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Placenta Rituals and Folklore from around the World
Issue 131

The newborn baby’s placenta is the focus of many post-birth rituals around the world. As well as honoring the baby’s placenta, these practices spiritually safeguard baby and mother during the major transitions of birth and the postnatal period.1



In Cambodia, for example, the baby’s placenta, which traditional Cambodian healers call “the globe of the origin of the soul,” must be buried in the right location and orientation to protect the baby. The burial place may be covered with a spiky plant to keep evil spirits and dogs from interfering, because such interference could have long-term effects on the mother’s mental health.2 Doña Miriam, a traditional midwife from Costa Rica, describes wrapping the newborn placenta in paper, burying it in a dry hole, then covering it with ashes from the stove. This ritual protects the mother from entuertos: retained blood clots, cramps, and infection.3

The influence of the child’s placenta and cord is, in many places, thought to extend long after birth. In Turkey, the placenta, which is known as the friend or comrade of the baby, is wrapped in a clean cloth and buried. The cord, however, may be buried in the courtyard of a mosque, if the parents wish their child to be devout in later life. Similarly, if the parents want their child to be well educated, they may throw the cord over a schoolyard wall.4 The Kwakiutl of British Columbia are reported to have buried a daughter’s placenta at the high-tide mark so that she would grow up to be skilled at digging for clams. A Kwakiutl son’s placenta was apparently exposed so that, as ravens devoured it, he would gain prophetic vision in later life.5

In many places, the placenta represents the child’s relationship to family, tribe, and land. The Maori of New Zealand call the placenta whenua, which also means land. For the Maori, te whenua (the land) nourishes the people, as does the whenua (placenta) of the woman. The Maori traditionally bury the baby’s whenua and pito (umbilical cord) on the marae, or tribal land. Returning the placenta/whenua to papatuanuku (Mother Earth) after birth establishes a personal, spiritual, symbolic and sacred link between the land and the child.6

For the Navajo, burying a child’s placenta within the four sacred corners of the reservation ensures that he or she will be connected with the land and will always return home.7 In Cambodia, children are safe as long as they don’t stray too far from where their placentas are buried.8

Other placental rituals recognize and honor the womb connection between baby and placenta. In some places, the placenta is known as the child’s sibling or twin. In Nepal, for example, the placenta is known as bucha-co-satthi (the baby’s friend); in Malaysia, when a baby smiles unexpectedly, he or she is said to be playing with the older sibling—the placenta.9 The Ibo people of Nigeria and Ghana are said to treat the placenta as the baby’s dead twin, and to give it full burial rites.10

The placenta has also been recognized as a source of power and magic. An Egyptian pharaoh was preceded in procession by his actual placenta, fixed to the end of a pole. Many symbols of leadership and status are derived from birth—for example, the crowning of a monarch may be derived from “crowning at birth,” and the caduceus—the wand of Hippocrates entwined by two snakes, and the symbol of the medical profession—is derived from the triple-vesseled umbilicus.11 For the Hmong, a Laotian hill tribe, being born in a caul signifies that a child was a regally cloaked monarch in a previous life. The caul, a sign of prosperity in this life as well, is traditionally dried and given to the child when older.12

In traditional Ukrainian culture, a midwife would divine from the newborn placenta how many more children the mother would bear. The placenta was later buried where it would not be stepped over—if it were buried under the doorway, the mother would become infertile.13 In Japan, however, a childless woman who desired pregnancy would borrow the petticoat of a pregnant friend and deliberately step over a baby’s newly buried placenta. In Transylvania, a couple who desired no more children would burn their baby’s placenta and mix it with ashes. The husband would then drink this to render himself infertile.14

The placenta is held in reverence and awe because it accompanies the child from the spirit or womb world.15 For the Hmong, it must also accompany the person back to the spirit world. After death, a Hmong must travel back to every place the person has lived until they reach the burial ground of their placenta. Only when clothed in their placental “jacket” (the Hmong word for placenta also means jacket) can the soul travel on to be reunited with the ancestors, then be reincarnated in the soul of a new baby. If the soul cannot find its placental jacket, it will be condemned to wander forever naked and alone.16

For more placental lore, see Anand Khushi, “The Placenta and Cord in Other Cultures,” in Shivam Rachana, ed., Lotus Birth (Yarra Glen, Australia: Greenwood Press, 2000): 53–60.

NOTES

1. Some of the information in this sidebar is based on anthropological reports, many recorded by observers who may not have been privy to “women’s business” or have fully understood the processes described. Even those reports that are technically accurate are simplified versions of rich and complex systems. Please e-mail me with feedback and corrections: sarahjbuckley@yahoo.com

2. I. Eisenbruch, “The Cry for the Lost Placenta: Cultural Bereavement and Cultural Survival Among Cambodians Who Resettled, Were Repatriated, or Who Stayed at Home,” in Home Is Where the Heart Is: The Psychological Aspects of Permanent and Temporary Geographical Moves, M. van Tilburg and A. Vingerhoets., eds. (Tilburg, The Netherlands: Tilburg University Press, 1997): 119–142.

3. R. Turecky, “Lessons from One of the Last Tica Midwives,” Midwifery Today 65 (Spring 2003): 57.

4. Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism, “Traditions to Do with Birth (2004): http://www.kultur.gov.tr/portal/kultur_en.asp?belgeno=5636

5. J. Quintner, “Taking the Cake,” Medical Observer (Australia) (26 November 1999): 65.

6. Ministry of Justice New Zealand, He Hinatore ki te Ao Maori: A Glimpse into the Maori World: Maori Perspectives on Justice (Wellington, NZ: Crown Copyright, 2001).

7. P. Guthrie, “Many Cultures Revere Placenta, By-product of Childbirth,” Cox News Service (July 1999): http://www.tidesoflife.com/placenta.htm

8. See Note 2.

9. C. Dunham and The Body Shop Team, Mamatoto: A Celebration of Birth (London: Virago Press, 1991): 108.

10. See Note 7.

11. L. DeMause, Foundations of Psychohistory (New York: Creative Roots, 1982): 289. In: E. Noble, Primal Connections: How Our Experiences from Conception to Birth Influence Our Emotions, Behavior and Health (New York: Fireside, Simon & Schuster, 1993): 83.

12. P. L. Rice, My Forty Days (Melbourne, Australia: Centre for the Study of Mothers’ and Children’s Health, 1993): 26–27.

13. O. Boryak, “The Midwife in Traditional Ukrainian Culture: Ritual, Folklore and Mythology,” Midwifery Today 65 (Spring 2003): 53.

14. See Note 5.

15. S. Kitzinger, Ourselves as Mothers (London: Doubleday, 1992): 113.

16. A. Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1998).

—SARAH J. BUCKLEY


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