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Friday, December 7, 2012

Pregnancy and Birth in Norse Tradition

  As with my earlier post in August on Irish pregnancy traditions there is not a lot of information to be found on traditional pregnancy practices in the Norse. One possible explanation for this that like many cultures of the time period a child was not seen as person until they had survived a certain amount of time after birth and been recognized or acknowledged by the family, particularly the father (The Troth, 2007). This is logical given the high rates of infant mortality, and also allowed for the newborn to be killed or exposed if it was unwanted, sickly, or unacceptable to the parents (after being officially acknowledged such actions would be treated as murder). Although extremely harsh and unacceptable to modern heathens such infanticide of newborns was a widespread practice in most, if not all, ancient cultures. The result of this for a modern heathen seeking traditional pregnancy practices may be that there just isn't that much to be found, although there is more in the category of birth practices and child blessings.
   One practice that can be found in Sweden was done by a woman in her 7th month of pregnancy. The mother-to-be would draw blood from her finger with a needle and use the blood to draw protective runes on a piece of wood, before spinning three lengths of linen thread (Viking Answer Lady, 2012). One length of thread would be left white, another dyed red, and the third dyed black, while the rune blooded wood would be burned and the ashes added to beer or mead (Viking Answer Lady, 2012). The sections of linen thread were burned apart into 7" threads using a brand from the fire, soaked in boiling salt water, and then left to dry in the branches of a tree for 3 days (Viking Answer Lady, 2012). The threads were carefully saved until the day of the birth when the black threads, representing death and bad luck, were burned and the ashes buried, the white thread was used to tie the cord at birth, and the red was strung with a bead [probably amber] and tied on the baby's wrist for protection (Viking Answer Lady, 2012). This one would actually work just as well in a modern context, although I suppose for those of us that don't spin we would have to buy the needed thread/yarn.
   When it comes to birth there are several practices for modern people that are based on older folklore and mythology. The Troth, for example, suggests making a prayer and offering to Frigga and the disir at the onset of labor (The Troth, 2007). Silver keys are cited as a common charm for childbirth, using the symbolism of unlocking the birth passage and encouraging a speedy and easy birth (The Troth, 2007). A common plant used to make the bed for childbirth is called "Freyar gras" (Freya's Weed) associating Freya with childbirth as well, so that a laboring woman might call on Frigga, Freya, and the disir for support and aid (The Troth, 2007). There is a strong folk tradition in both Germany and Scotland that all doors should be unlocked, as a locked door could block the birth process (The Troth, 2007). The mother might also choose to wear keys, perhaps as jewelry, during labor and should also be sure to untie and unknot everything that she can in her room as knots are also thought to delay or complicate the birth. Even the hair might be kept loose to avoid any possible ties or knots.
    There are also runes associated with childbirth. In Sigdrifumal it says: "You shall know birth runes, if you would give help in birthing, and loosen a child from the woman. You shall rist them on the palm, and on the hand's span, and bid the disir's aid." Of course the actual birth runes being referred to are unknown now but different modern authors have suggested possibilities. Perthro and Berkano are often mentioned as birth runes, and it is possible to make a birth bindrune using Perthro, Berkano, and Laguz, with Perthro opening downward to indicate an open passage for the child (The Troth, 2007). Naudhiz is also mentioned as a birth rune, being associated with need and with the Norns; I have heard it suggested to draw nauthiz on the hands or even paint it on the fingernails to aid in birth. Otherwise the runes chosen can be drawn or traced on the hands of those helping and on the abdomen of the laboring woman.
   Other types of birth magic include galdoring the birth runes during labor, as well as writing prayers or birth spells on paper or parchment and placing it with the mother (The Troth, 2007). The prayers could be written ahead of time by the mother and could include re-paganized versions of older birth prayers. For example, this prayer, though Christian could be adapted: "Virgin Mary, gentle mother, loan your keys to me;
                                                       to open my limbs and my members." (Ellis Davidson, 1998).
 This could perhaps be re-written as "Frigga, mighty Lady, loan me your keys:
                                                        to open my limbs and ease this birth."
   There are different folktales, such as Sleeping Beauty, that reflect the older heathen ideas about the way that the Norns could effect the fate of a newborn. In modern practice perhaps a person would want to hold a blot or similar type ritual to the Norns after the birth to ask for blessings and good wyrd for the baby. It might also be worth considering setting up a small altar to the Norns during pregnancy for a similar purpose. It would be traditional to keep the placenta and bury it near a tree (Viking Answer Lady, 2012). For a modern heathen this could perhaps be done instead by planting a new tree over the placenta. Additionally a modern heathen might choose to adapt the American custom of the baby shower by setting up a small altar to the Norns and asking each guest to offer a blessing for the baby, perhaps written on a piece of paper that could be placed on the altar. This sort of petitioning the Norns for good wyrd for the baby would reflect the older idea of the Norns as weaving the new child's wyrd.

 Viking Answer Lady (2012). Women and Magic in the Sagas: Magic and the Household Arts
The Troth (2007). Our Troth, volume 2
 Ellis Davidson, H., (1998) Roles of the Northern Goddess


  1. Great post! I'm working on designing a mother blessing ritual for the daughter of one of the members of my ADF grove, and I'm hoping to use a variant on the charm you've mentioned above. Thanks so much!

  2. I just wrote a blog post about the charm I've designed based on the records you found. I thought you might like to see the result:

  3. Is there any knowledge basis for why they thought a baby would have died during childbirth? Like if the mother came to full term, but the baby dies upon leaving the mothers womb?