Some time ago, I received some delightful news about a friend who will soon be a proud parent to a bouncing baby braucher (Pennsylvania German folk healer). As part of that news, my friend also requested any potential knowledge I might have about protection and safe delivery charms for the wee bairn and their birthparent. That project became a bit more extensive, and I realized it might be information that others are curious about, too, so with their permission I decided to turn it into our article this month!
A brief note and content warning: NONE of this is intended as medical advice. It should be understood as an examination of the folklore of pregnancy and birth, rather than anything to be attempted. Please listen to your medical professionals regarding accurate pregnancy and birth care! Additionally, some of these folkloric tidbits will get a tad unsavory. Animal deaths and bodily fluids are a key part of this lore, so please be aware of that before reading any further.
What to Expect when you’re Hex-specting – Pregnancy and In Utero Protection
The state of pregnancy is often treated in folklore with some degree of delicacy, both in terms of the physical aspects of carrying and birthing a child and in the very language we use to talk about it. Many folk sayings go to great lengths not to specifically say “pregnant” or even “with child,” but rather use euphemisms like “a bun in the oven” or “in the family way” to refer to someone while they are expecting. One of the more potent phrases, though, was to say “the rabbit died.” Why a rabbit? In the early-to-mid twentieth century, one of the more accurate pregnancy tests involved injecting urine into a rabbit’s kidneys. If the rabbit died, then it was confirmation that the person providing the urine sample was indeed pregnant. (Rabbits by and large get the short end of the stick in folkways–rabbit brains were used to help with teething babies and rabbits were often thought to be witches in disguise, not to mention the famous “lucky rabbit’s foot”). Another rabbit-based charm involves taking the rabbit’s foot and placing it under the expectant parent’s pillow while giving them a rather stinky asafetida bundle to wear around their neck, thus staving off any malevolent spirits during the birth process.
Much lore is devoted to concerns over “marked” babies, who will have birthmarks in the shape of something traumatic from their birth parent’s pregnancy. Usually this takes the form of a simple craving that goes unfulfilled, such as strawberries or apples, which then take the form of red marks on the new child. One account from Tennessee says that a woman who went to see a movie was frightened at one point, and her child came out with a “birth-scald” on its face. At other times, the marking can be more serious. Lore collected in the Ozark Mountains says that a pregnant person should avoid looking at corpses, lest they pass that condition on to their child. A similar bit of lore from the upland Southeastern mountains in North Carolina and Kentucky notes that seeing dead or skinned animals means that a pregnant person will be “confined” soon (on mandatory bed rest).
One exception to the dead animals rule comes from a Central European Romany spell. In that case, a crawfish shell can be emptied out (the meat should be eaten by the one who is pregnant), then cleaned and dried. The shell can be kept in a little bundle on the person’s body or pinned to their clothing as a protective charm (Illes 838). Another amulet involves taking a sturdy cord and making knots in it to “hold” the baby in place and avoid any harm to it. Even wearing one’s hair in braids can be used to accomplish this.
A few other rules apply to the gestation period, too. One rule states that you shouldn’t make any kind of cap or headpiece for a baby before it is born, or it can cause the delivery to be incredibly difficult and painful. Expectant parents in the Ozarks will even take hats and caps given as gifts and burn them right away to avoid any unpleasant outcomes (Randolph 199). Another piece of lore from Kentucky (and one that I would say we have a different medical perspective on now) notes that Communion wine is thought to be vital to a pregnant person, and that they should be allowed to take it whether they are a member of the Church or not (Brown, NC Folklore v6, p.6).
Talking about a pregnancy is also taboo. In one bit of Italian lore mirrored among several cultures, the pregnancy should not be announced until at least the first trimester has completed, and even longer if possible. Hair is also guarded carefully in Italian folk belief–an expectant parent should only get their hair cut while pregnant on the first Friday in March.
Doing More than Boiling Water – Delivery Magic
Pregnancy is seen as a time of joy and vulnerability, and that comes to a head during the process of childbirth. Even in our modern age, there are still numerous risks to parent and child during birth, and mortality rates for births are still fairly high, ranging from around 20 deaths per 100,000 births on average to a high-end around 55 per 100,000 births among Hispanic parents in 2020.
