In examining the reasons why pregnant women and young infants have traditionally been seen as particularly vulnerable to demonic influences, it may be necessary to look at popular views concerning soul belief and young infants. In many cases, very young children are seen as occupying a liminal status between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Childbirth and the period that followed was a time of great anxiety in which special protection in the form of rituals and apotropaics was sought in order to increase the chances of the safe transit of the newborn’s soul into the world of the living…
– Olivia Carr –
Olivia Carr is a history graduate with an interest in death, religion, culture and folklore. She blogs on issues relating to mortality, culture and the arts at CorporealVisions.com
Childbirth, a fundamental rite of passage, will always be awaited with a combination of trepidation and hope. For those living in societies without access to antibiotics or advanced medical expertise, childbirth was a truly dangerous time for a woman and her newborn. This anxiety over the safety of women and young infants is reflected in folklore, religion and popular intuition surrounding childbirth. Pregnant women and newborns face a dual threat; being potentially vulnerable to attack from evil forces as well as the physical complications often associated with childbirth.
This can be seen in the example of the many stories of newborn babies falling prey to malevolent demons. Interestingly, most of these demons are conceptualised as female. In Mesopotamian folklore, Līlīṯu , who later developed into the Lilith of Jewish Mythology, the first wife of Adam, was believed to subsist on the blood of infants.
Analogous female baby-eating demons are widespread throughout folklore across differing civilisations and historical contexts. In the Philippines, a demon taking the form of a beautiful young woman by day was said to sprout wings and a hollow proboscis-like tongue at night in order to suck foetuses away from pregnant woman. This demon bears are comparable to the Malay Pontianak, a female revenant who returns to terrorize the living after dying in childbirth. In the Americas, Aztec mythology recalls tales of the Cihuateteo, skeletal-faced spirits of those who died in childbirth and who return to steal children. It is said that these ‘divine women’ are wont to enter into sexual liaisons with the living, inducing seizures and attacks of insanity.
The most obvious factor in the development of these malevolent demons is, undeniably, a desire to make sense of the unexplainable. In the absence of science, the supernatural and religious experiences were relied upon for answers and comfort in times of hopelessness and loss. This can be seen in the Medieval West, where the intercession of saints was invoked in order to provide relief in desperate circumstances. Often, small scrolls with pictures of saints like St Margaret were employed in order to guarantee the safety of the woman and the child throughout pregnancy and birth.
This custom is reflected in Jewish culture, in which the use of amulets was employed in an attempt to guard against Lilith. One such example is the Wellcome Collection’s 18th Century amulet against Lilith, which may have been affixed over a bed or on all four walls of the room in order to deter her.
Historically, religion and superstition have also been used to explain unusual or ‘monstrous’ births. Often interpreted as a portent, the birth of a deformed child was viewed by Ambroise Pare and his contemporaries as a sign of God’s glory, his wrath or the work of demons and devils.
Some years later, the Puritan spiritual advisor Anne Hutchinson was accused of having a number of demonic births, after a series of miscarriages caused by the growth of hydatidiform moles (an abnormal growth of placental tissue) possibly due to her advanced age at the time of these pregnancies. This is a time in which it was widely believed that the pregnant woman’s experiences, thoughts and desires were capable of inscribing themselves on the body of the developing foetus.
For this reason, Hutchinson’s ordeals made her an easy target for her detractors, who ascribed her traumatic experiences to the dissenting nature of her religious ideas. To her critics, Hutchinson’s molar births were seen as a form of divine punishment. During this period, witches, too, were seen as being capable of using their malign powers to provoke false pregnancies. According to the 1486 witch-finder’s handbook, the Malleus Maleficarum, a witch could encourage a woman to drink certain herbs in beverages on the Sabbath. This would result in their belly filling with a large quantity of air which would escape only at the time of giving birth.
In examining the reasons why pregnant women and young infants have traditionally been seen as particularly vulnerable to demonic influences, it may be necessary to look at popular views concerning soul belief and young infants. In many cases, very young children are seen as occupying a liminal status between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Childbirth and the period that followed was a time of great anxiety in which special protection in the form of rituals and apotropaics was sought in order to increase the chances of the safe transit of the newborn’s soul into the world of the living.
There are many convincing historical examples to support this idea. In the context of Anglo-Saxon England this interpretation may explain a striking lack of newborn infants graves found in adult burial sites, despite a high rate of infant mortality. Not yet fully initiated into society, newborn infants were more likely to be buried in liminal locations like ditches, boundaries, under floors and in passageways.
In newer Irish traditions, pregnant women were advised to avoid being in contact with newborn babies. Newly arrived from the “spirit world”, infants were thought to be capable of causing miscarriages. Exposure, the practice of abandoning unwanted infants in uninhabited areas, may also be seen as evidence that young children were able to exit the world of the living more easily than those who were fully incorporated into it. Exposure was practised widely throughout ancient cultures where infanticide was accepted as a form of post-partum birth control.
In Medieval Christianity, anxiety over the vulnerability of young infants to demonic influences is reflected in the fear of the child dying before baptism. Babies who died before they were baptised were not permitted to be buried in a churchyard, meaning that women who died during pregnancy (or those who died shortly after) were regarded as contaminated and impure, and faced the harsh fate of being refused burial on consecrated church grounds.
Even in the 21st century, deep-rooted popular intuitions over the liminality of young children remain with us in the form of traditions and rites of passage. In many cultures (Haitian, Nigerian and Romani) babies are given two names at the time of birth. The child’s parents keep one name a secret and don’t share it with the child until they are considered mature enough to ‘guard’ their own name. In Thailand, a new-born child is often assigned a nickname in order to escape the attention of malevolent, childless female spirits. In Vietnam, some parents discourage their relatives from complimenting the child so that any demons lurking near the newborn will turn their attentions to other babies.
The fact that childbirth is such a fundamental aspect of the human experience means that we may never completely lose these deep intuitions, grown up over thousands of years and profoundly rooted in the human psyche. Even in the face of science and rationality, this need to make sense of the unexplainable will undoubtedly persist.
Dunn, Marilyn, ‘The Christianisation of the Anglo-Saxons c.597-700: Discourses of Life, Death and the Afterlife’(Continuum UK, London, 2009)
Eco, Umberto, ‘On Ugliness’ (Rizzoli Inc, New York, 2011)
‘Irish Traditions in Pregnancy’ http://www.hawaii.hawaii.edu/nursing/RNIrish07.html
‘5 Fail-Safe Rituals for Protecting Your Newborn’ http://mentalfloss.com/article/17730/5-fail-safe-rituals-protecting-your-newborn
Neo-Vampire God, Demons and Faeries http://www.bibliotecapleyades.net/sumer_anunnaki/esp_sumer_annunaki15d.htm>
Skeptoid, ‘The Spawn of Satan: A Brief History of Monstrous Birth in Literature and Film’ http://skeptoid.com/blog/2013/03/31/the-spawn-of-satan-a-brief-history-of-the-monstrous-birth-in-literature-and-film/
Anne Hutchinson on trial: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne_Hutchinson#/media/File:Anne_Hutchinson_on_Trial.jpg