by Tara MacAnTSior & Branfionn MacGregor
There are a number of places where we can go to find the old Gaelic
customs surrounding birth and death. A great number of them have been
recorded in places that through the years, by the Church's own admission,
were less firmly touched by the hands of Christianity. One distinct item
comes from the realm of the old lore.
Most of the customs listed here are commonly held by anthropologists to
be carry overs from our traditional pagan ancestors. The number of them
recorded in either lore origin the work of people such as Carmichael or
MacLeod or still in practice in the old countries are enough to piece
together the sequence of events surrounding the birth of a child. What we
can put back together would well serve anyone researching their ancestral
spiritual roots as well as any who sought to revitalize those ways.
In addition to the mother, the midwife and a nurse, who was called "ban-
ghluin" were also present at the birth of a child. It would appear by care-
fully looking at all of the texts that the father was also present at the
Immediately after the child was born the mid-wife placed three drops of water
on the new borns head. While doing this, she would recite an incantation which
is only thinly Christianized. We can approximate the original verse by studying
the old lore and coming to a firm understanding of the ancient Triune logic
wherein the Three of Power were recognized as the Sky, the Land and the Sea. In
the following the God the Father, Son and Spirit are replaced with what are
probably those earlier terms.
"The little drop of the Sky
On thy little forehead, beloved one.
The little drop of the Land
On thy little forehead, beloved one.
The litle drop of the Sea
On thy little forehead beloved one.
To aid thee from the fays,
To guard thee from the host;
To aid thee from the gnome,
To shield thee from the spectre;
To keep thee for the Three,
To shield thee, to surround thee;
To save thee for the Three,
To fill thee with the graces;
The little drop of the Three
To lave thee with the graces."
The nurse then administered the "baisteadh breith" or birth baptism. This
was done as a part of the child's first bath. The bath water itself
invariably had placed in it either a silver or gold coin, as these relate
to the powers of the Moon and Sun respectively. Holding the child over
the bath, the nurse would fill her palm with water nine times and rub it
over the child while singing the incantation of the birth baptism.
(There are indications the the water used was spring water.) While several
versions of the blessing given during the birth baptism can be found in a
couple of different places, they all address the ancient concept of
"the Nine Waves". A typical one might read:
"The little wavelet for thy form,
The little wavelet for thy voice,
The little wavelet for thy sweet speech.
The little wavelet for thy means,
The little wavelet for thy generosity,
The little wavelet for thine appetite.
The little wavelet for thy wealth,
The little wavelet for thy life,
The little wavelet for thine health.
Nine little palmfuls for thy grace
(in the name of) the Three of Power
It is common when reading the various versions to handily see where later
Christians made additions onto the base verse.
Then the child was handed back and forth across a flame three times, from
the mid-wife to the father. Prayers for blessing were then made under the
breath to the Power of the Sun by the midwife.The child was then carried
deosil around the flame three times by the father.
The thing done is found in in "Scela Eogain", which is found in the
Irish Texts Society volume "Cath Maige Mucraime". It tells of how when Cormac
was born, Olc Aaiche , put five protective circles about him. They were against
wounding, against drowning, against fire, against enchantment and against
wolves. The 5 concentric circles theme shows up consistently, from the floor
plan at Emain Macha (evan mah) to the 14th century feige find glyph in the
"Book of Ballymote". This was an approach to protecting against every evil.
Erynn Laurie, the well known student of Irish texts and and their symbolism
interprets these as:
wounding = danger in battle
drowning = danger in travel
fire = spiritual dangers
enchantment = magical dangers
wolves = natural dangers
Up to this point the movement of the child has been lateral or horizontal,
that is,on the same plane as the horizon. A newborn was never, ever moved
downward, as in going down stairs as the first direction of movement. Instead,
the child was taken upward the first time it was taken out of the mother's
room. If there were no stairs or such, then provision was made to accomodate
this movement. Sometimes the accomodation to overcome a lack of stairs upward,
was for the nurse to simply use a chair to step "up" on. If this was not done
then it was thought to doom the child to always remain lowly in the world and
never to be able to rise to distinction or be able to gain riches.
As soon as the mother was able, she gave the last of the set of three initial
blessings by touching the child's forehead to the ground and reciting an
incantation. This last blessing was called "the old Mothering". A portion of
a book by Fionna MacLeod dealing with this practice is to be found at the end
of this article. We are adding it because that text is so hard to find.
If a child was stillborn, the body was taken out during the night and buried
in some out of the way place. The father was never present at the burial of a
stillborn as he risked not being able to have any more children because of his
presence. The stillborn child was considered to have been in possession of a
spirit but not a soul. Even into the modern era it was believed that the spirit
(taran) went into the rocks. In this can be seen the more ancient belief that
the spirit went to the realms of the Tuatha de Danaan.
It was considered that Sunday was the best day upon which to be born. In this
it needs to be remembered that the Christian sabbath is actually Saturday (the
seventh day). The original meaning of the day, 'Sunday', relates to just what
the name implies. Sunday is the day of the Sun. In some areas it was believed
that those who were born at the "chime hours" would have the second sight.
Other ideas which reach back into antiquity state that a baby and a cat
cannot live together in the same house. This idea has a basis in fact as babies
have been known to be smothered by a cat which had lain across a baby. With equal
basis in fact is the idea that it is unlucky for a child to sleep on "the bones
of the lap". This comes from the need for support along the whole of the spine.
Less steeped in any obvious reason is the Highland prohibition against rocking
an empty cradle.
