Weddings and having Babies

Until 80 years ago (and the subject, although little discussed today, is probably far from defunct in many communities) fertility charms were all-important to the married and about-to-be married. Childbearing was the principal reason for getting married: by the doctrine of imitative magic the bride was brought into contact with babies, seeds and objects connected with animal reproduction, or with ancient stones linked with supplications. This, it was felt, could do nothing but good. Her own reproductive powers would be stimulated.

At Roman weddings nuts were thrown for fertility and many centuries later were still strewn at wedding breakfasts in France.

Devon (see string quartets in Devon) brides received baskets of hazelnuts as they left church; in Germany 'going a-nutting' was a euphemism for lovemaking and in the English tradition the devil would bend down the branches for girls who nutted on Sundays and would see that they went to the altar pregnant: 'The baby would come before the ring.' A good crop of nuts traditionally precedes one of babies ('plenty of nuts, plenty of cradles') and double nuts portend twins. The name 'nuts' for testicles has age-old symbolism and in a case of attempted murder in Wiltshire, England, in 1974, the accused husband was alleged to have called his wife's lover 'the village nutter'.

There are many connections between nuts and fertility: almond paste ('called 'matrimony' since it blends sweet and bitter flavours) commonly appears on wedding cakes. In Italy pink and white sugared almonds, important as bridecake elsewhere, are generously distributed in ornamental boxes; in 1956 British guests unable to attend an Italian wedding were sent white sugared almonds wrapped in white veiling within a little tray. An almond tree will always fruit well near the home of a bride: and the tree at White Lodge, Windsor, bore a heavy crop in 1893 when Princess May of Teck was leaving for Buckingham Palace, as a bride. In Thuringia a shelled almond is dropped into the wedding soup and whoever retrieves it will marry next. And at gipsy weddings in Albacete, Spain, everyone heaps pink almond blossoms over the bride's head as she dances. The Chinese wife is offered chestnuts and ju-jubes: conveniently these words form the wish 'Have a son soon'.

Seeds are obvious carriers of new life and suitable offerings for brides. Bulgarian matrons present the new wife with dried figs, their multitudinous seeds promising many children. The connection of figs with fertility is ancient; in Greek mythology Priapus was god of reproduction and his statues, set up in gardens to encourage crops, were always of fig wood. In Greece, Syria and Rhodesia the pomegranate - another many-seeded fruit - plays the role of baby-simulator and the bride scatters the seeds as if by distributing them she brings countless progeny nearer. In Somerset an onion, famous in folk-medicine for promoting both health and increase, was thrown after the bride with the wish that she would enjoy a large family. Probably the many seeds of the onion seemed helpful: North American Indian men believe that such seed increases the production of sperm.

Cereal grains (and their modern substitute, confetti) are customarily thrown at weddings - even if their users do not realise that they are indulging in a fertility ritual. Medical science has given a new slant to the old association, for some authorities now believe that vitamin E, found in wheatgerm and cereals, is connected with human fertility. In Nottinghamshire (see string quartets in Nottinghamshire) until about 1890, wheat signified prosperity also; guests called 'Bread for life and pudding for ever!' as golden wheat showered over the newlyweds, and until recent years in Burgundy in the 'sowing of the married pair' wheat was tossed from the upper windows, to:

Scarcity and want shall shun you, Ceres' blessing now is on you.

Fish produce abundant eggs and young and have a high reputation among traditional love foods. Oriental Jewish brides step three times over a basin containing two live fish, while witnesses repeat 'Be fruitful and multiply'. In America today, dishes such as smoked white fish, sable carp, smoked salmon and gefillte fish figure largely on the menus of Jewish weddings, in maintenance of the old belief.

Like produces like: the wise bride had babies about her as she married. A Swedish bride even had an infant boy to sleep in her bed on the night before the wedding, to induce the swift conception of a son and brides newly arrived home in Turkey, Russia and Yugoslavia were handed a baby to caress with the wish 'May you be a happy mother'. Conversely if a woman were anxious not to conceive she must take care that none of her friends lays a baby down upon her bed; if they did the results would be disastrous. A gipsy woman desiring children drinks water into which her husband has spat, for saliva, like semen, is a vital secretion and the words 'the spitting image of his father' are full of reproductive significance.

Hen and egg are other obvious agents of fertility. The modern preference for free-range, farm eggs, fertilised by the cock and claimed therefore to be of extra potency and food value, is an oblique offshoot of the old superstition. In Scotland (see string quartets in Scotland) a cackling hen was tossed into the house before the newlyweds entered; in Borneo the bridegroom is sprinkled with the blood of a cock, the bride with that of a hen. Moroccan Jews throw eggs at the bride so that she may bear as easily and prolifically as a fowl. The Mussulmans of Sindh seat the bride upon an overturned basket imprisoning a brood of chickens. She rises, the chickens escape and the number she can catch with her hands shows the number of children she will have. A Transylvanian gipsy husband with a barren wife blows the contents of an egg into her mouth. The belief that conception may be achieved by mouth is ancient and one still hears of simple girls who fancy themselves pregnant after a kiss. (Yes, we've heard that one before haven't we!)

