Monday, December 3, 2012

Rites of Passage: Birth

These rituals were connected to the change of status and transitions in life a person experiences, such as birth, marriage and death.

Birth is the act or process of bearing or bringing forth offspring. The offspring is brought forth from the mother. The time of human birth is defined as the time at which the fetus comes out of the mother's womb into the World.  In 2010, more newborns arrived in September than in any other month.

Until very recent times, a birth was dangerous to the mother as well as the child. Thus rites of birth were common in many pre-modern societies.  In the Viking Age, people would pray to the Goddesses Frigg and Freya, and sing ritual songs to protect the mother and the child.  Fate played a huge role in Norse culture and was determined at the moment of birth by the Norns.

Norse lore also includes other tales about birth:  A 9-headed troll was born through a giant's feet.  -  Dwarves were born from the maggots in a giant's rotten corpse.  -  The first man and woman were made from trees.  -  A male God changed into a female horse and gave birth to an eight-legged horse.

Human women were the only care-givers at a birth, and a midwife or official witness of a birth was termed bjargrýgr, "helping-woman".  The assistance rendered by the bjargrýgr or midwife went beyond the basic mechanics of delivery. The bjargrýgr was also responsible for magical assistance to ease the birth such as runes, herbs or songs.   A description of the little that is known about childbirth during the Viking Age is summarized by Jenny Jochens:

"The birth itself was expressed in the image of the woman 'becoming lighter'. What little is revealed about the birth process suggests that delivery techniques were universal and changed little over time. Only women were present. The normal birth position was for the woman to kneel on the floor, with helpers ready at her knees or supporting her arms. As the birth progressed, she would shift to a knee-elbow position, and the child would be received from behind. Runes and songs were offered as age-old remedies for difficult births, probably performed by a bjargrýgr trained through experience and apprenticeship. Many stories of birth include prolonged and difficult births, dismemberment of infants, and problems with lactation." (Women in Old Norse Society)

Nine nights after birth, the child had to be recognized by the father of the household. He placed the child on his knee while sitting in a high seat.  Putting the child on the knee of the father confirmed his or her status as a member of the clan and bestowed the rights connected to this status.  The child could no longer be killed or exposed by the parents, without being considered murder.  Water was sprinkled on the child, it was named and thus admitted into the family.  There are accounts of guests being invited to bring gifts and wish the child well.

Children were often named after deceased ancestors and the names of deities could be a part of the name - Alfhild, Herdis, Njorth.  People thought certain traits were connected to certain names and that these traits were carried on when the names were re-used by new generations.  This was part of the ancestor worship.  

The life expectancy at birth was about 20 years.  Half of those who survived birth lived only to their seventh year.  Children under the age of 15 made up nearly half of the population. Of those that reached the age of 20, about half reached the age of 50.  At some points of history, perhaps 15 percent of the total population was 50 years or older.  And only 1 to 3 percent of population was over 60 years old.
A typical woman probably bore 7 infants during her lifetime, 29 months apart on average.  Babies and small children automatically became the custody of the mother following a divorce.  During pregnancy, women were expected to continue working.  After the child's birth, the mother typically returned to work with little delay. Evidence suggests that mothers nursed their children until the age of 2 years, which may have dictated the interval between the births of a couple's children.  A typical couple probably had 2 or 3 living children at any one time.  Few parents lived to see their children marry.  And fewer lived to see their first grandchild.  Three generation families were rare.

When one member of a couple died, the other remarried quickly.  It was probably difficult for a single person to run a household alone.  During the Norse era, multiple families lived in the same longhouse, working the same farm holding.  This clan played an important role in shaping Norse society and its laws and customs and was the standard unit of society. A household might consist not only several husband-and-wife couples and their children, but also the families of servants and bondsmen.  During this time, the typical household size was probably ten to twenty people.

The Mother Goddess is fertility and growth.  The Goddess in her Mother aspect is the bearer of children and a sexual being.  Some Wiccans believe that a small group of semiprecious stones will help ease the pain of natural childbirth and delivery.  Some holistic health or pagan shops may be able to order a charm or bracelet that incorporates these stones together or other herbs.  If you don't have enough time to custom order, you can always place the loose stones in a small, sealed pouch that can be held during delivery.  Using a pouch like this can also serve as a focus object during childbirth, similar to the techniques used in Lamaze.  Once the pouch is no longer needed, the stones should be passed along to someone else who is pregnant or trying to conceive.

Many Wiccan parents choose to have a special ceremony to mark the child's naming. This is usually held outdoors, weather permitting, about a week after the birth. In addition to officially giving the child his or her name, it's also an opportunity for the parents to officially pledge their love and loyalty to the child.

A birthday is a day or anniversary where a person celebrates his or her date of birth. Birthdays are celebrated in numerous cultures, often with a gift, party or rite of passage. Although the major religions celebrate the birth of their founders (e.g., Buddha's Birthday), Christmas – which is celebrated widely by Christians and non-Christians alike – is the most prominent example. In contrast, certain religious groups, as is the case with Jehovah's Witnesses, express opposition to the very idea of celebrating birthdays.

Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist and Lutheran Churches teach that baptism is a sacrament that has actual spiritual effects and certain key criteria must be complied with for it to be valid.  Christians consider Jesus to have instituted the sacrament of baptism.  It is usually believed to be essential for salvation.  They are baptized in water, in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Although baptism is not used in Jewish rituals, Tvilah does have some similarities. The act of immersion in natural sourced water for purification is specific for certain circumstances.  Of all of the commandments in Judaism, the brit milah (Covenant of Circumcision) is probably the one most universally observed.

Many cultures practice or have practiced initiation rites, with or without the use of water, including the ancient Egyptian, the Hebraic/Jewish, the Babylonian, the Mayan, and the Norse cultures.  The initiation done in the Bapedi tribe of South Africa is normally regarded as a stage where a boy is to be taught manhood and a girl to be taught womanhood.  A man will not be allowed to marry or have any special relationship with a woman who did not go to an initiation, because she is not considered to be a woman.

Birth in the 21st century can still be dangerous.  And birthdays many or may not be honored in various ways.  Either way it is a rite to at least remember and research.

"As I prepare myself for the delivery of my baby, I am calm, serene and relaxed. God is in charge and Goddess is with me and my baby. Every person and every situation connected with this birth is in tune with the Divines orderly direction, and everything is perfectly timed.

After the delivery, every part of my body will be restored to perfection. Filled with thankfulness and joy, I rest. The power of the Divines has brought forth my perfect baby.”

And so it is.


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