USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘childbirth’
Folk Beliefs
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Legends

Cihuateotl

The informant (L) is a 22 year old film student at California State University Los Angeles. She grew up in Tulsa, Oklahoma before coming to Los Angeles for college after high school. Her family is Mexican and Catholic. At the suggestion of our mutual friend who had heard the story before, she told me the legend of the Cihuateotl. She mentioned prior to telling me that the story was not told often within her family because of how sad it is. She was told the story by her grandmother when L’s fourth cousin died in childbirth, when L was around seven years old. Though L does not tell the story often within her family, L does tell the story when other urban legends are being discussed among her friends in Los Angeles, which is where I heard some of the story prior to beginning to collect folklore for this database.  The story involves the following legendary figures:

In “native ancient Mexico,” the cihuateotl are the spirits of the women who died in childbirth. Their sadness is the reason the sun goes down at night. Once a month, the spirits haunt the streets to hold the children they were never able to hold. After sunset, they try to abduct children. Because ‘good’ children should be inside and safe by the time the sun goes down, the children they were trying to abduct are the bad, misbehaving children. This is also used to scare children into behaving, as the cihuateotl would not give the children back.

This mix of ancient myth and urban legend is an interesting intersection between old and new. Though the spirits make sense in both modern and ancient contexts, the haunting of streets does not make as much sense in ancient Mexico, which probably did not have the sort of streets and highways L referred to in her retelling.

The story also presents some interesting contrasts. The fact that the cihuateotl only abduct bad children seem to say something about how either those children  do not deserve a real mother or the mothers who allow their children to be  bad don’t deserve to have children when there are mothers who died trying to have them. While these ideas are in the background, the practical use of scaring children into behaving probably plays more of a role in why the story is told than the more subtle themes.

Gestation, birth, and infancy
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

The Pregnant Woman Ghost

Informant Background: The informant is a student in Los Angeles. His family is originally from Indonesia. His parents moved to the United States and they now live in New Orleans. He speaks only English but he said his family still practice many Indonesian traditions especially folk-beliefs. He travels back once in a while to Indonesia to visit his relatives.

 

Okay, so there is this woman who was pregnant but she wasn’t married…she doesn’t have family or relatives…then when she was giving birth to her baby she died ‘cause the baby somehow came out of her back. …And then she became a ghost who looks like a woman but she has this bleeding hole in her stomach. She would appear with long black hair over her face while holding her dead baby …you know like those Asians ghost you see in movies where it’s like a girl with super long drapy hair in front of their face.

The informant heard about this story through his relatives in Indonesia. He is not quite sure what situation the ghost would appear but he said that she is one of the well known characters in Indonesia traditions.

 

 

I think this ghost story shows the improper ritual for two of life’s most celebrated moment: birth and death. The spirits of the mother and child transform into ghosts because they did not get a proper burial. It is also similar to other ghost stories where the ghost is created because the person died too young, in this case both of them.

The hole is a reflection the improper birth and death of both mother and child: the mother who died trying to give birth and the child who died before even being born. Souls or spirits can become ghost because of improper death or death rituals. Similar to other origin of ghost instead of being released into heaven the spirit stays on earth looking for family and relative for closure. It was both unconventional birth and death that leads to the belief of this ghost.

The absence of a proper burial is evident to the lack of family. The woman was pregnant without a husband, which is deemed unconventional and unacceptable by many societies. With no family she had no one to give her a proper funeral. Her ghost, in my opinion, is then her spirit that lingers around looking for family to give her closure.

I think this story could also be an indirect way to teach girls the consequences of going against traditions. Since the woman in the story did not have a proper wedding, she then was not able to give birth properly: going against tradition in this case not only lead to her death but an unsatisfying afterlife.

Game
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Humor
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

“Happy Flaw” Game

“There’s something called your “happy flaw.” It’s a Gaelic thing. There’s a word for it in Gaelic and it loosely translates to “happy flaw.” It’s a game you play when babies are born. Sometimes you do it at the baby shower but you’re not really supposed to do it before the birth. You do it either at the birth or at a big gathering. You’re supposed to do it when you’ve met the baby. Modern people do it at baby showers, which sort of defeats the point.   

