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Issue #7

12 November 2022

 A visitation that is no one's fault

After the birth

Biography of a baby's cry: excerpt p 6-7


Alice had not a moment to think about stopping herself before she found herself falling down what seemed to be a very deep well.[1] 


In the first days and weeks of new life, when a woman is still reeling from the physical extremity - the hormonal tsunami - of birth, something quite awful might happen.


Her little baby begins to cry and cry, day in, day out.


Shuddering screams convulse that tiny wondrous body, fists and limbs flailing. The baby’s face is bright red, screwed-up; little mouth wide open with mewling shuddering cries that go on and on and on as if the world is ending. Nothing the parents do seems to help.


We, the health professionals, might tell the parents that it is a particular kind of illness and give them medicines to help the baby’s stomach secrete less acid, or potions and enzymes and burping rituals to break up the wind. We might give the mother complicated diets to keep disagreeable food proteins out of her milk. We might give the parents rubbing and stretching exercises to do many times a day in and around the baby’s mouth and body, or we might even make deep cuts under that little tongue or upper lip. We might tell the parents that they have allowed the baby to develop bad habits: he is overtired, and they should put routines in place, they should not let him fall asleep in their arms but put him down in the cot while still awake. We might tell them that the only problem, really, is their capacity to cope. Or worse, that the baby is crying because she, the mother, is so uptight.


All of this assumes, in most cases quite wrongly, that the crying results from a certain incompetence on the part of the woman or the parents or the baby’s biological make-up. It’s true that some babies have medical conditions which require treatment, and some mothers or other carers struggle with mental or physical illnesses. We don’t want to miss these.


But much of the tumult and misery of both parent and child in the first weeks and months after birth could be avoided. The evidence is clear enough, it seems to me. It’s never the parents’ fault, but helping families get off to a less distressing start is within the reach of health professionals. We are the ones they call upon. Yet health professionals are often unable to help babies cry less because we still look through the narrow frame of our own disciplinary lens. We are not trained to understand the far-reaching implications of many normalised, Westernised, medicalised or psychologised approaches to baby care.


[1] Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, p 3

Lamashtu's visit

Biography of a baby's cry: excerpt p 11-13


like certain old folk tales from various cultures about crying babies because no-one’s to blame. Instead, the crying is due to a random event.


For example, two thousand years before the birth of Christ, in Sumer which is now Iraq, Lamashtu flies into the home of an unsuspecting family. We read about this frightening occurrence from cuneiform hieroglyphs carved into an ancient clay tablet.


Lamashtu has the head of a lion, the teeth of a donkey and a hairy winged body. She carries snakes in her hands. (Snakes are ancient symbols of transformation and healing across many cultures, and for this reason are also wrapped around the Rod of Asklepius, used to represent my own profession.)


[Lamashtu] … has secretly entered and flies around …

She passed by the door of the babies,

And caused havoc among the babies.


After Lamashtu visits, the infant begins to scream incessantly and the household is in turmoil. This cacophony wakes the god who guards the isertum or inner sanctuary of the home, the divine ancestor who maintains peace between generations living and dead. Now, distressed by the baby’s crying, the god of the house ungraciously threatens to abandon his post. But if he leaves the hearth, he takes with him his benevolent protection and blessing! Even the fearsome bull-man who protects the entrance to the house is frightened.


O baby … out you came from your mother’s womb and saw daylight.

Why do you cry? Why do you wail? …

You have awakened the god of the house, the bull-man has been roused.

‘Who was it that woke me up?’

‘Who was it that frightened me?’

The baby woke you up! The baby frightened you![1]


The fabric of family life unravels. The mother is reduced to tears. Sadly, the father sees no option but to leave for a few hours, taking ‘a road his child does not know.’ Beginning at the entrance and moving to the centre of the family home, this irregular event – Lamashtu’s visit, which causes the baby to wail – has disastrous effects.


[Lamashtu] entered the storage room and broke the seal.

She dispersed the secluded fireplace and turned the locked house into ruins.

She destroyed the isertum, and the god of the house has gone.


The family have little choice now but to call in the ritual specialist.


‘Speak this incantation over oil, rub it into the … baby: then it will be quiet,’ the ritual-maker says.


Hit [Lamashtu] on the cheek, make her turn backward.

Fill her eyes with salt, fill her mouth with ashes.

… May sleep fall onto [the baby]…

As onto drinkers of wine.[2]

… May the god of the house return.


Although the ritual-maker’s solution remains cryptic and we don’t have measures of the outcomes (!), I like the way this ancient Mesopotamian story reminds us that having a baby who cries a lot has never been a trivial event, either for a family or for a society. Something frightening and outside our control comes to visit, secretly, when no-one is looking, and turns family life upside down. What matters, then, is that the right person is called in to help. The ritual-maker doesn’t for a moment suggest that the problem is physical aberration or psychological incompetence in either the parent or baby, but calmly sets about helping the family undo the disruption.


[1] Adapted from Walter Farber, Schlaf, Kindchen, Schlaf! Mesopotamische Baby-Beschwörungen und Rituale, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1989: 35, 45–47. Also adapted from ‘Magic at the cradle: a reassessment’ by Karel van der Toorn 139-14. In Mesopotamian Magic: Textual, Historical and Interpretative Perspectives, edited by Tzvi Abusch, K Van Der Toorn

[2] I have reversed the order of some lines, to help the reader follow the meaning.

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