Accepted Paper:

The connection between birth, death and negative attitudes to infants  


Lynn Barnett

Paper short abstract:

Birth is a dangerous time and one when our aging and mortality are contrasted with new life. There are many defences against realising the inevitability of death: beliefs in re-incarnation, protective sorcery, witches, ghosts and magic. Thus there is ambivalence about babies, ethnographic examples.

Paper long abstract:

Ambivalence about infants is often hidden by idealisation. Many negative attitudes expressed by outsiders towards infants can be traced to what Freud recognised as our defensiveness about realising the inevitability of our own death. Birth and death are closely related and many cultures have ways of avoiding this reality by having beliefs in re-incarnation, protective sorcery, ghosts, spirits witches and taboos of various kinds. Envy of womans' creativity in being able to give birth can be disguised by negative attitudes as is demonstrated by some of the blood letting rituals men are involved in in Papua/New Guinea. Because of the inherent dangers of giving birth, and the belief that mothers are polluting, some African cultures have special birthing huts outside the normal community boundaries, names are not given to new infants for some time and women may be prevented from re-joining their community for a period. Other ethnographic examples will be discussed.

Panel P080
Cross-cultural perspectives on pregnancy and childbirth: encounters with unknowns at the natal/postnatal juncture