Ritual – Birthing

Having babies is one of the things that have changed most between the time of the ancient heathens and modern times. Unless you are unfortunate enough to go into labor in a cottage in the woods out of cell phone range of help, or to give birth in a car, your birthing experience will be under the control of medical practitioners and is almost certain to be in a hospital, and there is a high chance you will have at least an epidural and in some places an almost even chance the baby will be delivered by caesarian section. Even with a midwife or in a homelike birthing suite, even if everyone you want to be there is there and is allowed to be around you, you will have a very different experience from our heathen foremothers.

Quite apart from modern prenatal care, drugs, scans, and fetal monitoring machines, the ancient tradition was to give birth on bare ground, presumably a dirt floor. The Danish for “midwife” is jördemodor, “earth-mother”—rather than catching the baby, she would pick it up after it had “kicked the earth,” as we read in Oddrúnargrátr 8 (9) of Borgný giving birth to twins:

Knátti mær ok mögr
moldveg sporna,
börn þau in blíðu

“Were able then girl and boy
to kick the soil-path,
The blithe babes.”1

The later version of this was supposedly to stand clutching a fruit tree or the house pillar—the barnstokkr, “child-pillar.”2 Giving birth onto bare ground or while clutching a tree, or even standing, is neither likely in this day and age nor something to be wished for. And barnsæng, “childbed” does occur in at least one medieval Icelandic source.3

Better to focus on what is more adaptable and more to be desired.

According to Kveldulf, Scandinavian women still braid three strands of red thread together during labor to make a cord to tie off the umbilical cord, although hospitals even in Norway refuse to use it as intended and at best will tie it around the baby’s wrist.4 This can be done and would be a good calming focus in early labor.

As the pain becomes harder to endure, holding a birth amulet is a traditional aid. Such a lausnarsteinn, “release stone,” can also be bound to the hip or thigh.5 Modern heathens often use amber, because of the idea that it is the gold from Freyja/Fréo’s tears, but in large parts of Scandinavia and the northern islands, the tradition was to use one of the large (3/4” to 1”) Caribbean drift-seeds that occasionally float across the Atlantic. These can be obtained from beaches in Florida and the Gulf of Mexico; species include cæsalpinia bonduc, entada gigas (scandens); and merremia discoidesperma. They are sometimes called “nicker beans.”6

Birth runes can be drawn on the hands, by the father or by a friend. See Sigrdrífumál 10:

Bjargrúnar skaltu kunna,
ef þú bjarga vilt
ok leysa kind frá konum;
á lófum þær skal rista
ok of liðu spenna
ok biðja þá dísir duga

“Help runes must you know
if you wish to help
to release a woman of her child;
on palms you shall rist them
and grasp her by the wrists
and ask the dísir to aid.”7

Thought should obviously be given to what runes to use. Berkano and wunjo are obvious choices and thurisaz to be avoided, but consult a vitki or reason it out from your own understanding of the runes, because interpretations vary. Few of us know the mighty galdrar employed by Oddrún:

ríkt gól Oddrún,
rammt gól Oddrún
bitra galdra
at Borgnýju

“powerfully Oddrún galdored
mightily Oddrún galdored,
biting spells
over Borgný.” 8

The stanza in Sigdrífumál advocates asking the aid of the dísir (idisi, idesa). This should be obvious, and is probably what is meant by “norns” in the question in Fáfnismál 10:

hverjar ‘ro þær nornir,
er nauðgönglar ‘ro
ok kjósa mœðr frá mögum?

“Who are the norns,
who are helpers in time of need
and choose (to release) a mother of sons?”9

Kveldulf has three incantations in his section on birth, all beginning with a call to the idesa for assistance. Here is the one for braiding the red cord:

Idises all shall aid me now!
Thrice I wind weal for my bairn
Thrice I braid bright wyrd for my bairn
Thrice I weave to ward my bairn aye.10

As to what goddess or goddesses to call on: Oddrúnargráttr 8 (9) says both Frigg and Freyja (and others):

Svá hjalpi þér
hollar véttir,
Frigg ok Freyja
ok fleiri goð

So help you favoring wights,
Frigg and Freyja
And many gods.11

But folk tradition says particularly Freyja/Fréo: Frøya hjelpe kona dysse og nynne båne, “Freyja help this woman and no bane” they used to say in Setesdal when a woman was in childbed for the first time.12 You could also call on Berhta/Perht (or Holda/ Mother Holle, if like me you hold them to be the same goddess): in parts of Germany, children were said to come from her Teich (pond, pool), and she is said to watch over the unborn and the very young.13

There is one Anglo-Saxon prayer recorded; you may want to try heathenizing it and using it, so here it is:

Wiþ wif bearn eacenu

Maria virgo peperit Christum, Elisabet sterelis peperit Johannem baptistam. Adiuro te infans si est masculus an femina per patrem et filium et spiritum sanctum ut exeas, et recedas . et ultra . ei non noceas neque insipientam illi facias . amen. Videns dominus flentes sorores lazari ad monumentum lacrimatus est coram iudeis et clamabat lazare veni foras et prodiit; ligatus manibus et pedibus qui fuerat quatriduanus mortuus. Writ þis on wexe ðe næfre ne com to nanen wýrce . 7 bind under hire swiðran fot

