Tradition connected to childbirth among the Udmurts beyond the River Kama

Tatiana Minniakhmetova

The Udmurts beyond the River Kama form a separate ethnic group of Udmurts who have settled in the northern part of Bashkiria and the southern regions of the Perm Province. The Udmurts beyond the Kama have followed an ancient cult of earth and pray to nature up to the present day. Compared to other ethnic groups of Udmurts they have managed to preserve their folklore in better form. The ancient traditions are by no means purposeless and are actively practised in everyday and ceremonial rituals.

In the following article the traditional wisdom of the Udmurts beyond the River Kama on the area related to childbirth will be observed. The below observations will be illustrated by examples that reflect beliefs about the other world.

The Udmurtian researcher Kuzebaj Gerd has conducted the most comprehensive and thorough study into the Udmurt tradition connected to childbirth so far. Gerd completed his work entitled Chelovek i ego pozhdenie u vostochnykh finnov [Man and Childbirth among the Eastern Finnic People] already in 1929, but it was published several decades later. Since then several other researchers in Udmurtia and abroad - G. Vereshchagin, B. Gavrilov, K. Jakovlev, V. Bechterev, Y. Wichmann, B. Munkacsi, U. Holmberg - have briefly studied the subject. The list may be completed with contemporary scholars, such as L. Khristolyubova, M. Atamanov, G. Nikitina, I. Pakrieva, O. Zaitceva and many others.

The childbirth tradition of the Udmurts beyond the Kaama River, however, has escaped the attention of scholars. The historical and ethnographic work by I. Smirnov published in the 19th century makes episodic references to the childbirth customs among the Udmurts of the Ufa guberniya. At the beginning of the 20th century the Finnish researcher U. Harva/Holmberg conducted fieldwork in the Birski district of the Ufa guberniya, and mentioned the subject discussed in his articles. The study of K. Jakovlev appeared in print around the same time. At the end of the century L. Khristolyubova and the author of the present article have discussed the subject in Udmurty Bashkortostana: istoria, kultura, sovremennost [The Udmurts of Bashkiria: History, Culture, Present Time]. Childbirth customs of the Udmurts of the Kuyeda district have been discussed in the works of A. Chernykh. The young researcher R. Sadikov has briefly studied the subject as well.

Literary sources and the material collected during fieldwork indicate that the Udmurt women have always been familiar with circumstances connected to childbirth. At the same time they are convinced that childbearing is affected not only by earthly matters but also by fairies. The Udmurt women realise that children do not come from the other world, but many customs related to childbirth suggest that the Udmurts believe in the role of deceased ancestors or creatures of the other world in this process. In the following these religious beliefs will be observed.

The main purpose of human life is procreation. Therefore people address to God and pray for fertility in nearly all rituals. Procreation is mentioned and prayed for in each prayer.

Family members are never allowed to say which gender - male or female - they prefer. Boys and girls or sons and daughters are considered equal. A woman expecting a child must never ask for the birth of a boy, or vice versa, for the birth of a girl. Usually women pray for an alive and healthy baby. Also, when the child is born they must never think that 'another boy' (when there are only sons in the family) or 'another girl' (when there are only daughters in the family), and have to say: "Shudo med luoz!" - "May he/she be happy!" or "Bless him/her!" instead.

Several rituals performed during pregnancy and the postnatal period serve to protect the child. A pregnant woman often addresses to fairies praying for the birth of an alive and healthy child. She must be careful not to offend anyone, be it a person or an animal; she should not look derisively at the physically disabled; she must not steal; she is not allowed to enter the cemetery or attend funerals, nor can she pay her last respects to a deceased person. All she does may affect the health and appearance of her future child.

An Udmurt woman (quite elderly now) once told me: when she was pregnant with child she had a yearning for eggs. Her mother-in-law told her not to and was very angry with her. Once, when her mother-in-law was away she sneaked some eggs, boiled and ate them. And when her child was born, it had two lumps on its neck. If a woman happens to hit a dog or a cat then her child may be born with a bruise or bristles. Being in contact with the dead may result in stillbirth.

The Udmurtian religion has retained the conception of two enlivening components of human body - lul is associated with breathing and urt is visible as a shadow. The difference between urt and lul lies in that the former may be parted from person already in his lifetime, while asleep, startled or sick, whereas the latter remains in the human body until death.

Deities or fairies that take part in childbirth are the following: vorshud - guardian of tribe and family, mukõlchin - earth god, inmar - god and the souls of deceased ancestors.

If a family has no children, people say: "Inmar ug s'otõ" - "God has not given" and if a child is born: "Inmar s'otiz" - "God gave".

The Udmurts refer to childbirth as nõlpi shödton - 'finding the child'. It is prohibited to utter expressions 'giving birth to child' - nõlpi vordon or 'childbirth' -nõlpi vordis'kon, which are proscribed as taboo words.