With that risk in mind, the immediate before-during-after birth period is loaded with folk magical beliefs and practices. One of the most widely distributed is the use of sharp objects to “cut” birthing pains during the process (Brown, NC Folklore p.10-11). Mostly these involve bringing in an ax or knife and placing it beneath the bed of the one in labor. At least one bit of Southern folklore also indicates the use of a plowshare for the pain-cutting implement, too. Some additional charms, talismans, and rites to ease the pain of childbirth include:
- All locks in the house should be opened, according to English folklore, in order to make the birth go smoothly (Opie & Tatem, p. 27)
- Similarly, untying knots can be a way to make labor go smoothly as a sort of corollary to the knot-tying charms used during the months of pregnancy. A red string can be tied around a person’s waist to give them strength during the delivery, too (Botkin p. 627)
- Keeping silver coins stolen from a church in the bed is done to stave off both venereal infections and childbirth pains (Randolph p.199-200)
- It’s ideal to have a hornet’s nest kept somewhere in or near the house (it can still house hornets if it is outside, although a dried and empty one indoors can work well–as a bonus, if you hang an empty hornet’s nest it will usually discourage new hornets from building a nest near your home) (Randolph p. 200)
- It’s bad luck to hear the call of the mourning dove while in labor, but you can speed and ease the delivery by wearing a shed snakeskin as a garter around the thigh (Brown, v6, p. 9)
- A holey stone (hagstone) hung over the bed where the birth is taking place will make the delivery smoother and less painful (Brown, v6, p. 10)
- The best time for birth is right before or right after the new moon, according to one bit of Southern lore (Botkin p. 627)
One charm worth noting is a specific himmelsbrief (“heaven letter”) used in Pennsylvania German folk magic to offer protection or blessings when carried or worn. I talk a good bit about these in my book, but the application of one of these written charms to childbirth is noted in the Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina folklore, which indexes it to both the German American settlements and to Newfoundland. The specific letter in question is known as the Iconium letter, which purports to have been written by Jesus himself sixty-five years after the crucifixion. The letter has been copied, translated, and shared often, and you can even find a decent copy of it online (in English) through the Library Company of Philadelphia. The Brown Collection entry also mentions that those coming from an Islamic background might use Chapter 84 of the Quran, known as “The Rending Asunder” or similar names. A Jewish tradition of a letter regarding protection from Lilith is mentioned, too, although I found this variant in Joshua Trachtenberg’s Jewish Magic & Superstition:
“A circle was drawn around the lying-in bed, and a magical inscription (reading ‘Sanvi, Sansanvi, Semangelaf, Adam and Eve, barring Lilit’) was chalked upon the walls or door of the room” (p. 169).Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic & Superstition
In Appalachian lore, a number of plants were used to help with the childbirth process to ease the pains:
- Golden Ragwort (Senecio) can be made into a tea using leaves and roots, which was done by Indigenous peoples to help with childbirth complications. (Foxfire 11, pp. 131)
- Partridgeberry (Mitchella repens) – This evergreen fruiting plant was used by Tsiligi/Cherokee peoples, who made it into a tea to be taken in the weeks before a baby was due in order to make the birth go more smoothly (Foxfire 11, pp.138)
- Red Trillium (Trillium erectum) – This low-growing tri-leaved plant with funky-smelling flowers blooms in the mountains from April until June, but the root was the valuable ingredient. It could be brewed into a tea that treated all sorts of reproductive issues including birth and labor, menstruation, and even menopause (Foxfire 11, pp. 142)
- Spikenard and Sweet Flag (also known as Calamus root) – This marshy plant was used in the Ozarks as a treatment to ease childbirth (Randolph p. 199)
A final protection involves the burning of chicken feathers, then fumigating the room where the birth will take place, which is said to ease the process (found in both Randolph, p. 201; and Brown, v6, p.9).. Interestingly, there are also charms that involve symbolic images of chickens or other fowls as protective amulets for those giving birth (Trachtenberg p. 169).
After-Birth Blessing and Post-Partum Protections
The baby’s safe arrival and the parent’s stabilization was only the first part of the magical process, of course. After the birth, a number of folk practices and traditions focus on protecting the new family, establishing a connection between child and place, and other necessities of folk life.
