Guatemala. Childbirth in Maya society

The birth of a child is particularly meaningful among the Maya people since it represents a link with the divine will. The nawal, the spirit protector, is attached to  a person at the moment of his birth and thus connects the profane with the sacred world.

When a woman  realises she is pregnant, she visits her father to give him the news and he, along with his son-in-law’s father ask a chiman (Mayan priest) to perform the proper ceremonies for the event. Turning to a chiman before the delivery of a child is important, in order to pray for the health of the mother and to choose the sex of the child, in accordance with the wish of the couple.

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The task of the soothsayer is making the prayers go answered, and find out if the parents-to-be, or a grandparent or an ancestor committed any offense that might hinder the birth. The chiman therefore kills a turkey and mixes its blood with some incense, then prays in the Church and to the several altars spread out in the mountains. The Mayan priest burns incense in each place he prays and by examining divinatory beans, he tries to figure out if deities are satisfied with his prayers; he also predicts the future child’s fate through ancient divinatory practices.
Pregnant women are allowed to eat all the sweets and fruit they want and these, in fact, are supposed to be the most wanted food. When labour pains start, the father-to-be calls the bitcilong, or midwife. Only the husband, his mother or his wife’s mother and the midwife are supposed to attend the delivery.

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Women delivering a child for the first time are terribly scared because they are not prepared for the event. After the midwife has cut the umbilical cord with a knife and knotted it, the mother and the new born baby are taken to the Temascal (steam bath), which was traditionally used by the Mayan people to purify the body, mind, and spirit in order to reach a deep connection with Mother Earth. They entered the temazcal for days, in search of the answers within themselves. Laboring women also enter the temazcal to birth their babies or soon after the delivery to enjoy the heat, aromatherapy, and chantings as a guide in bringing a new life into the world.  The child’ s father or an uncle brings a bunch of leaves to the midwife and she puts them  around a hot stone. The midwife enters the steam bath with the mother and the child and  then massages the mother’s abdomen and bathes the baby. The midwife also rubs the mother and her baby with a warm medicinal bag, to soothe the mother’s pain and says healing prayers. The placenta is placed under the floor of the bathroom of the family’s house. The placenta, in fact, is considered to be a permanent part of an individual during his lifetime, since in case he got sick, prayers should be said close to the place where the placenta is kept. If a child is born away from home, the placenta is cooked in a clay pot until it gets dry,  and then it is brought home and  buried under the family’s  bathroom.When a child becomes an adult, he  takes a sacred bath, which ritual represents the breaking of ties that bind him to his father.

After the birth

A Mayan mother  stays in bed for fifteen days after the delivery and during this time, the chiman continues to say prayers, and the midwife visits her twice a day. She helps the new  mother during her steam bath and practices massages on her abdomen with a warm stone. The wives of the couple’s relatives come to visit the mother everyday and bring three tortillas each for the family meals, for twenty days. On the twentieth day, the couple and their child take a steam bath and light two candles in front of  the bathroom and the chiman prays for the long life of the child.

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The birth of the firstborn son is  an occasion for joy and also strengthens the marriage relationship and marks the parents’ social transition from youth to adulthood. The birth of the following children does not have the same importance in the lives of parents. A firstborn son is expected to stay with his father and look after him when he gets old. The firstborn is named after his paternal grandfather, if is a boy; the firstborn baby girl instead is named after the paternal grandmother. The second child is named after his/her maternal grandfather or grandmother.

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The birth of a new family member, happening in a precise moment according to the Tzolkin (Mayan calendar),  is a very important event among the Mayan communities. The nawal,  the spirit protector, is attached to the individual at the moment of his birth. This union represents the divine will and the link between the profane and the sacred world. The new member of a Mayan community will always be supported by the group and he will contribute to the improvement of the community with the help of the others.

Patricia Mendieta


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