Birthday and Rituals of Birth
By: Massoume Price, December 2001
For Iranians having children is a blessing and a very important life task to be accomplished by all married couples. Zoroastrian literature advises the young that being married is preferable and having children is far more praiseworthy than not having any.
All major religions in the area have also recommended having children. Childless marriages were a source of concern for both parent specially women. They were the ones that were blamed and the occasion was used to initiate divorce or polygamy. The notion of marriage in Islam is partly defined in terms of procreation. Marriage is a contract to legitimately produce children through a legitimate sexual act between a male and a female (or a number of females). Pregnancies that are out of prescribed legitimate contracts such as permanent or temporary marriages (concubines) are not recognized. Any child born outside such contracts is regarded as illegitimate and does not have legal status or protection.
Traditionally boys have always been preferred over girls. Documents from Achaemenid archives indicate that mothers with baby boys were given twice more rations compared to mothers with newborn girls. Even the midwife or the physician delivering baby boys was paid twice more in terms of rations and wages. Modern Iranians do not hold such notions any more. However traditional families particularly in rural areas still regard having boys as more creditable.
The birth rituals traditionally started with the pregnancy itself. The rituals involved efforts to make sure the baby was male if no boys had been produced earlier. First-born sons were particularly desired. Wishes were made and alms would be paid to the poor. Visiting shrines and slaughtering lamb and sheep were promised if a boy was born. If the mother looked healthy, active and happy it was assumed she was expecting a boy. If her face and body were covered with rashes or there was discoloring or redness the mother was carrying a girl. By the time the mother was six months pregnant, the shape of her belly was used to decide the gender of the future baby. Perfect round bellies indicated a boy and other kinds a girl. Quite often the gender of the newborn would decide the status and position of the mother in the household, especially if the husband had more than one wife.
The women's parents were obliged to prepare and send cloths and other baby items. The seventh month was normally designated for this purpose. Number seven so precious to the ancient Zoroastrians was regarded the lucky number and normally seven sets of cloths, socks, hats for boys and small scarves for girls, diapers, bibs etc. were made and send for the baby. Diapers were made of cotton and were placed inside a waterproof material called moshama. This was made of a natural fabric called metghal that was treated with hot wax to make it waterproof. An essential part was a cover material called ghondagh that was normally white. The whole collection was called seismooney and with the wealthy was very elaborate. Normally color white was used for the baby's clothing reminiscence of ancient Zoroastrian traditions.
Earrings, necklace and bracelets mainly gold if affordable were included for the girls, whiles boys received a small wooden knife in a green velvet cover. Nanno or a small hammock for summers and a rocking bed for other occasions with quilts, pillows sheaths etc. were also included. Talisman, written prayer rolls that sometimes were in gold or silver cases decorated with precious stones were always sent for the baby for protection against evil eye, bad spirits, diseases etc. These would be pinned down to the babies cloths or placed in the bed or close to the baby. The most common prayer was 'van yakad' a verse from Quran written on paper, engraved on semi precious stones, gold, silver etc. Muslims believe that in Prophet Muhammad's time there was a man famous for his evil eye. He could kill people simply by looking at them. He had intended to kill prophet the same way but the angle Gabriel notified him by bringing in this verse. Prophet read the verse when the evil man tried to look at him. Immediately he exploded and since then all Muslims use this verse for protection against evil eye.
Other essentials like soap, cleansing powder, herbal medicine, the incense 'Espand', camphor, powdered crystallized sugar (nabat) were placed in small white bags made from silk if affordable. The new mother and her husband's family were notified in advance for delivery time. Once everything was ready, all would be placed in a chest or chests with candies and sweets like noghl, gold and silver coins in between the items. Servants carried the cases to the expectant mother's house. The Husbands' family on the other hand after receiving the seismooney would slaughter an animal (calf or lamb) or a bird (cock) and elaborate meals were provided for family and friends. Young couples normally resided with the husband's family, so it was mother in laws' duty to open and inspect the items. After she had gone through everything the servants were tipped and send back with gratitude. The higher the status of the bride the more elaborate was the seismooney.
Midwives delivered babies, though before Islam male physicians also performed such acts. The Zoroastrian texts mention how much the physicians should be paid in such cases. However segregation of sexes in Islam ended such practices and only in very exceptional cases males delivered babies. Most modern Iranians do not follow segregation in this respect, however many traditional families still prefer a female gynecologist. Till 19th century all midwives used by Muslim women were either Muslims or Jews. The latter only delivered babies and did not participate in the first week celebrations as the Muslim midwives did. They usually arrived riding a donkey with their head covered. They were paid after delivering babies and were offered sweets and fruits but never meals.