Stone circles and standing stones or menhirs (often for phallic worship, though I don't think there's any evidence for this belief, rather it is the inventive mind of the archaeologist) were aids to fertility. At Carnac, France, a childless couple visited the menhir at full moon; they stripped and, naked, the husband chased the wife round the stones until he caught her and they had sexual intercourse in the rock's shadow. (When I visited the stones at Carnac, which are absolutely amazing and everyone should go there if they possibly can, nothing so exciting was happening at all. What a pity)

In Europe running and leaping naked through the fields was a common crop stimulant and there are stories too of such charms in the rural United States at planting time. Similar rites at Kerreatous, Brittany, left a woman confident of managing her husband successfully and a man of begetting sons. Certain flat rocks and megaliths in Ireland are 'beds of Diarmid and Grainne', where the legendary lovers slept while eluding the Finn and the Fiana: travellers have reported the embarrassment of local girls asked to guide visitors to the stones, for by tradition if a girl accompanies a strange man to such a spot she may deny him no favour. (No one mentioned that to me a few years ago, when I went on holiday to Ireland and took my fiddle to play in their Irish sessions. It certainly would liven up a ceilidh.) Barren women and their husbands sleep upon the 'beds' to encourage conception.

In simulated birth barren wives forced their bodies through the holed Kelpie Stone or Needle in the swift-flowing and turbulent River Dee, near Dinnet, Scotland, (see string quartets in Scotland) in the hope of becoming 'joyful mothers'. This was no light ordeal: the hole was about 18 inches in diameter. One unfortunate woman accomplished the feat but there was no result. It was then remembered by her advisers that she must make the passage in the same direction as the current. This she did and conception followed. Couples who sit upon the stone 'St Fiacre's chair' at Monceaux, France, are assured of children. Another rock near Athens is worn smooth as polished ivory by the numberless brides who have sat naked upon it, hoping for sons. In all these charms, skin-to-stone contact is essential.

The unequivocally male and perhaps Romano-British figure of the Cerne Giant, carved with explicitly deline (see string quartets in Dorset) ated sexual organs upon the hillside turf of the village of Cerne Abbas, Dorset, makes husbands who sit upon him strong. Girls and wives fearful of losing husbands and lovers take their problems to the giant and walk round his outline as a prophylactic charm. Before marriage many women visit the giant as a matter of course to assure the future; some recommend that the couple spend the night on the relevant portion of the figure's anatomy for fully effective magic, and belief in the giant's efficacy is still lively in surrounding villages.

Although today large families are no longer fashionable, barrenness may remain a disgrace. A childless Moroccan woman, for example, is scorned all her life as a sterile 'mule'. Mules are dangerous beasts: in the Ozarks a girl who rides one will never get her man. The barren have always taken remedial steps and Cambridgeshire (see Cambridgeshire string quartets) couples slept with the testicle of a castrated stallion under their pillows as a charm. If a Moroccan man is blamed for the unfruitfulness, he eats the testicles of a sheep, if a woman, she eats those of a cock. In the Languedoc, France, the skin of a recently-lambed ewe is laid over the would-be mother's head. Such procedures transfer the virility and fecundity of animals and birds to the supplicants.

In hard times charms inhibit breeding. Fertile nuts promote births and by the doctrine of opposites, 'dead' or roasted nuts prevent them: Rumanian brides not wanting children hid in their bodices as many roasted nuts as they wished years of childlessness. (They certainly have some very strange rituals in Romania. At one time I lived in Scotland and you to play string quartets in Glasgow. One of the musicians, a very intelligent woman, graduate of Oxford University, taught her children at home i.e. they didn't go to conventional school. All sorts of interesting things were taught the children. One day, when the children, I think about 7 years old, grabbed me by the hand and said "come and see the owl". I was dragged to the kitchen freezer, which opened to reveal a frozen owl. The next day it was going to be defrosted and they were having taxidermy lessons. I tell the story just to give you an idea of the freethinking of the people involved. The mother told me that they were later in the week having lessons on the brain, the left lobe and the right slope. I thought that neuroscience was a rather advanced thing to be teaching 7 and 8-year-old children. I commented approvingly. "Oh no" she said, "I meaning that one lobe can communicate with the past and one lobe can communicate with the future. It transpired that every year she went to Romania to join some Rumanian group, who sat for the week at the top of the mountain, touching the stones and communicating with their ancestors. She was a very good string quartet player.

North African women eat barley fallen from the mouth of a mule, or munch a fig so dry that it will not germinate; negroes of the American South rely upon an explosive mixture of gunpowder in milk to impede conception. In Cambridgeshire, (string quartets and Cambridgeshire) mothers of large families held the hand of a dead man — a thing of death, not life — or laid under their pillows 'corpse money' which had rested in his mouth. This would prevent further births, but if a husband found these coins and announced in the village inn that he was funding his drinking thus, he was given free beer!