Before the advent of modern science and health care, giving birth to a child was even more difficult and uncertain than it is today. Sadly, many infants and mothers didn’t survive the process due to untreatable complications during pregnancy or delivery.
In order to exert a greater degree of control, our ancestors often turned to superstition and age-old customs during childbirth. This was true around the world, but Poland had its own particular spin on birth customs.
To begin, there was a lot of pressure put on women to have children in old Poland. Not only was it considered a directive from God to populate the earth, but having many children meant you had many future helpers on your farm. Women unable to reproduce would often eat rabbit and rooster meat because those animals tend to reproduce frequently. They would also consume various herbs such as mugwort.
When a woman did become pregnant, these were some of the superstitions she would believe:
- Looking at crippled people during pregnancy would cause a crippled baby.
- Looking into fire would cause a red birthmark on the baby.
- Looking at mice would cause the baby to have a mole.
- Looking into a keyhole would make the baby cross-eyed
- If the mother walked under a clothesline, there would be problems with the baby’s umbilical cord.
- Looking at attractive people or beautiful natural scenery would make a beautiful baby.
- A talkative pregnant mother would give birth to a talkative baby.
At the same time, if you were pregnant back then, others had a responsibility to treat you a certain way:
- Those living with or around the pregnant woman had to go to great lengths to please her appetite. If she had a taste for sour foods, she was believed to be carrying a son; sweet foods meant a daughter.
- The woman had to be protected from the “evil eye” at all costs. The evil eye, common in other cultures too, referred to someone looking at the mother the wrong way or wishing ill fortune on her—this was believed to be extremely dangerous to the child. Strangers were avoided at all costs as a result.
When it came time to give birth, instead of a nurse or midwife, the village baba would come. Today, the term baba is a somewhat derogatory term for women in Polish. Back then, it referred to a respected older woman who was knowledgeable in various things, including childbirth.
The baba would undress the woman and open all locks in the house—doors, chests, cabinets. The opening of locks was believed to promote a smooth delivery. Evil spirits were believed to cause labor pains, and the baba would use garlic and onion to ward them off. Sometimes, the woman would be placed on the ground to supposedly draw energy from the earth during labor. After birth, the umbilical cord was often saved and dried up. Though it might sound disgusting to us, it was believed to bring good luck, and in some regions the dried up umbilical cord would be given to the child when it started school to promote learning.
When you think about it, those superstitions made sense in an era before vitamins, OB/GYNs, and ultrasound. They gave people a greater feeling of control. Women worry about similar things today, but science has largely replaced superstition.
The information in this post comes from the book Polish Customs, Traditions & Folklore by Sophie Hodorowicz Knab. I highly recommend it if you are interested in Polish culture.