The Muslim midwives arrived on foot, stayed for meals and took part in the weekly celebrations after the birth. The birth normally proceeded in a sitting rather than lying position. A huge copper tray was placed on large leather spread. Inside of the tray was covered by extremely fine ash to absorb the blood. Brick (khesht) platforms were raised on either side and the mother at the moment the baby was arriving would be helped to sit on the platform. Through out the contractions the midwife and others assisted the mother. Songs were sang, jokes were told and prayers were said.
The two prophets Khezr and Elias (Elijah) were always asked for help. The origin of these characters appearing at such an occasion is obscure. The ancient Zoroastrians had deities who were responsible for opening the uterus and then closing it after the delivery and prayers were read to such deities. However none resembles these two Muslim deities. Khezr is mentioned as a Prophet in Quran. It means green and in popular Islamic culture has replaced the Zoroastrian 'Peer e Sabz' (the green old venerable person). The word Peer is used for a saint whose tomb is made into a shrine (in the manner of the ancient Zoroastrian shrines to deities or Eyzads). Zoroastrians adopted the term from Muslims in order to protect their shrines. There are many Zoroastrian shrines belonging to a number of Peers, such as Peer e Azar Eyzad, Peer e Elias, Peer e Sabz etc. It is not quite clear which deity Peer e Sabz represents at the present. However the deity Amordad, protector of all plants is the closest in concept.
Elias is a Muslim prophet mentioned in Quran and is the same as biblical Elijah. It represents the Zoroastrian deity Soroush and the name Elias was applied to his temples for protection after the Muslim conquest. It is interesting to note that both khezr and Elias are the only two immortals in Iranian Islamic mythology. Both had found the fountain of life and as a result became immortals. The origin of such stories in Iran goes back to ancient Mesopotamia and the Gilgamesh epic. The most famous story of the sort is the medieval story of Alexander's' search for the fountain of life in Nezami's Eskandarnameh. Both deities represent renewal and life. Khezr brings greenery everywhere he walks on land even in the barren deserts. Elias saves people from drowning and helps those lost at sea. Their presence at the time of childbirth is to protect the newborn against death and ensure longevity. Ali the first Shiite imam is also mentioned. As is the custom with Iranians 'Ya Ali"' is always mentioned and repeated loudly when help is needed.
Once the baby was born, the mother and the baby were cleaned. The mother would be placed back in her bed and was offered a local sherbet (mainly aragh e beadmesk) and a local hot food called 'Kachee'. The placenta was cut and immediately it was poked with a pin or a needle to frighten bad spirits such as 'Al'. These spirits were closely associated with death of the baby or the mother or anything else that could go wrong at this time. Zoroastrians believed in a number of such dark spirits attacking the mother and the newborn and 'Al' resembles the ancient spirits. Placenta was buried outdoors with a piece of charcoal to keep cats away. The belly button was cut and tied with two pieces of blue and white colored threads. The baby was washed in warm water with the powdered soup from seismooney.
The baby was first dressed in a long white cotton material with a head size cut in the middle to cover the front and back. This was called 'peerahan e ghiyamat' meaning the dress of resurrection. Diapers were put on next and the baby was dressed with a shirt or a dress on top and was placed in ghondagh, all in white. The head was covered with a small hat with boys and a scarf for girls. A specially blessed safety pin with prayers was normally attached to the headgear to frighten the bad spirits such as 'Al' for forty days. Blessed clay from Kerbela (khak e torbat) was touched and the same finger was placed in baby's mouth for protection while prayers were read.
The first three days the baby was feed with tiny pieces of butter with a few spoonfuls of crystallized sugar (nabat) dissolved in warm water. Due to fear from bad spirits the baby would not be left alone for forty days. Most wealthy families had wet nurses normally new mothers themselves to breast feed the baby. These people were chosen very carefully and if they claimed descent from Prophet's line they were called 'seyyed' and it was a blessing to have them as nursemaids. The midwife would visit the baby a few times till the sixth day. This was to check the baby and the mother. The girl's ears were pierced on the sixth day and again blue and white color threads were used. The boys were circumcised on the odd days, the third, the fifth, seventh or the ninth day. The significance of such days is Zoroastrian in origin however circumcision is a Muslim tradition. Sometimes this was postponed till the fifth or the seventh year if the baby boy was ill or weak or simply circumcision was not available.
