Hob & Broom: Household Lore & Traditions

An exploration of the old spirits, symbols, customs, and crafts of the home.

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The Magic of Childbirth: Rites of Protection

Violet Moore Higgins, "Three days agone - I found a tiny fair-haired infant"

This year has been a year of changes for me, some of which have yet to occur and others that have already occurred. The biggest, of course, was the birth of my second child in August. With her came the upset of routine, family dynamic, sleep, and all those other disorienting but completely natural shifts inherent in bringing a new life – a new spirit (or spirits, depending on your conception of the Self) – into this brilliant, dynamic world of the living. Of course, thanks to modern medicine, childbirth for me was a much less daunting experience than it was for my ancestors (and, sadly, for those today who live without access to adequate medical care).

During the medieval period, in which most of the extant native European traditions are sourced, mortality for infants and those who gave birth was extremely high. The chances of a child dying before age 5 were around 20-30%; a birthing person’s chance of dying in childbirth was 1-2% per birth, which meant that their chances of survival decreased with each birth (MentalFloss). This created an atmosphere of fear, as well as the anticipation and joy we commonly associate with pregnancy and childbirth.

The act of delivering a child into this world is a highly charged one. There is a lot of pain, a lot of energy and emotion, and on top of that, it’s extremely visceral and messy. Spirits are drawn to the living – the warmth and the physicality that they lack – and, as anyone who has seen a horror movie knows, not all of them are well-meaning. Because of this, as Claude Lecouteux writes in The Tradition of Household Spirits, “Giving birth has always had a connection with a potential eruption of malevolent beings” who are “attracted by an effusion of blood” (58, 63). These spirits might bring about any of the complications to which birthing people and newborns could succumb. Naturally, traditions arose to protect both the person giving birth and the baby during the difficult and complicated birthing process and the days after.

Doors, Windows, and Thresholds

First, entrances were often spiritually sealed to prevent spirits from entering the place where the birth took place. In Hungary, keyholes (frequent points of entrance for bad spirits and ill-intentioned witches) were plugged to prevent infant substitution. In other places in Europe, a wisp of straw was placed at all doors to the birthing room. In Thuringia, Germany, locks were bound with blue apron strings until the baby’s baptism to protect them from being stolen or worked upon. Other methods of door protection include sticking a knife into the door, or placing an upside-down broom in front of it.

Windows – another vulnerable area – were covered before a birth took place in homes across Europe. Thresholds, too, were protected by certain rites. When a baby was brought home for the first time, an egg would be crushed by a broom there. In the evening, the mother “stands with her child behind the entrance door and calls to the wooden woman that we call fauness [a wood-wife], so that her child will weep and [the human child] will behave” (97).

Rites by Fire

Fire has long been regarded as a powerful life-sustaining force, and in the home it is associated with protective and nurturing (if sometimes mischievous) household spirits. Thus, many rituals were performed at the hearth, sometimes over the fire, or with hearth implements, to protect babies and bring them fully into household membership. For anyone seeking to establish their place in the household, it was a tradition to walk in a circle around the hearth, and babies were no exception. In “The Dignity of the Priesthood,” Brother Rudolph describes women walking

“around the fire with the newborn; another woman follows behind asking: ‘What are you carrying?’ and the…woman answering: ‘A sleeping hare, lynx, and fox’”, likely to trick any ill-intentioned spirits who might be eyeing the newborn (qtd. in Lecouteux 97).

There was also a taboo against giving fire from the hearth (via torch or candle) to strangers or friends dropping by the home during a birth, which would ostensibly weaken the powerful forces living in the hearth flames and leave the home vulnerable to attack. A baby might also be brushed with the brush used to clean the fireplace to protect them with the sacred ash.

Gifts of Health, Wealth, and Good Luck

In parts of the U.K., babies were also presented with gifts to confer health, wealth, and good luck. In Leicestershire, for example, a baby would be presented with an egg, a pound of salt, and matches: symbols of hope and potential, purity and wealth, and a way to light the protective fire of the household (Ancient Folklore). In other places, bread and a little money might also be presented. This tradition was not just about providing the family with the means to care for a child in the moment; it was a symbolic, magical act intended to ensure that the child might always have “the basic necessaries of life” (ibid.). Holy bread would also be given and placed beneath the baby’s head while they slept to keep the night hags away.

Of course, these aren’t the only traditions intended to protect babies and those who gave birth to them during and after childbirth. Does your family or culture have childbirth traditions? If so, what are they, and what do they mean to you?

Unlinked Works Cited

Lecouteux, Claude. The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices. Inner Traditions, 2013.

Note: I have made an effort to use gender-inclusive language in this post, as there are (and have always been, whether history has recognized them as such or not) many types of parents and families. There are instances in which I have referred to the birthing person as the “mother,” but I have attempted to limit this to instances in and around quotations in which a change in language on my part would have made the quoted text confusing.

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The Cunning Wife is an animist, writer, diviner, spirit worker and traveler, and folk magic practitioner guided by both philosophical Taoism and Germanic folk traditions. Her written work has been published in a number of online and print magazines, including Witches & Pagans. She gets excited about scholarly essays and books on folklore, magical tales, and ancient spiritual practices, and is passionate about sharing that information in ways that are accessible and relevant. She is also an avid crafter of magical and mundane items. She believes that there is magic in the mundane, just waiting to be remembered.  

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