Some folklore prognosticated on the child’s future. We’ve written especially about the presence of a caul or “veil” around a child’s head during birth–a thin amniotic membrane that was thought to presage a life of Second Sight or connection to the Otherworld. I also talk about the “calling circle” ritual done around a child’s first birthday to determine possible future careers in the New World Witchery book, too.
Many people are probably also familiar with the famous “Monday’s Child” rhyme which promises to tell the child’s future based on the day it was born:
Monday’s child is fair of face,
Tuesday’s child is full of grace,
Wednesday’s child is full of woe,
Thursday’s child has far to go.
Friday’s child is loving and giving,
Saturday’s child must work for a living.
A child that’s horn on the Sabbath day
Is blithe and bonnie and rich and gay.
This is where the Addams Family chose their daughter’s name, as she seemed a child “full of woe.” There are variations on this, of course, as in this version recorded by Vance Randolph in an old manuscript owned by a woman in Notch, Missouri:
Sunday never to want,
Monday fair in face,
Tuesday full of grace,
Wednesday woeful and sad,
Thursday a long ways to go,
Friday loving and giving,
Saturday work hard for a living. (Randolph 206)
One tradition that made a comeback in the twentieth century (if indeed it ever went away) was the treatment of the placenta after the birth completed. Many people will retain the placenta and either eat it to ensure healthy nursing and a quick return to strength for the parent (it can be eaten raw or cooked, and many mammals do this), or bury it at the base of a new tree to grant the child long life (Randolph p. 202). Another bit of Southern lore says to save the water from a baby’s first bath and use it to water the “name tree” (usually also the tree where the placenta is buried) to link them and make them “blood kin,” so that both will thrive (Botkin, SF, p.627). On the other hand, some lore says that the parent should never be fully bathed/submerged nor their bed linens changed for at least nine days after the birth to protect them from infection and misfortune. That same line of lore says to avoid bathing a child completely until at least three days old, and to avoid washing the palms especially to make sure not to wash away any luck the child may have. Ozark lore indicates that the best water to wash a baby’s head is “stump water,” or the rain that collects in the hollow of a stump, so that the child will not suffer from premature baldness (Randolph p. 204-5).
A few other charms and practices are worth mentioning, too. For example, in many places it’s customary for new parents to receive help from their family or community members in the form of food or services–laundry and cleaning especially. Washing and cleaning the house is usually done by older people, however, because any person who can give birth that helps clean the house of a newly-delivered parent will be the next to become pregnant (Opie & Tatum, p. 27). There’s also a taboo against calling a baby “angel,” for fear that it will think itself belonging to the heavenly host and not stay with its mortal family.
The clothes a newborn wears can also impact its future, according to some lore. In Ozark belief, wrapping the baby in a garment of the parent’s–such as a shirt or petticoat–as a swaddling cloth is thought to bring good luck. Clothes worn previously by another baby (who lived) are also good luck and ensure healthy growth, so long as they are never returned (Randolph 205-8).
A few place-specific beliefs also factor into the new life of a child. The parent of a newborn should avoid crossing running water for the first month to avoid bad luck. They should also avoid cutting their hair for at least nine days following the birth (Brown v.6 p.15). Honey and fish should be avoided (interesting, given their connection to Hekate as offerings). Walking the baby around the house/property so that it will “stay” (not die) and know its home all of its life, too.
A Note on the Evil Eye
It would be entirely remiss of me to do anything on pregnancy and childbirth lore and not mention the Evil Eye (or malocchio, mal ojo, or other similar names). This is probably the single most widespread and pervasive piece of folklore connected to children and pregnancy, and is found on most continents among many communities ranging from Turkish, Greek, and Syrian peoples to English, Spanish, Irish, Italian, and African American communities. It has a number of variations, and more than a number of remedies that can involve everything from the famous Hamsa hands and blue eye Nazar amulets to bowls of oil and water and looking at the end of one’s nose. To treat the topic of the Evil Eye is worthy of much more than a small mention in this article, however, and entire books have been written on the subject. I may one day come back around to covering this, but since it’s important, I thought I’d share tips from two recent publications dealing with the topic.