The sixth day was a very significant day. It was believed that on this day the baby and the mother were in great danger and prone to attack by dark spirits. The midwife would visit again and the process of proofing against the bad spirits would start. The first step was called 'mohr kardan'. One piece of cotton ball (panbeh) was made into a long roll and at regular intervals this roll was pressed down by fingers. This was called 'band band kardan', then the pressed areas were blackened by rubbing them over the outside of a cooking pot. These were always burnt on the outside and were black with charcoal (dodeh). The result was a long rolled piece of white cotton darkened at intervals. This was called a mohr and was either hanged over the mother's head or was cut into smaller pieces and hung around the walls. Espand and camphor were burnt till they turned into ashes and a common prayer called 'ayat ul korsi' from Quran was recited. The incense was turned around the room and the midwife would blow toward the baby and the mother and the so-called six directions (north, south, east, west, up and down) and verses from Quran were recited.
The ash from the incense was used to make beauty marks (khal) between the mother's eyebrows, the palms, breasts and the feet. Two pieces of thread white and blue were twisted around each other and a bracelet was made and put around the mother's right wrist. The baby's eyes were darkened with the ash. For the fear of attack by 'Al' the baby was never left on the floor. Raw grains and rice were spread around the bed and in all corners of the room. The midwife walked around carrying a large kitchen knife or a sword if possible and lightly touched the walls while repeating loudly that she was creating a fort and eventually left the knife close to the bed. Other elderly ladies (normally two) repeated the same act but used meat skewer (seekh). Afterwards the baby's name was mentioned and the two skewers were placed in fire to become very hot and then placed in water to cool down. That water was fed to the mother and the water was called 'hesar ab' meaning fortified with water (used for defence).
Hesar ab is clearly reminiscent of ancient pre-Islamic practices. Anahita the goddess of all waters was also responsible for the heath of the male and female seeds, fertelized eggs and the newborn. She would have had a strong presence at such occasions and was prayed to with rites and offerings to protect the new baby and the mother.
The sixth night was also the designated night for naming the baby. A feast was prepared and the local clergyman was invited. Before dinner the baby was brought to this man. He would ask what names the parents had in mind or suggested a few, wrote the names down and placed them randomly inside a Quran. Then read prayers in the right and left ears of the baby, pulled one paper out and that became the baby's name. Once the name was chosen in the male quarters, the clergyman would go to the female section. All female and related items were removed out of sight including female shoes to make sure no men will see them. The new mother was totally covered and buried under quilts or blankets not to be seen. The clergyman would sit next to her, the baby normally carried by the father was placed in his hands. He would repeat the name with some prayers and immediately left the room.
Once all males left the women relaxed and singing and dancing would start. With the first born male the mother would be called after her son's name from then on. For example if the boy was called Ali, the mother would be called 'valedeh e Ali', meaning Ali's mother. The whole night was spent playing games, talking and entertaining to make sure people stayed alert and did not fall into sleep while guarding the mother and the new born. Such traditions again are pre-Islamic in origin and indicate the association of darkness with demons so prevalent in ancient Persia.
The clergymen always received money or goods. To avoid such expenses with poor families, the grand fathers preferably the paternal one would choose the name. Presents were allocated to the baby and with the wealthy families this could include titles to properties etc. The names were entirely Islamic in urban areas. However nomadic tribes and people living in remote rural areas had kept ancient Persian names. Muslims are recommended by religious establishments to only use appropriate Islamic names. For example Shiites would never name their boys Umar. Prophet's family and imams and their children's names were popular. It was believed that if a child were named after a divinity, after death that particular divinity protected the person. The name was entered at the beginning of a family Quran with the date and other details of the birth.
With royalty and very rich astrologers were commissioned to consult the stars and write charts for the newborn. The charts revealed in general terms when should they marry, when to expect children, who was to be their mate and when they died. Many of these charts from 19th century have survived. Most old prominent families still have charts belonging to their great ancestors. There were all kinds of name books (molodi) that provided great details on what lucky names should be chosen considering the time of birth and constellations. These traditions are rooted in pre-Islamic times when such astrological practices had tremendous prestige and were in great demand.
The food served varied with the locality, a dish called 'sheehandaz' was a must. This was grated onion fried, mixed with special vinegar and at the end eggs were added. Sheereen polo and ghormeh sabzi and a number of delicacies called 'ghaout' were also included. The mother was able to eat rice for the first time since childbirth. With the first rays of sun appearing every one would relax and it was safe to fall sleep.
If a boy was desired and the baby was male every one was tipped better and with the wealthy grand celebrations would start. A sheep was slaughtered on the seventh day and one leg was sent to the midwife. This was called 'aghigeh' and the slaughtered animal was in the baby's name. They believed the same sheep would become a camel on the day of resurrection and would carry the person (named after) over the bridge going to heaven. The meat was shared with all except the parents. Street performers were called in. For birthdays performers with animals such as a monkey or a small baby bear were preferred. These people were animal trainers and usually father and son team. They played drums and the boy and the animals danced together or mocked about while the adult controlled the animal or played the drum. These were called 'looti antare' and were a popular from of street entertainment.