Concerning the practice of baptism: It is a practice that originated with the
original Indo-Europeans. The practice was carried into places as far flung as
India where it still resides today through the Brahmin Hindu. It was, perhaps,
carried into Christianity by Celtic people, like so many other things (flamin,
concept of the Trinity, Holy Water, etc). When looking at the phenomena one cannot
help but look at the importance placed upon this ancient rite, both at the birth,
and during the washing of a body after death. One can't help but notice that the
birth baptism is to seal the gate between the previous world and this one. Likewise
the washing of the body (baptism) at death, can easily be seen to seal the gate once
again after the spirit has been born into Otherworld. Celtic philosophy on going
back and forth between life, death and life is well attested to. We see it in
traditional lore as well as in the commentaries by the so called "classical
historians". Perhaps the most eloquent phrasing of Gaelic Celtic ideas concerning
the transition written in the modern era was by George MacDonald as carried in
"The Silver Bough" by MacNiell:
" On either hand we behold a birth of which, as of the moon, we see but half.
We are outside the one, waiting for life from the unknown; we are inside the other,
watching the departure of a spirit from the womb of the world into the unknown.
To the region whither he goes, the man enters newly-born. We forget that it is a
birth, and call it death. The body he leaves behind is but the placenta by which
he drew his nourishment from his mother earth. And as a child-bed is watched on
earth with expectancy, so the couch of the dying, as we call them, may be
surrounded by the birth watchers of the other world, waiting like anxious servants
to open the door to which this world is but a wind-blown porch."
The Carmina Gadelica-Hymns and Incantations Coolected IN The Highlands and Islands
of Scotland In The Last Century, Alexander Carmichael,Lindisfarne Press, c. 1994,
The Hand Of Destiny - Folklore and Superstition For Everyday Life, C.J.S. Thompson,
Bell Pub, c. 1989,ISBN 0-517-67581-1
By Sundown Shores - Studies in Spiritual History, Fiona MacLeod, George Loring Press,
Portland Maine, Thomas B. Mosher, c. 1902, (only 425 copies)
The Silver Bough Vol. One, F. Marian McNeill, Lewis Reprints, c. 1977, ISBN
History of Religious Ideas Vol 1, Mircea Eliade,University of Chicago Press,
c. 1978, ISBN 0-226-20401-4
History of Religious Ideas Vol 2, Mircea Eliade,University of Chicago Press,
c. 1982, ISBN 0-226-20403-0
The Tibetan Book Of The Dead, W.Y. Evans Wentz, Oxford University Press, reprinted
Hinduism, edited by Louis Renou, Geo. Braziller, c. 1962, LoC# 61-15496
From: "By Sundown Shores - Studies in Spiritual History" by Fiona MacLeod,
"From the fisherman's wife with whom I lodged I learned that her daughter had
recently bourne a son, but was now up and about again, though for the first
time, that morning. We went to her, about noon. She was not in the house. A
small cabbage-garden lay behind, and beyond it the mossy edge of a wood of
rowans and birches broke steeply in bracken and lonroid. The girl was there,
and had taken the child from her breast and, kneeling, was touching the earth
with the small lint-white head."
"I asked her what she was doing. She said it was the right thing to do; that
as soon as possible after a child was born, the mother should take it - and
best, at noon, and facing the sun - and touch its brow to the earth. My friends
(like many islanders of the Inner Hebrides, they had no Gaelic) used an un-
familiar phrase: "It's the Old Mothering." It was, in truth, the sacrament of
Our Mother, but in a far, ancient sense. I do not doubt the rite is among the
most primitive of those practised by the Celtic peoples."
"I have not seen it elsewhere, though I have heard of it. Probably it is
often practised yet in the remote places. Even where we were, the women were
somewhat fearful lest 'the minister' heard of what the young mother had done.
They do not love these beautiful symbolic actions, these 'ministers,' to whom
they are superstitions. This old, pagan, sacramental earth-rite is, certainly,
beautiful. How could one better be blessed, on coming into life, than to have
the kiss of that ancient Mother of whom we are all children?
There must be wisdom in that first touch. I do not doubt that behind the symbol
lies, at times, the old miraculous communication. For, even in this late day,
some of us are born with remembrance, with dumb worship, with intimate and up-
lifting kinship to that Mother."
"Since then I have asked often, in many parts of the Highlands and Islands,
for what is known of this rite when and where practised, and what meaning it
bears; and some day I hope to put these notes on record. I am convinced that
the Earth Blessing is more ancient than the westward migration of the Celtic
"I have both read and heard of another custom, though I have not known of it
at first-hand. The last time I was told of it was of a crofter and his wife in
North Uist. The once general custom remembered in a familiar Gaelic saying, the
English of which is "He got a turn through the smoke." After baptism, a child
was taken from the breast by its mother, and handed (sometimes the child was
placed in a basket) to the father, across the fire.
I do not think, but am not sure, if any signal meaning lie in the mother
handing the child to the father. When the rite is spoken of, as often as not
it is only 'the parents' that the speaker alludes to. The rite is universal-
ly recognised as a spell against the dominion, or agency, of evil spirits. In
Coll and Tiree, it is to keep the Hidden People from touching or singing to the
child. I think it is an ancient propitiatory rite, akin to that which made
our ancestors touch the new-born to earth; as that which makes some islanders
still baptise a child with a little spray from the running wave, or a fingerful
of water from the tide at the flow; as that which made an old woman lift me
as a little child and hold me up to the south wind 'to make me strong
and fair and always young, and to keep back death and sorrow, and to keep me
safe from other winds and evil spirits.' Old Barabel has gone where the south
wind blows, in blossom and flowers and green leaves. Across the pastures of Death;
and I...alas, I can but wish that One stronger than she, for all her love, will
lift me, as a child again, to the Wind, and pass me across the Fire, and set me
down again upon a new Earth."