“For a woman’s bearing of a child

Mary, a virgin, bore Christ; Elizabeth, barren, bore John the Baptist. I charge thee, infant, whether thou be male or female, by Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that thou come forth . and further . that thou not harm her nor make her foolish [doomed?] . Amen. The Lord, seeing the sisters of Lazarus weeping at his tomb, wept in the presence of the Jews and exclaimed, ‘Lazarus, come forth’ and he came out; he, tied hand and foot who had been four-days dead. Write this on wax which has never been put to any use & bind it under her right foot.”14

This strikes me as utterly Xian, however. The author has cast about for relevant Biblical stories and trots out two examples of motherhood that are more about conception than labor, and a raising from the dead. Latin is used to bolster the force of the charm (as regrettably frequently in the Anglo-Saxon charms, but not very well in this case). Binding the writing (Biblical citations plus prayer) on the woman is a Jewish magical tactic. And the other magical tactic used is exorcism; the child is adjured to come out as if it were a malignant presence. The other Anglo-Saxon references to childbirth evince a similar mindset: the coriander seeds are to draw the child out, and Æthelred gave a carved stone to St. Albans Abbey that could be moved down a mother’s body, causing the baby to flee before it and hence get born.15 It seems we only have records from a fundamentally male, clerical viewpoint. So I don’t think there’s much of use here, sadly; but if you do wish to heathenize this charm, there are a number of names of our goddesses and their children that could be recited: “Freyja bore Hnoss and Gersemi; Sif bore Móði, and Thrúðr; Frigg bore Baldr,” and so on. Rather than “In the name of the gods and goddesses, child, I adjure you to come forth!” I would then say, “As they bore and bear children, may I/my love bear this child/these children, swiftly and easily. Dísir help, goddesses help, help me/her be strong and bear swiftly and easily, with no harm to me/her or the child, as the goddesses bore and bear.”

Finally, the simplest form of childbirth magic is well attested in Germanic areas: opening all knots and clasps. This is one of Frazer’s examples of taboo,16 and although you may not be able to get your doctor and nurse to undo their shoes, take off their belts, and leave their pants unfastened, it can’t hurt to leave your own clothing unfastened throughout labor and to ask your family members to do the same in the delivery room. Opening doors is part of it in some regions; again, you can ask. And you can certainly tell them not to cross their legs.

When the child is born: if she or he has a caul, this is a sign of good fortune; in fact the Icelanders saw it as a manifestation of the child’s fetch.17 It should be saved. Grimm says it was sometimes put in a bag and tied around the child to safeguard him or her, and that Icelandic midwives would bury it under the threshhold where the mother would walk over it every day; but this likely applies to the afterbirth or placenta; Cleasby-Vigfusson uses “caul” for “afterbirth” in several definitions. Rather than under the threshhold, which is impractical, I recommend following the same tradition Kveldulf recommended: bury the placenta under a tree.18 There is a nice tradition of planting a fruit tree for each child as your family grows; I suggest that if you have odal land, that would be the best use of the placenta. Or of part of it; these days there is the option of storing placental and cord blood and tissue against future medical need. But whatever you do, do not allow the placenta, let alone a caul, to be unceremoniously discarded; that potentially rejects the child’s luck.


1 (My) close translation. Most translators take sporna in its less common meaning of “tread,” but newborns are not yet walking. See Jan de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte 1, p. 179 and note 4 (2nd. Ed, Berlin: De Gruyter 1956, rep. as 3rd ed. 1970). He cites the phrase liggja á gólfi, “to lie on the floor” for “to be in childbed,” but this does not actually support the point, as by the historical period, homes were likely to have constructed floors: steingolf, “a stone floor,” gólfstokkar, “floor beams.” The phrase shows that custom evolved as houses changed. However, de Vries does also have a Latin citation indicating that the Romans, too, had an ancient tradition of birth on bare earth: Infans nudus in terra jacet, “A baby lies naked on the ground.”

2 Kveldulf Gundarsson, Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs and Practices of the Northern Tradition pp. 239-40 (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1993). Unfortunately this widely referenced idea appears to rest entirely on a contentious reading of the only obvious example, the oak tree around which the hall of the Völsungs is constructed and into which Óðinn in his guise as Wanderer plunges a sword in Völsunga Saga, chapters 2 and 3. This is usually and preferably called Brandstokkr, “sword-pillar” (the chief manuscript reading; the alternate is Botstokk). See the Oxford Icelandic-English Dictionary, “brand-stokkr” (ed. 1957, repr. 1975, commonly known as Cleasby-Vigfusson). There is no listing of “barnstokkr.” William Morris rendered the name by “Bramstock”: Völsunga Saga: The Story of the Volsungs and Niblungs, with Certain Songs from the Elder Edda, pp. 5-7, (tr. with Eiríkr Magnússon, ed. H. Halliday Sparling, London: Walter Scott [1888]). Ancient Norse houses did have central pillars, separating off the main room, which were revered enough to be floated ashore by settlers arriving at Iceland and for oaths to be sworn with a foot on one, but they were called set-stokkar after that “sitting” room, with no reference to children: Cleasby-Vigfusson, “set-stokkr” and “stokkr 4.,” stíga á stokk ok strengja heit.