The other popular entertainment for the occasion was puppet show or 'khaymeh shab bazee'. These were specially used during the circumcision parties. The stories were composed of local folk, stories about heroes, ancient legends, love stories or popular children's stories. Stories from adventures of Amir Arsalan Namdar were very popular with puppet shows.
The first bath after the childbirth was another major event. With baby boys, ten days and with girls seven days after birth the mother was allowed to take a bath. Most families used public bathhouses and many females accompanied the new mother. There were preparations from the night before. A mixture containing eggs, lentils and coffee covered mother's hair. Her waist and belly were massaged with honey and covered with herbal powder and wrapped with fabric. The Muslim midwives were also invited for the occasion. All would gather early in the morning at the house to accompany the new mother and the baby to the bathhouse. If the baby or the mother were not well or still too weak this was postponed till they recovered. A Quran was held over the head and the mother and the newborn would pass under and then left the house. The new mother wore talisman and other lucky charms around her neck. An item called 'jam e chehel klid' (cup of forty keys) was an essential part of the rituals. This was a small cup made from copper or brass and had forty small pieces engraved with 'besmelah' (in the name of God) attached to it. Local variations applied prayers or names of saints were also engraved and used. this was to protect against evil eye and other bad spirits. Women companions made a lot of noise, clapped and sang joyful and funny songs on their way to the bath house.
Once in the bath, the women were received with incense, songs and drums by the staff at the bathhouse. The mother was washed, oiled, massaged with facial and other body treatments such as henna. Food, sweets, sherbets and fruits brought in by the group were served. At the end the mother ate two lightly boiled eggs a sweet called ghaoot and was treated with more incense. Blessed clay called 'torbat bebe' was rubbed on her forehead. Bebe is short for Bebe Shahrbanu, a name applied to ancient Iranian Goddess Anahita after Islam. All localities with a temple dedicated to Anahita are normally known as cave of Bebe or mountain of Shahrbanu etc. Anahita was the goddess of all waters her statues with her beast lion was present near all water sources.
Till recently all public baths and water reservoirs (ab anbar) had water faucets in shape of a lion's head or some kind of a lion figure made of stone marble etc. The national symbol lion and sun that appeared on Iranian flags till the Islamic revolution originally was accompanied with Anahita standing on the back of the lion in the sun. After Islam, Anahita was eliminated, the sun and the lion remained. Eventually lion represented Ali, and a sword was added, representing Ali's sword.
The baby was washed after the mother was ready, massaged and treated with henna then the baby was held over the mother's head. The cup of forty keys was used to pour water over the baby and the water ran down to the mother underneath. This water going through the names of the saints or prayers in the cup was purified and blessed. When it touched the mother this would protect her against the demon of barrenness. This was called 'ab e cheleh zadan' or pouring of the water of the 40th day. Many of these rituals are a continuation of ancient pre-Islamic traditions and are not shared by other Muslims in the area. The celebrations would continue after going back home. Elaborate dinners were served, street entertainers would show up unexpectedly if they were not already invited. They were always welcome and normally performed in the male quarters while women watched from a distance or from behind closed curtains. The next major occasion was the bath of the 40th day.
The girls were taken for another major bath just before the 40th day, while boys were taken after this day. Ceremonial baths were originally purification rites in the ancient times however they became rites of protection after Islam. The same cup of the forty keys was used. If they could not take the baby to the public baths other ceremonies were performed at home to make sure the rite was carried out and the baby was protected. Ironically most of what was done to the babies to protect them would result in harm, disease and even death. Babies deaths were feared, in case of very ill babies they would not name the baby so that bad spirits or 'Al' could not find them. If the baby was already named, they changed the name to confuse the dark spirits. Cloths were borrowed from parents with healthy children to dress the ill babies in such cloths and believed with new clothing and a new name the baby was protected.
Modern Iranians still follow the seismooney tradition. Though it is all modernized and parents themselves are mostly responsible for purchasing baby items. Babies and mothers will be under medical supervision and baby showers popular in west are becoming accepted norm amongst Iranians. Annual birthday celebrations for children are new, very popular and conspicuous if affordable. Children are very loved and cared by the entire extended family and their birthdays are an occasion for expressing such love and attention. Grandparents are particularly close to their grandchildren and are expected to be actively involved in their upbringing and education.