Placenta traditions from around the world – different cultures, different beliefs

When women give birth, there are two things that they end up with. One’s a beautiful baby, and the other is a, well, gross-looking placenta. Also known as the afterbirth, the placenta happens to be the only disposable organ in the body. However, it appears that not all parents out there are interested in disposing it off – there are some that choose to eat it and do a whole lot of other things that just might gross you out.

To be honest, discussing the placenta and settling on what one would want to do with it after having the baby has become pretty common place now. Heck, even high profile ladies and celebrities have ingested their placenta in pill form, thereby bringing all the more attention towards this crucial pregnancy organ. With so many discussions going on around us regarding the after birth, it makes me wonder what people around the world do with it? Do they all ingest it via pill or eat it in its raw form, plant it, or do something totally different? Seriously speaking, there are so many diverse traditions surrounding this one disposable body organ that reading about them is simply going to overwhelm you. Here goes:

7 Placenta tradition in Indonesia

What appears to be waste to some holds immense importance for others – this is how the placenta’s worth can be defined. For centuries upon centuries, countless cultures around the world have ceremonially handled the placenta because to them, it is a pure symbol of spirit, life and individuality. For this reason, several cultures tend to bury the placenta instead of just wasting it.

For the people of Indonesia, the placenta is actually considered as the elder sibling or the twin of the baby being born. They believe that the placenta is there to serve as the baby’s guardian all through his/her life for which reason it needs to be buried instead of being disposed of. In fact, there are certain rituals that must be performed before the burial and the placenta is treated with utmost respect and regard.

See, the fact of the matter is that the placenta, while the baby is in the womb, is responsible for nourishing and protecting it. It joins the mother to the baby, and forms a link between the two by supplying blood through the umbilical cord to the developing child. Not only that, it also plays a vital role in the secretion of hormones that are required for a smooth pregnancy and to prepare the body for breastfeeding.

Apart from the basics, the placenta additionally provides the developing baby with all of the antibodies that s/he needs for ample protection in the first few months of his/her precious life. If truth be told, if it weren’t for the placenta, babies would not have their very own life support system.

Now instead of simply tossing away this outstanding body organ and marking it mere ‘clinical waste’, people in Indonesia take every step necessary to revere it, and then give it a proper burial. The burial needs to be performed by the father of the baby strictly. However, before the burial, it is necessary for the placenta (supposed dead twin of the baby) to be placed in a clean bowl and properly washed. If it is not properly handled, Indonesian folklore has it that the mother or the baby will fall very ill. This particular tradition is also followed by the Igbo of Nigeria.

6 Ceremonial burials of the placenta in Turkey

The placenta is largely considered as a friend, end or comrade of the child that has just been born. As it is more so a ‘part’ of the child, it is extremely important for the placenta to be given utmost respect and reverence. It is because of this belief that the placenta is placed in a clean bowl, thoroughly washed with extreme care, wrapped up in a neat and tidy piece of cloth and then buried under a tree. Although the tradition has now vanished, women also used to eat their placenta in the form of a pate or a pasta dish.

To be honest, the Turkish people believe that the relationship between a child, the umbilical cord and the placenta is similar to that of their belief that the people and animals that a pregnant woman sees, and the food that she consumes will impact the baby in his/her mother’s womb. For this reason, the umbilical cord and the placenta are not thrown away considering that it tends to influence the future life and employment of the new born baby. With the placenta already buried, the umbilical cord receives similar treatment. However, if a father wants his baby to grow up to be a devout individual, he must bury the umbilical cord in the courtyard of a mosque. Similarly:

  • It is to be buried in a stable for the child to become an animal lover
  • It is to be thrown into water so that the child may move elsewhere in search of his/her destiny
  • It is thrown over a wall into the garden of a school so that the child may grow up to become a highly educated individual

However, all of this needs to be done after carefully washing and wrapping up the umbilical cord as a mark of respect to not just the umbilical cord and the placenta, but to the relationship they hold with the baby as well. 

