Midwives - Women’s Mysteries

The Element Encyclopedia of Witchcraft: The Complete A-Z for the Entire Magical World - Judika Illes 2005

Women’s Mysteries

The labor room was one of the few areas considered feminine territory. All sorts of taboos were associated with birth. Men, for centuries, were excluded from birthing rooms except in medical emergencies.

Midwife literally means “mediating woman.” The midwife is the equivalent of a medium.

Image In Russia, the word or honorific for midwife (Baba) is synonymous with “Witch”

Image The French word for midwife is sage-femme, literally “wise woman”

Once upon a time, the midwife’s services were broader than childbirth alone. Beyond pregnancy and birth, the midwife served as professional consultant for all “female issues” including menstrual difficulties, irregular cycles, lactation, infertility, menopause, and venereal diseases. The midwife supervised spiritual and magical rites for mother and child as well as for menopausal women and girls just beginning to menstruate. She was a priestess who initiated women into the lunar mysteries of blood, birth, and magic power.

Midwives were responsible for anything to do with reproduction or with the female aspects of the anatomy. They nurtured pregnancies and delivered babies, but they also provided contraceptives and terminated pregnancies.

Some understand the witchcraze as an attack on midwives, although this is a gross over-simplification: many, if not most, of those accused and killed as witches were not midwives. However, a high percentage of midwives were subject to accusations of witchcraft. Among the results of the Witchcraze was that the duties of the midwife narrowed considerably, and much of her ancient lore and wisdom was suppressed.

Once upon a time there were midwives for death as well as birth. Midwives assisted the dying, easing their transition into the next Realm. They supervised proper funeral rites. The German Leichenwäscherin, literally “corpse washerwoman,” was the woman who attended the dead; she was perceived as a kind of midwife.

Hardening feelings toward abortion were partially responsible for negative feelings towards midwives and their associations with witches. Plato accused midwives of causing abortions via drugs and incantations. In the ancient world, herbal abortifacients were the rule, rather than surgical procedures. Thus the Greek pharmakos may be a witch, poisoner, healer, or abortionist.

Roman laws of the third-century CE ordered exile for women who attempted abortion against the father’s wishes. Not because abortion was wrong, per se but because this was a deprivation of paternal privilege. The paterfamilias (father of the family) could force an abortion on his wife or female slaves, regardless of their personal wishes.

Midwives were repositories of fertility magic and women’s mysteries, maintaining pre-Christian birthing traditions, even while veiling them as Christian, into the Middle Ages.

Shamans sometimes must guide a dead soul to the Realm of Death; midwives were shamans who guided the new soul to the Earthly Realm of the Living.

In the traditional cultural perspective of the Andes, women who help other women give birth are considered blessed and imbued with sacred power. Fertility was a sacred power; giving birth a sacred act, thus the one who facilitates presides over holiness.

Midwifery was a sacred profession. Traditional Andean midwives were (are) expected to undergo various rituals to attain their position, not only functional professional rituals but also spiritual ones. Ceremonies, ritual fasts, and sacrifices were required.

In Andean tradition, women are spiritually called to become midwives. Some receive the summons in their dreams. Giving birth to twins was considered such a summons too.