3 Pre-1400 in Finn Jónsson’s Historia Ecclesiastica Islandiæ: Cleasby-Vigfusson, “barn-sæng.”

4 Gundarsson, p. 240; the cord is supposed to be left until the naming ceremony is completed and the child’s orlög assured.

5 Binding something on the woman’s thigh is just about the only recommendation the Anglo-Saxon charms make for birth: rather than a stone, they specify coriander seeds (12 or either 11 or 13, depending on the charm), on the left thigh. To be removed quickly once the child is born lest they draw out the intestines too! Wilfrid Bonser, The Medical Background of Anglo-Saxon England, pp. 268-89 (London: Wellcome Historical Medical Library, 1963); Stephen Pollington, Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plant Lore, and Healing, pp. 111-12 (Anglo-Saxon Books: Hockwold-cum-Wilton, Norfolk, 2000).

6 The idea that hafnyra (“sea-kidney”) and singasteinn (“singing stone,” theorized to be a corruption of signasteinn, “magic stone, amulet”) in the excerpts from Ulfr Úggason’s Húsdrapa concerning Loki and Heimdall’s fight that have been preserved in Skáldskaparmál refer to such a birth amulet was put forward by Birger Pering in Heimdall: Religionsgeschichtliche Untersuchungen zum Verständnis der Altnordischen Götterwelt (Lund: Håkan Ohlsson, 1941); Audrey Meaney revisited the theory with further ethnographic data and suggesting alternative seeds, in “Drift Seeds and the Brísingamen,” Folklore 94 (1983/4), 33-39.

7 Lee M. Hollander, The Poetic Edda, p. 235 (2nd ed. Austin: U of Texas, 1962, repr. 1988), for some reason specifies on the assistant’s palms. Note also that what I have translated “help” in the first two lines can also be rendered “saving” or “rescue.”

8 Oddrúnargráttr 7 (8).

9 The answer is, however, irrelevant to our purposes, amounting to “There are many kinds of norns, of different parentages,” and the passage similar to that in Gylfaginning 14 is about the handing out of fate at birth, so it is possible what was meant was rather “Who are the norns who choose the sons for mothers in labor?”

10 Gundarsson, p. 240.

11 9 (10, 8); there is even more disagreement about where to place this half-stanza, as part of Oddrún’s spell or of Borgný’s gratitude.

12 Cited in de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte 2, 311 n. 1 (2nd ed., Berlin: de Gruyter, 1957, repr. as 3rd ed. 1970).

13 Viktor Waschnitius, “Perht, Holda und Verwandte Gestalten,” Sitzungsberichte der kaiserlichen Akademie der Wissenschaften in Wien, Philosophisch-Historische Klasse, 174.2 (1913) brings together all the evidence. He associates Holda more with children; the form of the phrase about the pool given in Grimm is Frau Hollen Teich (p. 1367 in the English translation: Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, tr. James Steven Stallybrass, London: Bell, 1883, 4 vols., vol. 4); de Vries 1, p. 241 also associates the pond from which children come (aus ihrem geheimnisvollen Brunnen, ”from her mysterious pool,” no reference) with Holda, rather than Berhta. But many modern heathens either equate the two or think of Berhta as the children’s goddess.

14 Oswald Cockayne, Leechdoms, Wortcunning, and Starcraft of Early England vol. 1 p. 393 (Rolls Series 35.1, London: Longman, 1864; 3 vols.). My translation based on Bonser, p. 269 (which omits parts). See also Gustav Storms, Anglo-Saxon Magic, p. 45 (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1948; no translation). I disagree with his assessment that the charm’s “atmosphere is pagan.”

15 Pollington, p. 440.

16 Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, pp. 278-80 (abridged ed. New York: Macmillan, 1951); in full editions in vol. 2.2, 3.2 Taboo and The Perils of the Soul. Frazer refers to German customs among the Saxons of Transylvania, in Voigtland, and in Mecklenburg; for the opening of all doors and locks, he cites Argylleshire. The Romans had the same tradition; Pliny even forbade crossing legs or clasping hands when sitting beside a pregnant woman. In fact for labor, some form of this one may be worldwide.

17 Grimm p. 874 (vol. 2); the Oxford Icelandic-English Dictionary, commonly referred to as Cleasby-Vigfusson, lists barnsfylgja for “caul” under “barn” and “fylgja” (2nd ed. 1957, repr. 1975).

18 p. 240. He suggests over the grave of one’s dearest ancestor if one has no tree.