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Posts Tagged ‘folklore’

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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The Earth is warming.  The sun is shining.  The plants are rejoicing! Ahhh…it must be time for the Summer Solstice!  It kind of snuck up on me!  Feels like just yesterday we were dancing the Maypole…

It’s hard to say what the old Celts actually did at this time of year.  Some customs seem to have been brought in by immigrants and invaders.  Others are localized festivals not celebrated on a Pan-Celtic scale.  Certain regions of Ireland, such as County Limerick, have celebrations associated with Áine.  Her influence seems to be sovereignty (big surprise), light (possibly the sun), and the Otherworld (Freeman, 178).  In some places, burning wheels were rolled down hills and used to predict whether or not there would be a good harvest (Hutton, 311).  Bonfires were common in many places this time of year (Ellison, 178).  The Manx practiced a tradition of paying rent to Manannán mac Lir, lord of the sea (179).

Some of my herbs.

At Muin Mound Grove, we tend to honor two of the Tuatha Dé Danann – Airmid and her brother Míach.  The story goes that their father, Dían Cécht, a healer God, killed Míach in a fit of jealousy for making an improved prosthetic arm for the king God Nuada (Dían had already made one of metal, but Míach’s was of flesh and bone).  From the ground in which Míach was buried, all the healing herbs grew in the shape of a man.  The herbs grew according to the body parts they could heal, thus revealing the mysteries of the plant world to his sister Airmid.  She gathered them in her cloak.  Again, Dían became mad and scattered the herbs to the wind.  Some say that this act is why we do not fully understand the magic of herbs and continue to suffer illness.  Others say that Airmid is the only one who knows their secrets.  We remember and honor Airmid and Míach at Midsummer in Upstate NY because it is when herbs start to come back to full strength in our gardens.  This is an especially important time of year for gardeners such as myself!

Airmid Mantle

Last year, I gifted my grove with a handmade Airmid mantle.  During ritual, we place herbs that we research upon the place it may heal before giving the herbs as an offering to the Nature Spirits.  Should you wish to add this tradition to your own Midsummer Rites, I suggest not putting the offerings in the fire unless you know, without a doubt, that the herbs are safe to burn.

While the herbal harvest is underway, my favorite fruit is also ready for picking here in Upstate New York: the strawberry!

I started my celebration a few days ago with some strawberry muffins.  They were so delicious that I’m making them again – heat and humidity be damned!  I used local strawberries and the basic muffin recipe from the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book.  Very easy and perfect for breakfast!

Ingredients:

  • 1 and 3/4 cups all-purpose flour (look for local flour!  We have North Country Farms near my home!)
  • 1/3 cup sugar (I use sugar in the raw)
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 beaten egg (use local if possible!)
  • 1/4 cup milk (I used almond milk both times and it worked well)
  • 1/4 cup cooking oil
  • about 1/2 cup of chopped strawberries – halved or quartered depending on size

Grease your muffin tins.  This recipe claims to make 10-12 muffins, but they would be very tiny.  I used a six-cup muffin tin and made really large muffins.  I like them that way!  Mix your dry ingredients together in a medium bowl and create a well in the center for the liquid ingredients.  Mix the liquid ingredients in another bowl then pour it into the dry mixture all at once.  Mix together until it’s moistened yet lumpy.  Add your berries and spoon everything into your tins.  Bake in a 400° F oven for 20 minutes or until brown.  Cool and enjoy!

However you celebrate the Summer Solstice, take some time to check out what is locally available.  So many of the high days are intimately connected to the agricultural cycle, and Summer Solstice is known for the “first fruits.”  While what is happening in Upstate NY, for example, may not match up with what the ancient Celts were doing in their various regions, the most important thing is that you’re connecting with your local nature spirits and your local agricultural cycles.  Head over to your farmers’ market to explore!

My Summer Solstice  lunch today- locally made Greek yogurt with organic oats and a strawberry.  Nom!
Resources:
The Solitary Druid: Walking the Path of Wisdom and Spirit by Rev. Robert Lee (Skip) Ellison
Kindling the Celtic Spirit by Mara Freeman
The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain by Ronald Hutton

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A vintage Krampus card.
As part of the Witches Yuletide Ball, fellow blogger Aine of “The Deepest Well” posted about the darker aspects of Yule.
When we think of Yule, most of us think happy thoughts, such as trees sparkling with lights, friends and family get-togethers, singing, gifts and warm fireplaces.  For our ancestors, however, this time of year was dark and cold.  All the food they had harvested and stored away was all the food that was to be had until the Spring.  During these long winters, tales were told of the faeries and malevolent spirits who were waiting in the dark night for a wandering human to cross their paths.
 One of my favorite “dark aspects” of the Yuletide season is Krampus.  He basically does Santa’s dirty work and punishes naughty children.  Of course, by today’s standards, what Krampus does seems extreme, but when you consider what slacking or goofing off could mean to our ancestors…  If a child routinely refused to do his or her chores, it could have meant a harder than usual winter.  It could have meant death.  Figures like Krampus were necessary to keep kids in order while St. Nick rewarded those who did their jobs well.  I’m having trouble finding any online sources about possible pre-Christian Krampus traditions, but it’s hard to deny he represents the life or death realities of pre-industrial societies.
Since learning of Krampus, I’ve been fascinated with him.  I was delighted to hear a segment about him on NPR yesterday.  In particular, it examines how Krampus traditions are coming to America!  I would love to go and even take part in a Krampus parade.  I enjoy lights and joy just as much as the next person, but this season can become too sugary sweet at times.  It is nice to take a step back and face the harsher realities of winter but have fun while doing it.
I’ll end this post with what is becoming a yearly tradition for me – sharing this corny Krampus video.

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