5 Placenta burials in Malaysia – they’re spiced up, literally!

The people of Malaysia give high regard to the link between a mother, her baby and the placenta. It is for this reason that the placenta, according to Malay traditions, must be handled with proper care. This means that the placenta and umbilical cord need to be buried following Malayr traditions.

Upon the birth of a child, it is necessary for the placenta and the umbilical cord to the buried properly in the  doorway of the child’s house. For this, both the placenta and the umbilical cord need to be cleansed as meticulously as possible. After that, it is placed in a piece of cloth together with several spices. These are inclusive of salt and tamarind together with onions and a whole lot more. Once that is done, it is also vital for needles, books and pencils to also be added into the piece of cloth. All of this is basically done in order to make sure that the child grows up to be a hardworking individual and a very intelligent student. After adding in all of these items into the cloth, the placenta and umbilical cord are carefully wrapped and buried in the door way of the house.

Now there are certain restrictions in the Malaysian culture that must be complied with in terms of the burial of the placenta and umbilical cord. For instance, it is necessary for the placenta and umbilical cord to be buried before or after the 12 noon mark. If these are buried at 12 noon sharp, tradition holds that the new born baby is going to grow up to be a very stubborn individual. Also, it is vital for the father to make sure that the placenta is not buried too deep as burying it deep within the ground will delay the child’s acquisition of his/her speech abilities. As weird as these traditions might sound to us, these just go on to show how highly regarded the placenta is to people across the world – something that has just dawned on us in the recent past.

4 The importance of a placenta in Chinese history and culture

The practice of placentophagy, or eating one’s own placenta, is rather common in China, and actually has a history of over 2000 years associated with it. It is believed that it was Qin Shihuang, the first emperor of unified China who initially made extensive claims about the health properties of the placenta and why it should be consumed. Also, the empress Cixi is believed to have consumed the placenta during China’s last dynasty as a means of staying young.

According to medical texts dating back to the Ming Dynasty, the placenta plays a very significant role in the survival as well as the development of a baby in the mother’s womb. For this reason, it is packed full of nutrition and when take on a long-term basis, it has the potential to help one achieve longevity. Proponents of traditional Chinese medicine believe that eating the placenta is the finest means of celebrating birth and contains all of the nutrients required to keep postnatal depression at bay.

Traditional Chinese medicine has long associated blood with breast milk. As we all know, delivery takes a serious toll at the mother’s blood toll (believe it or not, women lose up to about 750ML of blood during labor!). After the delivery, this substantial blood loss can lead the mother to being blood deficient. This, according to Chinese medicine, has the potential to negative impact the mother’s milk supply with insufficient milk for the baby. In order to replenish the milk supply, traditional Chinese medicine deems it necessary for the mother to consume the placenta so that any issues with insufficient milk and lactation can be resolved right away.

The different elements that traditional Chinese medicine believes the consumption of placenta can help with are inclusive of:

  • Quick recovery after childbirth
  • Postpartum depression
  • Insufficient lactation
  • Achieving longevity

It is further believed in China that the consumption of a placenta can help with things like excessive fatigue and infertility. This goes on to show that it isn’t just the mother who is allowed to consume the placenta – others can join in on the meal too! 

3 Traditional Hmong culture and its reverence of the placenta

For those who don’t know, the Hmong people are largely considered as being part of one of the oldest known civilizations in the entire world. In current times, the Hmong people typically live in Northern Thailand, Southern China, Northern Lao, North West Vietnam and Burma. In the traditional Hmong culture, the placenta holds extreme importance, and is highly regarded to the point that it needs to be buried inside the family home where the birth takes place.

It is believed by the Hmong people that the placenta plays a vital role in establishing a link between the living world and the spirit world. To them, an individual continues to maintain a deep connection with his/her placenta all through life for which reason it should not be discarded. The word used by the Hmong people for the placenta actually means ‘jacket’ and they believe that the soul of an individual actually goes back to the place where his/her placenta was buried in order to collect its ‘placenta jacket’. It is only upon successfully doing so that the soul will be able to move on to the spirit world where it can meet its ancestors. Also, it is only after collecting the placenta jacket and traveling to the spirit world that the soul will be reincarnated and sent back to the world as a new baby.

