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9 Birthing Rituals of the Past

hands holding stethoscope on pregnant belly

It is impossible to turn on the news these days without hearing about Hollywood's expectant mothers. From Salma Hayek to Naomi Watts, fascination with star pregnancies has extended beyond whether the child will be a boy or girl, or what the name will be. We predict that the next obsession will be in how they deliver their starlets.

Ricki Lake gave birth in her bathtub; Meryl Streep and Demi Moore experienced childbirth at home. And, in 2006, speculation about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes was focused on the birthing method that Holmes would choose to deliver their daughter, Suri.

The "TomKitten" watch brought up questions about other labor and delivery practices, especially those from other centuries and countries. Here are nine birth rituals of the past from locations around the world, which show us that not only birthing practices, but our fascination with them, have been passed through time.

Knot a Risk Taken

Greece, approximately 430 B.C. With the onset of birth, midwives were summoned, and the birthing mother was laid down on a bed. The room was checked to ensure that no knots were present, because ancient Greeks believed knots had maleficent powers and could prevent or delay birth. When labor began the mother was moved to a birthing stool, which she crouched over. The midwives massaged her belly, and one rested below the mother to catch the baby. Once born, the baby and mother were cleansed, as birth blood was considered unlucky. A sign was made on the baby's forehead to protect it from the "evil eye," a superstitious belief that a victim, in this case a vulnerable baby, could be cursed by the malevolent gaze from the eye of an envious individual.

Feeling Royal?

France in the 1700s. Birth for royalty was quite an elaborate affair (a bit like birth for some celebrities in modern times!). After feeling labor pains, the royal lady would call upon her attendants and be laid on a special couch. Some 18th-century remedies that were placed near the mom-to-be included: sneezing powder to aid in birth, almond oil to cleanse the hands of doctor and head midwife, and boxes of powdered cumin and myrrh to dust the infant's umbilical cord. After the birth, the cord was cut and the baby was washed in oil, red roses, and red wine.

Birthing Whisperers

China in the late 1800s. For women of the Chinese merchant class, labor pains would come accompanied by the prayers of the mother and mother-in-law for an easy delivery. A Taoist priest would arrive by the bedside and whisper prayers into the birthing mother's ears. With the onset of birth, she would squat on the bed. Once the baby was born, the midwife would cut and bind the umbilical cord, and then try to encourage the placenta to be born. The baby would not be washed for three days, until the influences of evil were less imminent.

The Sound of Silence

Zuni Indians in the 1890s. When labor pains started, the birthing mother would lie on a soft bed made of animal skins and her mother would gather the elder women of the family to aid in the birth. As the pains increased she was encouraged to remain silent; who knew silent birth was not just a ritual of the Church of Scientology! To speed up delivery the laboring woman's mother and birthing doctress would knead her pregnant belly. As the baby made its descent, the women of the family would cry and groan, out of sympathy, for the birthing mother who could not express her pain. As the baby emerged, the doctress would rest below the woman to catch the baby. After the placenta was delivered, the grandmother of the new mother would throw it in the river to be washed downstream. Six days following the birth, the new baby would be introduced to the Zuni gods and be made an official member of the Zuni people.

Husband's Birthing Role

Polar Eskimos in the 1920s. To prepare for birth, the birthing woman's husband would create a bed in a shallow hole covered by animal skin -- this is where the delivery would occur. When pain began, the woman would rest in the prepared bed and her husband would lean behind her. He would then press down on her abdomen to encourage the baby to be born. Upon birth, the father would cut the umbilical cord with a knife and the new mother would tie a knot to stop the bleeding. The placenta would be wrapped in animal skin and then left outside for animals to feast on. The baby would be named with three names to protect it from evil spirits in the wind and sleep with his or her parents.

A Functional Dance

Egypt in 19,000 B.C. Belly dancing, often thought of as entertainment for men, is actually a form of ancient dance that reflected the body as a creation of nature and temple of the soul. It was originally a dance performed by women in honor of the giver of life, the Great Mother. The gyrations of the hip were believed to insure the births of future generations, and were used in preparation for birth. The laboring mother would squat low and bear down as she rolled her abs. The contractions of the dancing movements strengthened her abdominal muscles and therefore aided in an easier delivery.

Gotta Have Faith

Ancient Malaysia and Indonesia. Women labored sitting up, without medicine for pain relief. Instead, a Dukun, or midwife, would massage the expectant mom. The delivery occurred in the birthing room, traditionally within the house, as it was believed that a baby's first cry was a cry of loyalty and respect for the parents, and should be heard at home. Other mothers stayed in the birthing room with the laboring woman, and offered advice and support (in a similar style of today's labor coaches). Upon birth, the Dukun cuts the cord, bathes and wraps the baby in a blanket. Next, words of Allah were whispered into the baby's ear; for words of faith were supposed to be the first the baby would hear. The baby was then returned to its mother and introduced to the grandparents, which was the first act of honor shown by baby to its family. The placenta was then washed and placed in an earthenware pot with spices and kept near the mother. After 40 days, the family buried the placenta in the ground.

A Place of Their Own

Ancient Hawaii. Among the Kukaniloko Birthing Stones, between the towns of Wahiawa and Haleiwa, ancient Hawaiian women, pregnant with potential royalty, or alii, gave birth. Potential alii could not be delivered like a commoner, without celebration -- today, we see this birth seclusion when celebrities like Britney Spears deliver their children in special hospitals and birthing centers. It is believed the rocks contained powers to ease labor pains. Rituals surrounding the birth of aliis include 48 chiefs beating drums in the announcement of the arrival of the newborns who, in the future, could become chiefs.

Practices Not Lost

Modern women would be surprised to know that a number of birth rituals from the past have been translated into our culture. The art of midwifery, the practice of massaging the pregnant belly during birth, medicine-free births, and the idea of silence during birth are only a few of these rituals. Who knows, these birthing rituals, and others, may continue to be passed through time bonding women from ancient civilizations and future generations together.

Originally published on AmericanBaby.com, April 2006.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.