Thursday, September 30, 2010

Things I learned about Ancient Rome while researching my novel, Part 2: The Gods of Childbirth.

Childbirth in ancient Rome is a hazardous undertaking. To safeguard the delivery of a baby, there are at least thirty different gods you have to petition, and that’s not counting those who specialise in fertility and conception itself. Nothing says high infant mortality rate like an entire legion of gods enlisted to keep away evil tidings. These days most mothers and infants have a fighting chance, but in Roman times childbirth is perilous, and you can’t afford to make a misstep in your devotions and sacrifices if you want a happy ending. 

Here are the gods whose names you have to know: 


The first god you must honour is Vitumnus, the god who gives life to children in the womb. He gives life, but doesn’t sustain it. That falls to the goddess Alemina, who nourishes unborn children. Partula determines the length of pregnancy, but the whole operation is overseen by Nona, the goddess of pregnancy.

There are several goddesses of childbirth who are impossible to differentiate nowadays although their duties must have originally been distinct. The sheer number of them shows how critical labour is in a time before obstetricians, heart-rate monitors and decent hygiene. Lucina is a goddess of childbirth and midwifery. Candelifera is a goddess of childbirth, as is Diana in one of her many roles.  A small group of supernatural beings called the Nixi are invoked specifically to protect the mother during childbirth, as are the goddesses Deverra and Prorsa Postverta, while Pilumnus is the god who looks out for the baby. Carmenta is both a goddess of childbirth, and of prophecy. Presumably she’ll be the one who can tell you how it’s all going to work out. But the most important god at this critical stage is Averruncus, god of childbirth, who averts calamity and brings good fortune. Translation: everybody lives.

If Averruncus does his job and all goes well, Vagitanis steps in as the guardian of the infant’s first cry.

Once the baby is born, you should probably offer a prayer or sacrifice to Quiritis, the goddess of motherhood in general, and to Rumina the goddess of nursing mothers. Meanwhile the baby is now being watched over by Levana, the goddess of newborns and Curina the goddess of infants. The baby’s nursery is protected by Voluma.

Orbona is also a patron goddess of children, particularly orphans.

There are specific deities for specific milestones. Are you proud of your child’s progress but afraid of choking hazards? Devote yourself to Edusa, the goddess who presides over children learning to eat solids. Potina, goddess of children’s drinks, probably serves a similar purpose. And if your child is scared of your hysterical over-parenting, send him to Paventia the goddess who comforts frightened children.

Sentia will guide a child’s mental development, but Fabulinus is the god who will teach him to speak. Very soon he’ll be standing, and you have the god Statanus to thank for that. One day he’s standing, and the next day he’s out in the world. Abeona, the protector of children leaving the home, will keep him safe. And, if you make the right sacrifice to Abeona’s counterpart Adeona, she will guide him safely home again.  

2 comments:

  1. Great post!! I didn't realize how many gods and goddesses their were for childbirth, but I have no trouble believing that there was an army of them, all things considered.

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  2. Hi Amalia! I guess one thing a devastatingly high infant mortality rate gives you is a desperate belief in an entire pantheon of gods.

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