So what if the placenta is not adequately buried and the soul is unable to reunite with it? Well, the Hmong people believe that in such a case, the soul will remain in a state of unease and wander for eternity – that too all alone and naked as it could not collect its placenta jacket. Also, there is a bit of gender disparity when it comes to the location of the burial of the placenta. For males, it is necessary for the placenta to be buried right below the main post of the house. This basically goes on to signify that the male child will, in times to come, become the main strength of the family, and serve as the performer of rituals and spiritual carrier of the household. On the other hand, the placenta of females is buried under the bed of their parents.

2 The Maori people of New Zealand and their traditions related to the placenta

The Maori people residing in New Zealand have a completely different view of the placenta. To them, the placenta creates a connection between the new born baby and his/her land or tribe. In the Maori language, the word ‘Whenua’ is used to for both land and placenta, thereby signifying the connection established between the two.

The Maori of New Zealand hold a strict belief that the adequate burial of the placenta on tribal land assist in the establishment of a lifelong connection between the new born baby and his/her ancestral land. To them, children will hence remain loyal to their ancestral lands and not move elsewhere. Through the burial, they believe that the Whenua is being gifted to Papa Tua Nuku or Mother Earth. On the whole, this particular ritual is based on the famous saying ‘What is given by land should return to the land’.

Although a majority of Maori women these days deliver their babies in a proper hospital and live fairly far away from their ancestral lands, they have continued to make sure that the said tradition is not forsaken in any manner whatsoever. For this reason, the expectant mother or a close relative of hers prepares a special basket in which the placenta is to be brought back home. Upon the delivery of the baby, they place the placenta in the specially-prepared basket, which is then carried home by the father or a grandparent of the new born baby. After that, the placenta is taken back to their ancestral lands for the burial to take place.

The placenta is typically planted with a tree on the ancestral land as trees signify ongoing life. However, in case the couple does not wish to have any more babies for a while, the placenta is buried under an ant pit for green ants. As per the Maori belief, upon the consumption of the placenta by the green ants, the couple will not have any more babies for some time – quite a means of birth control, right? 

1 Placenta as birth control? Oh yeah!

Amongst the countless beliefs pertaining to the placenta held by people and their cultures worldwide, this one sure comes as a surprise. Yes, the placenta, according to the folklore of many countries and cultures holds immense importance, and one of them states that it can also assist with birth control.

That’s right. As outrageous as it sounds, couples in Transylvania who do not wish to have any more babies are known to burn off the placenta upon the delivery of their child. After the burning part of the ritual is done, the father of the new born baby is required to drink the ashes. Upon doing so, he will supposedly become infertile, thereby deeming it impossible for the couple to have more children – I am left to wonder if this ritual actually works!

Similarly, people in Ukraine make sure that the placenta is not buried in a doorway. Why so? Well, for the simple reason that it would not be possible for the couple to have any more children if the placenta gets buried in a doorway. Apart from that, Ukrainian midwives, as is believed, just need to take a look at the placenta to tell how many more babies a couple will have in times to come.

On the whole, traditional Ukrainian people are of the notion that the placenta is associated with a mother’s future fertility. For this reason, it is necessary for it to be buried in the right place. Apart from doorways, it is also vital for the father of the baby to make sure that the placenta is buried somewhere it cannot get stepped over. In case this particular bit of care is not taken, the mother is forever going to remain infertile with no hopes of ever being able to conceive a child again.

Even Aboriginal tribes, such as the Maori of New Zealand previously mentioned, believe that if a couple is done with having babies, they should bury the placenta under an ant pit for green ants. For certain Arab tribes, the placenta should be disposed of very carefully, as if something unpleasant happens to it, the mother will not be able to conceive a baby again.

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