The first is an excerpt from Antonio Pagliarulo’s forthcoming book The Evil Eye: The History, Mystery, and Magic of the Quiet Curse (Weiser Books, 2023): “Take an example from my childhood. When I was a kid, a pregnancy was never announced outside of immediate family
members; it wasn’t even discussed until the expectant mother was clearly showing. I remember my own mother’s reaction whenever she received an invitation to a baby shower. She was confused. She didn’t understand why any woman would risk putting herself and her unborn child in the path of malocchio. To celebrate an event that hadn’t yet occurred—especially an event as delicate as childbirth—was like standing directly in front of the Eye while waving a sign that read: Look at me and how happy I am! If ever there was a way to court danger, it was having a baby shower.” (Pagliarulo pp.6-7)
Here we have echoes of lore we’ve already seen about not announcing a birth too early and avoiding inspiring jealousy, which is usually at the root of the Eye. Pagliarulo’s book contains a great deal more lore on the topic, so I’d recommend seeking it out for more depth.
I also want to mention Laura Davila’s anti-Evil Eye charm for both babies and parents: a mixture of rosemary, basil and oregano steeped in a strong alcohol. This would then be used to mark a cross on the person’s forehead while praying that they be healed from or protected from the Eye, and asking that any such connections to harmful witchcraft be severed. This working, called an ensalmo in the brujeria de rancho tradition, specifically draws upon existing Christian prayer forms, as do many other Evil Eye countermagics (Davila p.125-26). This is one of many simple remedies one can use to protect from the Eye, and it echoes a lot of lore found in other places, too.
There is truly so much lore about pregnancy and childbirth that covering it in this short(ish) entry is a Sisyphian task. I hope, though, that what you’ve read here will offer you some insights and guidance in researching the topic further for yourself. As always, I recommend turning to folk practitioners for their original insights on the subject. Ask those who have helped with births about things they do to ensure a safe delivery and to protect parent and child following the pregnancy and birth, and you’ll probably open up a whole treasure chest of folk knowledge.
As a very final note, I can’t let this article end without mentioning one of my favorite books, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, based on her Diary, 1785-1812. It’s a magnificently annotated and transcribed account of a late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century midwife’s work, and how integrated she was in so many aspects of her community. Bits of folk knowledge come through, as well as a much deeper understanding of the contexts connected to birth and daily life. Do yourself a favor and find a copy if you can.
For now, though, I think I’ve labored long enough on this one, and I’ll place it safely swaddled in your arms to take with you.
Thanks for reading!
- Botkin, B. A. A Treasury of Southern Folklore. Crown Publishers, 1953.
- Collins, Kaye Carver, Lacy Hunter, and the Foxfire Students. Foxfire 11: The Old Home Place, Wild Plant Uses, Preserving and Cooking Food, Hunting Stories, Fishing, More Affairs of Plain Living. The Foxfire Group/Anchor Books, 1999.
- Davila, Laura. Mexican Sorcery: A Practical Guide to Brujeria de Rancho. Weiser Books, 2023.
- Fahrun, Mary-Grace. Italian Folk Magic: Rue’s Kitchen Witchery. Weiser Books, 2018.
- Federal Writers’ Project. “Chapter 14 – Folklore: The Living Past,” in Tennessee: A Guide to the State. WPA/Hastings House: New York, 1949.
- Hand, Wayland, ed. The Frank C. Brown Collection of North Carolina Folklore, Vol. VI. Duke Univ. Press, 1961.
- Hoyert, Donna L. “Maternal Mortality Rates in the United States, 2020.” NCHS Health E-Stats. 2022. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.15620/cdc:113967.
- Hutcheson, Cory Thomas. New World Witchery: A Trove of North American Folk Magic. Llewellyn Pub., 2021.
- Illes, Judika. The Encyclopedia of 5,000 Spells. HarperOne, 2009.
- Opie, Iona, and Moira Tatem. A Dictionary of Superstitions. Oxford Univ. Press, 1989.
- Pagliarulo, Antonio. The Evil Eye: The History, Mystery, and Magic of the Quiet Curse. Weiser Books, 2023.
- Randolph, Vance. Ozark Magic & Folklore . Dover Pub., 1964.
- Trachtenberg, Joshua. Jewish Magic & Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. Behrman’s Jewish Books, 1939.
Ulrich, Laurel Thatcher. A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, based on her Diary, 1785-1812. Vintage Books, 1991.