Reclaiming our birth rituals: Part I

My first attempt at a belly cast

“Beneath the clouds lives the Earth-Mother from whom is derived the Water of Life, who at her bosom feeds plants, animals and men”

– Algonquin legend

Ancient rock carving in Israel of a woman giving birthBack before I ever contemplated a career as a doula, I would see episodes of “A Baby Story” on TV and occasionally there would be a woman who would get a belly cast.  I kind of liked the idea but couldn’t figure out any good reason to ever have one myself – would I really hang a 3D image of my naked torso up on my bathroom wall? – so I never had one done.   But now I get it.

Aztec goddess giving birthThroughout history and culture, there have been rituals to celebrate a woman’s pregnancy and birth.  A woman’s ability to concieve and grow a new human being inside her womb was seen as nothing short of goddess-like.  Images and icons of a pregnant or birthing woman resurface over and over in ancient culture.

In fact, the iconish image of the Great Mother has stayed with virtually every human culture, right up to the present-day images of the Virgin Mary. Not only was the Great Mother seen to birth her own children, but also to have controlled the “birthing” of the the fruit of the harvest, of fertility, or of the bearer of the fruit of all things earthly.

Stone Age carving of Goddess of Luassel - traces of red ochre representing menstration and birth, still visible on her bodyArcheologists have uncovered hundreds of Stone Age sculptures, yet only five of these are male.  These women are big and strong – reminders to us that human survival would not be possible for those millions of years if women were seen as physically and mentally weak.  Most of these icons are rounded vessels, portraying large bellies, breasts and thighs, but very small or nonexistent extremities such as feet and heads.  A headless pregnant woman – did the ancients understand the art of losing one’s thoughts and becoming one with the birth?

Intentionally headless icon of fertility, South IndiaDid our ancestors worship the pregnant body?  What customs and rituals were attached to seeing a woman into motherhood?  I suspect much has been lost, but we do know of a few modern birth rituals from other countries (From “Birthing From Within”):

Egyptian goddess Isis breastfeeding her son, HorusIn the Philippine islands, it is customary to put a key (unlocking) and a comb (untangling) under the laboring woman’s pillow; the moultings from snakes or other animals may be used to make a belt for the parturient woman; a house ladder may be turned upside down, knives unsheathed, recently made furniture unnailed, recently sewn seams ripped open and drawers, trunks and cupboards unlocked.

In Delhi villages all knots of clothing, ropes and the woman’s hair are loosened to relieve the pain of contractions.

Mary breastfeeding JesusAlso in India, prolonged labor may be treated by placing a tightly furled flower beside the woman in the belief that as it unfurls so will a woman’s cervix dialate.

The Vietnamese refer to birth in terms reflecting this – “the bud opens and the flower blooms.”

The Maltese keep a flower in water in the delivery room saying that when the bud blooms the child will be born, and in the Philippine villages the midwife throws a handful of flowers at the woman in labor when she arrives at the house.

Note how each of these rituals involve images of opening and relaxation that can be used by the mother in visualization during her birth.  Note also how often these symbols are procured by a woman aiding another in childbirth.

So, what are our modern-day images and rituals surrounding pregnancy and childbirth?  And what are they teaching us?  Stay tuned for Part II…

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5 Responses to “Reclaiming our birth rituals: Part I”


  1. 1 Dan December 19, 2007 at 10:56 am

    Can I be the first to make the obvious gag?

    Ahem…

    I tried to make a belly cast once, but they ran out of clay at the quarry.

    Thank you, I needed to get that out of my system.

    modern rituals? I’m sure there are many but perhaps I’m standing too close to be able to see them properly. I’m looking forward to part II

  2. 2 Agatha January 5, 2008 at 11:14 am

    More posts please! Hope you are well & had a fab xmas/NY !

  3. 3 Dan January 5, 2008 at 4:21 pm

    Indeed, where is part 2?

  4. 4 leighsteele January 7, 2008 at 8:41 am

    Great belly cast and post. Digging into the customs and rituals of childbirth can be so eye opening. Thank you for sharing this with the rest of the blogworld.
    Also int eresting you should post this, as my midwife just posted this on EarthHearth today: http://earthearth.typepad.com/earthearth/2008/01/the-symbols-of.html


  1. 1 Reclaiming Our Birth Rituals: Part II « AmericanMum Trackback on January 18, 2008 at 12:44 am

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