire-god. It was then carried three times sunwise around the fire, some words being murmured to the sun-god” (189). He continues to discuss the use of water in this first rite of passage; “The first water in which the child is washed after it is born into the world, the bathing-woman puts a gold piece or a coin of silver into the vessel of water in which the child is being washed” which is supposedly done to bring the child “love of peace…love of means…love of wealth…love of joyousness by day and night…grace of goodness…grace of fortune…[and] grace of victory on every field” (189). This old custom was followed by a baisteadh ban-ghlùin or “knee-woman’s baptism” which occurred shortly after birth, in the name of the Christian God, to protect the child’s soul (189), for it was believed that unbaptized children were not allowed into heaven. Carmichael explains they were believed to have a spirit but not a soul – a distinction that warranted separate burial grounds in the more remote and rocky lands beyond a church’s borders. These graves were unmarked and called torran which meant “little mound” (190). Morbidly interesting is the fact that people who committed suicides or murders were also placed in these burial lands (190). Returning to the little baptism prayers, a favorite of mine is “A small drop of water,” which I think could be easily Paganized for a Druidic ceremony utilizing the Three Kindreds, the Three Realms, and the Three Hallows:
A small drop of water
To thy forehead, beloved,
Meet for Father, Son, and Spirit,
The Triune of Power.
A small drop of water
To encompass my beloved,
Meet for Father, Son, and Spirit,
The Triune of power.
A small drop of water
to fill thee with each grace,
Meet for Father, Son and Spirit
The Triune of power (221).
These prayers suggest a deep fear of Otherworldly influence when it comes to infants. It is the same conclusion Woden’s Wandering Witch reached : many birth and pregnancy customs in Celtic lands are to protect the child. According to Walter Gregor, author of The Folklore of the North-East of Scotland, the fairy folk had a craving for mothers’ milk and also stole human babies to pay off debts to Hell (4). Now of course this is very Christianized, but as with many other later customs among Celtic nations, they have an essence of earlier times. Different rituals kept the fairies away, including blessing the mother and child with bread, milk, a fir-scented candle, and a Bible. These were placed under the mother’s pillow, or at a distance. Gregor explains that, “A pair of trowsers hung at the foot of the bed had the same effect” (4) for some reason. Once a woman had given birth, she was not permitted to do any work other than the most “simple” and “necessary,” and she wasn’t allowed to travel or visit with other households home to pregnant women (6).
Similar traditions of restrictions and protection against fairies existed in Ireland. Pregnant women were warned against attending funerals, sitting up with a corpse, or visiting graveyards due to the sensitive spiritual state of her growing baby (Franklin, 60-61). William Butler Yeats explains the danger of fairies in his work, Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry. He describes the dreaded changelings, sick fairy children, “or a log of wood so bewitched that it seems to be a mortal pining away, and dying” (47). One way to get rid of a changeling, or to test if it was one, was to burn it on the hearth fire (47)! This is a wretched practice when you consider the modern medical opinion that changelings were really children with disabilities! Thankfully, Yeats explains that some changelings were exchanged peacefully once a mother realized what was going on (47). One way of protecting infants, that is particularly interesting to this tree-hugging Druid, involves tree branches. Apparently “a bundle of oak, ash, and thorn” should be placed in the nursery to protect babies from dangerous spirits (Franklin, 151). Alternatively, a branch of mountain ash (rowan) tied over the cradle will protect a female infant, while alder protects males (151). I’m imagining a very earthy mobile with a rowan or alder base…
The way mothers interacted with their babies and others was also significant. People who complimented babies out loud were said to put them in danger, so it was suggested that mothers say “God bless” or “safe be it,” after such praise (Franklin, 149). In her book, Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland, Lady Augusta Gregory explains that pregnant women should not visit another household with a woman in labor for the labor pains may jump to her prematurely. This suggests that our ancestors understood the danger of early labor, at least.
Speaking of labor, it was believed that ashes or coal should not be removed from household fires once the pregnant woman who lives there begins her contractions (Franklin, 84). Locks were unlocked (Gregor, 4), which was surely sympathetic magic to help encourage the woman’s cervix to open. Today, an expectant mother in a birth center or a hospital, rather than her home, may utilize similar symbolism by having open flowers by her bed. If you give birth at home, many suggest redoing anything unlocked or untied once the baby is born or else negative forces may find places to hide before stealing the baby (Franklin, 85).
Modern Druids and Celtic revivalists may want to incorporate some of the above traditions into their own childbirth experience. As noted, many of the prayers to Mary or St. Brigit can be easily Paganized. For some examples, see the chapter “Naming and Saining the Baby” in Skip Ellison’s book The Wheel of the Year at Muin Mound Grove, ADF: A Cycle of Druid Rituals. Protective charms, inspired by folklore or modern inspiration, may be placed around the laboring mother or the newborn. Just remember not to forget the pragmatic concerns of having a newborn! If you make a mobile with sacred wood or charms, be sure to hang it securely out of reach from baby! Most modern folk don’t fear changelings or fairies spiriting babies away; rather our new demons are suffocation, SIDS, and other horrible afflictions. Malevolent forces at work, medical complications, or a combination – whatever you believe, parents must be vigilant and mindful about what is in and around the crib. Beliefs that women out of labor should limit their work and travel ring true today – we ladies still need to recover! With regards to a special “baptism” or blessing for baby, mother and father may want to prepare a little prayer to say over the child when they have some privacy after birth. A vial of sacred water may be packed away in the mother’s suitcase for just such a ritual. However, don’t let this eclipse an even more important ritual – mother bonding and, if possible, breastfeeding the little one. Later, when the new family feels ready, the baby can be officially welcomed into the larger family, grove, and community in a special naming ritual.