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What is a crane bag?

The answer: not hard.

The lovely Aoife was turned into a crane and lived about the seas of Manannan Mac Lir for many hard years.  When she died, the great Sea Lord took her skin and made a magical bag that could hold his most beloved treasures.  It’s said to be bottomless.

Many Druids and Celtic Reconstructionists, especially those who are called by Manannan and the symbolism of the crane, make crane bags to wear on their person.  An individual may place his or her most sacred charms and amulets inside; objects of personal power and significance.

Although my Druidic studies have slowed lately, I’ve noted a growing connection to Manannan.  The more I work with trance and magic, the more I study, he seems to nod approvingly at me.  And of course, Brighid remains an incredibly significant part of my life.  For the last few months, I’ve felt compelled by my relationships with these deities to create a devotional object to have at my labor.  Had I the ability to attempt a home birth, rest assured I would have created an altar to motherhood, my labor, Brighid, the baby, and our spirit guides.  (For some lovely examples, look here and here!)  Although some people have made some beautiful travel-friendly birth altars, making a crane bag – something relevant to my path and my Gods that I could create with a favorite hobby – seemed like the right thing for me to do.  Everything will be secure inside the bag.  I can take one item out to hold, rub, and focus on, or I can hold the entire bag.  It’s made of very soft pink velvet and feels very comforting.  Much of my reading has suggested that women hoping for a natural birth should have some sort of focal point to assist in managing pain.  A crane bag holding many special objects to focus on is just my style!  Not only that –  it’s very discreet.

My finished motherhood crane bag. I reused fabric from an old, velvet blazer and some swirling pink for the lining (not photographed).  The pink is supposed to represent my uterus.  The drawstring method seemed best since the uterus can stretch and contract. On the front, I attached three antique buttons I purchased years ago. I knew I was saving them for something special! They fit the bag perfectly. Not only do they work with the color scheme, but symbolically an open flower is supposed to magically encourage the cervix to open.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

Detail of the button I used as the clasp when the bag is tightened. A Celtic knot seemed most appropriate as it connects me to my hearth culture and gives me strength.  Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

Although my crane bag is not bottomless, I’ve been able to fit quite a bit in there! I included the Goddess stone from my friend RavynStar, a yonic dandelion charm (the yoni is demurely facing away from the camera), the mother blessing beads from everyone at my baby shower, a sterling silver ring (now broken but still precious to me) that belonged to my mother when she was younger, a tooth from a doe, a bracelet from my late aunt, an collage of Brighid made by a fellow ADF Druid artisan, and my baby’s first photo! Everything is very significant to me symbolically. They are to remind me of the strong women in my life, my Goddess, the Earth Mother, the creative powers within me, my own strength, my spirit guide, and the ultimate goal – a healthy, happy baby. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

I also included these lovely talismans made by fellow flame keeper and Druid, Grey Wren. She completely surprised me with these beauties! The bloodstone with coral is to give me strength during and after labor. The rose quartz is to help with bonding, peace, and love. A friend taught her to associate it with motherhood. The white chalcedony with the pearl is supposed to help with lactation and sleep.  It will also be very appropriate for baby since she is supposed to be born in the sign of Cancer – a water sign! I am thinking about attaching the last to the baby’s mobile since sleep and nutrition are going to be hugely important to her, and we’ll need all the help we can get!  It could also go with some water symbolism. Photo by Grey Catsidhe, 2013.

 

A birth and motherhood crane bag is very easy to make.  All you need are some special objects that bring you comfort and courage, and a bag to put them in!  As always, I encourage you to make your own bag as you’ll put your own energy into it.  Red or pink are particularly appropriate symbolically, but choose what fits your own needs.

Have you made a birth altar or crane bag?  I would love to see it!

For More Information on crane bags:

Make Your Own Crane Bag and Discover the Purpose of the Incarnation You are Currently Living” by Elen Sentier.  A good introduction.

The Crane Bag” by Dr. John Gilbert – How one Druidic tradition utilizes this tool.

The Crane Bag” – a poem about its lore and origins from Tairis Tales.  Definitely read this for an understanding of its significance within Celtic lore.

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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.

Bitel, Lisa M.  Land of Women: Tales of Sex and Gender from Early Ireland.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.  1996.
Carmichael, Alexander.  Carmina Gadelica.  Edited by C J Moore.  Lindisfarne Press,  Hudson, NY.  1997.
Franklin, Rosalind.  Baby Lore – Superstitions and Old Wives Tales From the World Over Related to Pregnancy, Birth and Motherhood.  Diggory Press, 2006.
Freeman, Mara.  Kindling the Celtic Spirit.  Harper Collins Publishers, Inc,  New York, NY.  2001.
Gregory, Lady Augusta.  Visions and Beliefs in the West of Ireland.  1920.  Web < http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/vbwi/index.htm >
Gregor, Walter.  The Folklore of the North-East of Scotland.  1881.  Web < http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/nes/index.htm >
Hutton, Ronald.  The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain.  Oxford University Press, Inc,  New York, NY.  2001.
Ó Duinn, Seán.  The Rites of Brigid Goddess and Saint.  The Columba Press, Blackrock, Co Dublin.  2005.
Yeats, William Butler.  Fairy and Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry.  1888.  Web < http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/yeats/fip/index.htm >

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