Birth Rituals

Birth Rituals

In the minds of early human beings, the number of evil spirits far exceeded the number of good spirits, and a great deal of energy and time was devoted to thwarting these spirits. They could be defeated by the use of gifts or rituals or, when the evil spirits had to be removed from a person’s body, with redemp- tive sacrifices. Once these evil spirits were expelled, they were prevented from returning by various magical ceremonies and rites. When a ceremony and an incantation were found to be effective, they were passed on through the genera- tions. It has been suggested and supported by scholars that, from this primitive beginning, organized religion came into being. Today, many of the early rites have survived in altered forms, and we continue to practice them.

The power of the evil spirits was believed to endure for a certain length of time. The 3rd, 7th, and 40th days were the crucial days in the early life of a child and the new mother. Hence, it was on these days, or on the 8th day, that most of the rituals were observed. It was believed that, during this period, the

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newborn and the mother were at the greatest risk from the power of supernatu- ral beings and thus in a taboo state. “The concept underlying taboo is that all things created by or emanating from a supernatural being are his, or are at least in his power” (Morgenstern, 1966, p. 31). The person was freed from this ta- boo by certain rituals, depending on the practices of a given community. When the various rites were completed and the 40 days were over, both the mother and child were believed to be redeemed from evil. The ceremonies that freed the person had a double character: They were partly magic and partly religious.

I have deliberately chosen to present the early practices of Semitic peoples because their beliefs and practices evolved into the Judaic, Christian, and Is- lamic religions of today. Because the newborn baby and mother were consid- ered vulnerable to the threats of evil spirits, many rituals were developed to protect them. For example, in some communities, the mother and child were separated from the rest of the community for a certain length of time, usually 40 days. Various people performed precautionary measures, such as rubbing the baby with different oils or garlic, swaddling the baby, and lighting candles. In other communities, the baby and the mother were watched closely for a cer- tain length of time, usually 7 days. (During this time span, they were believed to be intensely susceptible to the effects of evil—hence, close guarding was in order.) Orthodox Jews still refer to the seventh night of life as the “watch night” (Morgenstern, 1966, pp. 22–30).

The birth of a male child was considered more significant than that of a female, and many rites were practiced in observance of this event. One ritual sacrifice was cutting off a lock of the child’s hair and then sprinkling his fore- head with sheep’s blood. This ritual was performed on the eighth day of life and may be practiced today among Muslims. In other Semitic countries, when a child was named, a sheep was sacrificed and asked to give protection to the infant. Depending on regional or tribal differences, the mother might be given parts of the sheep. It was believed that, if this sacrificial ritual was not per- formed on the seventh or eighth day of life, the child would die (Morgenstern, 1966, p. 87). The sheep’s skin was saved, dried, and placed in the child’s bed for 3 or 4 years as protection from evil spirits.

The practice of cutting a lock of a child’s hair and the sacrifice of an ani- mal served as a ceremony of redemption. The child could also be redeemed from the taboo state by giving silver—the weight of which equaled the weight of the hair—to the poor. Although not universally practiced, these rites are still observed in some form in some communities of the Muslim world.

Circumcision is closely related to the ceremony of cutting the child’s hair and offering it as a sacrifice. Some authorities hold that the practice originated as a rite of puberty: a body mutilation performed to attract the opposite sex. (Circumcision was practiced by many peoples throughout the ancient world.) Other sources attribute circumcision to the concept of the sanctity of the male organ and claim that it was derived from the practice of ancestor worship. The Jews of ancient Israel, as today, practiced circumcision on the eighth day of life. The Muslims circumcise their sons on the seventh day in the tradition that Mohammed established. In other Muslim countries, the ritual is performed

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anywhere from the tenth day to the seventh year of life. Again, this sacrifice redeemed the child from being taboo in his early stages of life. Once the sac- rifice was made, the child entered the period of worldly existence. The rite of circumcision was accompanied by festivals of varying durations. Some cultures and kinship groups feasted for as long as a week.

The ceremony of baptism is also rooted in the past. It, too, symbolically expels the evil spirits, removes the taboo, and is redemptive. It is practiced mainly among members of the Christian faith, but the Yezidis and other non- Christian sects also perform the rite. Water was thought to possess magical pow- ers and was used to cleanse the body from both physical and spiritual maladies, which included evil possession and other impurities. Usually, the child was bap- tized on the 40th day of life. In some communities, however, the child was baptized on the eighth day. The 40th (or eighth) day was chosen because the ancients believed that, given performance of the particular ritual, this day marked the end of the evil spirits’ influence (Morgenstern, 1966).

Some rituals also involved the new mother. For example, not only was she (along with her infant) removed from her household and community for 40 days, but in many communities she had to practice ritual bathing before she could return to her husband, family, and community. Again, these prac- tices were not universal, and they varied in scope and intensity from people to people. Table 6–3 illustrates examples of birth-related religious rituals.

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