When the baby is born, they have a party. Um, it’s really soon after where everyone comes and everyone gets to interact with the baby for a second. At the end you all guess what the baby’s happy flaw is going to be. It’s a characteristic that is going to make the person successful but also make it unhappy. For example, mine is curiosity. I mean, everyone guesses something different, but that’s what my Gran guessed for me. And let me tell you, she is the champion of it. She maintains to this day that she was right. It’s a compliment but it also gets you into trouble. And, um, yea, so basically you all guess and it’s a matter of pride if people think you are right. It isn’t something you can actually win. It’s something you tease people about later in life because people like to tease the fuck out of you in Ireland.

I’ve been to them and I’ve done it. I’ve never been right so far. It’s a reason, like, for example, people can bring it up to remind you or remind everyone else that they’re right. My Gran will always say this phrase that means “curious until death and even then,” which is a Gaelic phrase. It’s sort of teasing. It means even if it kills you, you’re not going to change. It’s endearing but it’s also kind of offensive. It’s a little at everyone’s expense when you’re older because everyone will always be right and then bring it up.”

 

This game sounds like a wonderful idea and much more meaningful than many of the traditional American baby-related games that I have heard of or partaken in. The game clearly stems for the well-known Irish sense of humor; the point of the game is simultaneously kind and cruel. It also serves the purpose of helping family members and friends to form a connection with a child from the outset. By guessing a child’s happy flaw, you are forming a bond with the child and saying that you will watch the child grow up. The happy flaw is something that you can bring up in conversation with the child as he or she grows up. It’s a way to keep you close to a family member or a friend’s kid, even if you don’t get to see them that often.

I also found it interesting that the informant told me that modern, Americanized versions of this game are often played at baby showers, before the child is born. She was very dismissive of this variation of the game because it doesn’t make sense to her, since the point of the game is to interact with the baby before you choose a happy flaw. This variation shows how folk traditions can change as they are blended into other cultures (in this case, incorporating the rather American practice of a baby shower with the Irish happy flaw game) and the informant’s opinion of this variation shows how there can be resistance to such cultural conflations.

 

Customs
general
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Initiations
Life cycle

Tradition – Chinese

After a mother has a baby, she is not allowed to shower or leave the house for a month.  After the baby has survived the first month, there is a welcoming party.

Karena does not believe in this tradition because she finds that it is extremely difficult to stay at home for an entire month with a baby.  She limits her outgoings to a bare minimum, letting other people do her grocery shopping and errands.  However, she thinks that this tradition was started in the early days when there it was not safe for women to leave the house during the first month of birth.  In fact, she learned from her mother-in-law that they were not even supposed to shower because they did not have blow dryers.  Her mother-in-law, who is a first generation Chinese, said that leaving the house with the hair wet will cause the mother to get sick and not be able to take care of the baby.

Keeping a baby healthy is important in the Chinese culture, especially when technology was not advanced as it is now.  Before, they had to be extremely cautious with their newborns because they did not have any western medicine to cure diseases and colds.  So, the mother is protected by having this tradition of not showering or leaving the house.  In this day and age, this tradition is ignored by Chinese-Americans, yet is still common in undeveloped areas.  The lack of showering is out of the question for Americans, but staying in the house for a month is still frequently followed.  The mother should be resting and taking care of the baby; leaving the house would be deemed unnecessary.  After a month, the Chinese throw a party to celebrate the child’s birth.  This is often believed to be a tradition because in the olden days, the babies did not always survive the first month.  If it did survive, then it was believed that they were healthy enough to live a long and prosperous life, which is a reason enough to celebrate.  During this party, the baby is dressed up in its best clothes and presented to the parents’ family and friends.  This party is to remember a baby’s rite of passage into the real world after its birth.

By keeping the baby and the mother safe, the Chinese can ensure a safe life and then celebrate the baby’s birth.

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