Until the 1970s the Udmurt women gave birth at home: in the sauna or in the house. In recent years after the ratification of the certain act in the 1960s they have given birth at maternity houses or hospitals. Physicians began to monitor the course of pregnancy and convinced them to give birth at the hospital. This was both good and problematic. On the one hand women were under professional care of a skilled medical practitioner, on the other hand they had to travel to and give birth at a distant maternity house, while the condition of roads was bad and there was no public transport. Some women never made it to the hospital in time and gave birth on the road. Due to economic problems and the lack of professional medical care the situation at maternity hospitals was not very rosy either.

In former times when women gave birth at home an elderly midwife gogõjavs´ was fetched to help the woman in childbirth and the sauna was heated. It was commonly believed that it is easier to give birth in the warm sauna, as it makes the woman's body soft. All men except for the husband left home to visit neighbours or acquaintances. They were not allowed to tell the real reason of their visit, otherwise the labour might have been too painful. Men stayed at the neighbours until the new family member was born. If the child was not born by itself, or the labour was very long and painful, the midwife massaged the woman in childbirth and prayed for help from the gods. Unfortunately not all midwives were skilled in assisting in childbirth and sometimes forced the woman to do terrible and very difficult things - bound the woman's hands up, for example, so that her feet would not touch the ground. And if the child still 'refused' to come, the husband was to blame. The midwife asked the husband of his sins and he had to confess and acknowledge his wrongs. All knots on the clothes and in the hair of the woman in childbed were loosened.

When the child was born the midwife took the newborn into her arms and facing the oven lifted it up three times (this was performed both in the sauna and at home). She said a charm to secure that the child would be alive and healthy, would take care of its parents in their old age, would stay in the house with his family (in case the new-born happened to be a boy) and get married with a wedding (if the newborn was a girl). In the sauna the midwife gave the child its first name - min'cho nim - 'the sauna name'. Then she bathed the child. Postpartum was wrapped in a clean rag and hidden in a hole dug in the corner of the sauna. In some villages the postpartum was placed in birch-bark shoes and hidden in the garden or the orchard, i.e. in sacred and pure soil. It had to be carefully hidden so that no one would come across it by chance - the situation where a dog happened to find it involved great risk.

Similarly, it was not allowed to throw away umbilical cords. According to the ancient custom the umbilical cord of a baby boy was hidden in the stables, so that he would have many horses. The umbilical cord of a girl was hidden in the horn of the spinning wheel, so that when she grew up she would know how to spin.

Children born with caul were considered special. Cauls were rinsed with water and preserved for future purposes. Even nowadays women giving birth at maternity hospitals are worried whether obstetricians give them the caul. If the caul happened to go to the hands of a stranger, then he or she might use it for the advantage or against its real owner. The child's mother usually preserved the caul until the child came of age and then handed it over to the child. If a young man was summoned to war, he took his caul with him. Other family members were allowed to use the caul as well. For instance, if a family member had a difficult examination session, went on a longer trip or to propose marriage, then he or she could take his or her brother's or sister's caul.

In forty days following the childbirth the baby was bathed in the sauna almost every day. The same custom is followed up to the present day. On the first three days the child is bathed every day, after that every other day and later even less frequently. When a child has been born into the family, small birch whisks are made especially for the child.

As mentioned above, women today give birth at maternity hospitals and cannot therefore bathe their newborn in the sauna in the few days following the delivery, although the Udmurts consider it very important. The newborn baby and its mother are taken to the sauna the day they return from the hospital. Thus the custom like many other ancient customs is adapted to contemporary conditions and still followed.

If the newborn showed no vital signs the Udmurts performed the ritual of summoning the stillborn soul: the chimney damper was opened and a family member hit hard on the iron damper. The midwife took the child and called out: "Kulemjos, peresjos. Sjotele solõ lul" - "Deceased ancestors, ancient ones. Give him his soul". An analogous custom is known where the midwife and the woman whose child was stillborn stood before the oven and the midwife lit a match in the oven. Holding the burning match she addressed all the deceased relatives, saying: "Lul vaje" - "Bring the soul".

As I mentioned already the child is given its first name, or the 'sauna name', in the sauna. This will remain the child's secret name and will not be used, because the purpose of this name is to protect the child. The child is given another name under which he or she will be known and which will be used to address or speak about him or her.

People who are unacquainted with each other generally use the first name and the tribal or vorshud name. The tribal of vorshud name descends through maternal lineage. For example, if the vorshud name of a person is Pelga, and the child's first name is Andrei, then he will be called Pelga Andrei.

