Cultural Beliefs Honor Placenta
by Jodi Selander
The placenta is an amazing, unique organ. It grows with the baby from the very first cell divisions, so it can begin its important work of providing nourishment as soon as possible. It is the direct physical link between the mother and child, and as such, may even provide comfort to the baby. They grow together, entwined and connected in the womb. At the time of birth, the placenta maintains its connection to the womb as long as possible, to continue sustaining life until the baby’s successful arrival into the outside world. Only then does it relinquish its grip on the mother and is also born. In the placenta’s case, though, its birth will only hasten its death. Even so, the placental-child connection continues after the duo are born. If allowed to separate naturally, as in a lotus birth, the placenta will remain attached to the baby for several days before it inevitably severs their link. Considering the powerful role of the placenta in the early, perfect and serene life of a child, it is easy to understand how the placenta is considered sacred in other cultures.
Eloquent ceremonies are performed to honor the placenta in countries all over the world, and even here in our own backyard. The Navajo of the American Southwest customarily bury a child’s placenta within the sacred Four Corners region to bind the child to its ancestral land and to its people. The Maoris of New Zealand bury the placenta in native soil for the same reason. They even applied their word for land to the placenta – whenua. In certain regions of Siberia, the buried placenta is thought to be ill or uncomfortable if the baby becomes sick. The gravesite is treated, and the placenta may be reburied in another spot in hopes of curing the child. 1
Interpretation of the relationship between placenta and child varies widely around the world. The Ibo of Nigeria and Ghana consider the placenta to be the baby’s twin. Aymara and Quecha peoples of Bolivia say that the placenta has its own spirit. Malaysians consider the placenta to be the older sibling to the child. When the baby smiles unexpectedly, it is said that he is playing with his brother. The Parigi of the Celebes Islands also view the placenta as the older brother. It is carefully preserved in a special pot, wrapped in white cotton, and is ritually buried by the mother. Palm trees are then planted to honor the burial site. Similar beliefs can be found in Java and Bali. The Toba-Bataks of Sumatra believe the placenta is the younger brother. It is also thought to contain one of the seven souls that each person possesses, which can act as a sort of conscience for the child. In Iceland, it is held that the child’s guardian spirit resides in the placenta, leading them to name it “fylgia”, which means “guardian angel”. In western Australia, the placenta is considered to be the child’s companion. It is stored in a covered pot for three days before burial, during which there is an honorary silence.
The Baganda of Uganda believe that the placenta is actually a second child. Not only is it the child’s double, but the placenta also has its own spirit that resides in the umbilical cord. The portion of the cord attached to the baby must be carefully preserved to ensure the good health of the child. If the child is of royal blood, the placenta itself is ritually preserved and carried in processions by a high-ranking officer. This custom is remarkably similar to that of the Egyptians, although the Egyptians carried the placenta figuratively.
Ancient Egyptians believed in duality of the souls – one soul inhabited the body, the other the placenta. The placenta even had its own hieroglyph, which looked like a crosscut section of a human placenta. In royal processions, a high-ranking official would carry a standard representing the placenta. This standard, or symbol, is depicted as an organ with two lobes, an umbilical cord, and membranes folded back. In certain ancient texts this symbol is even the correct color; dark brown with touches of red. Entire tombs may have been built to house the royal placentas of the pharaohs. Neter-Khet of the Third Dynasty built the step pyramid of Saggara, but his body is interred at Bet Khallaf. Menkau-Ra of the Fourth Dynasty built Her, the smallest of the Giza pyramids, yet his body is entombed at Abu-Roash. Some experts interpret this to mean that the second tomb was created specifically for the placenta.
It is clear that the placenta has held a place of honor throughout our history. Perhaps we should recognize the wisdom of the ancients, and see that the placenta is more than just some messy afterbirth to be discarded and ignored in the excitement and joy over the birth of a beautiful new child. An honoring ritual need not be elaborate; it could be as simple as looking over the placenta and silently thanking it for its role in bringing that beautiful baby into the light.
Other ritual ideas could be to bury the placenta and plant a tree on the same spot. The placenta can be dried and ground, and the granules scattered to the wind in a place that was meaningful to you during your pregnancy. The umbilical cord can be removed and twisted into a heart or wreath, then completely dried, leaving you with a lasting keepsake to remember this momentous time in your life.
The placenta serves an important, sacred purpose in fostering new life. I believe it is important to see our bodies as the beautiful, magical beings that they are. Let us honor that perfection of Nature in a meaningful way.
2. Long, Croft E. The Placenta in Lore and Legend. Bull Med Libr Assoc. 1963 April; 51(2): 233–241.