• Chloe Bernard

Slovak traditions and superstitions surrounding birth

Updated: Jul 6

Partly inspired and transmitted by Jana Mládek Rajniaková and Soňa Jány


Photo by Ksenia Yakovleva on Unsplash

Slovakia, just like other Slavic countries, used to introduce magical practices in their everyday life. Some rituals and spells are born from pagan traditions and have been adapted to christianity. Lots of other countries share similar beliefs.

Nowadays, with hospital and modern medicine, science and evidence based remedies are widespread in Slovakia. Though, some superstitions have persisted and magic practices are not dead.



Let's note that each region of Slovakia observes different traditions and practices.

Some protection spells and rituals are both rational and irrational.

These rituals come from a time when mortality at birth was high. Individuals used to pick big and strong partners who would resist pregnancy and birth.

A second or third child was considered unpleasant regarding the inheritance. That is why people resorted to hire a wise woman, a witch, a babica (pronounced "babitsa").


The role of the babica

In some slavic languages, "babica", or "bábica" (diminutive of baba) means "midwife" (for home birth, especially) or "grandmother".

In Poland, babica has a witchy connotation. We can think of the famous figure of Baba Yaga. It is true that in Slavic languages "midwife" and "witch" are connected. They both are medicine women.


This person knows all about birth control and is also an "angel maker". She uses herbs and other methods to provoke abortion.

She performs magic rituals, especially for birth and all rites of passage, when a person is vulnerable to the power of bad spirits.

The babica is a wise woman who possesses the knowledge of nature.

She practices both black and white magic.

The babica is respected and feared at the same time. She works in close contact with the most vulnerable people.

She is hired for different situations but mostly during pregnancy, labour and postpartum.

She might bathe the baby, bless them and escort the parent who gave birth to the church for their purification ritual (vádzka) performed six weeks after birth. She supports them to be reintegrated in the community.

The first courses for midwives in Slovakia began to be organized in 1770 at the University of Trnava, in the 19th century in Bratislava, Košice and Uzhhorod. At the end of the 19th century, it was possible to obtain such training on a six-week course with county physicians.

In the 1950s, when it was ordered to give birth in the maternity ward, the babica's ceremonial functions gradually disappeared in the cities but survived in some villages.


Pregnancy


If the pregnancy is wanted, everything will be done to have a healthy and happy birth.



Seasonal worker in Stara Dala, by M. Bourke-White, 1938
  • Hiding pregnancy from strangers

  • Avoiding to look at ugly things (not to have a ugly baby)

  • Avoiding to look at rabbits (to avoid a cleft palate)

  • Avoiding to look at fire (to avoid a birth mark)

  • Being careful not to fall (to avoid black spots on baby)

  • Avoiding to eat twin-shaped fruits and vegetables (to avoid twins, considered in the old times as an abnormality and a riskier pregnancy)

  • Big cravings should be followed, fulfilled. These cravings reflect the baby's needs to develop properly.

  • If the pregnant person is pretty, they expect a boy.

  • If they are ugly, they expect a girl.

  • Hard work (physical work in the fields) is still done during pregnancy. It is thought to facilitate birth.

  • First-timers have to be more careful though and they are allowed to give birth at home (vs in the fields of potatoes).


Labour

  • Knots need to be open.

  • Hair needs to be open and free.

  • Windows and doors should be open.

  • If the labour is slow, we pour some oil and herbs on the belly or some coal to scare the bad spirit.

  • Back should be massaged.

  • Back should be arched towards the fireplace (oven) where good spirits live.

  • In the old times, the pregnant person would wear trousers (stereotypical male clothes) to trick the evil spirit.

  • Kuváda (couvade): The partner pretends to be the person giving birth, lies in bed, screams, etc, to confuse the evil spirit and become the target.


The newborn

  • The attention now goes to the newborn

  • The baby is washed in a warm bath with herbs and symbolic items given by witches that will impact the future of the baby: - Scissors (so the baby becomes a tailor) - Hammer (so the baby becomes a builder) - Money (so the baby becomes rich) - Honey (so the baby becomes sweet and kind)

It is believed that if the baby has a tooth at birth they will:

1) become a prophet, a wise person

2) die young

Prophecies depend on the region.


If the baby is weak, they need to be baptised as soon as possible so if they die they are allowed to be buried by the church and not separately.

If the parent who gave birth dies but the baby survives, the first one becomes a ghost who might still their baby. The child would be put on their chest, rubbed on them, put under their arms...to let the baby go (thinking that the chances are few for the baby to survive).


Once the baby is washed and swaddled, they are placed in the other parent's arms. Symbolically it is the partner acknowledging their parental responsibility.


It is recommended for the birthing person to blow in a bottle to expulse the placenta. Parents have to keep an eye on the babica so she doesn't steal the placenta to do black magic.


The umbilical cord is dried and saved. It is given to the child when starting school to untangle their brain.


The newborn dyad sleeps by a corner blanket decorated with symbols:

  • Knives and sharp objects: For protection.

  • A rooster: Sings to scare the devil and announces a new morning each day.

  • An apple: For a good health.

The new parent keeps an eye on the baby at all times so the baby is not abducted and swapped by a witch or some small spirits. In hot Summer days, the baby will sleep always indoors to avoid an encounter with Lady Midday or Lady of the Rye (Poludnica, pronounced Poludnitsa) who would either cut adults heads or make children disappear. In Slavic countries, this lady is the personification of a sun-stroke. In Slavic mythology, she is a Noon Demon.

Baby's robe for their baptism

It is always preferable not to wander or work in the fields at midday during a hot Summer day. Peasant wisdom.


The baby is protected by red details (clothes, baby sleeping bag or a pillow in their cot and protective symbols taken for example from the wedding dress.)









Postpartum

After birth, in the old times, the parent who gave birth was considered impure. They will be impure until they stop bleeding. Before that, they remain unprotected, a threat to the community, a possible source of contamination. They need to rest and take care of the baby.


The family cooks and brings food:

  • Chicken broth

  • Porridge with cumin seeds

Slavic symbol of protection.

Protective snakes (or the soul of a dead ancestor) live under the door step. The new parent and their baby can't leave the house.


Alternatively, the baby can be passed out through windows (vs doors) because evil forces wait for the babies by the door.


To increase milk production, the lactating parent washes themselves in a bath filled with water and cow milk.


They will reintegrate the society and their work 6 Sundays after birth. The babica will stay by their side to attend the purification ceremony (vádzka). This ceremony is also a rite of passage to motherhood/parenthood.


Photo: V. Törey. 1956. (source: Slovak Folk Arts Collective)




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