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CULTURE AND ART
Iranian Birthdays and Rituals of Birth
A Brief History
by:
Last Updated: October, 2009
Partition

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 white and blue thread 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 the 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 until they became 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 defense).

Hesar ab is clearly reminiscent of ancient pre-Islamic practices. Anahita, the goddess of all waters, was also responsible for the health of the male and female seeds, fertilized 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 and wrote the names down and placed them randomly inside a Quran. He then recited prayers into the right and left ears of the baby and 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 so as not to be seen. The clergyman would sit next to her and the baby, normally carried by the father, was placed in his hands. He would repeat the name with some prayers and immediately leave 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 poorer families, the grandfathers, preferably the one from the paternal side, 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, the nomadic tribes and people living in remote rural areas kept ancient Persian names. The Muslims are recommended by religious establishments to only use appropriate Islamic names. For example, Shiites would never name their boys Umar. The 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 in the beginning of a family Quran with the date and other details of the birth.

With royalty and the very rich, astrologers were commissioned to consult the stars and write charts for the newborn. The charts revealed in general terms when they should marry, when to expect children, who was to be their mate and when they died. Many of these charts from the 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 both post- and pre-Islamic times when such astrological practices had tremendous prestige and were in great demand.

Food The food served varied with the locality, a dish called sheehandaz was a must. This was grated onion fried and was mixed with special vinegar with eggs added in the end. 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, everyone would relax and it was safe to go to sleep.

If a boy was desired and the baby was male, everyone 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 everyone 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 a 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 form of street entertainment.

The other popular entertainment for the occasion was puppet show or khaymeh shab bazee. These were very popular 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 the puppet shows.

The first bath after the childbirth was another major event. With baby boys, ten days and, with girls seven days after the 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 until 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 the 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 bathhouse.

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. In the end the mother ate two lightly boiled eggs and 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 the ancient Iranian Goddess Anahita after the advent of 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.

Until recently, all public baths and water reservoirs (ab anbar) had water faucets in the shape of a lion’s head or some kind of a lion figure made of stone or marble etc. The national symbols, the lion and sun that appeared on Iranian flags until the Islamic revolution originally, were accompanied with Anahita standing on the back of the lion in the sun. After Islam, the figure of Anahita was eliminated; however, the sun and the lion remained. Eventually, the 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 continued after going back home. Elaborate dinners were served and 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 the 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. In case of very ill babies, they would not name the baby so that bad spirits or Als 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. They believed with new clothing and a new name the baby was protected.

Modern Iranians still follow the seismooney tradition. Young parents are mostly responsible for purchasing baby items, although their families will help. Babies and mothers will be under medical supervision and baby showers popular in the West are becoming an accepted norm amongst Iranians. Annual birthday celebrations for children are new, very popular and conspicuous if affordable. Children are very loved and cared for 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.

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