The vorshud name is not used in public institutions or, say, at school, where the official first name and family name is used. The family name is passed from generation to generation through fraternal line. The family name is usually derived from the first name of one's grandfather. When the son gets married, he changes his family name. The new family name is derived from his father's first name. His children will use the new family name until they get married. Official system disagrees with this tradition and the state therefore does not approve such postnuptial change of name.

Hereby I should mention yet another custom connected to names: the changing of the official first name. If the child is often sick or cries all the time, it indicates that the parents have given the child a wrong name and it has to be changed. After the name is changed, the child's family and relatives use the new name, while in official documents the old name is still used. Administrative institutions or schools may not acknowledge this new name. At the beginning of the 20th century U. Holmberg wrote about the changing of a child's name. He claims that in the Ufa guberniya the instance of giving the child a new name was marked with an expression urt 'with soul', when the child's illness was thought to have been caused by the wrong name.

If the child was born with a birthmark, then he/she was given a special publicly used first name that began with prefix men/min, which means 'birthmark': Menlikaja, Menzarifa, Minzijan, Mentemõr, Menlõkuzjo, etc.

In a few days after the child was born or even on the day of its birth a ritual meal of baked bread and porridge was prepared and the first common prayer held. Members of family, closest relatives and a married couple, chosen previously at the newborn's parents' wedding, participate in the common prayer. The married couple will be called badzõn anaj and badzõn ataj - 'Great Mother' and 'Great Father', who will be responsible for portioning the child at his or her marriage with dowry.

Before the ritual meal a prayer is said. The family member who usually says the prayers will hold this prayer. If there is no such person then the prayer will be said by one of the elder women. The prayer is as follows: "My Lord, my guardian, creator of life, begetter! Give your blessing! A new soul has come to earth. Accept him - our precious one - among us with your warm and tender hands! Give him health, give him luck! May he enjoy a long life! May he have a sensible mind, may he earn the respect of good people, and may he avoid wrong deeds! Perhaps I haven't said it all, correct me yourself, pray and wish, my Lord - Creator of Life!" And all the participants reply: "Oz'õ med luoz!" - "Let it be so!" or "So be it!"

Many ancient postnatal customs are followed even today. When the mother and the newborn child have returned from the hospital, they will always be taken to the sauna. The Udmurts attach great importance to the sauna - they believe it cures illnesses. In forty days after the birth the child is not yet considered human. It is addressed as vil' lul - 'the new soul' or vil' zõn - 'the new scent'. Within those forty days no stranger can see the child - a precaution against the 'evil eye', - although women from all over the village come to visit and have to be treated with a meal. Even later, when someone sees the child for the first time, he or she has to 'pay' either with money or some present.

The child cannot be left home alone, or evil fairies may change it. To protect the child against this danger a silver coin or a red bead is tied around the child's hand with a red thread, and a black soot mark is drawn on its forehead. Also a silver coin, bead or a coloured button is sewn on the forehead of the baby's cap. Cowry shells - gõrpin´ - were also considered powerful amulets. A silver utensil, either scissors or a knife, was always hidden in the child's cradle, perambulator and bed.

A silver coin is fixed on children's cap to protect against evil. Author's collection.

After these forty days, bäbäj tuj/nunõ sjuan or the 'baby wedding' is held, where the child ascends to the status of a person. Only closest relatives and sometimes also invited guests can participate in the 'baby wedding'. All guests bring along money, presents, red wine, butter, honey and baked food.

Right after childbirth the newborn's parents and relatives make a promise to leave the child domestic animals. When the child gets married the promise will be fulfilled.

It is customary to plant a tree to the garden or near the house at a child's birth. The chosen tree has to be longevous and strong, as it is regarded analogous to the child's life.

The above brief overview of this complex field of study indicates that the Udmurts beyond the River Kama still follow the ancient birth customs. Both ordinary people and fairies participate in these events and rituals. And although superstition and the practice of ancient customs at childbirth is not spoken of and young pregnant women in particular try to avoid the subject, conversations with informants often reveal that they have vast knowledge about these things and follow these very precisely. Nobody wishes for the birth of an unhealthy child. Everyone is aware of that his or her conduct during pregnancy may affect the baby's health and future life, and mothers-to-be wish to risk nothing in this matter.

In the society discussed here the birth of a child is an event of great importance for the child's parents and all members of family. Generally speaking, it is also important for the whole village community, particularly in smaller villages where population does not exceed one hundred inhabitants. The birth, health and welfare of children determine the strength and vivacity of the whole village community, which thereby gains more respect and recognition. Villages where children are not born, are unhealthy or are often caught in accidents, or where the number of suicides is very high, are criticised for the lack of good relationship between people themselves and their guardians, deceased ancestors. Whatever the attitude, neighbouring villages never interfere in the problems of other villages.

Translated by Kait Realo